I Had My Heart Horse Too Early

Photo by A&S

When the horse of a lifetime shows up sooner than you expected 

By Meg Rosenthal

I got my horse of a lifetime very early in my career. When I was 18, I had just turned professional and was campaigning my first green horse, Little Manhatten. I had another trainer tell me the same sentiment as above. He said, “You’re right. He is your heart horse. And unfortunately, you got him too early in your career.”

At the time, I didn’t understand. In my head, I was incredibly lucky and grateful. At 18, I had the privilege of qualifying, competing, and ribboning at Devon, the Pennsylvania National Horse Show, and the National Horse Show in Kentucky. I won International Hunter Derbies and attended Derby Finals for multiple years after. My first year as a professional, I finished the year with a USEF Horse of the Year in the 3’9″ greens. And later, I was able to say I took a horse from his first show in the 2’6″ baby greens, all the way to the High Performance. To me, there was no such thing as having that horse too early. 

Photo Courtesy Meg Rosenthal

He didn’t just launch my career. He skyrocketed it.

The little red dragon known as “Nikko” in the barn was a tiny fireball with a heart bigger than any I have known in my career thus far. He thought he was 17 hands, even though he was only 15.2. He was opinionated, hot, and could double add like a short stirrup pony as easily as he could leave out strides. When he started his career in the baby greens, no one thought he would jump the jumps he would one day conquer. Today, I still have people come up to me saying they remember him and miss watching him go. I say, “I know. I miss him too.” 

I have learned that the climb to the top with the right partner wasn’t the hard part. It’s the descent back down without them. I had no way of preparing for when we got the call that the second colic surgery had failed. 

I’m prefacing these next thoughts by saying that I love my job, and I’m lucky to be able to do what I do with clients who trust the program and invest wholeheartedly in our farm’s training and care. That being said, there is an ugly truth that comes with losing your partner that you can’t brace yourself for and that no one talks about. 

I have been jealous. And I know the jealousy is unfair, but as much as I pretend it’s not there, I can’t un-feel it. I get jealous when I see other riders with the same horses doing the same big classes year after year and I wonder why I didn’t get to have that with mine. 

I have jumped a lot of 3′ green courses. Now, one of my all-time favorite things about my profession is the development of young horses and bringing the babies through the ranks. And I do feel blessed to look back and see the quality of our young horses increasing year after year. That being said, spending my weeks starting over in the 3′ green ring while watching fellow professionals I used to show with in the international ring took its toll emotionally for the first few years. 

I have been back to Devon and Indoors since my time with Nikko, but I have been back there on the ground coaching more than I’ve been in the saddle. Every time I’m at that stage on my own two feet, I watch and I learn. And I also secretly yearn to be the one back in the ring. And I wonder what it would’ve been like to have one more year, or five more years, with him. 

And I think about my own education and what I know now and what I didn’t know at 18. And I wish I had the chance to ride those courses with the tools I’ve garnered over the years without him because I know there are things I could’ve done different and better. 

Now at 26 years old, I can look back and say I have spent four years chasing that high I had from 18 to 22 as a newly minted professional rider with a horse that could jump the moon. Four years trying to find and rebuild that partnership. Four years of training young horses for clients, and myself, to bring them as far as they can. I have yet to find that next international partner that is mine. I came close, once. Until the dreaded “S” word (suspensory) set that partner out for a full calendar year. He is just now making his return to the show ring.

And it wasn’t when I won an International Derby for the first time in years in 2021 that finally made me look back and write these words down. It wasn’t when my 3’6″ green for this year, Selwyn or “Noodle”, won the Regional National Derby Final last summer. It was when that same horse earlier this week put his nose on my shoulder, and held it against my neck as I walked him into the barn after a hack. His nose on my shoulder was the same gesture that Nikko was known for in our barn—every jog, every course walk, that little horse followed beside me, nose on my shoulder. 

Photo by Anne Gittins

And this week, when Noodle reminded me of my heart horse, I also realized how acutely unaware Noodle was of the pressures I had on both him and myself to get back to that stage my 18-year-old self once jumped on. And how entirely unfair that was to him. He didn’t know Nikko, or the jumps he had jumped, or how his nose used to rest on the same spot on my neck. To Noodle, he’s just accepted his life as my new friend and finally started to tolerate “the art of the selfie” and recently got introduced to bareback rides. But even if Noodle does one day jump those same jumps Nikko did, it’ll always be in his shadow. Because my heart horse jumped them first. 

Photo by Grace Angelino 

I starting having these conversations with one of my clients. And her response was simple—how could you have had Nikko “too early?” Didn’t he make you into what you are now? And professionally speaking, she’s absolutely right. Nikko took my name from junior catch rider to young professional in a single year. And when this particular client admitted that the videos of us together on those kind of national stages are what first drew her to our barn, I couldn’t help but feel grateful for the time I did have with him. 

Even still, through the emotional weight of having my name on a derby scoreboard without his, of first coming home from the vet clinic and seeing his pictures on my bedroom wall in what used to be a monument but was suddenly a shrine, of never fully believing in an afterlife but finding myself wishing there was one because I just wanted to pet him again, I have now learned that weight changes over the years passed, but it never fully lifts. 

And maybe that’s not the worst thing. Maybe because of that weight, I’ll be able to hold onto the memories, since I’ll remember what they feel like. Because of Nikko, I know what a true partnership is. Through him, I know what those ten extra handy points cost because I once gained them through inside turns I only had to glance at before we slipped inside. I know what night check with Banamine paste and an apple bit cleanly in half tastes like, because Nikko was good at sharing a few bites. And I know what it’s like to victory gallop with a rainbow of different colored ribbons on your bridle, just as well as I remember thinking that right-to-left lead changes were going to be the death of us in the baby green division. Nikko always landed right.

And whether it’s with Noodle that I one day get to say, “This is my derby horse,” or if it’s the next baby we bring along, or a new one years down the road, maybe that weight on my heart means I’ll never forget the horse that has mine. 

The next one just has to live up to him. 

*This story was originally published in the March 2023 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!

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