Right now, I am greeted in the barn by a pair cream-colored ears perked through the bars of a stall.
The ears belong to Flower, a Gypsy Horse from Feathered Horse Farm and until it’s time for her to return to her life as a broodmare she is mine to ride.
When her owner and I were deciding on which horse would be the right fit, Flower in all of her Pearly Buckskin glory, made the top of the list. Part the decision was based in practicality. I had spent a couple of days with Flower at the state fair in Milwaukee. I had watched her stoically eat her hay as the clanking of scotch bottom draft horses rang above us and thousands of gawking spectators walked past. I wanted a horse that I knew could adjust to a new place and I had proof that Flower could do it.
There was also a sweetness to her. She would rest her head on my shoulder when I walked into her stall and she would lean into the brush and sigh with joy when I would use the curry just right.
When I am on her back, she is brave. She balances me out, a rider who can sometimes way overthink.
“But you know,” her owner Chris told me, “She is definitely a mare and she will tell you when she doesn’t agree with you.”
Her warning was true, Flower is clear about what she needs and when she needs it. In the cross ties she will gently bump into me if I stop brushing the correct spot. On the lunge line she will sometimes toss her head when I ask for a different speed as if to say, “Are you sure you mean it?”
Yet I am in love.
There is nothing I like more than an opinionated mare.
That love affair started with a Red Peruvian Horse named Carabela. Carabela was the Beyoncé of horses. If you put her in a space where we had an audience, she’d puff out her chest and the patter of her gait would become quick and agile. She was pure, Spanish sass. Carrabelle is 27 now and winters in her Colorado home are long. Now she just wants to be lavished with love, but when I see her, I still remember the “come at me bro” attitude she taught me when I was young and unsure.
Other mares followed.
One was Fancy, a strawberry roan stock horse, built with bricks. She and I would bush-whack through brambles and canter along a dude string.
Another was Warber, a Friesen who taught me that if I wanted to ride well, I needed to learn to soften my seat and loosen-up my notoriously hard-headed nature. I also sat next to Warber’s owner in a Marathon cart and held my breath as the mare smartly showed us exactly what driving with precision should look like.
Then there was Justice, another Gypsy horse. At barely 13 hands, Justice put horses twice her size in their place. She was the boss mare—size was irrelevant.
That’s just a handful of the mares I’ve been blessed to ride. From them all I learned that a mare’s respect takes time to earn, but that respect is worth every second. Mares remind me that to be an equestrian is to be a partner. With a mare, I can’t muscle or intimidate my way into any situation successfully. Instead, I need to ask, adjust, rethink and persist. Clarity, not brutality, is the tool that wins the day.
I am aware that my preference for assertive mares, is just that, a preference. Gender matters little as long as it’s the right horse. One of the most beautiful things about horses is that there is something for everyone—gelding or mare, purebred or cross, hot or cold, like what you like and like it loud.
My relationship with Flower is still new, but her combination of willingness and a low tolerance for nonsense fills me with hope and it is a pleasure to see her when I walk into the barn. She and I are learning how to read the other little bits at a time. On a chilly Saturday this month, a few of my non-horsey friends kept me company as she and I worked. She did as I asked, but when she got bored, she happily trotted over to those waiting at the gate and stuck her head in their laps—now her perked ears have them firmly initiated in the Flower fan club, too.
About the Author
Gretchen Lida is an essayist and an equestrian. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. She is also a contributing writer to Book Riot and the Washington Independent Review of Books. She teaches composition in Illinois, lives in Chicago, sometimes resides on Nantucket Island, and is still a Colorado native. Find her on Twitter at @GC_Lida.