Several years ago, one of my favorite people in the world, presented me with a Christmas gift. It seemed like a simple token to the rest of the world, but to me, this one present meant more than any other. It was a coffee mug that read, “Fear the little bay horse”.
Why did this simple gift mean so much? You see, this person had been with me as student, employee, friend, and show buddy for several years. She was there when I struggled to learn. She had witnessed the development of the relationship between me and my love, my mare Petie. Petie is going on an incredible quest this year to the Arabian Sport Horse Nationals. I don’t know how this part of her journey will end, but the beginnings are quite a tale. She is all of 14.1 hands tall. At several of the open breed shows, when I unload Petie from the trailer, friendly competitors will remark, “Oh, you brought a foal!” She is a ballerina. But, do not underestimate her. She is fierce. Competitors: Fear the little bay mare!
What feels like centuries ago, but was in truth about 15 years ago, I trained horses for the Arabian show ring. The judging was so political, I had a difficult time competing. My students won everywhere, but I just couldn’t get a look. My husband and I decided that we needed to buy a horse that was so brilliant, the judges could not ignore me. We also wanted an English mare to breed. When traveling to a friend’s barn in Texas to pick up a horse for a customer, we saw a little chestnut mare that his assistant was riding. She looked like a machine, trotting level with her ears forward, not missing a beat.
“Who is that?”
“Oh, that’s a mare I don’t really care for. She can be prickly. But he’s got her looking pretty good. Let’s ride her tomorrow.”
The next day we rode Princess. Blake rode her first. Wow! I didn’t know such a little horse could double barrel backfire so many times. Every time he used his legs or whip, instead of going forward, she kicked. He got her straightened out, and then I mounted up. She was tricky to ride, but well trained and FUN. I was in love.
Of course, she was for sale. We couldn’t afford the sale price, so my husband, who is known for this, made a ridiculously low offer. Like 50% of the ask price. I think Blake was reluctant to talk to the owner because our offer was so low, but, as legend has it, I apparently sat my ass on his couch and told him that I hoped he liked me because I was not going to drive away from the farm until he called the seller. The worst she could say was, no. Of course, she said, “No”. We did, however come to an agreement on a price. We loaded Princess in the trailer and headed back home.
Princess is the epitome of femininity. She is so delicate and beautiful. She was also tricky to ride; preferring to backfire if I rode poorly. Part of the reason we bought her was to breed, so we chose an Arabian stallion and bred her the next spring. Her hormone levels were not good, so the vet banned any stress during the pregnancy, including riding her. Ugh. It was a long 11 months of waiting, but when she foaled, she was a great mom. Her first baby was a little bay filly with no white. Small and delicate like her mother, but not as pretty. This was Petie.
Fast forward about 4 years, because if you’re lucky, your foal’s first few years will be boring and uneventful. By this time, I was switching to Dressage. Petie was so small, I think we waited until she was 5 years old before breaking her out. Although I was competently training at the time, I just couldn’t get a leg up with Petie. She never settled in at the horse show: pacing in her stall, going off feed and water. She could lose 50lbs. in a weekend. When I showed her, the judges’ comments read:
“Lovely horse. Unfortunate tension”
“Tactfully ridden” (translation: your horse is a spook)
“Does not exhibit the carriage for this level”
“Needs more swing and supple through the back”
Kill me now. Petie was afraid of everything: the judges’ box, the rail, the wind, the butterflies, life in general. At my first show, one of my customers led me around the warm-up arena because we were all sure that I was going to meet my Maker because of Petie. In short, she was a nervous wreck. I hated her. I was so frustrated and behaved in a way (much to my present-day shame) that confirmed her belief that the world is not a safe place, nor was I a soft place to land.
At the time, I trained a stallion that I dearly loved, but did not own. We were bonded. He would have gone through fire for me and I loved him. He built my early successes and benefited from all my love and attention. Where Petie was unstable and nervous, he was my rock. It wasn’t until his owner took him home and I was left without my competition horse that I gave Petie a chance. When the stallion left, I grieved for several months. Bitter at the owner for taking him but understanding that it was my fault to get so attached to someone else’s horse, I realized that my heart was only safe when invested in my own horse. I can’t control the decisions my clients make, but I oversee what happens with my own horse.
So, I started really working WITH Petie, hoping that the damage I had inflicted upon our relationship could be healed. I looked in the mirror. That’s a hard job because honesty with one’s self and one’s behavior hurts. How did I need to change to work with her, to develop her, to partner with her? Because of this mare, I started my true journey into Dressage, into the heart of it. Dressage at heart is about partnering with a horse in a special relationship. It is about allowing the horse to be a horse. It is about understanding, and empathy and developing a relationship through riding. Horses can not grow to their full potential in an atmosphere of impatience and domination, nor will you fool the judges. They can see right through it. Petie taught me that.
Because of the heart of a good mare, Petie forgave me and started working with me. Our dressage journey developed, on which I will elaborate in a future post. Her generous spirit has taken us from spooking around the ring to winning my USDF Bronze and Silver medal on her. I am halfway to my Gold medal. I love her and she is my teammate.
Even if you don’t compete, owning a horse is about building a relationship and a bond that – like all good friendships – allows each of you to show your very best nature. From regular grooming with sensitive high-quality grooming products, to the correct nutrition and environment, its our responsibility to allow our horse be the best horse they can be.