06 May The Horses That Built Me
In the first grade, my mother made a terrible mistake. She signed me up for horseback riding lessons.
Since my father was going to be traveling for several weekends and she worried I’d miss him, she sought a distraction. Previously, dancing tap and ballet only held my interest for a season. Soccer was virtually torture. At the age of 6, I’d just exited my gymnastics stint in a spray of (minimal) blood and splayed limbs. My mother had made friends with another mother in the gymnastics program and both had the well-intentioned idea to put their daughters in a local barn’s lesson program.
I’d obsessed over the creatures for awhile, pouring over books, novels and breed encyclopedias. I woke hours early that first Saturday morning, a small peek into my future of 4am horse show mornings.
I’ve never had the privilege of owning a horse, but was blessed to ride a wide array of greenies, schoolmasters and everything in between.
My first group of up-down lessons at this Dallas barn were a saintly collection of ponies and horses, but alas, my tenure would only last the few weeks my dad was away. When we moved to Tennessee soon after, I resumed my riding career, this time in a Western barn. Little Devyn rode two big, beefy AQHAs, named Jimbo and Classy.
Back to Texas
My family returned to Texas a few years later, where I replaced my riding with a couple years of volleyball. Needless to say, I was still every bit the horse girl I’d been, just repressed. I soon found a local barn through school friends, where I begged my mother to resume lessons.
Poor woman thought she’d bested the horse bug.
Enter a string of OTTBs, a special kind of horse I hold in high regard. This barn had a knack for sussing out solid citizens off the track and turning them into a battalion of lesson and camp horses. For about a year, I bopped on and off several different horses.
Wally/Gatsby, a big bay who thrilled and terrified me simultaneously. Gio, the chestnut, uphill jumping bean. Tia, a small, bay mare who didn’t tolerate my mediocrity. Nelson, a saintly Appendix hunter who taught me what a buttery canter actually feels like. Several others I got to hop on and experience once or twice, which was normally thanks to my sweet barn friends.
As a lesson kid, you needed to scrape up a sense of ownership where you could find it. Other kids and teenagers leased many of the horses, so if felt like a great game of Musical Horses each evening. Caring for the horses helped a lot with that, since catching, grooming and tacking up were all your responsibility before your ride. Yet, your favorite horse commonly would be leased sooner rather than later, leaving you with some of the tougher rides. I often felt very discouraged back then, not feeling like I had enough time in the saddle to make noticeable progress. I also had the terrible habit of comparing myself to my friends, most of whom leased/owned and rode daily. Setting myself up for success there.
About a year into my stay, after helping with summer camps and taking weekly lessons, a new OTTB came from the sister Western barn. Enter Simon.
The trainer had decided to let him down over in the other pastures before bringing him to the English barn. A couple of the more advanced girls tried their hand at putting some training rides on him. Bless his heart, he didn’t look like much initially and he possessed the normal OTTB habits to work through. The other girls had their own horses to worry about, as well as other training projects they’d already been working on. Thus, Simon sort of fell to the wayside.
I didn’t really have him on my radar during all this, knowing he was on the other girls’ lists. However, one day, when asking the trainer which horses were available, she suggested I try Simon.
Intrigued at the idea of a new horse, I sallied forth into the pasture, already dreaming of what we could accomplish. When I first really looked at him, he was incredibly fuzzy despite the warm, Texas heat. Ribs were clearly outlined and the angle of his withers was as sharp as the angle of his croup. He had a soft, dopey face with eyes like a dreamy Jersey cow. His front end looked like a tank and his back end needed some hill work.
I couldn’t have been prouder to ride this horse.
Part of what made me attach to him so quickly was that I seemed to be the only one who wanted him. I could devote time and affection to a horse that I actually had the chance to bond with. The trainer graciously gave me permission to flat him outside of lessons. Simon felt like a Christmas morning pony.
Did we have a cosmic, planet-aligning bond? Absolutely not.
Did we work well together? For sure.
He was the sweetest horse I’ve ever ridden. Genuine and honest, I don’t remember ever having a fear of him ducking out. He would always give his best try, even if the product was less than desirable. This “I’ll do it if you’re with me” attitude was a blessing after some rides with school horses unimpressed by my leadership.
Fear has been pretty common in riding for me, but I don’t remember being scared with Simon. Spooks were rare and warranted, like a gate crashing in the wind, but never dramatic. I don’t think he could act naughty even if you bribed him–he was just that good.
Simon took to bending and walk-to-canter transitions quickly. He loved to barge through my hands, but a few dressage lessons and a semi-mastery of the half-halt improved that. I learned he responded well to simplicity and a crisp ask. One quick press of the leg and then off, giving him the room to answer my question. He was eager to please.
Sadly, the poor guy came up lame often. Whether it was from the rocky turnout or something else, I don’t think I knew enough to discern why. For several weeks, I’d go out for my lesson, find my pal lame and make the excuse to soak his foot in epsom or treat it with iodide. For awhile, even with my steady Simon, I’d been growing even more fearful and discouraged about riding.
Dressage = Courage?
Comparison was a dangerous poison and I was guzzling it down. I felt further and further behind all my friends, with no way of making up the distance. I’d been taking weekly dressage lessons with another trainer who came to the barn. During one of our lessons with her, she mentioned coming to take lessons at her facility, where I could ride her 4th Level schoolmaster. My buddy just didn’t have some of the buttons her horse did.
Her invitation was all I needed, seeing an escape from my self-destructive criticism and self-imposed pressure. If I left, I wouldn’t compare myself anymore.
As poor as that rationale was, devoting several months to dressage was a game changer for me. Her senior Oldenburg, Rubin, was indeed a master. We had a relationship that was incredibly challenging for me. He showed me what a horse ought to move and feel like, but only if I asked how I ought to. It forced me to learn to get out of his way and set him up to shine. Anything less would result in walking. Literally, just walking around the arena, because Rubin would refuse to do anything else.
Rubin taught me a lot, but humility was high on that list. Sadly, the few pictures of him are lost in the digital aether, but riding him left an unforgettable impression on me.
From warmbloods to Thoroughbreds, ponies and 18hh behemoths, my gamut of equine partners is wide. I’m so appreciative for all the horse in my life thus far, some of whom I only hold tibits of memories. No matter how seemingly small a role they may have played in my life, I’m blessed to have had them.