Of course I would love to be like every other person at my barn with a horse and say “He has given me wings to fly” or any other uplifting quote about a cooperative horse. My story is a bit different, and I couldn’t be happier that it was. To fully understand my summer, I’m first going to have to explain a little bit about the horse world.
I’ve been riding horses since I was young, maybe about 7 years old. I’m 16 now and one thing I’ve learned about horses is that they are expensive. I have had to quit and come back many times because of the costs. But I always had a love for horses that nothing else seemed to compare to. Along my way, quite recently actually, I have developed friendships with the people who take horse back riding really seriously. They do shows, have beautiful horses and advance to levels not offered to the general public. As a kid, it was my dream to take it seriously, to get far and jump fences 4′ high, but I always was told to wait until I’m older. Now that I’m 16, I realize that the only way to get any where in horse back riding is to be extremely rich.
There are two barns: a schooling barn and a showing barn. The schooling barn teaches people without a horse of their own, how to ride. The show barn is for people who have enough money to go places. In order to advance in horse back riding, showing–owning your own horse (or leasing) and having extreme amounts of money–are required. Horses who have “talent” are trained as show horses for those people who take it seriously. When these horses become too old to show, the schooling barn uses them to teach children. But what happens to horses who never had “talent”?
They’re either taught, privately owned or put into the schooling program.
When I was younger, I showed and won my fair amount of ribbons and what not. I never owned my own horse but I did compete in shows at schooling barn. I always rode there and met many horses and ponies along the way. But it wasn’t until I came back after a long break from horseback riding that I met a horse named Dakota. At first, he was okay. Fun to ride, but I never thought he’d be this important to me. As time went by, I started to ride him a lot in my lessons and I developed a love for him. Then, one day he lost it. He kicked out at another horse and I fell off pretty bad and hurt my back. It was nothing serious but it took a giant knock at my confidence. He quickly earned a bad reputation among the people and was notorious for attacking other horses and being dangerous. Needless to say, he wasn’t a popular horse at my barn.
It wasn’t until months later when I decided that I wanted to lease a horse. Not having enough money to get a fancy horse, but still wanting to have a nice horse, Dakota came to mind. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea, since nobody really liked him anymore. But he was one of the only horses I saw potential in. See, most of the other horses were once show horses — they had their time of fame but they’re no longer able to advance. And I wanted a horse I could advance with. Dakota wasn’t the kind of horse anybody else would think had potential. He’s a quarter horse, and in the hunters ring (my style of riding), a quarter horse is not the breed that’s used, and I agree. Quarter horses have big butts and smaller legs (generally) and are better built for other things besides jumping. But they CAN jump, and very nicely actually. It’s just a task that requires extreme amounts of time, energy, expertise and experience to teach. Most people just aren’t willing to work with a horse that needs kind of attention, saying things like, “Why spend the time when you can spend the money?” Yes, just buy an extremely expensive horse that is a breed all judges will drool over, and that’s already trained to behave. If you are an okay rider, with the most expensive equipment and a breed considered “high quality” (aka expensive, kind of like brand name clothes or whatever normal people fuss over), you will win 1st place, no doubt. But not even the best rider on earth would be able to place at all with Dakota and my equipment. That’s just how the world was, but I was was determined to prove people wrong, and change the world.
At least those were my intentions. He was the horse I was planning to lease over the summer so every week since January, I would spend my time grooming him after our lesson. So I rode him again, for the first time in months and it was fun. By the time June came around, I was at the barn every day to see Dakota. At this point, our relationship was great. I was excited to lease him and he grew somewhat of a bond with me too. My lease began June 24th and that’s when everything changed. Had I known what had just started, I probably would’ve jumped right off.
