Borrowed Time: How a Little Aged Quarter Horse Galloped into my Heart

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BY Dianne May

I knew I was on borrowed time. The little red roan Quarter horse just a half inch over pony height, was 17 years old when I bought him. I almost hadn’t gone to try him because of his age. I was searching for a low level eventer, not an aged barely horse height jumper, but at the last minute I made the two hour trip to South Carolina on a cold Friday morning in December.

He stood quiet and unassuming on the cross ties and something about him appealed to me right away. He had an awful bouncy trot and I could barely make him canter but when he jumped, it was like he had springs on his feet and anything was possible. My vet was shocked at his age and how sound he was during his pre-purchase exam and with a clean vet check, I sent the money off to the seller and, Doc’s Driftwood, aka, Gilligan or Gilly, became a member of our family. 

In the beginning, he went around inverted with his head stuck up in the air. We had dismal dressage scores. I didn’t care. He had a willing attitude and was unfazed by wherever we took him. We started showing at the green bean division and then moved up to the starter division. Our relationship was not without challenges.

At our first horse trials he spent a significant amount of time on the cross country course backing up. His answer to life when he was anxious. I found if I was patient and more persistent than him, he’d eventually give up and trust me. We did a clinic with Liz Halliday-Sharp and he was game and agile, jumping every obstacle in his path. Liz loved him and I loved him just a bit more for fulfilling a lifelong goal of doing a clinic. 

I did a dressage clinic with Patrick Tichglaer who helped us with relaxation and suppleness. We did our first recognized show at Windridge Farms. I was worried about cross country but I needn’t have bothered. Gilly galloped out of that start box and we zoomed over the jumps and through the finish flags. We came second and that weekend made me smile for weeks.

We did another recognized event at Windridge and won the starter division. We made the finals weekend at the War Horse Event series and came in third cementing a reserve champion placing for NCDCTA HOY at starter. A seed was planted about moving up to beginner novice. 

The jump to beginner novice was not without its bumps. Extremely nervous at our first event at Stableview, we left the start box with half the power we needed and we racked up two refusals on cross country. I was discouraged but Amanda, my trainer, told me to give it time. We kept working and going.

We did an unrecognized horse trials at Hillcrest Farms in Mocksville. A favorite place to ride because of its relaxed and fun atmosphere, we ended with lots of smiles, a blue ribbon, and a needed boost of confidence. The next weekend, we went back to a recognized event at Windridge Farms. We finished on our dressage score and I was ecstatic. Most of all, Gilly didn’t hesitate jumping and we galloped over the rolling hills enjoying every minute. A tiny spark ignited; an unspoken potential goal. 

JMSmith Photography

There was a setback in July when Gilly ducked out on a jump and I flew off over his right shoulder. I was okay but rattled. We regrouped and headed to a schooling show at Tryon. I’d always wanted to ride there but I knew the cross country course was difficult. Incredibly nervous, I almost didn’t get on after dressage, but Gilligan rose to the challenge. We had a clear round on a very soggy show jumping course. He jumped like the wind and then we set off on cross country and we finished clear. I was euphoric.

In August, we headed for my favorite show at Windridge. We put in an excellent dressage test with a good connection, and then a clear show jumping round. Not wanting to court fate, I refused to talk about the standings overnight and the next morning we went out on cross country and Gilligan ate it up. We galloped and jumped, finishing on our dressage score and in first place. The tiny spark grew to a flame. We were more than halfway to qualifying for the 2023 AEC’s. Maybe anything really was possible. 

I hoped to finish my qualifications for AEC’s in October. We headed to Windridge excited and hopeful. We had our best dressage test to date and a clear round in show jumping. But leaving the ring, Gilly started limping. We couldn’t find anything visibly wrong. We iced his legs and gave him dinner and subdued we went back to the hotel.

The next morning he was still bobbing along and we went home. The vet advised resting for a few days and bute. Two weeks later Gilly went lame during a short ride. I withdrew from our next horse trials. I tried to be positive. Horses could go off and get better but I worried about his age. In December, we brought him back into work and he was sound. My heart lifted and so did the little flicker of hope for our goals. 

We entered our first event in January at Stableview. During warm ups, Gilly was on fire. Jumping far and wide and enjoying himself. I enjoyed him too. We pulled a rail during our round but otherwise had a good effort. Leaving the ring, Gilly started limping. The same left front. My heart cracked. My vet recommended going to NC State Vet school for better resources. The state vet, like my home one, was perplexed. Gilly was off but nothing was obvious on the x-rays or bone scan except some arthritis in his neck. We injected various joints she recommended, rested some more and brought him back into work slowly, focusing on his fitness.

In April we did a combined training at Carolina Horse Park. We achieved a sub 30 dressage score and had our best show jumping round ever. I was ecstatic. We won the class but the ribbon didn’t matter. I was just thrilled to be riding and jumping my pony again. Unfortunately a month later, Gilligan went off. Badly.

Another round of x rays and dismal news that his left pastern joint collapsed. We adjusted medicine but my vet gave me a knowing look. This wasn’t a career ending injury, this was a life ending one. As long as he was comfortable that was fine, but I needed to realize it probably wouldn’t be for long.

It’s been a hard summer without riding him and even harder autumn as I schedule his put down day. I’ve found myself crying at odd times and places and some days the ache in my chest is overwhelming. Nothing is guaranteed with horses, whether you are young or old, professional or amateur, riding a five star warmblood or a backyard pony.

I’ve been lucky to be able to experience all Gilligan has given me: clinics, recognized horse trials, moving up levels. He’s had the most try and tolerance of any horse I’ve ridden, with just enough spark to keep me on my toes and all of it smooshed into a small but mighty package. I’ve had three incredible years and achieved more than I had dreamed of back when I answered his ad. He delivered on the promise he held out to me on our very first ride – that anything was possible. 

Picture courtesy of Dianne May

Until Gilly, I always assumed my heart horse was my first horse Salty, a small quirky thoroughbred, who I bought when I was nineteen. Salty, of course, holds that special spot of the first horse, but Gilligan lives in my heart like no other horse before him. He’s a short-strided, stocky little Quarter horse that’s not outwardly personable to others, but who gave me wings.

He let me try things I thought were impossible, achieve dreams that existed only in my mind, and never wavered in taking care of me. I knew we were on borrowed time but even knowing that doesn’t make it hurt less. Did I enjoy it enough? Did I appreciate flying over those hills with the wind in my face, his red mane flapping, his strong steady legs churning up the ground and leaping over solid jumps? Or the evenings I wandered out to the barn and he nickered at me, nodding his head at my tack trunk telling me in his way he wanted treats?

I think so, but, still I wish for more time. More time for treats, to see him happily free graze on my front yard, to brush that glossy red and white coat and mostly I just wish I could swing my leg over his back and get that feeling that every horse person knows in their heart, that feeling that keeps us climbing on these incredible animals, that feeling of being home, and that for one second or minute or hour everything is right in our world.