“What on earth have I done?”
This is what I was thinking as I lay awake in the wee dark hours, about two weeks ago. Just that evening, I’d taken delivery of my new Austin Healey. No, not the little British car type of Austin Healey, but the coming five year old, Hanoverian variety of Austin Healey.
Yes, I’d taken the plunge and brought home a new young horse.
My trainer often says that having multiple horses is a good idea. Chances are, with multiple horses, they won’t all be lame or naughty on the same day, and as someone who gets a little obsessive about each and every ride, I can attest that the mental health benefits of having two in the barn are real. Until last fall, I had two riding horses at home. Cardoon, obviously, was my priority, but I also had Bodie – a nice little Half Arabian who I’d put a bunch of dressage training on. He turned 13 last year, and it was time for him to go to a new home where he’d have a meaningful job. I was lucky to find a great Pony Club family, and by all accounts, they’re all quite happy together.
After Bodie left in October, I wasn’t in any hurry to jump back into another horse. My job situation has been really up in the air for a while, and who wants to get a new horse in the winter when riding is a special form of torture?
However, as the winter wore on, I was spending an inordinate amount of time looking at sale ads for horses, and finally talked to Lauren about helping me find out if anyone we knew had something that might be good for me. We agreed that I wanted something that was probably 6-9 years old, and either had a slow start in life, or needed polishing after a stint in another discipline. Bodie had been 8 when I got him, and had mostly been a trail/all-around horse for his old owner. I thought this sounded like a good plan – nothing too young, and something with a little life experience but not necessarily lots of training. I felt capable of putting more dressage basics on a new horse, but didn’t want to deal with lots of silliness, especially young silliness. Lauren put out the word from where she was in Florida, and the hunt was on.
One of the first responses we had was from a family we both know, who had a young horse, just coming 5, who they’d started under saddle and were now looking to sell. I was a little worried because I really wasn’t sure I wanted a really young horse, but I knew that these were good people who were good with the young horse stuff, and I called them to set up a time to try the horse, who they called Rabbit (and now called Healey!). After a few aborted attempts to get together (largely due to 2+ feet of snow and trailers that were plowed in for the duration), Rachel was finally able to get Rabbit up to Lauren’s farm, where her assistant trainer, Natasha Sprengers-Levine, was willing to serve as my crash test dummy. Her job was to try to provoke a response in this horse and see what he did. Basically, could you put your leg on, take a hold of some contact, and still go or did he pitch fit?
Rachel had warned me that Rabbit hadn’t been ridden in about a month, and hadn’t been off the farm for quite a while before that. I was impressed that he marched off the trailer and into the huge indoor with multiple mirrors, and essentially shrugged his shoulders and then went to work. Natasha got on him and while he didn’t know a whole lot about what she was asking, he was a good sport about all of it. I imagine his internal thought process was something like, “You’re pulling on my face? OK. I’ll fling my nose around a bit and then put my head down. Oh, is that your leg and a spur!? I’d better go forward!”
My reaction to riding him was smiling, which is usually a good sign. I don’t smile when I ride. Like, ever. I can probably count on two hands how many times I remember cracking a smile while actually on horseback. I’m the “intense concentration” type. But this guy made me giggle a little. His reactions were so honestly trying, yet confused, that I couldn’t help it.
After thinking it over for a few days, I made an offer, set up a vetting (which went swimmingly as he submitted to poking, trotting, riding in a new setting, and all with great aplomb), and eventually got him in my barn…
…Exactly 15 minutes before a rare winter, apocalyptic thunderstorm arrived. Here is a horse in a new setting, who’s always lived out 24/7 but is now in a stall, in a strange barn, and it sounds like a freight train because the metal roof is thundering from the heavy rain (and actual thunder). Fortunately, none of this bothered him and he set about chowing down on his hay and we tucked him in for the night.
Despite his good sense in settling in well, I laid awake that night wondering what I was thinking. Was now really a good time to buy a new horse? My job is STILL up in the air, and who knows how much time I’ll have once things are settled. I’m also forty years old, and it hurts when I fall off now, so why did I get a green warmblood? And then the really insidious doubts – What do I know about training horses? Will I screw this up? I don’t want to screw this up!
The next day, after about three hours of sleep, I got up and put Healey back on the trailer to visit saddle fitter Colleen Meyer of Advanced Saddle Fit, a trip he took totally in stride. And he didn’t mind when Lindsay Williamson of Tribute Feeds came the day after that to give me some feeding advice, as I’m used to feeding the air ferns of the equine world, and not the slightly weedy and still growing warmbloods.
I finally got on Healey at home a few days later for our first day of real work, and I’ll admit I was nervous. That little voice in my head is insidious. “Don’t screw this up!” it says. “You know you’re not good enough,” it says. “Be careful!” it says. Ignoring the voice as best I could, I climbed aboard, put my leg on, my chin up, stayed calm and rode forward.
I’m sure we’ll have our trials and tribulations, but I’m determined to prove to myself that I can do this, just like I started my last two young horses on my own, retrained Bodie into a solid little dressage horse, and am now bringing Cardoon to the FEI levels. I haven’t done any of it alone – and I won’t do this alone either – but I know I can do this, and I intend to have a good bit of fun along the way. Healey has a good sense of humor, a steady disposition, and he knows (at least for now) that leg on means GO FORWARD. We’ll be OK.