Memoir

Living a Dream I Had Never Dreamed

Twenty years with horses

©Thomas Gumbrecht

I do some my best thinking in the barn.

It’s quiet, and most communication is nonverbal, which I’ve grown to find can be quite clear. My mind is rarely on the defensive in the barn, so I’m able to keep it open to explore different lines of thought.

Lately, I’ve been pondering this horse life of mine. Some quick mental math recently revealed that I am in my 20th year of keeping horses at home. I guess I kind of like milestones; they don’t really prove anything but they do provide a convenient opportunity to reflect and evaluate. What have I accomplished in these past 20 years? What have I learned? Do I have any regrets?

Keeping horses at home was never a dream of mine. It was much more of a calling.

As a self-employed specialty trade contractor, I found myself accepting a project at a commercial show barn. Having not been exposed to equestrian culture before, I was lucky to land in a friendly, accepting environment where the boarders were amused at this otherwise self-assured tradesman’s markedly circumspect manner around horses.

I was unsure, yet fascinated, and as the project wound down, I found myself looking for reasons to return. Learning to ride was something I’d never really considered, but I did have an eight-year-old niece who was an animal lover, and she jumped at the chance to accompany me to the barn.

I picked Samantha up from school, brought her to the farm, and she was introduced to riding by a 42-year-old pony named Lucky.

After a week or two of watching her lessons, I could no longer contain myself and began taking lessons myself on an Appendix gelding named Circus. I was self-conscious about my weight at the time. But my instructor reassured me that Circus was a rescue that formerly worked at Ringling Bros. carrying a bear on his back. I chose to not take offense at the awkward pep-talk.

At the time, I believed that I would take lessons for a month or two, and know all that a casual rider would need to know.

But then… the addiction took hold.

Once it was evident that horses were more than just a passing fancy, I developed an inexplicable and overwhelming desire to not only continue riding, but to have my own horses… and to live with them. An “If you build it, they will come” type vision, only I had no idea who “they” might be.

In a stroke of good luck masquerading as misfortune, 14 months after my first ride the owners of my beloved barn announced that the farm was being sold for non-agricultural use and they were relocating to another state. I felt that my horsey life was over.

But I was soon to realize that it was just beginning.

I fell into a free-lease of an amicable Trakehner gelding named Pumpkin in exchange for helping care for the property owners’ two other horses. It was a fun experience on a magnificent property, especially in light of its suburban setting outside of NYC. But moreover it was to serve as my apprenticeship in horse care—I was taking direction from seasoned horse people who for different reasons, now rarely rode. I gained the confidence I needed to press forward in my mission.

I imagine that my new horsey life may have raised a few eyebrows within my circle because nothing I had ever said or done could have predicted this sudden ardor. Perhaps some may have dismissed it as a funny mid-life thing that would dissipate as quickly as it had materialized. Instead, a “For Sale” sign went up on our little beach-community home on a postage stamp sized lot and another came down on a much older property with adequate land and zoning to allow horses.

In October of 2000, we closed the deal that would alter the course of our lives forever. Heavy equipment rolled in over that late fall and winter and in July of 2001 a horse named Buddy became the first to cross the threshold of the brand new barn at Dreamcatcher Farm.

The birth of Dreamcatcher Farm, in old photographs.

So, what has 20 years of horse-keeping afforded me?

Well, initially one of my concerns (rationalizations?) was financial. In our area, the cost of boarding three or four horses can easily approach that of a mortgage on a small home. I calculated that after the initial investment of developing the property, I could easily keep four horses at home for the cost of boarding one at a well equipped commercial boarding facility. That reality has not changed much, and if it has, it has shifted even more in my favor as commercial boarding decreases in availability and increases in cost.

However, as we learn, there is more to it than the check we write to the feed supplier and the hay man. When boarding a horse, we’re not only paying for feed and the use of the stall, arena and turnouts; we’re paying for stall cleaning, blanketing, manure removal, insurance, facility maintenance, footing replacement, snow removal, tractor and other equipment maintenance…. the list goes on. It’s now me who is paying those bills, and primarily with sweat equity.

Do I regret it? I do not.

At age 66, caring for horses has kept me relatively fit, physically, mentally and spiritually. I’m still able to do it, and intend to continue as long as I’m able. In recent years though, I’ve found that the work often gets done at the expense of riding time. I’ve made peace with that.

Through the help of the friends, farriers, veterinarians and cooperative horses, I’ve learned a lot of practical things about horse care. An unexpected but welcome benefit was the “honorary vet tech status” that I would guess most who care for horses at home ultimately obtain.

