I am an adult amateur eventer but unlike many of the “amateurs like us” stories I’ve read, I don’t feel like I am “like them”. I don’t consider myself in terms of competition first… I am not juggling kids, a vice president’s job, or a competitive schedule that I hope will take me to Rolex. I didn’t have a pony as a kid.
So I’m writing a bit about that because I know all these years I would have liked to read something that’s more like my own experiences.
Part I: How it all began.
I had not been on a horse in about 15 years when in my early 30s, I suddenly decided that I wanted to take up riding again. There was a barn near my office that offered group lessons after work, so I showed up. There was a group of six adults and I joined the lesson and gamely rode around the ring for the whole hour. Big mistake!
The next day I couldn’t walk without a muscle cramp stopping me in my tracks. This lasted for the entire week until it was time to go back to the barn for another lesson, which I did anyway. I was still so taken with riding that, in true horseperson fashion, I just sucked it up and got back on in the saddle.
I spent about a year or so taking two lessons a week on the school ponies, going around in a circle and waiting my turn to go over a single jump in the middle of the ring. Those school horses were saints. When I changed jobs I needed to find a new place to ride and I met a new friend who told me there was a horse at her barn up for lease. Who knew you could lease a horse? I didn’t, and that was the beginning of phase two of my adult riding.
Part II: In which the adult amateur learns about leasing horses.
So I headed out to my friend’s barn to see a woman about a horse. Turns out, the “horse” was a big Canadian thoroughbred that belonged to the farm owner. He hunted and was available for lease…so I leased him. What do I know? He was generally a nice horse but he had a streak that involved bolting occasionally in the woods. When you jumped him you had to literally drop the reins, or he’d just pull against them and would probably crash through the arena fencing. So since I was unlikely to teach the horse to slow down or stop after the jump, I learned how to jump and then drop my reins completely and then pick them up after the fence. I am clearly still very naïve.
Later, when that horse became unavailable and I moved jobs again, I found an ad for a new facility the next town over and went to see a horse there for lease. Two young women had started an operation and had moved in a rescue as their first horse. He’d been by himself at the facility for a while, so when I got on to give him a try and (may) have asked for a canter, I wound up on the ground. I was not hurt, so what did I say to the lease? Why, I said yes.
Turns out the rescue did settle right down once some other horses got there and he was a very nice boy. We even did a couple little shows until he was injured, and I thought to myself, “Well, if you are paying for a horse and he can’t work, then maybe you ought to get your own horse.” And on to the next…
Part III: In which the adult amateur becomes a horse owner.
So you want to buy a horse. Did you know that horse prices range from free to hundreds of thousands of dollars? I really didn’t. And did you know that all the good intentions in the world won’t make a horse suit you if it doesn’t, and that you may not know that for quite some time? And finally, did you know that even though you treat your horse like a pet and would never think of giving him up in your whole life, that your entire belief system will change? Well, this is the kind of stuff that happens to first-time adult horse owners.
I went horse shopping, with a small budget, and I found a horse, and then it went lame. We weren’t sure why, so I found another horse, which I tried with the trainer who was with me. I took him for a bit of a walk and then I up and bought him with a minimal vet check. He was a thoroughbred; I think he tried racing a few times but wasn’t any good at it.
I was a lot younger then than I am now. I was patient, I trained and trained, but once home, that TB would jig his way through trail rides, he wouldn’t go on the trail alone, he was squirrely jumping. I spent way more time than I care to admit (years) thinking that if I did everything right, he would come around. Finally, I gave him to someone with a huge piece of property that hunted on the weekends. Weirdly enough, this horse was very content doing that.
So naïve belief numbers 1 and 2 were shattered. On to horse #2 . This time, with a different trainer, I bought a young sport horse, thinking that with a young horse, I would surely be able to train him to do what I want. This relationship went well for a while. Then it started to devolve. It happened when he was out of work for a while after having some growths removed. I was bringing him back and he was spooky and I came off. We worked and worked and worked. And we did well for a while, and then he would become unpredictable; just falling out from under me or pulling a 180—I couldn’t even ride him past other horses in the arena. So I had him checked again by the vets…nothing. Then he threw me for no apparent reason in the indoor arena with no other horses around, and I made the decision to rehome him.
I sent him to a fancy training and sales barn and they had a buyer for him until the vet check uncovered that he was blind in one eye—and unsuited for the work the new owner wanted to do. I practically gave him to a friend of the trainer’s as a companion and trail horse (he was always good on trail rides). The myth that the best care I could offer could make a difference? Shattered.
When we found horse #3 I actually wasn’t ready to buy yet, but my trainer knew what I wanted, and while she was on a buying trip for a bunch of people, I got a phone call from Virginia. “Laura, I found your horse,” she said.
“Really?” I asked, “are you sure you didn’t just find a really nice horse that you want to ride?”
“No really,” my trainer said, “I don’t normally jump high on these trials, but they kept raising the rails so I kept jumping him, and then I lost a stirrup and fell on his neck, and he just didn’t care—he’s your horse!”
So I did something else I never thought I would do: I got on a plane to go try a horse (like there aren’t enough horses in my area?). This one was a big draft-cross. He’d done a one-star event but was having trouble making the times, and his owner needed money for school. Arnie was a gem and I bought him, for more money than I would have ever expected to pay for a horse. We had one good year and then he got seriously injured. That meant a year off and rehab. I did it and got him back into competition shape the following season, but he was on-again-off-again lame, and a final diagnosis found another lesion in the same area of his leg. I would not put him through rehab again, so I took him out to his paddock, took his halter off, and told him, “You can go, I will not lock you up anymore.” He took off like a bat out of hell, and I went to work trying to place him.
Out of that disaster, however, and its heart-wrenching circumstances (that I still get choked up about now as I’m writing) miracles can happen. I had been in touch all along with Arnie’s previous owner, who had since moved, married, and unbeknownst to me, had a 50-acre ranch with a brand new barn. When I made the decision to retire him, I reached out to her, and now my horse hangs out all day in beautiful scenery with people that know and love him.
You would think that would all be enough, but no, I am quite obviously an addict. So last year, I bought another enormous draft cross who was in Florida for the winter to sell. I got a text from my trainer with his picture and the following: “He’s 17.2. Is that too big?”
I replied, “I don’t know, how does he ride? And, oh, by the way, my least favorite color is gray.”
I went to Florida, tried several horses, tried that big gray Percheron-thoroughbred over several days, and decided to buy him. Six weeks after I brought him home, he broke a side bone, and I’ve spent the last year rehabbing him. Today my trainer is going to jump him for the first time in a year and a half.
I have spent tons and tons of money on horses and financially, it’s been a total loss—not to mention completely heartbreaking at times. But clearly, I can’t stop. I adore my current giant, who is nine years old. The other day, he gave my mom a pony ride, and I am hoping that this is the horse I can keep my naïve beliefs with, the beliefs I started with many years ago. I am hoping that hindsight is not just 20/20, but that my vision for the future remains clear.
About the Author
Laura Strassman works in technology marketing and lives in the Boston suburbs. She has a long and checkered history with horses but currently owns a wonderful TB X Percheron named Fezzik. He is 17.2 hands, so aptly fits his name if you know the reference. Laura enjoys taking photos and creating video both for work and in her free time. Her favorite subjects are food, and of course, horses.