By Ashley Tice-David
I could fully envision how the morning would play out. Cora would wake up early, so excited to see what Santa had brought her, come galloping down into our room demanding that we get up immediately, and waking up Lily in the process. Caleb and I would jump out of bed, grab Lily out of her crib and run excitedly downstairs to a small mountain of presents under the tree. Caleb and I would drink our coffee on the couch, while Cora ripped opened presents of toys and crafts and we all helped Lily open her presents. Once all the packages had been opened, I would pull out the “special” box from Santa, which contained the instructions to find the final present. We would all get bundled up, wander out to the small stable, where an adorable first backyard pony with a big red ribbon tied around his neck would be met with shrieks of joy and excitement. The girls would then ride him around double through the light snow, on this white Christmas morning, with Caleb snapping photos to share with family and friends on social media: #ponyforchristmas.
Much to my dismay, Cora had spent the first three years of her life absolutely petrified of anything that even resembled a pony, hysterically sobbing when she came within ten feet of one. I had almost given up and accepted that she must have inherited my husband’s preference for an animal-free household when during the spring festival in May, she excitedly requested to partake in the pony rides! This request was repeated at various events throughout the summer and early fall, convincing me that Cora had inherited my horse craziness.
While Caleb did not share the same amount of enthusiasm for my desire to gift the girls a pony on Christmas morning, being the gem of the husband that he is, he helped me adapt a small garage on our property to be suitable to house a pony and use a small amount of our savings for a fenced paddock. Caleb was not an animal person, but he loved me and knew how much horses are a part of who I am, having spent my entire childhood at the stable. Unfortunately, with the demands of adulthood I had to take a step away from the horses over the past few years but couldn’t wait to share my passion with my daughters.
I enlisted the help and support of my childhood best friend, Jessica, to assist me in the pony shopping process. Jessica and I had grown up as barn rats together and had maintained a friendship of over 20 years. Jessica had made a career out of horses as a freelance trainer, traveling to different stables to teach lessons and train horses. She had some good contacts and, better yet, would give me her truthful unbiased opinion on the ponies.
Our pony shopping adventure would begin with a little Shetland I had found online in a neighboring state a little over an hour away. The ad for “William” described him as a 10-year-old, 12-hand gelding who had been used for pony parties, camp, and leadline. His description concluded with a magical word when shopping for a pony for your kids: BOMBPROOF! The pictures did not disappoint either, showing this adorable, bay, potbellied pony. He seemed to fit the bill perfectly, and I could not wait to meet him.
Jessica showed up bright and early, right on time, armed with steaming hot coffee. I was able to quietly slip out of the house before the kids awoke, allowing us to leave right on time. It was wonderful to have some quiet time in the car with an old friend to just catch up. When the GPS alerted us that we had reached our destination we found ourselves at a giant farm with a huge pasture full of horses. Luxury was not to be had here, but the horses all looked well fed and cared for.
We parked at the end of the long drive and got out of Jessica’s truck, but there was no one to greet us. There was no real barn to enter, the only fully enclosed structure on the property being an old trailer home. After standing around for several minutes, without another soul in sight, I rapped on the door of the trailer. After a few moments I could hear slow footsteps approaching the door; the woman who answered walked with a cane and appeared to be in her late 60s or early 70s.
Once I confirmed that this woman was Joanne, who I had spoken to two days ago on the phone to arrange the visit, I reintroduced myself and reminded her that I was here to see William. She gave no indication that she had any recollection of this conversation but shrugged her shoulders and hobbled out of the trailer, with us trailing behind. When she reached the gate of the 10-acre pasture filled with horses, she advised us William was out there and that we could go take a look at him. I was flabbergasted. Not that I expected William to be standing on the cross ties, feet painted, awaiting our arrival; but I had some expectation that he would be caught with someone there to show him to us and answer our questions.
Always the easygoing one, Jessica politely requested a halter and started the trek out to the field to locate the tiny pony in this sea of horses. Jessica eased my frustration a bit with her enthusiasm that he may be a “real diamond in the rough” and the “deal of the lifetime.” Unfortunately, despite Jessica’s enthusiasm, William would prove to be neither of these things.
