By Jessica Shannon
Names have roots and meanings. Our parents agonized over what to name us. They wanted to give us names that honored our families, a memory, a cultural or religious figure, or connect us to something meaningful. Our horses’ names may have just as deep of root as our own names.
Your horse’s show name may be set, particularly if they come from well-known breeders that register all their foals with certain letters as a part of their name or have a long USEF record. It is fairly standard practice, but not set in stone, to keep the name on your imported horse’s passport or their USEF registered name, regardless if it signifies anything to you. The name connects your horse to their previous owners or a long line of other horses. A short prefix or suffix to their name may be all fellow riders need to know where your horse was bred, and someone may see you coming out of a Hunter Derby and share that their horse was born and bred where yours was. Racehorses may have a nod to their breeder, their sire, their barn, or their owners. There is meaning and significance in those names similar to your first and last name.
You might put a personal spin on your horse’s barn name or create a nickname if you cannot change their show name. Somehow, you’ll put your touch on their name as your relationship with them grows. There will be meaning in the name you call your horse, too, and it will be from the heart.
I was ten years old when I met my first horse. A friend at my barn bought him fresh off-the-track, and he was spirited, to say the least. Five years later, when she went to college, my mom bought him for us to share. His Jockey Club name was Mom’s Dancer, show name Wind Dancer, and barn name Dancer.
My mom wondered if we should keep the name or add our own touch to it. She wanted to honor his first owner and my friend while adding something of ours to it, if possible. My mom had a yellow legal pad of possible ideas, but she threw it out after our first show. As I walked him around the showgrounds, numerous people shouted from the ground, “Is that Wind Dancer?” They all shared memories of him in the jumper ring, what a great pair he and his first owner were, and wished us luck with our new boy as he transitioned to the hunter ring. One thing was clear: every part of his name stayed. I did sometimes call him “Danny,” and a couple of other nicknames that stay between him and me, like when I sang “Oh Danny Boy” to him.
Dancer died in 2006, during my last year of graduate school, and my school held a funeral for him. A couple of years after that, I started to write down potential horse names in case I was ever lucky enough to own a horse again. Most of them were related to Dave Matthews Band songs or Arsenal FC. In 2020, I was searching for an off-track thoroughbred to adopt, and I made the decision that part of my future horse’s second career away from the track would be a new name.
When the head trainer at New Vocations sent me videos and information on a horse who hadn’t been listed yet, I knew he was mine. I felt hope. My job is to help others find hope in a mess, and I was suddenly looking at my own hope in a mess. My previous list no longer mattered. This healthcare worker, three months into a pandemic, fell for a 3-year-old horse. I knew his barn name needed to reflect something else that gave me hope.
As Castle and Key stepped off the trailer from Kentucky, his new halter with “Gunner” emblazoned on the brass nameplate hung off my shoulder. His Jockey Club name is the name of a distillery in Kentucky, his birthplace. His new name, Gunner, is derived from the nickname for my favorite team, Arsenal Football Club from London. No matter what is happening in my life, spending 90 minutes watching the Gunners play the beautiful game takes me away. There is hope and a release from the world. I can leave my troubles at the first whistle of the match or at the mounting block.
What meaning do you find in your horse’s name? Does it teach you about a long line of warmbloods bred on a Belgian farm, or did you learn about the Czech Republic’s history as you waited for his plane to land? Does his name connect you to a beloved trainer, an old friend, and your mom like Dancer’s did? Does your horse’s name reflect a favorite song or TV character?
Horses give us hope, and I wanted Gunner’s name to reflect that in every way. We toast to Gunner every year on his Gotcha Day with gin [for me] and bourbon [for my fiancé] from Castle and Key Distillery. We are honoring his Kentucky home, his Jockey Club name, and all the love, joy, and hope Gunner has added to my life.
Jessica lives and rides in The Woodlands, TX area where she works in pastoral care. She enjoys writing, supporting Arsenal FC with abandon, and being an enthusiastic dog mom. Jessica is proud to bring along an adopted OTTB, Gunner, into the hunters.
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