Saying Goodbye: The wisdom of old horses

Saying Goodbye:  The wisdom of old horses

This is the story of Thunder, a little POA pony with a golden heart who was convinced he was 17.2 hands tall.  When people would come to the barn and exclaim, “Look at that cute pony!”  We’d hush them and reply, “Shhhh.  He doesn’t know he’s a pony.”

He was a been-there-done-that pony who had ushered small children into the world of horses.  He had ridden in shows, taught many lessons, did a stint as a therapeutic riding horse, and was an excellent babysitter.  You could put a child in a stall with him and he was gentle and kind while they brushed and talked to him, but the moment you put him back out into the pasture, he ruled over the big horses like a Mafia Don.

On cold winter days, we would let him wander through the barn as we cleaned.  He would wander from stall to stall to make sure everyone had finished their grain, then stand in the middle of the aisle eating his small pile of hay with contentment as we cleaned.  When he was ready to go back out, he would walk to the door and knock on it with his foot.

We didn’t know his exact age.  We knew he was over thirty but he kept going like the Energizer Bunny.  Knowing this we didn’t use him much for lessons anymore.  After all, we wanted him to stay with us as long as possible.  If he wanted to work, he let us know.  He would stand at the gate and stare at me with those intense wise eyes until I would tell one of the girls to go saddle him up.  If a horse could smile, he would when I said those words.

Then he started slowing down.  It was sad to see, but we just keep loving him, lavishing attention on him every day when he came in for his grain.  He relinquished his top position to another horse and spent his days hanging out with his big bay best buddy. While our heads knew his age was catching up to him, our hearts were in denial.  But he was still happy and still wholeheartedly loved the children that came to see him.  This was now his purpose in life.  Just to love and be loved.

It was a quiet day at the barn.  There was just a co-worker and I.  The farrier came to trim Thunder’s feet and I went out to get him. He was standing alone in the back of the pasture and as we walked to the front, it was clear he wasn’t feeling well.  I walked him around until the farrier and I agreed to hold off the trim.  I walked him some more, talking to him and watching him steadily get worse.  When I put him in a stall I felt a rock in my gut.  I called his owner, Staci, filling her in on what was going on. The vet was called and suddenly I felt a sense of urgency.  I called Staci back.

“You need to get here.  Right now.”

She was there in minutes.    When she pulled in, he went down.  We stood helplessly while he struggled.  Staci said softly, “You can go now, Thunder.”

“We love you,” I whispered.

And he was gone.

We were stunned and heartbroken.  This was not the outcome we were expecting.  Thunder was supposed to be with us forever!  When the shock wore off, we sat and talked about the whole experience.  The conclusions we came to show us how wise these old friends are and how they know more than we can ever envision.  He picked his day.  He knew the farrier was coming and I would have to go get him.  He knew the barn was quiet and the people there were solid, grounded people.  Thunder wanted to leave surrounded by people he loved with no drama and no hysteria.  And most of all he wanted it to be his decision, not someone else’s.

Thunder picked his time, but as horse owners, we are their advocates.  Some horses will hang on in silent suffering for the sake of their owner.  It’s a hard choice knowing when it’s time.  We have to be ready to let them go.  They have given us everything.  And at the end, we need to let them cross over, to run through fields of gold, carrying a piece of us with them.



Clinicians: Why do we ride with them?

Clinicians: Why do we ride with them?

Through the years, many of us have ridden with clinicians or attended clinics as an auditor.  It’s fun!  It’s a time to get together with like minded riders of the same discipline to expand our knowledge base.  If you look at your local USDF chapter, you can find a clinic you can attend at least once a month.  The resumes of many clinicians is long.  Former Olympic stars.  FEI riders.  Eventers.  Internationally qualified trainers.  Some have been around for years, their name well known in the dressage world.  Some are the flavor of the month, fresh from the world of high level riding and ready to share their knowledge with the world.