William did not disappoint in the looks department; he was adorable. Dark bay, perfectly fuzzy, tiny pricked ears, super-round belly. William’s cuteness was so overwhelming that Jessica and I both approached him with huge smiles, saying “hi” as though we were talking to a tiny infant. Unfortunately for us, William wanted no part in being coddled by two middle aged women pestering him in a field of his comrades. Those adorable tiny ears pricked forward in interest as we initially approached, flattened back completely, and with a chomp at the air and a little squeal, William turned on his heel and galloped away from us as fast as his little legs would carry him.
We should have just given up at that point, as his initial reaction to being caught was enough to scare me off, but we persevered in our efforts to catch him. After working up a sweat in the brisk November air chasing him around, we finally got William cornered in the paddock. Knowing that capture was imminent, William pulled out his final trick, turning his butt to Jessica as she approached with the halter and double barreling his hind legs at her, coming within inches of her chest. Jessica ducked out of the way and William took off through the gap between us, back to his friends. At that point, Jessica and I accepted defeat, acknowledging that he would not be a suitable pony for a pair of young toddlers.
I was annoyed, feeling misled about William, and couldn’t even acknowledge Joanne as we exited the paddock. Jessica made a comment to her about him being a bit too spirited for my girls to which Joanne just shrugged, apparently the way she responded to everything. While I was completely annoyed at having our time wasted by someone who misrepresented the pony and was not even prepared to show him to us, Jessica was more lighthearted about the situation laughing it off. Her attitude was contagious, and soon I was laughing along with her. I guess my expectation that the first pony I went to see would be perfect was unrealistic. She suggested, and I agreed, that we both reach out to our horsey contacts to see if we could find someone we knew who may know of a suitable pony for sale.
As luck would have it, a few days later, I was perusing Facebook when I noticed that my Facebook friend Tommy O’Connor had posted a video of a little grey pony packing a tiny child around. Tommy’s parents owned the stable where Jessica and I spent some years riding at as teenagers. All the girls at the stable had had a crush on Tommy, but I had been the lucky one and we had dated back in high school. Tommy had now taken over the family stable for his parents, and it was fun to keep updated on social media on the happenings of a place where I had spent so much time as a kid.
I messaged Tommy through Facebook about the pony, Greyson, and he confirmed that he was super safe and sweet and would be a great match for my two girls. After confirming Jessica’s availability, we arranged to see Greyson the following Saturday morning.
Pulling into the driveway of the farm where I basically grew up, along with my best friend from that time, resulted in some serious nostalgia. While of course I wouldn’t trade my family for anything, there were moments where I longed for those carefree days at the barn spending twelve-plus hours with the animals I was so passionate about. I was a bit overcome with emotion, missing a life with horses in it.
I pulled myself together as we got out of the truck and walked into the perfectly swept barn aisle, in which stood the daintiest little grey Welsh pony with his feet painted. Beside him stood a sweet child of about nine, who introduced herself as Chloe, and told us she would be riding Greyson for us today. A much better pony shopping start!
I saw a familiar face rounding the corner and my heart rate increased slightly. I am head over heels in love with my husband, but there is something about a teenage love (and an attractive man in breeches) which made me swoon, slightly. He smiled and I turned, positioning myself for a friendly hug and cheek kiss, when I noticed he had extended his arm for a handshake. Embarrassed, I quickly changed gears to shake his hand, during which he said to me, “nice to meet you.”
What?!?! Nice to meet me?!?! We had dated! Granted, it was 20 years ago, and it had been a tame teenage relationship, but we had actually been boyfriend and girlfriend for several months. “Going steady,” as my parents liked to tease me. How could he have no recollection of me? Was I that unmemorable? Or had I so fully morphed into mommy mode that the younger, more attractive version of me was no longer recognizable? This was worse then chasing that little devil William around a 10-acre field.
To save myself from further embarrassment, I just followed Tommy’s lead, reintroducing myself and returning the “nice to meet you” sentiment. Adding salt to my wound was that Tommy immediately recognized Jessica, giving her the hug I had been expecting and telling her that she hadn’t changed a bit. Given my wounded ego, I decided to let Jessica take the lead on this one, discussing the specifics of Greyson with Tommy. I stood far enough away from Jessica and Tommy so that I could not hear the particulars of what they were discussing; childish perhaps, but I didn’t need to overhear them laughing and reminiscing about old times, from which I had apparently been erased. Despite my bruised ego, my mood was quickly improving watching little Greyson go around. He was lovely; circling the ring with a little daisy cutter trot, ears pricked forward, not too fast, but not making his little rider work too hard to keep him going.
