I've been wanting to start a journal since seeing everybody else's amazing adventures on this wonderful site. I joined originally back in 2015 when I started riding my trainer's horse, Apollo, at my hunter/jumper barn. I had been working as a sales representative at a local retail chain and needed to set different hours for my riding, and this woman was available on Sundays.
He was a quarter horse, well versed in showjumping but performed his best as a hunter. As my trainer's horse, he helped students like me learn advanced skills, courses, and horsemanship lessons. But, like many in my situation, you didn't learn "horsemanship" at barns run primarily by one trainer. No one needed to know how to wrap, treat wounds, test for lameness, or even, frankly, ride. The trainer did all this for you. In high school, I rode at a barn that focused primarily on teaching us youngsters basic independent horsemanship, but that was lost at the show barn.
It was a wonderful place to grow up. The facilities were beautiful. The barn rested on a small plot of land amidst a huge field of strawberry, wine grape, jalapeno, and green pepper fields. The ring was long and rectangular, made of white picket fencing. Ivy strings covered the boards, giving it a more "secret garden" feel. The trainer bought only the best footing for our horses, and we were expected to pick it out of their feet before going back inside (it would later be added back into the ring).
The barn itself was made of pine. One side had large stalls with runs, the other square stalls. Lining the drive way were large turnout pens, about 100 x 100 feet wide. But horses were only allowed 4 hours of turnout at a time, which was very typical of barns in my area.
Everything was strictly regulated, from what bridle you used to the pads you picked. Every horse had its own saddle and gear. Some had several bridles depending on the level of rider. All of these horses were high-priced, well bred show horses the owners graciously allowed the school to use. The trainer taught students who were interested in leases and showing, and ignored those who weren't. I was in the latter category.
Although I didn't contribute financially to this barn, I did learn a lot about how competitive and, sometimes, unethical the hunter show world can be. I saw things I could never unsee. There were bits used that a barrel racer would shudder at. There were jumping tactics that I'd never witnessed outside of this sport tried. I witnessed my trainer beat a mare who had spun out of a jump so hard I swore there were specks of blood on her flank. But to me, having been in this world since I got into horses, it was normal.
It wouldn't be until I moved to The Pastures that I learned my small A-Circuit world was just that: small. Insignificant. Backwards.
The Pastures (name changed for privacy reasons) was a boarding facility out in what would be considered the Affluent Countryside. Where I live there are a lot of tech companies and people are either very rich or very, very poor. This only is important to know because the Affluent Countryside was primarily owned by one of the biggest and well-known universities on the west coast. They had a TON of land dedicated to agriculture and horses, and this boarding facility rested on a section of that protected land. It bled into the local trail system that led all the way to the university, a good ten miles or so, through the California grasslands and dry, golden hills.
It was one of the only places in the area that provided adequate pasture boarding. Where I am from, because it is so populated, most barns are on very small plots of land. There is no turnout and certainly no pastures, and you can't have both. A stalled horse is a stalled horse, and a pasture horse roughs it. The fencing is barbed wire, old, and rarely maintained. The pastures themselves are cleaned with bulldozers maybe once a month, if that, and the manure is simply moved to a far corner of the pasture.
This property looked like it could fall down at a sneeze. The stalls looked slapped together, as if someone threw them up in one night and said "it has four walls and a roof, we're good." They were 12 x 12 box stalls with an attached mare motel run. Each stall had three ply wood walls and a steel roof. Everything was held together with twine, string, or metal cords. The runs were padded with mulch, horse manure, and dirty shavings, but despite the mess, it was a complete DIY expedition. The stall was yours to customize as you saw fit.
I moved to this property because a horse called Jr. needed more under-saddle time. My trainer asked, as I was having difficulty with my barn's management, if I would be interested in moving? We had maxed out the allowed jumping height, and my trainer got in trouble after she snuck a few 3' jumps up for me and Apollo to try. I said yes - I would miss Apollo, but I was excited about trying another horse.
