A Horse and His Girl

I had a crazy dream last night, and it got me thinking…

I think about the horses I grew up with constantly. It’s the (only) part of my childhood that I truly miss. There was my Dad’s Unicorn/Appaloosa, Turk. He was my reining horse, my barrel racer, my polo pony, my emergency entry for the hunter hack class (when my hunter pickup ride of the day decided he was in no mood to put out), my Showmanship Halter Horse (it wasn’t his fault that I couldn’t run in a straight line), and the absolute best audience member for every barn concert I ever gave. There was the shaggy Shetland Pony who took care of me as a baby rider and only galloped away with me in a walk-trot class once (which delighted me, but not the judge). There was the majestic “Sovereign Lady” Quarter Horse/show pony: just small enough at 14.1 1/2 to cart me around the large pony hunter classes, but talented and athletic enough to deliver a beautiful 3’6” working hunter class round with my trainer aboard at the AQHA shows. And then there was this guy. My great love. My handsome boy. RH.

Not many days have passed in the last 30 something years that I haven’t thought of my big and fast and wiley sorrel Quarter Horse. He’d come from a breeder out west who had freeze branded all his horses with his initials, RH, so my horse had a big white RH on his hind quarters. Hence his barn name…RH. (Listen, we also had a horse named White and another named Black Mare, but I digress.) I actually held on to his engraved bridle plate until maybe last year’s spring clean.

RH wasn’t the babysitter that Turk was or the flashy show girl that Lady was, but he was so many other things - most importantly - mine. I didn’t share him with anyone. I believed in him and adored him. Nonetheless, our partnership was a constant struggle. Not in the love department, mind you - but not unlike doomed human relationships, we both just wanted very different things. He did NOT want to slow down, pretty much… ever. I went through an inexcusable number of different bits. He had no interest in being the quiet pleasure horse or obedient equitation horse or the calm and collected hunter carrying me gently around a low course. By that time in my life, my family had converted full time to polo, and we didn’t have a lot of money for other things, so I didn’t have many resources or a big support system for showing. I was a fairly resourceful kid, but I didn’t have the access to really take him in another direction, like bigger jumper classes which he might’ve loved, because he always settled in when the opportunities ahead of him were big and fast. He’d over-jump or pop small fences with me barely hanging on, but when I snuck out on my own with no rules, we’d soar over a 4 ft fence out in the field. That 4ft fence presented a challenge, whereas the 2’6” fence presented sheer annoyance. He much preferred the challenge. Once, at a horse show, he acted up all the way around the first course of the day. The horse show venue was walking distance from my farm, so I’d gone to the show alone, and there was no one to tell me what I could or couldn’t do, (which was rarely a good thing for me…) Left to my own devices, when it came time for our next round, I decided to sacrifice any chance at placing, and just let him open up “a bit.” If only speed was a component!!! We’d have cleaned up that day! He was thrilled with this idea and jumped beautifully. You’ll have to take my word for it. I’m pretty sure we were only a blur to anyone watching. He was the only horse that day to take that last 5 stride line in 3 strides. I had as much fun as he did. I really don’t know how we didn’t get thrown out of more places more often. Our second year together started off with a nasty injury that only required patience, but the timing was lousy and we missed out on some valuable training time together, and I never did have much patience. That season was a wash.

The following year, we sold our farm. (My feelings around that are a story for another day.) As my entire family and all our horses relocated out of state, RH and I stayed behind at another farm where I worked and taught. It was my final summer before college, and I didn’t want to leave my home. My boss - the trainer at that farm - had no love at all for RH. Also - gone was my access to large turnout paddocks and big spaces to ride my somewhat unwieldy boy, and jumping him in a small ring in a group class was not going well at all. So, with a bit of a push, I made the painful decision to send him down to my family to be sold. I spent the rest of that summer on a horse named Rocket who found new and inventive ways to leave me on the ground regularly and would occasionally hold a trick up his sleeve which he’d use simply to embarrass me in the show ring. He was actually my first comedy partner. But this isn’t about Rocket. I don’t really have any Rocket regrets…

As fate can sometimes be kind, we did find the perfect buyer for RH. It wasn’t until my family relocated again a couple of years later to California. There, RH was discovered by a roper/slash cowboy who used him for roping. It never occurred to me to try and find my way back to my western roots with him. A) it wasn’t what I was doing at the time; and B ) he was over 16 hands which is pretty big for a cow horse! That said, he came from a good line of ranch horses, so despite his build, I guess it was in his blood. From what I heard, he was rather brilliant and became a favorite for his new owner. As for me - I went on to college, and while my horse days weren’t completely done yet, it would only be a few more years before I’d taken my last ride and gone off to start a new chapter.

In recent years, I’ve started catching up on the happenings of the horse world. These days, I find myself watching all kinds of videos from all kinds of horse whisperering trainers. I’ve seen how training techniques have evolved and how we’ve learned to listen to our horses more than ever. LISTEN. What a concept. We’ve learned to communicate in completely new ways since my early days of galloping through walk-trot classes on a sassy pony, or jumping a 5 stride line in 3, or being dropped on the ground in front of a judge by Rocket. I’m amazed and humbled and awed by the brilliance I see now only (mostly) on a screen. All that I’ve since learned, now has me wishing I could go back in time. I wish I could go back and learn how to listen to RH in new ways and be a more disciplined, more diligent, and more sensitive partner to him. I wish I could’ve honored his talents, instead of just searching for the perfect bit, the perfect shoes, the perfect whatever to slow him down and mold him into what my own insecurities told me I should be. The truth is, what I needed more than anything in those days was a friend. But I, in turn, wasn’t a great one. Not then.

So.  Onto my dream last night!!! Well… I was 18 again and RH and I were headed to a show - BUT - he could TALK! He could tell me what he was thinking and he could understand my words, so we were able to find a middle ground for a great partnership. It was a beautiful dream, and someday, if I get to see him again, I’d love to really have that conversation with him. I hope he knows how sorry I am for getting it wrong and how grateful I am for all he tried to teach me, and how very much I miss him.

Epilogue to the tail…

Loading RH onto the trailer that fateful summer day wasn’t our last moment together. As he was still in with my family in Pennsylvania during my first college year, I got to ride him on my Christmas break. I had been invited to go on a fox hunt. (Don’t worry - it was all about the ride and not the fox. There may have even been a fake scent involved. I, thankfully, never saw a fox.) So Mom and I bought my formal wear and RH and I headed out to meet the rest of the field of riders. That’s the last ride I really remember with him, and as I recall, he was perfect. That ride was nothing but wide open fields and natural fences to jump with multiple height options and lots of space to run. Just. Run. In my mind, he’s running there now.

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