I was so mesmerized and excited by the little grey pony that I failed to notice that Jessica had reappeared by my side, and only became aware of her presence when she whispered Greyson’s asking price in my ear, bringing me quickly down to earth. I could only turn to her, wide-eyed, while wondering how I had completely forgotten to inquire as to the cost of the pony. Once she confirmed that Greyson was, in fact, far outside my budget, she took care of extricating us from the situation with Tommy. Now thankful that Tommy had no recollection of me, I quickly and quietly made my way back to Jessica’s truck.
I was mortified that I had wasted everyone’s time. Jessica laughed it off, rationalizing that Tommy deserved it for completely forgetting who I was. Admittedly, part of me felt the same way, but I was still embarrassed. Jessica was able to abate some of my mortification by telling me that she just explained to Tommy that she thought Greyson was a little more pony than we needed right now. By the time I returned home my embarrassment had mostly faded but was replaced with stress that I still had not found a suitable pony for Christmas, which was quickly approaching.
As luck would have it, Jessica called me the next day and told me that she knew someone whose daughter had outgrown her pony and they were looking to sell it, with a good home being top priority. Jessica told me she knew the family and the pony, and that the pony, while not fancy, would be perfect for Cora and Lily. Better yet, he was stabled close enough that we could walk to see the pony by taking some riding trails through the woods.
The next weekend, I put on my hiking boots and Jessica and I made the trek through the woods to meet Diana, her daughter Grace, and the pony, Rico. It was a beautiful crisp December morning and the trails were beautiful and smelling of pine, fitting for the upcoming holiday. I had been excited all week about meeting Rico, that now that the day had come, I felt like a child on Christmas morning, excited to open her gifts.
We soon arrived at Diana’s adorable farm. While technically a backyard barn, it was a delightful setup with a small, six-stall barn, several paddocks, and a riding ring. Diana and Grace came out of the barn to meet us and introduce themselves and then had us follow them into the barn to meet Rico. Rico was waiting in his stall, and Diana explained that she had wanted us to see them tack him up, so that we got to see all sides of him, not just him being ridden.
Rico was a medium sized grade pony, but adorable in his own right. He had two small socks on his front feet and a large white star. His head was a bit too big for his body, but he had kind eyes and tail that any horse would envy. He looked at us curiously but barely batted an eye as Grace went through the motions of grooming him and tacking him up for their ride.
While Grace got Rico ready, Diana talked to me about Cora and Lily’s riding experience. Admittedly, I felt a bit silly telling her that Lily had none and Cora’s equated to about three pony rides, but was a bit put off when she chuckled at my explanation that I planned to teach the girls to ride. Diana expressed concern with my setup for the pony as well, when I explained our converted garage and paddock and that I was planning on adopting a goat or sheep as a companion for the pony, if a companion was needed. I was annoyed by Diana’s interrogation and criticism but answered her questions cheerfully so as to assure her that we could offer Rico the very best home.
Rico was by all accounts the perfect first pony. He had a smooth, slow walk and trot, perfect for the little ones to learn to post, or sit if we chose to go the western route first. He also easily broke into a slow canter when Grace asked correctly, and she demonstrated to us how he smoothly came down to a walk when the rider came slightly off balanced. She trotted him over a little cross rail, over which he just took a large trot step and demonstrated his handiness through some of the trail obstacles that were set up in the ring. He was the perfect pony to add to our family on Christmas morning.
Given the relationship between Jessica and Diana, I didn’t need more of a trial than I saw that day. I did, however, just want to have a basic vetting done of Rico to confirm no major health issues. Since they were friends, I asked Jessica if she would discuss this with Diana and get the go ahead, and I would stay with Grace and help put away Rico, getting to know him a bit better. Jessica agreed, and her and Diana went into the house to discuss specifics.
Jessica and Diana returned to the barn, where I thanked her for her time and complimented her daughter and pony. Jessica told her we would be in touch and we took off on foot, heading back to the trail that would lead us home. Once we were out of earshot of Grace and Diana, I excitedly inquired of Jessica as to the plans moving forward. After a short pause, Jessica explained to me that Diana was not comfortable moving forward selling me Rico. Tears immediately sprung, stinging my eyes in the cold December air. Jessica was offering an explanation, but I was too hurt to listen much. Something about concerns over my setup and my children’s lack of horse experience. I felt unreasonably judged by Diana. Caleb and I were not billionaires, but I never questioned our ability to give a pony a wonderful home and the very best care.