It’s not cheap to ride with a clinician.  In this area, the average cost is $100 to $150 per ride.  Then of course, you have to trailer your horse there, rent a stall and often times find a motel.  So how do we pick and chose which clinician to ride with?  Here are some questions to ask yourself before investing.

  1.  Do they line up with your riding philosophy?  Not all dressage training is cut from the same cloth.  Are they classical?  Competitive?  German?  French?  Have you searched through the archives of youtube and found videos of them teaching and riding to be sure that they line up with your mindset?
  2. Are you going for another notch in your headboard or do are you going to truly improve your riding?  Riding with a certain clinician may look good on a resume, but if you don’t come away with something that will improve your riding, you have wasted your money.
  3. Are you willing to communicate?  You are riding with someone who doesn’t know you or your horse.  If there is something specific that you need to work on, you must articulate your desires otherwise you may spend $150 just reviewing the basics.
  4. Is this clinician willing to be invested in you?  This is the most important to me.  Am I just a pay check or is this a clinician who is committed to being part of my journey?  I have known both kinds.  They give you a lesson, take your money, smile and go on their way.  Whereas the ones that are willing to be part of your journey, will give you the tools to keep you moving forward.
  5. Will they be available to you if you have questions or if you get stuck?  Clinicians who are invested in you, want you to continue to improve.  They are sending you out there into the world with their name and reputation attached to you.

Riding once or twice with a certain clinician is fun.  It gives you a different perspective and gives you a chance to get your horse out to a different barn.  But examine your motives and try to see the big picture.  Many of us have trainers we can turn to, but many don’t and clinicians are in reality, their trainers.  In the big picture, are you going to stay with this clinician?  Will he/she be around for the next few years to keep you on your path?  Moving from clinician to clinician is like starting over every time.  If you have unlimited funds, that’s not a problem, or is it?  Are we being fair to our horses: and ourselves: by trying something new and different every few months?  Horses love consistency.  And I think we owe that to them.

When I was young (and now I’m not)

When I was young (and now I’m not)

Horses have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.  My mom tells me when I was a toddler living in Warren, Minnesota, I would stand in my crib and stare at the horses in the neighbors fields for hours.  Literally, hours, just standing there already dreaming of running through fields on the back of  one of them.  From then on, it was horses.  Simply, horses.  Horse books.  Horse posters.  Breyer horses.  Horse catalogs.  Horses at the fair.  Horses horses horses.

I finally got one of my own when I was twelve.  A spunky, smart, Thoroughbred/Morgan mare that challenged me her entire life.  She was athletic and would try anything once.  I fell off her.  A lot.  In extreme Northern Minnesota, there were no trainers, no barns with lessons.  If I wanted to try jumping, I would just…  jump.  If I wanted to try jumping in a real jumping saddle, I would just….  fall off.  At least the first few times.  When you’re seventeen, or even twenty-seven, you fall off, you bounce, you get up, brush yourself off, get back on and try again.  And I tried it all.  Barrel racing.  Jumping.  Eventing.  It was all fun!  And I learned what I need to learn from every discipline.

Fast forward about thirty years.  Marriage, family, career.  While horses were still my passion, I was a horseless rider for many years.  Taking lessons when I could, I strove to find that perfect horse for me and my ‘advanced age.’  And I did, but not quite what everyone thought I needed and when I brought a twelve year old, jumpy, underweight, hypersensitive, 16.3,  OTTB to the barn at age forty-nine, there were more than a few raised eyebrows.  But there was something in his eye.  Something that told me we’d be okay.  After lots of ground work, I finally got on my tall handsome boy.  We did well.  We rode with clinicians.  We worked on transitioning from an eventing horse to a dressage horse.  We worked.  And during all this work, he was putting on weight and muscle.  He was giving me small hints that maybe his saddle wasn’t fitting as good as it did a few months ago.  But I wasn’t listening.  I was so happy and giddy about finally riding my own horse again, I just remained clueless until he had to use his big voice.  And I hit the ground.  At the age of fifty I learned something immediately.  I don’t bounce anymore.  I thud.  And jumping up?  Forget it.  I slowly SLOWLY rose to my feet, brushed myself off and: as hard as it was; got back on.  Only for a moment, but I got back on.

