As the owner of a rather unique looking unregistered paint horse, I have found myself occasionally rethinking my decision to purchase him. It is a thought that I’m sure crosses many horse owners’ minds at some point or another; whether it is because of an especially difficult time in your riding/training together or maybe just the realization that you are having trouble making time for your horse. The reasons are all justifiable, but still as a lover of horses (and pretty much any furry animal) I have had this thought more than once and felt exceedingly guilty every single time. How do I know I’m the right person for my horse? How do I know my horse is right for me? Should I own one at all? I haven’t figured out all the answers, but here’s the story of my own personal realization on this topic.
I fell in love with my now twelve-year-old paint gelding, Mickey, six years ago when I was still in high school and taking weekly riding lessons. He was my favorite horse in the lesson barn to ride, but he was not in love with his job there and they began looking to sell him. After watching many of my favorite lesson horses find new homes, I couldn’t bear to part with another one to whom I had grown so attached. So I emptied my piggy bank and wrote what seemed like the biggest check I’d ever write in my life—a whopping $1,500! Picking up an after school job or two helped pay for his monthly board, and thus began my life as a horse owner.
We went through the usual ups and downs of first time ownership, switching boarding barns to ensure he was in the safest, happiest environment I could financially provide for him, finding a local farrier worth his salt, and learning when I really needed to call a vet and when I could do it myself. There are things I look back on and think “thank goodness my horse is hearty!” because I just didn’t know better and if he wasn’t as amazingly resilient as he is, we could’ve been in a pickle. But with the help and advice from some wonderful friends and mentors, as well as the wide world of information and resources online, I was able to get the hang of it.
After I graduated high school I decided to head off to college, three states and ten hours away from my hometown, to pursue a degree in equine science. So I packed up my whole life and my horse and moved to Ohio, not knowing a soul in the state. Mickey was part of one of my classes freshman year, so I got to work with him specifically in my riding/training class and we were enrolled in the dressage program. Now I realize, when people think “dressage” they also tend to think “big, tall, elegant horse,” not usually “15.2 tri-colored medicine hat paint with two different colored eyes.” But that didn’t stop me from bringing my then grass and manure stained, long wind-whipped mane, pasture boarded horse into the pristine barn at school, full of shiny-rumped horses so tall I could’ve sworn they’d been crossed with some form of dinosaur. We didn’t exactly fit in, but after some tough moments together we bonded and became a team and it didn’t matter so much that we stuck out. Whenever I look back, I can’t imagine how I could have survived the homesickness and stress of the first year of college without my painted pony there to support me, his big shoulders ready whenever I needed a hug.
Between years at college, Mickey and I went and worked summers in many different locations: we taught children how to ride in Kentucky, lead trail rides for families in North Carolina, and worked for a boarding/training facility in California. It has broadened my experiences as a horse woman, but more than that, it has helped me continue to bond with my horse. And yet, as fond as I am of all our travels together, I look back and realize that in each of those times I also took him a bit for granted. There were times in every state when I seriously considered selling him. In Kentucky he was so gentle with the children I thought perhaps he might do well going back to being a lesson horse, in North Carolina many of our guests admired his unique looks and sure-footedness on trails and I had generous offers if I had decided to finally sell him.
The most trying was in California though, where I was blessed with the opportunity to ride some wonderful horses we had in training: gorgeous Andalusians, Lusitanos, Thoroughbreds, Warmbloods, and many other breeds. Many of these horses were capable of higher levels of formal dressage movements and had a real “show” presence to them. Every day I was excited to go to work and see what I got to do next! The down side of this job was as I rode these incredible, reactive horses I began to think less highly of my own little horse. The idea that maybe it was time to “upgrade” continued to creep into my mind; what if I could go farther and do more in my riding endeavors with a bigger, more athletic horse?
It seemed that my own riding abilities were really blossoming as I rode all these other horses. I began to think that maybe I had just been on really dull horses my whole life. Maybe this was my wakeup call to find the “right” breed for me? And then one day, I went back and rode Mickey after not having ridden him for at least two weeks. Lo and behold, my own horse seemed lighter, more responsive, and more in tune with me. It puzzled me for awhile and I pondered what kind of change had occurred. Then a light bulb came on—it was not my horse, or any of the other ones that had been dull, it was me! I had heard the old saying, “90% of horse issues are caused by rider errors” but somehow I had always thought it applied to those who wrongfully punish their horses for silly things or those who have no clue what they’re doing. And it does. But even more than that it in some way, applies to all of us. No matter my riding level, I need to continue to strive to be better, to be lighter, to have a greater understanding of what the horse is trying to communicate to me and how I can communicate with him. All this time Mickey had clearly been capable of being a nice, light horse but I hadn’t developed the “feel” to be a nice, light rider. And all that time he had patiently put up with me doing the best I could to clumsily work with him.