Hanging It Up

Photo © Gemma Giannini


The bridle hanging in my tack locker bloomed with mold. I rather resent the steamy midwestern summers that force me to clean tack before I ride as well as after. But I hadn’t used that bridle in a while. 

My horse, Dove, lounged in the barn aisle, eyeballing me through the mesh of her fly mask, ever alert for the crinkle of a peppermint wrapper. Her coat had been curried, black tail combed, hooves anointed. I spritzed her with fly spray, then we ambled out to the big grassy pasture to join her girlfriends: a matronly Halflinger pony, a sassy little buckskin, and my new project, an OTTB who hated racing (and, we had found, lots of other things). Dove shambled out in a happy canter towards her friends, snorted once or twice, and fell to cropping clover. I went back inside, pulled out the furred bridle, filled a bucket and started soaping.

Photo courtesy of the author

Dove is twenty six years old, and she has been with me for twenty of them. She came to me knowing stop, start, and steer and not a single bad thing. The sight of a jump—any jump—made her lift her head, prick her ears and say, “Hey, that looks cool!  Let’s do that!” On our first few cross country runs, I hovered in the saddle overwhelmed by the gallantry of my beautiful bay mare, blinded by tears, gulping aloud: “You are so wonderful! You are so good!”  

At a lesson with a big-name Olympic rider, she left out the stride between two four-foot-high fences. I was terrified, but I was more scared of the coach. He wondered afterward if she might be for sale—absolutely not.  

Photo © Gemma Giannini

I had not much money and not much real ambition either, so two or three local shows a summer were enough for us. We ran up to a mid-level of competition safely and well, and that was as far as I needed to go. She could have gone much farther, but by then I had tipped into middle age and dressage was actually proving to be almost as challenging and a lot less stressful. 

At eighteen, for the first time in her life, Dove came up sore—a little arthritis in the coffin joint.  Injections, supplements, and she was good to go. We still did a low jump lesson every month or so for the pleasure of it. But she began to slow down, got sticky, and didn’t want to move forward.  My vet finally pronounced the dreaded N-word: navicular. Bring on the special padded shoes. We continued with gentled dressage, but then that right hock looked off. Or was it the left front fetlock? Or both? She was twenty-three.

Cheerful, fat and glossy, she jogged in the pasture with only sort of a head bob, though she stumbled sometimes. The vet suggested I needed to be “aware of safety issues” when I rode her.  So we took to saddling up for meanders around the property, strolling around in the indoor arena chatting with friends, with a little trot work. Her stride got shorter, more tentative. She picked up the gaits eagerly enough, but just couldn’t keep it up for long, dropping out on the turns. We added a few things to her supplements, including an anti-inflammatory powder (peppermint flavor, of course) during bad patches. If the weather kept her inside too long, her left rear ankle got puffy, so I just looped the lead rope around her neck, and climbed on bareback to saunter around to keep the fluids flowing. 

Photo courtesy of the author

Every now and then, on a mild day when she’s had a couple doses of peppermint powder, I can feel a bit of the old swing in her back, the drive from behind, just gone a little rusted. She eats, hangs out, gossips with the girls in the pasture, nudges me for carrots. She is a fine, calm, happy old woman—as I hope to be one day. 

I picked up that moldy bridle and scrubbed the scum off the plain snaffle, the only bit she ever wore. I sponged the fog of mildew off the crownpiece, scraped some crud out of a buckle with my fingernail. I wiped it all down, all smooth and brown and smelling rich and lovely as good clean leather should. I wound the throatlatch around and through the drawn-up reins, and buckled the noseband. Then I hung it on my shoulder and walked to the gate. 

Photo courtesy of the author

No retirement speeches, no gold watch, just another peppermint offered to my cherished mare with a heart thankful for twenty years of an irreplaceable partnership. With my Dove, I became something I could never have been without her: an athlete and a dancer. It was a gift she gave me from her own brave and generous heart.

I’ll hang the bridle on a hook in my bedroom.  No sense in leaving it just to get moldy again.

Julie Stielstra has been riding and writing since she was eight years old. Her TB mare Lonesome Dove was a once-in-a-lifetime horse. May flights of angels sing her to her rest. For more about Julie and her writing, visit her website www.juliestielstra.com