The Pastures definitely couldn't hold a candle to the beautiful countryside show barn. It reeked of manure and urine, the roads were dusty and unpaved, the ground hadn't been leveled in some time, and it was a trek up a steep hill to get to the jumping arena.
There were three boarding areas. The first, primarily occupied by dressage riders, was at the very base of the barn when you drove in. Those stalls were in better shape, but still could use some help. The lesson school on property took over most of the rentable stalls, the rest owned by serious reiners and dressage riders who rode in our large flatting/dressage arena. They were nice, but expected a certain fluency in riding and good equitation, or else you'd be criticized until the cows came home.
The second level housed mostly trail riders. These people were located at the very top of the hill, overlooking the dressage arena. Most of these riders were newer and very nice, and seemed to find each other due to shared experiences. It was right at the front of our local trail leading to the preserve, which meant several people were in the same vicinity to tack up and go out. By far, the kindest boarders kept their horses in this section.
The third level consisted of eventers and jumpers. The two shed-rows faced each other perpendicular to a huge, but unkept, jumping arena. Unfortunately the footing was less than ideal: deep in some spots and shallow in others, hard at the base of the jump but soft everywhere else. Those serious about competing never used this arena, preferring to trailer ride to the residential horse park for jumping lessons. The rest of us, however, used and abused it.
It was in this section I would be riding Jr., the ex-eventing Morgan gig my trainer got me. He was rather tall, standing at 16 hands. He looked to be a cross between a national show horse and a warmblood, because his head was too large for his body and his cushings, presented by his long hair, showed his age. Even old and arthritic Jr. could JUMP. He had one of the strongest pelhams I'd ever seen: a long-shanked polo pelham with a port for tongue relief. His owner's bit had converters, but when I brought my own tack I used two reins.
Jr. was a beast of a horse. He knew his job, but he was almost impossible to stop. Coming from pokey and slow Apollo, this frightened me terribly. I remember pulling as hard as I could to halt him after a jump and all I could do was run him into the fence. I quickly found myself terrified to go over anything more than a pole, and even then I screamed, terrified Jr. would take off with me the way he had our first lesson.
My confidence shriveled, smaller than an amoeba. I loved to ride, but every challenge was just too much. My trainer tried to ease me back into jumping but crossrails terrified me and poles were a potential bolt waiting to happen. We tried a stronger bit: that did nothing. So I bought the same bit for Jr. with a double rein set up and longer shanks. For some reason, that did help.
The turning point came when my trainer set up a 4 foot crossrail (they aren't that high) and asked me to go over it. I saw the height of the rails and froze. I turned my horse towards it. Jr. started to pick up some speed, locking on with tenacious drive. My body went rigid and I clung to him and closed my eyes, afraid he would launch into outer space like every other time.
But then something happened. Three strides out to the jump everything started to slow down. It felt like we were walking, but Jr. was still cantering. He crawled to a four beat lope, stuck his neck out, and tried to fling himself as flat as he could over the jump so that I wouldn't feel his bascule. At the other end, he broke to a trot and did his best to stay slow and calm. I was amazed. Never in my life had I heard of a horse adjusting themselves for their terrified rider.
That day changed everything. Jr. took every jump at a snail's crawl, his incredible athleticism giving us the ability to get over large oxers and verticals without any speed. Eventually, after I learned his pace and favorite distances, I became comfortable with allowing him to go faster, and soon we were jumping rollbacks, oxers, triple bars, wide spreads, and cross country jumps left in the arena. It was amazing. I felt completely safe on him.
Unfortunately, this fantasy would not last. Frustrated, Jr.'s other leaser called up his owner, telling her I was riding the horse too much and that he would get hurt. I received several angry calls from the owner, telling me that if I wanted to do more with Jr. I needed to pay more or find a different horse.
I cried so hard the day we lost Jr. My trainer could not understand why the owner came down so hard on us. I have since learned my trainer bought Jr., and he is now used as a school horse in her program at another facility.
Because we no longer had a horse and I was finally making money, working as a receptionist at a law firm, my family crunched the numbers and found it was not much more expensive to own a horse than to have leased Jr. They asked me if I would be interested in a horse of my very own, my first horse, and I said yes (who wouldn't?!)