Later that evening, as I was drowning my sorrows in some Cabernet, my cell phone rang displaying an unfamiliar, but local, number. Intrigued, I answered, to find Diana on the other end. While I had to force myself to be polite, as our conversation began, I felt a genuine sense of concern in Diana’s voice as she explained to me that she had gotten my number from Jessica, as she wanted to speak to me directly regarding her hesitation to sell me Rico.
Perhaps it was because I had had some time to calm down, or was half a glass of wine in, but within the first few minutes of our phone conversation, I went from disliking Diana to thinking we could be close friends. I guess I wasn’t listening close enough to her or Jessica earlier in the day, because on the phone Diana explained that she had no issues with my setup, but just that Rico needed turnout in a dry lot due to a high risk of founder, and that she knew, from experience, that he did not find anything other than another equine a suitable companion animal. She went on to explain her concerns about my girls riding experience, in that Rico really needed to be in consistent work to maintain his angelic demeanor. Diana thought that while I was certainly tiny enough to give Rico a tune up, given the inexperience and young ages of my girls, she had concerns about our ability to maintain the work consistency he needed to behave. She suggested that I bring my girls over to have some lessons on Rico, and that if they enjoyed him, perhaps we could work out some type of lease-purchase agreement.
I was hesitant to give up the dream of a pony for Christmas, but Diana had given me a lot to think about. Certainly, gauging my children’s interest level in horses prior to making the commitment of ownership was a good idea. Also, rushing the search for a pony was not doing me any favors; lucky for me, Diana was super honest about Rico and the situation he needed, or I could have ended up with a real nightmare on my hands.
While disappointed that my dream of a pony for Christmas was not to be this year, with letting go of the stress that went along with that dream, I soon found myself in the holly, jolly spirit. Christmas morning came way too quick, and began just as anticipated. Cora and Lily woke up super early and all of us excitedly ran down the stairs to see what Santa had brought. While there was no live pony under the tree, Santa had gifted the girls with lots of pony presents this year, all which were opened with joyful shrieks.
After all the presents had been opened, I noticed it had begun to snow. Not enough for any real accumulation, but just some light flurries. I called to my family to come look and the girls excitedly asked if we could go out and play in it. I tried to encourage Caleb to take them out alone, so that I could stay back and cook everyone a nice breakfast, but he was insistent that I come out too and enjoy the “White Christmas.” I laughed at his enthusiasm over a few snow flurries, but with pressure from my entire family, I was soon stuffing my feet into boots and zipping up my down coat over my flannel pajamas.
Caleb carried Lily, while Cora ran out excitedly in front of us, galloping towards our “stable,” and requesting that I chase her. I took off running after her laughter and caught up to her right as she opened the door to the barn. As she did so, she whispered “Merry Christmas, Mommy,” to me and I followed the direction of her stare to a little bay horse with a white blaze and red ribbon tied around its neck.
After the initial shock wore off and I was able to ask Caleb how this had come to fruition, Caleb explained that after Jessica had found out I was giving up on the pony search she had mentioned to him that she knew of a little horse, Ronan. Ronan would be perfect for me to get back into horses, she said. Knowing how much the horses meant to me, my best friends had worked furiously for two weeks to finalize the purchase of Ronan and get him delivered to me by Christmas morning. He wasn’t super fancy, but safe and fun, and would allow me to do a little bit of everything. Better yet, at about 15 hands, he was a good size for me, but also small enough to do double duty of pony rides for the girls. I was so smitten watching my family enjoy Christmas morning, that I failed to notice Jessica dropping my gift off that morning.
I led Ronan out into the paddock and with Caleb’s help got on him bareback with just a halter and lead rope. While I rode around, Caleb snapped a picture of me leaning over and hugging Ronan in the falling snow. Back in the barn, Caleb handed me my phone and I was amused to see the photo of me reaching down and hugging Ronan with the biggest grin on my face, like a small child on Christmas morning being gifted her first pony. This remarkable Christmas gift from my family and dear friend was too special not to share. I pulled up Instagram and uploaded the photo: #ponyforchristmas.
Ashley Tice-David is a commercial real estate attorney who lives in New Jersey with her husband and two young daughters. A lifelong equestrian, she competes her horse Jewel in the adult amateur hunters. #ponyforchristmas is her first published piece.