A few days after my 30-year-old gelding passed away, my neighbor—a mother in her 40’s who grew up on a farm before moving to our suburban community—observed my leather Dover bracelet with his name on it and smiled.
“Congratulations,” she said.
Everyone else had told me they were “sorry for my loss.” A few of my friends who knew how much my 10 years with him meant, had even cried with me. So I was caught off guard by her response.
“At 20, you have already experienced the love affair of a lifetime,” she explained.
Looking back on it, that’s exactly what we had—a relationship based on complete trust, confidence, sacrifice, and commitment that defied the standard “when the horse can’t serve your needs anymore, move on.”
I understand where this mindset comes from. Riders want to move up levels and continue to improve. Often times it is best for the horse to go on and help another rider. Trainers need to make a living, after all, and I hope to one day have one or two OTTBs at a time to flip. But there’s a difference between those horses and the ones I have fully committed myself to, and I feel sorry for anyone who hasn’t experienced that type of relationship.
For those of you who haven’t, here’s a few insights from someone who has been all the way through the aging process with one amazing horse. When you share a lifetime with a horse, it changes the horse/rider relationship. It also made me a better rider. Over those first few years, I learned to:
• Explore the horse world as a whole. With each new training session I had a better understanding of what worked and what did not because I tried them all with the same horse.
• Discover what they like to do. In the beginning I wanted to do jumpers. He didn’t. The result was a string of eliminations until I switched to a discipline he loved—mounted games.
• Be flexible. Literally and figuratively. At 10, I was competing a nearly 16 hand horse in a sport ruled by ponies. I mastered the knee-to-stirrup mount quickly.
• Think in the long term. I was about 13 when I had to stop jumping him completely. Longevity matters more than short-term goals.
• Treasure the bond. Until I lost him, I had forgotten how valuable it is to have a horse whose movements you can predict, and functions closer to the level of friend than pet.
It’s worth it
This commitment comes with challenges, and eventually, pain. You must realize that…
• Many people will not understand. I can’t count how many times someone asked me why I didn’t just sell to a younger rider so he could teach them while I could move on to a new horse. To them, it seemed like a win-win. To me, it meant giving up control of the rest of his life. It was breaking promises that my 10-year-old self had made to both of us.
• It might become inconvenient. In his last few years, my once easy-keeper was hard to keep weight on and stopped thriving in a pasture full time. For a few years we moved him into a stall. When he started having trouble walking uphill to turnout paddocks I moved him to a friend’s house to retire with her older pony.
• Loving hard creates fear. As the years crept by, I began to worry about the “when” and “how” of goodbye. I wondered how I would know if it was time to let him go and worried about what the cause would be.
• The end presents beautiful agony. On Memorial Day 2016, he made that decision for me. I wasn’t there like I always imagined I would be, but he also wasn’t sick or hurt like I had feared. It was quick and natural and he was surrounded by his favorite grove of trees.
It still hurts and always will, but he was worth it.
About the Author
Kaitie Marolf is a senior at Kansas State University majoring in print journalism, minoring in leadership studies and pursuing a certification in equine science. Her horse life includes eventing, jumpers and mounted games. She hopes to work in health and equine communications upon graduation.