That was my turning point as a rider over fifty.  I needed to get back on.  I was hurting, I was scared, but I got back on.  And then we found a saddle that fit.  I’m still getting back on, even though I have occasional flashbacks, I get back on.  I have to.  I need to and he needs me to.  And once I’m on and we connect in a way only horse and rider partners can connect, life is perfect.

We have horses in our life for a reason.  To keep us moving.  To ground us.  To teach us.  And to keep us humble.  It was much more humbling falling off at fifty than it was at seventeen.  I listen to my horse better now.  And we have a deeper connection than we did before.  I may be a trainer, but my horse is still training me  and I love every moment of it.

So keep getting back on.  When you’re twenty…  forty…  sixty…  until you cannot physically get on anymore.  And listen.  Always listen.


So you want to be a horse trainer….

So you want to be a horse trainer….

Having been involved in the horse world for the majority of my life, this is a statement I have heard more times than I can remember.

“I’m going to be a horse trainer.”

That’s all well and good.  Congratulations!  Now how are you going to accomplish this?  Having and training your own horse does not a trainer make.  There are no guidelines written down somewhere that give you the steps you need to take.  It seems anyone can hang out a shingle.  There is no need for accreditation.  You can go to college and take equestrian sciences, but is that enough?  Being a trainer is much like being a chef.  Just because you can cook, doesn’t make you one.  When you go to apply for a job, they may ask you where you went to school, but what is more to important a potential employer is: Who have you worked under?

The grand illusion is:  you hang out your shingle, get some clients and start making money.  It’s not quite that easy.  The fact is, you know what you know.  And unless you broaden your horizons and start working with people who have already built a reputation of their own, what you know will always be a journey of trial and error.  You want to be a trainer?  Here’s some suggestions.

  1.  Find the discipline you are passionate about.  Dressage.  Jumping.  Western Pleasure.  Reining.  The list is long.  Then find a mentor.  Someone who has spent years in the discipline and built a reputation in their field.  Ideally, this will lead you to being a working student.  The hours will be long.  The demands high.  The pay almost non-existent.  But if you keep your eyes and ear open, the education you will get is priceless.
  2. Continue your education even after you have started on your own.  Attend clinics.  Ride under clinicians.  This is your resume.  Read.  Ask.  Inquire.  Keep in touch with your mentor always and never be too prideful to ask for help.  Never assume you are the end all, be all.  We are never too old to learn.
  3. Start small.  Build a solid client base with a few horses.  Use social media to advertise progress.  Get out to shows.  Remember there are eyes on you, watching how you treat your clients, their horses and your own horses.  Be a humble winner and a gracious loser.  Blue ribbons don’t just happen.

Technically, I am a trainer.  I have trained under a Master who instructs all over the world and has put in years and years working under Masters of the past to get where he is now.  I continue training at home under another trainer that is regularly instructed under the Master.  I know what I know and daily learn and absorb as much as I can.  I see the progress of the horses I am training, but still stumble over calling myself ‘trainer’.  The people who mentor me are at the level I aspire to be and this has been a journey of years.

You want to be a trainer?  Awesome.  But… be prepared for a long road of ramen noodles after working a twelve hour day.  You will be tired and earn a pittance.  For years.  A social life?  Hmmm..  Not for a while.  And when you do go out, people may get weary of you steering every conversation to horses.  Do not be discouraged by critics, because you will have them.  It’s the nature of the business.

Is the journey worth it?  Absolutely.  You are partnering with amazing animals who will teach you as much as you teach them.  But the most important thing about being a trainer is putting the horse first. Train with compassion, integrity, and honesty. Remember there are no short cuts.  While one horse may progress rapidly, another one may progress in baby steps.  Train on horse time.  Not client time.

And always remember to dance…..