I’ve been incredibly blessed with my horses, and most of them have come to me in unusual ways. Though they are / were all different breeds and backgrounds, each had something in common: they were overlooked because they were 1) skinny 2) untrained 3) badly trained 4) considered “ugly” (ie muddy, ungroomed, bad feet, bad temper …).
I make it a point to not generally purchase horses from “fancy breeders” — though I have done so twice in the past. I’m all about the diamond-in-the-rough school of horse shopping these days. Mainly because being a grad student, and now a professor, means I have to be budget conscious (like, practically free horse budget conscious). What follows is Part I of my own absolutely true story of persistence, stubbornness, and occasional triumph. Without further ado here’s: “I Found True Love on Craigslist.”
In the Beginning:
It has to be about love, first and foremost. Love for the horse, love for the sore muscles and bruises and broken toes and long nights and equally long mornings. Love for the disappointments (there are many). These things you must love above all else, because victory when it does come, is often small, usually bittersweet, and always hard fought.
I joke that I found my true love on Craigslist – a fuzzy, teddy-bear looking two year old Holsteiner stallion with a big attitude, and equally big buck (and bite). His owner, a well-meaning but ill-equipped elderly woman, had dreams of raising sporthorses in her retirement. So she began importing German broodmares and youngstock. However, unprepared for the immense responsibility of a breeding operation, she turned everyone out on the range together, and let nature take its course.
His Craigslist ad photos were … off-putting, to say the least. A dull, shaggy, and dusty bay with a matted mane and chewed off tail, he seemed more like a BLM mustang
than the blue blood his pedigree suggested. The terrified look on his owner’s face, and the fact she kept him well at arm’s length didn’t bode well either. But I liked the look of him. Short backed, with a slightly thick neck well set onto a sloping shoulder: he was square, sturdy, and powerful. I could imagine him in ten years’ time: sleek as a seal, muscles sculpted like Da Vinci’s famous Milan Horse.
Always one to research obsessively, I memorized his pedigree and learned as much as I could about the Holstein breeding program. His sire Lesanto
was a Horse of the Year who excelled both in Grand Prix showjumping, and FEI level dressage. His grandsire was the legendary Landgraf, Germany’s “Stallion of the Century,” and his mother, Celebration, was a top producer of 3-day event, hunter / jumper, and upper level dressage horses. Checking the internet discussion boards, I learned that this line always developed late but were generally ridable and easy to train. I liked the sound of that, so checking my perpetually low bank account balance, and taking a deep breath, I called the number listed in the ad.
“What d’ya want?” growled the genderless, whisky voice on the other end of the line.
“I’m calling about the horse for sale. The bay warmblood.”
“Yeah . . .”
“Uh. I’d like to come see him. Maybe try him out. When can you schedule me?” I said nervously.
“Someone’s already comin’ to see ‘im. Lady from up New York way.”
The gruff tones made me even more anxious but I couldn’t give up: “I want to see him anyway. How does tomorrow suit you?”
A grunt of assent, and I scrambled for a pen and paper as the voice mumbled an address and directions. Evidently this place was not going to show up on my GPS.
Lessons in Trust:
When the going gets tough, the tough call mom — especially when there’s a horse in the mix. So I did. My mother, Kate, is my biggest cheerleader. An ex-jumper rider herself, she always encouraged me to be brave, follow my instincts, and take chances. She watched as I went from leadline, to pony hunters, to Pony Club, 3-day eventing, jumpers, and then (I suspect, gratefully) to dressage. She commiserated when divorce and grad school, meant I had to sell my brilliant and beloved upper level dressage horse, and she listened skeptically when I called her about my Craigslist find, Le Doux.
“You’re sure about this?” she asked.
“Yes. Just look at the angle of that croup!” I said excitedly, “And his bloodlines are flawless!”
That afternoon, with the patented mom-side-eye glance, she began gathering up tack, and said “We’ll leave first thing in the morning. If you’re really sure…”
As mom and I bumped down the dusty path that passes for a road in Arizona’s high desert, we chatted about our horses, one of whom – my favorite broodmare Lucy – was due to foal soon. I hoped for a colt, black with white markings like my Lucy Girl, and hopefully just as lovely of a mover. With these bright dreams in mind, we drove over the last rocky rise and looked down at what I hoped would be my future Grand Prix mount.
“You have got to be joking. Tell me we did not just drive six full hours to see that pokey little ranch horse. Tell me that’s not him, Jennifer Lyn!”
Mom was not happy.
“Just trust me mom. I can see it. I can see what he’ll look like when he’s finished. Trust me.”
Grimly she kept her eyes on the path, and drove down toward the ancient, peeling travel trailer serving as the ranch house. As we passed the wire corral holding the bay (MY bay) and another horse – a frantic, lathered chestnut incessantly whinnying – an elderly man and woman step out into the blinding summer sun. As weathered as their trailer, they offered a curt welcome, and grimly lead us over to the corral where an old Western saddle, gritty red nylon halter, and one aged body brush lay propped up against the fence post.
“He don’t lead good yet, and he ain’t never been groomed, but I kin ketch him ‘n you kin try ‘im.”
Now, common sense and my many years in the horse business have taught me that if an owner won’t catch and get on the horse first, there’s probably a problem. There was indeed a problem. He was a big warmblood, and an orphan, and had been left to breed and run wild for the first two and a half years of his life. He had no manners, no respect, and – at least in his mind – no use for humans. By sheer luck the couple managed to saddle and bridle him – he’d been sat on a few times, but never truly ridden. They put him in the makeshift round pen under tack, and let him trot and canter. I liked what I saw: the trot was even and regular, not spectacular but that could be built. The canter was outstanding, lively with deep sit and excellent impulsion. Strapping my helmet on, I walked in and had the horse led over. I slowly eased myself over his back, draping sideways like I’d done countless times on countless young horses. I slid my right leg over, and gently sat up. A little tension in the neck and ears showed he was still wary of a rider, but not fearful or angry. I stroked his neck, the long wiry mane flying in all directions, tangling in the reins, and sticking to my gloves. With a deep breath I gently bumped his sides with my calves and clucked. He snorted but didn’t move. Once again: bump, bump, cluck. Suddenly his thick neck arches and the haunches coil, sitting deeply: he doesn’t bolt, but gives me three steps of true piaffe. My eyes fill with tears, and I know. This horse, he is The One.
But remember — things are never as easy and rosy as they first seem. To be continued . . .
CU@X — Piaffe Girl