I am. Guilty as charged.
I sold my first pony, Cinnamon, to another young girl in the barn when I was 16, and had clearly grown too big for him. But despite riding and showing horses almost continuously in the years that followed, I haven’t moved a single horse since. Not one.
I got really close, another time, with my next horse, Tango. He was an OTTB with a closet-full of issues—trailering, seeing ‘dead people’ in the corners, shaking his head exuberantly in the landing of jumps. He had also been known, on at least one occasion, to smash a brand-new bridle to smithereens and take a lap around the show grounds, just for old time’s sake.
I loved Tango’s quirks and worried, necessarily or not, that the next person who had him wouldn’t appreciate his particular brand of humor.
Eventually, we found a girl who looked good on paper and wanted to take him on trial. But on the afternoon when she and her trainer showed up to put him on their trailer and take him home (I was taking a test at school), he refused—several times—to get on, despite having successfully trailered to scores of events in the past.
I think all of us, buyers included, took that as a sign. Tango wanted to stay with me forever, and we all had to find a way to make it work.
Nowadays, I’ve pretty much come to grips with the fact that I’m not, and will never be, a wheeler and dealer of horses. My former jumper, D, has a place with me always, as I’ve made clear to him (and anyone else that would listen) from the start.
Once upon a time, D carted me around the High Adult and Low Amateur jumpers before making it clear to both of us that he’d rather play at a lower-pressure level. But when called upon, D’s always been a useful sort, and for the last few years, he’s been able to help cover his bills with lease-work as a hunter and school-master jumper on the side.
Recently, I’ve even started to consider what it would be like to try him in the hunter divisions myself.
And why shouldn’t he have a brilliant new career at age 20? Senior horses are the best, and, when they’re yours for eternity, time and prerogative is on your side. But that’s not always how it’s viewed in the industry.
As amateurs, you’ve probably heard the same lines that I have. “She’s a serial collector of horses,” or, “She treats them like they’re pets.”
If you compete with any level of seriousness in equestrian sport, you might find, as I have, that the pervading mentality is that horses are there to serve a purpose for your riding, and then move on to their next position with someone else. I’m not saying this kind of thinking is right or wrong and, playing devil’s advocate for a moment, a good horseman knows how to place his or her horses responsibly. For riders looking to move up the ranks of their particular discipline on a limited budget (hello, everyone!), it’s also a time-tested method for success.
There’s something to be said, as well, for taking your “old” horse into a “new” training program, something I’ve been forced to do on a couple of occasions. At show barns, in particular, you may find that your new coach—be it through subtle intonation or direct request—would prefer you to make a fresh start with a horse he or she chooses for you. This mentality is far from uncommon and, in a sport where everybody has their own way of doing things, which is almost always better than everybody else’s way, many trainers would prefer to avoid the Ghost of Bad-Trainings Past.
That said, if you’re clear about your intentions to work with the horse you have in your new program, a good trainer should respect your wishes, or at the very least, have the courtesy to tell you at the outset you may not be a fit for their program.
Why don’t I sell my horses? It’s not that I’m not ambitious; I have a three-year plan and a five-year plan and plenty of milestones I’d like to achieve in-between. But goals can also be fluid, and it’s my personal choice to try and fine-tune them with the horses I already have in mind.
Take D, for example. He helped me to accomplish more than I’d ever hoped for myself in the show ring, in places I could have never dreamed of competing. He owes me nothing, but I feel I owe him the world.
Whether he turns out to have a successful second career in the hunter divisions, or trail ride on weekends and adopt a little kid at the barn who he can teach the ropes while paying for his expenses, I plan to find a situation for him that makes us both happy.
It should be said, though, in my very biased opinion, D is a safe, solid citizen, and an easy horse to love. But what of a horse like my OTTB Tango, who was hardly everyone’s cup of tea? Or that dutifully long-serving but quickly aging lesson horse, who was loved by many but never by the one little girl of his own who vows to care for him in old age?
Horses like these do find good retirement or step-down situations in other barns, with other good people in the industry. But if we’re being real, not all of them do (see Exhibit A or Exhibit B). The fact that I’ve lost track of my first pony, Maranatha Cinnamon (any and all tips on his whereabouts welcome!) who, I believe, changed hands a couple of times after I sold him, still gives me a pit in my stomach.
Am I too soft? Not practical enough for this sport? Perhaps.
But if there are some downsides that come with the stereotype of “adult amateur,” being a horse collector, to me, isn’t one of them. I don’t have to sell a horse I love or one I’m not finished with yet to earn a commission, or pay my taxes, or make room for something potentially bigger and better for my reputation in my barn. Holding onto my horses (as long as I can do so responsibly) is my prerogative.
Trainers, industry pros, or even adult amateur friends might read this and roll their eyes—and I get it. But I’ve been lucky enough in recent years to work with trainers that understand my feelings, even if they don’t always share them—especially when it prevents me from buying the next horse sooner. In a lot of cases, that understanding is the best a collector can ask for.
My horse Tango was pushing 30 when he died, in retirement, at a friend’s farm, on what turned out to be the last sunny day of fall.
Perhaps it was fate that I was there; one of the rare occasions when I was back in town to visit him, feed him fistfuls of carrots, and, in this case, give him one last bath before the weather changed. Tango seemed particularly happy to me that day, enjoying the sun on his face, and the feeling of being fresh and clean.
But when he went down to roll in the grass, there was a loud pop that sounded like a shotgun, and then, try as he might (and he was nothing if not a trier), he couldn’t get back up. I think that Tango had broken something in his leg, although I’ll never know for sure.
We called the vet, and made the difficult decision to euthanize him, right there on the hill, as the worry grew in his eyes and the temperature slowly fell, the sun dipping behind the flaming orange hills. I was there, at his head, talking to him and keeping him calm through the whole thing. And though I found it acutely painful at the time to make that call, and to wonder if I was doing the right thing, after several years, I look back at it now with a sense of peace.
After so many jumps Tango carried me over when he probably shouldn’t have, and so many teenage tears he’d gamely let me cry into his neck, not much had changed. I was still there with him, the one that he knew and trusted; I was still crying into his neck, but also telling him that he was a good horse, and that I loved him.
It wasn’t professional or dignified or exemplary of that proper-stiff upper lip we all try to have as horse people. But if that sendoff and the grief that followed is the price you pay as a horse collector, it’s a privilege I wouldn’t trade for the world.