My life revolved around him, he began to give me problems every day. Bucking me off and not doing what I ask. How was I supposed to teach this horse anything? My friends who were rich had left me in the dust because they had the money for a great experience with the show horses. They won every show and came home with blue ribbons and trophies while I came home with a beat up body and an even more beat up soul. Every day everybody told me that I was just wasting my time with this horse. They didn’t mean to put me down but at that point, it was the truth. But slowly, things began to improve. It became just me and him, and each day we became closer in a way I have never done before. He was the creature that needed saving, and I saw so much potential. School horses are rarely loved, and if they are, they are nice horses. Dakota wasn’t nice, and they were working his life away at such a young age. He grew bitter from the absence of love and instead of giving it to him, he was punished for his outbreaks. With me, anything was possible for him, and with him, anything was possible for me. I would never think of having a conversation with a horse, but I can remember us laughing at the same things. I would sing to him and dance with him and when somebody would walk by, I would straighten up. After they passed I would look at him and I swear, we would laugh together. When other people walked by, he tried to bite them. He wasn’t friendly and I probably should’ve scolded him for it, but we looked in each other’s eyes and laughed about that too. We shared moments we both found humorous. How is that possible with an animal? Here are pictures of an actual conversation we had when another woman tried to say hello.
Dakota ended up biting her. Don’t worry, she was okay. But after she left, he looked at me with this face and I started dying laughing. He did so many things like this. He’s the biggest jerk but he makes me laugh. I sound like I’m talking about a boy, but no, it’s an animal. That statement is my life in a nutshell.
Each day he’d be a jerk when I would ride him, but eventually we accomplished some things people never thought we could.
Flying Lead Change
A flying lead change is one of the things that makes a “talented” horse talented. It’s something required for showing and takes a lot of work for the horse to do if they haven’t been properly taught. Horses know this skill at birth, but when being ridden, they lose it if it isn’t practiced often. Since they’re changing the direction of the canter, a shift of weight is required. Having a person on their back while shifting their weight is a difficult thing to learn for a horse who hasn’t been taught from the beginning. I don’t know how, but I taught him to do this on command.
Another thing we accomplished was getting Dakota to frame. This is another skill required for a “talented” horse. But again, any horse can do this, it just takes practice. It’s basically when a horse rounds their back and stretches their body, and pushes from their behind, making a much more comfortable ride and attractive figure. When showing, framing is beneficial. When riding generally, framing is also very beneficial. It’s healthy for the horse and rider to frame up and have complete control. The flow of energy is directed from the back of the horse’s body to the front, so he does not drag you along, but push you forward. Getting a horse to frame correctly is very, very difficult on a horse who is anxious, bitter, and trained incorrectly. Dakota never really learned the right way.
Lastly, the emotional bond was something I never expected. I even gave him a show name since he didn’t have one. Black Zodiac was something I made up and loved. Then I found the poem Black Zodiac by Charles Wright and I knew that was it.
I was the only person who gave him love, and at a time he needed it most. It broke him to pieces when he realized he couldn’t see me every day. It broke me just as much. I still visit him sometimes when I can, but I’m saving to buy him for college or something.
It would be so easy to have a horse that makes me feel like I can do anything. Dakota made me do it myself. He didn’t hand over success, I earned my success through his success. Each day was hard work, and I’ve sat on him and cried so many times. He would not listen, but he made me never want to give up. In the end, he taught me the small victories are better than winning a ribbon you didn’t earn, but bought. He didn’t teach me how to ride or make me feel good about myself. He taught me to never give up, that ribbons aren’t important, and that true victory lies within yourself. He didn’t give me victory, he turned me into it. He taught me that success is a concept and is much easier to grasp when you aren’t looking so far ahead, but at what’s right in front of you. I can only hope he’s in my future, but he did teach me that boundaries don’t exist. He was the only reason to get out of bed on most days, or I would have slept my summer away.
The whole time I was leasing him, I thought I was saving him, teaching him and helping him. I felt as if he needed me and my love. But it was actually him who saved me, taught me and helped me. I was the one who needed him and his love because most people swore he wasn’t capable of love. In the end, it was just another unexpected lesson life gave to me.
Jennifer is a student of life who enjoys writing, dabbles in piano and frequently adventures castle ruins.