I was surprised at how readily I took to it, too. I tend to avoid much involvement with human injuries or illnesses. It’s a bit different with horses. In most cases, the doctor comes to them and then leaves the follow up care to the owner or a caregiver. I learned how to follow doctors’ orders, to observe and document, and to see to it that the patient is made as comfortable as possible. I became a nurse!

I learned the art of forging a true partnership through respect and cooperation rather than through the manipulation and coercion I had once thought the world demanded in order to achieve success. Through horses, I learned to be a better human. These were qualities I would need in the next role that life had in store for me…

When we purchased our horse property, we had quite a bit of room in the old farmhouse, which included an apartment. Our horsey-girl niece Samantha, now 10, and her mother Gen (my wife’s younger sister) moved in and became founding members of our fledgling backyard horse farm. During our second year of operation, Sam’s mom died unexpectedly and we became first-time parents. The very next day, I turned 50 years old.

Horses are very patient creatures. No matter how much we mess up, unless we’re intentionally cruel to them, they seem to give unlimited second chances to get it right. Samantha was educated by some very patient horses and extended that same patience to me in my clumsy attempts at being “parental.” It took me a while to understand that love was all that was required, not adherence to some kind of nebulous concept of how a good parent was supposed to act. She waited for me to get it right. Or at least to get better at it, only occasionally having to execute a little “warning kick.”

Samantha became a horse industry pro, finding her own passion in managing barns, teaching students and schooling horses.

I learned how to ride. I thought I knew, and then we acquired some young horses, which allowed me to understand how much of a passenger I had actually been up until then. So I once again became a student.

I became a horse show parent during Sam’s tween and teen years, and a long-distance transporter and remote cheerleader during her college riding days.

Once she was away at college, I found that I missed the horse show atmosphere so I embarked on my own show “career” in local level eventing and later, rated jumpers, earning modest local recognition over a period of a few years. I brought home a few ribbons, trophies and swag. But the most important thing I left with was a real understanding of what it is to compete: the work, the elation, the disappointments, the frustrations.

By the time Sam returned home I was able to understand what she was going through in her horse showing, with the unique perspective of someone who had been in the trenches, able to offer empathy and not platitudes.

Having a place to practice was invaluable: grid training with DannyBoy.

I learned how rehab, to teach, and to train. About seven years in, I acquired an OTTB mare fresh off the racetrack that ended up being seriously lame, a racing injury previously masked by drugs. Under our vet’s direction, it took a year to rehab Lola, and I was lucky to have a trainer who was willing to teach me how to train this special horse. It was a project motivated by love and unrestricted by any timetable.

Of all the ribbons I’ve ever taken home, I’m most proud of the one Lola and I got in the dressage ring on her first performance after the racetrack. It was a second place ribbon in Training Level 1—out of a field of two riders. But I cherish it.

One of the most important benefits of having horses at home is one that I formerly hadn’t even considered: when a horse becomes ill or injured and is no longer able to be ridden, there isn’t the urgency of a decision that boarding at a commercial facility may demand.

I discovered that usefulness is not just about riding. When my first horse Buddy had become seriously ill at age 25, university veterinarians gave him six months to live. A formerly vigorous horse, I wondered about his quality of life when we brought home DannyBoy, a four year old APHA gelding and Bella, a three year old Arabian Saddlebred mare. Buddy immediately took the role of senior equine advisor and got a new lease on life, teaching the young ones how to be. He died in his sleep seven years later at age 34.

One of the author’s early horse trials with DannyBoy.

My regrets for this life are few.

They are reserved exclusively for the sacrifices that my non-riding wife Mary has had to make in her unwavering support of the horsey lifestyle Samantha and I have enjoyed. Normal family stuff like yearly vacations, new cars and household upgrades have been largely out of reach for us. I like to think that there is some benefit to the rest of the family from the insights we have gained through our work with horses, but that’s a bit of a self-serving thought. Her devotion to family deserves unqualified recognition.

Samantha is now an equine industry professional, serving as a barn manager, professional rider and a riding instructor as well as a mom to a happy and inquisitive five-year-old boy who calls me “Papa.” She is also training her own young OTTB mare, Dr. Quinn. She views hard work as an opportunity to be of service rather than a drudgery to be avoided, and I couldn’t be any more proud of her.

Future horseman Daniel with OTTB Lola enjoying his attention.

So… summing up 20 years of sharing my life with horses: It’s not the life I dreamed for. But that’s only because I never knew what this dream life with horses would afforded me until it did.