BY JACKY FRIEDMAN
Why don’t more people seek out an older horse for the inexperienced rider? Learning to ride is a challenge, so working with a young horse often just makes it harder. When my daughter started riding, I didn’t want her to go through the “growing pains” with a young horse like I did growing up.
I can still remember the first time I met Sirius Black (a nod to Harry Potter fans). My daughter’s trainer was excited for us to meet her new school horse. Sirius was huge and had a confident swagger about him. I wasn’t hesitant because of Sirius’s ripe old age (he was 17 when we first met), but he was 16.2 h and Emma had only just started to canter off a lunge line! When I watched Emma pick out Sirius’s dinner plate-size hooves for the first time I felt the anxiety rise inside me. Makenzie, the trainer, was relaxed though. She thought Sirius would be perfect for Emma to learn on. As is often the case when it comes to all things horsey, Makenzie was correct.
I watched hours of lessons as Emma learned how to canter, then ride over cross rails, and even do dressage moves. Sirius would make sure that Emma had asked him correctly before he would even entertain the idea of cooperating. Emma learned how to use her natural aids correctly… even if it took hours and hours (and it sure did). Sirius was often cheeky, such as refusing the bit when being tacked up, but he was never mean. One thing was certain, Sirius loved to jump! When the schooling turned into jumping, Sirius was in his element. A friendship between Emma and Sirius formed as they became used to one another, and Emma was more and more confident riding him. At first, Sirius had been oblivious to Emma’s extra grooming, kisses, and preening. But he began to soften, and I think enjoy this inexperienced little person that was trying her hardest to conquer riding him. Then came their first local show and we saw the real Sirius Black for the first time.
If I had any doubts about horses really enjoying the show scene, Sirius resolved these mixed feelings at that first horse show. He was perky, with a lot of neighing and prancing right out of the horse trailer. There was an extra swish in his tail, a bounce in his stride and he looked as if he was grinning. My husband had been recruited for the first day of showing. I received a call from my husband and there was genuine alarm in his voice.
“I thought you said Sirius was a calm old horse that was great for Emma?” he inquired.
“He is. Why?” I asked.
“Because the horse I am watching Emma ride is far from slow and I wouldn’t describe him as mellow either,” he replied.
I was worried and yet I knew Makenzie would make the right call as far as Emma and Sirius were concerned. I heard that there was some lunging on the agenda, and so I knew this would take some steam off the old boy. I later learned that Sirius and Emma had entered their first cross-rail class and initially it had gone well. However, on turning a corner Sirius spotted the adjacent jumper arena, and he had assumed that this was where they needed to be. He picked up the pace, his ears were forward, and off they went!
Somehow, Emma managed to steer Sirius around her little cross rail course albeit at quite a lick! Sirius was excited and full of energy for the whole show week, and yet he never did anything too crazy. Emma pampered him and loved him even more. Watching Emma and Sirius at those first few shows was something I will never forget. A horse and his special girl, working together and taking care of each other. Sirius and Emma went on to jump up to 2’ in the hunter and jumper rings.
Over the next couple of years, Sirius and I had many a quiet chat as the showground came alive in the morning. I would beg him to please keep my little girl safe, with carrot treats as a bribe. I knew he understood me. On several occasions, Sirius was more sure of the course than Emma was. He took care of her, sometimes took over, but he seemed to sense that she was trying desperately to put all the pieces together. They had their ups and downs, but when it all clicked into place they were a beautiful pair to watch. Despite his obvious disdain, Sirius even won a few firsts at dressage events.
And then came Sir Sydney. When Makenzie asked if we were up for leasing, with an option to buy, another older horse—also a show-jumper—we were hesitant. That ultimate commitment to owning a horse was more of a concern than the horse’s age, but we took the plunge.
Sydney is a whole different kettle of fish to Sirius. Sydney is sassy, a prancer, sometimes spooky, and slightly cranky by nature. He might be an older horse (he was also 17 years old when we first met him), but he is far from “old.” Whereas Sirius would take care of Emma, Sydney takes care of Sydney. This isn’t an altogether bad trait, as it means he has taken care of himself and probably prevented sprains and other injuries. If he isn’t set up for a fence correctly, then he isn’t going over the fence… so you know how that story ends.
Once again, we have watched a special bond form between horse and rider. Sydney has warmed up to people, and he can now tolerate a head scratch and a cuddle (ok… only sometimes). However, for all his spookiness and strutting, Sydney is a pro when it comes to trailering and horse shows. How a small tweety bird can spook Sydney, but a rattling horse trailer ride or a bustling show ground doesn’t even phase him is still a mystery to me. Just like Sirius, Sydney is a speed machine in the jumper ring. As Emma learns to ride him confidently, they have had many successes together. Sydney responds to the show grounds, to the atmosphere, to the jumps. You can see his body energize, his ears tightly forward, his head is up, and away they go. Sydney and Emma are currently competing at 1.0m.
We have been asked many times why we purchased such an old horse for Emma. Yes, it is a risk, but let me tell you—horses are always a risk. Of course, do your research, but don’t write off the older horse because you are afraid of injury or imminent death.
What the older horse can provide is years of relevant experience. When learning to ride, an experienced horse is a huge benefit for a new rider. While Emma had never been to a horse show, Sirius and Sydney had been hundreds of times. While she hadn’t loaded or unloaded a horse into a trailer, or a small show stall, Sirius and Sydney were old hats at it. When Emma was nervous or unsure, both Sirius and Sydney had things under control. They would wait patiently while she dashed back for her crop, or if she needed to dismount for that last porta-potty stop before her class. It is so much more important to me that Emma is safe than any ribbon she may or may not achieve.
The older horse can still be competitive (as both Sirius and Sydney have proven), and yet offer the inexperienced rider an opportunity to learn with a tried and tested mount. Emma has wrapped and re-wrapped, clayed, packed hooves, learned to stretch, learned to clip and trim with these two horses. They have stood patiently, calmy, and been kind as she learned all of the things that go into caring for a horse. There isn’t much that Sydney hasn’t seen and done before, and that history—that service record—is of paramount importance to me.
I will always remember the twinkle in Sirius’s eye and the nicker as he spots Emma arrive at the barn. I will never forget how he kept his promise to me when he took care of my girl. If he loves me for my carrots then so be it, but for as long as he lives he will be the best horse ever.
Similarly, the way Sydney can’t help but look over when he sees Emma, his ears forward in expectation. They have had some ups and downs together, but they have shared the most amazing experiences together as well. But most of all, these two special, older horses, have taught my daughter to ride well. And wasn’t this our goal for Emma back when she was nine years old? From here on she can make her own decisions about her next horses because now she has the experience to better handle a younger horse. As for these two very special older horses, they will continue to show inexperienced riders the ropes and enjoy themselves for as long as they are able to.
Jacky Friedman lives in rural Oregon and is a barn mom and often a groom, who also works full-time. Jacky grew up riding horses in Great Britain and owned a young horse as a teen. When her daughter Emma started riding six years ago, Jacky was lucky enough to find Timberline Farm and trainer Makenzie Harvey.