I spent a week searching equinenow.com for leads of horses who potentially had jumping ability. I found a cute bay arab mare, $1200, a good few miles away from my location. Back and forth with the owner revealed she was part of their breeding program, unstarted, but handled and had limited ground work. I knew I wanted young, green, untrained, and athletic, but I didn't know much about horse shopping at all. It was out of our way but I sent a friend up to check the horse out for me.
Unfortunately, we learned this woman steals horses and sells them online. This little mare was one who had been taken from somebody else only to have been flipped for a profit. It was a no-go, but my interest in Arabs angered my trainer. "They're deer jumpers!" she exclaimed. 'No, you want something like a warmblood or a thoroughbred." I paused. "But aren't thoroughbreds crazy?" I was referring to my old school horse, Wesley, an beautiful OTTB who had the heat of a volcano and the speed of a cheetah. He was impossible to slow down, and the only way you could jump him without him bolting off was at an angle.
"Get something that has a few miles of post-track training," she said. So I looked around some more.
I found a horse on facebook. A six year old thoroughbred who had been a barrel racer for the woman selling her. She was advertised as an "advanced ride" with "lots of go" and needed an assertive rider. Perfect, I thought, that's exactly what I was looking for.
I sent the woman an inquiry, and a few minutes later we were talking on the phone. She told me she bought the horse from a woman who had taken her after her racing career ended. She trained the horse in the western discipline, and sold it to the owner as a barrel racing prospect. The woman did not tell me exactly what happened, but she said the horse just "didn't like it" and so she left her out in the pasture with her other mare who had foaled. She had her about a year, the woman told me, and she could trail ride superbly.
The mare looked absolutely darling. She was a cribber, but the woman said it was an insignificant vice. I didn't care too much about vices, training issues, or the like, I just wanted to know if she was sound. "Oh yes!" the seller exclaimed, "she'll pass a vet check! I wouldn't even bother with one, honestly."
That was hopeful. Any money we could save would help us in the long run.
A week later, we drove up to northern california to see the horse, trailer in tow.
At first, I didn't know what I was looking at. All I saw was a beautiful dark bay thoroughbred mare with the most beautiful star leaning down and eating grass, along with a paint mare and a red roan foal. I haltered the horse up and took her to the fence to get a better look at her. I had no idea what I was doing, but I didn't want this owner to know how inexperienced I was. I picked up both feet, gave them a once over, felt her legs, checked the cadence of her walk, tacked her up and got on.
At first, I couldn't feel much. The ground was so uneven that even if she were lame I would have never known. I walked and trotted her in a circle, got off, and said i'd take her. 'Wait," the owner said, "Let me show you how I RIDE her."
She went to grab her bridle. In our conversations, the seller informed me the horse was ridden in a simple snaffle bit, but what she returned with was a large, full cheek double twisted wire. She grabbed the mare's jaw, cranked it open, and stuffed the bit inside. The she dragged herself up on the skinny horse's back and proceeded to canter her in the smallest circle i'd ever seen, ripping her face around the entire time. The horse looked petrified, eyes white, tail swishing, mouth agape. I asked the woman to get off, I didn't want to see anymore. I knew, in that moment, we needed to get the horse out of there.
The lady promised me the papers of the horse, and I said i wanted to take her on trial. She said that was fine, but that her registration papers burned up in a fire. Luckily, she ordered another set and they would be mailed soon. My parents told her they would give her half the amount up front, and then half should the horse pass a vet check. The woman was not happy, but agreed as it seemed all she wanted was the horse to leave.
We then loaded Tyra up into the trailer. As we pulled away, I heard her pain-filled, confused screams pierce the air. "She's saying 'bye bye! I'll see you later!'" My mom said to me. It was sweet to think, and we hoped this horse knew she had a new home.
It's been almost two years with my thoroughbred and she's changed from the sickly, skinny horse no one thought would survive, into a well-muscled beautiful, athletic creature.