I got a Facebook message out of the blue yesterday. A woman asking me if I was the person she remembered from a long time ago. Thirty-four years ago to be exact. I was just a kid then. Her name sounded generic, for lack of a better word, and I couldn’t necessarily place her. I was cautious of someone phishing…even on Facebook. She added some pertinent details of our barn and gave me the names of her horses, but I still couldn’t quite place her. It wasn’t until she said the “barn” name of my first horse, “Gar,” that I knew she was legit, even if I couldn’t place her in my memories. She said that I had helped her with her two horses and gave me their names. It sounded familiar, but I still couldn’t place them or her. I was irked. I might only remember the best people, or the worst people I cross paths with, but I remember all of my horses. Every single one made an impression on me, even if their owner didn’t.
The barn where I kept my first horse was a co-op of eighteen of us. In a nutshell, the barn was self-care and we helped each other out as necessary. It took twenty-four hours of stewing before I had the “A-ha!” moment and placed Pat. She was, by definition, one of the first true horsewomen I ever met. As a kid, I was slightly scared of her. She was very quiet, resolute, and determined. She didn’t say much, but when there was a fly in the pie, and in a co-op barn there always was, Pat did not mince her words and she very quickly set the record straight. Even if she spoke emphatically, she never lost her temper and everyone respected her. In short, Pat dealt with people in the same manner she trained her horses. She was clear, concise, and consistent. It showed in her horses who were trained to a tune I had never seen before. Not only that, her attention to detail was second to none. She might school in blue jeans and sneakers at home, but when it was show time it was go time. You can make the silver on your saddle sparkle on the fly, but horses only sparkle with meticulous, daily attention that comes from good grooming, proper nutrition, and a good training program. All of Pat’s hard work and attention to detail really shined in her horses.
Pat trained Arabians in western pleasure, and I had just started riding English, namely show hunters. I won’t even go as far as to say hunter jumper, because that was lightyears away, and as it turned out, I bypassed that completely and went straight to eventers, but that’s a different story. Pat and I came from two different worlds and two different places in life. She was an accomplished horseman riding and competing in western pleasure and she also had a full-time job. I was a kid, still wet behind the ears, in middle school, trying my hand at show hunters.
As it turns out, it was Pat’s synopsis of the past that threw me off. I helped Pat with her horses?? Actually, I didn’t. In her same gracious way, Pat extended the olive branch after thirty-four years. I did not help her with her horses. More accurately, I watched every little thing Pat did and followed her around like a puppy. At a distance of course, because like I said, I was a little scared of her. If I helped, it was because she offered me the olive branch, even then.
Being at a co-op as a first-time horse-owner kid (aka my non-horsey parents bought me my first horse), turned out to be a lifesaver, mostly for my horse. The previous owner had given me instructions on how to feed him and how often, and off I went, my enthusiasm and blind faith leading the charge. It was a recipe for disaster. The previous owner told me he ate “about a cup” twice a day, as she shook the coffee can for me to see. Somehow I failed to make the correlation between what she showed me and the one cup measuring cup that I purchased and gave to him with a smidge on top. This was the first inkling that I was a literal person (this hasn’t changed, unfortunately). I also gave him a flake of hay twice a day, the perfect individual serving size hay farmers graciously procured. Well, before Gar laid down and died with his sad misfortune of ending up with a stupid kid (me), the fates intervened. Namely, Pat. Like I said, she was in charge, a result of everyone’s respect for her or by default, or both. Before she marched over to my stall to give me a “dressing down,” something even scarier happened. A letter arrived in the mail. Addressed to my mother. Five seconds later I got sideswiped with the worst dressing down ever. I never saw it coming, but I had received a “dirty stall” letter, or more accurately, my mom received it on my behalf. The gist was I had 30 days to get my act together, or I was going to be booted from the co-op. I wanted to throw up. I was so scared and completely embarrassed that I had failed somehow in my new enterprise. The one and only thing that I truly loved. And I didn’t even understand where I had gone wrong. Horses smell, and their houses smell too, and it never even registered to my small teenager brain as outside the lines of acceptable. I learned my first lesson: horses cannot survive on a kid’s love and the undivided attention bestowed upon them, when their adoration clouds their pragmatic judgment. Boom, down came the hatchet (sidebar, this was also my first lesson in love too that I learned later after my divorce).
After many tears, I collected myself and walked over to Pat’s stall with the letter in my hand. It was my first “adult” moment in my kid life—taking responsibility for my actions (or inactions in this case). My knees were trembling and my stomach was in a knot. I told her the truth. I didn’t get it. Admitting my complete ignorance made me feel like a horrible person, let alone the actual transgression I committed. I’m not sure Pat was ready for that reaction. Her bristly demeanor when I walked up indicated she had been expecting a confrontation and argument. I had no argument, I just needed to understand. Bless her heart, Pat walked me over to Gar’s stall and showed me how to muck a stall. As it turns out, I didn’t really know how to do it. Not even properly. Okay, pretty much not at all. So lesson #2: how to clean a stall. Lesson #3 was how to feed a horse properly. Gar thanked the horse gods for sending the angel, Pat, our way.
My enthusiasm was then tempered by humility, but only for a short while. I was a kid after all. Pat, on the other hand, realizing what a dumb, albeit nice, kid she had in the barn, made sure to keep tabs on me to save me from myself (and save Gar in the process, which I think was the actual goal.) And let me say this right here and right now, all horses are blessed creatures in this world, but God has a special place for “first” horses—the ones who survive the people who don’t read the “Rulebook to Owning a Horse,” or worse, those who don’t even know the book exists (it’s called being in a good program with a good professional who can save you, and your horse, from yourself).
I did a lot of stupid things with my first horse, Gar. Hacking in a halter and lead rope. It was all fine until we turned for home and then it wasn’t fine. I ended up with road rash. I learned to body clip with him as my guinea pig, using small clippers. The best part of that deal was he lost his mane in the process (cringe). Yikes, he looked rough. Racing across the neighborhood golf course under a full moon. Disclaimer, there was one adult present who approved of this plan.
But then I had a lot of good “firsts” with Gar. He was the first horse I trained to jump. The blind leading the blind. He was the first “horseshow” horse I ever competed. He survived my apoplectic butterfly show jitters. He was my first event horse. We both had bugs in our teeth. In fact, we won our first event ever. We went foxhunting for the first time together. The little Arab hanging with all the thoroughbreds. On one epic adventure with a friend, we tied our horses up to a tree outside of Wendy’s and ate lunch. He was game and I packed carrots for him. We hacked miles to my house and I watered him in our driveway (more carrots) and made the long hack back.
I outgrew little Gar and we sold him to another little girl and he became a first horse all over again. At least he was in a professional barn for the next go around and skipped over the horrible self-learning he endured with me. He earned that luxury alright.
Gar was the first of many horses in my lifetime. Looking back, I’m so grateful for every single horse that came through my door. I’m grateful that Gar survived me and for all the wonderful experiences we had together. I’m also grateful for all of the wonderful horsemen I met along the way. The ones who educated me, helped me, and picked me up off the floor. People like Pat, who saved me, and Gar, from myself and set me on the path to a lifetime of enjoying horses.