Last fall I bought my 14-year-old daughter a jumper.
She had just finished a successful season in the low jumpers on the local circuit and was ready to move up from our medium pony to a horse. The horse we found is a 16.1 hand grey mare with a lovely temperament and a beautiful jump.
Everything went well until the cold wind began blowing in November. The horse got stronger and stronger and stronger until one day she bolted and got going so fast that her feet slipped out from under her and she went down, taking my daughter with her. A traumatizing moment.
My daughter was too scared to ride the mare after the fall. There was talk of selling the horse, of sending her away for more training. Maybe this horse was too strong, too powerful for a teenage girl. Maybe. But I had strong reasons to think probably not. I told the trainers we were keeping the horse.
That’s when I sat my daughter down and told her this story. My story. Which is uncannily similar to her story.
When I was 14, I inherited my older sister’s 16.3 hand mostly Thoroughbred jumper, Harv. I had just come off a medium pony and wasn’t interested in the jumpers. Not only was I not interested in the jumper division, I didn’t want to jump higher than three feet. Ever.
I dreaded riding Harv. He was big. He was scary. He tested every new rider who dared to ride him, including me, by trying to buck them off (and he did this into his 30s). He hated the indoor arena and I lived in Canada so I rode indoors for six months a year. He spooked in every corner of that arena, every time we went around, every time I rode. He bolted with me regularly. The memory of his hind end gathering under him, the sudden shooting forward, his whole body rollicking, still gets my heart going.
He rope burned my hand numerous times, once leaving me face down in the dirt, when I turned him out. He ran around me in circles when I led him out of the barn to ride. That first winter my mother led him to the arena and lunged him every night before I rode. I physically shook in fear watching him buck and leap on the lunge line. The instructor wanted my parents to sell him and get me a “more appropriate horse.” My parents said no.
But then summer came. The heat and humidity slowed Harv down. My mother stopped lunging him. He was athletic and well trained and it was fun doing difficult jumping exercises with him. We did well at horse shows and even won sometimes.
In the fall, with a newfound confidence, I started jumping higher. When winter arrived I took over the pre-ride lunging and I rode him outside in the snow so he wouldn’t get so bored in the indoor arena. He still bolted and he still bucked but he didn’t scare me anymore. I knew I could handle him.
Occasionally, he surprised me. One frigid Sunday morning I walked him all the way down the 1/3 mile farm driveway through deep snow, carrying my tack, to meet the hauler who was taking us to a schooling show. He calmly and happily trudged along beside me in his Pelham bridle, his nostrils blowing steam into the cold air.
I rode him for five years and we eventually competed in the four-foot jumpers. I came to trust him implicitly. I knew every move he would make. I knew big tractors, speeding cars, and deep snow didn’t bother him, but if a deer crossed our path or the wind blew in his face, I’d better hang on tight! I knew he would save me if I got him to a bad distance, and I knew he would never make the same mistake twice. I didn’t hold it against him when his feet slipped out from under him around a tight turn in a jumper class and we both went down.
We built a deep, authentic bond. Many years later I sometimes dream I’m riding him. I strive for that same connection on every horse I’ve ridden since. I have yet to find it. This experience with Harv taught me one of life’s most important lessons: When the going is tough, dig deep, stay patient, and stick with it. The rewards will come.
Today, six months after the bolting incident, we still have the grey mare who really does have a lovely, willing temperament, and who is all around far better behaved than Harv ever was. She doesn’t take off when being turned out, she is never spooky, and she hasn’t bolted again. In fact, she hasn’t put a foot out of place in the last six months. With some adjustments to the horse and rider’s training program and a lot of patience, my daughter shows in the jumpers and has a lot of fun with the mare at home.
Maybe when winter rolls around this year, if the horse is feeling frisky, my daughter will feel like she can handle her. Maybe, many years ahead, my daughter will dream she is riding her.
About the Author
Anne Helmstadter is a writer and lives in Las Vegas. When she’s not riding her OTTB she can be found supporting her two girls at horse shows and driving to and from the barn in her horse scented car. Her writing has appeared at literarymama.com and in Las Vegas’ Zip Code Magazines.