There were only two required pieces of equipment for my new riding lessons—tall riding boots and a helmet. Off we went, my Mom and me, to the closest tack store we could find. There were only two around back then, and one was near downtown Houston, so it was far. We opted for the boutique shop much closer to where I took lessons. It was called Stone Broke Saddlery and set on the owner’s private horse farm. Only now do I see the irony in the name. (Like a bad fortune cookie.) There, I got my first pair of rubber riding boots and a black, velvet helmet. Add a pair of jeans, tucked into my boots, with a t-shirt, and I now had my new, favorite P.E. uniform!
As I started to get hooked into the riding more, the unfulfilled promise of having my own horse started to take shape and come into view. I could finally see that island in the distance. I started paddling faster and harder.
My mom began teaching in kindergarten as soon as we landed in Texas, just like she did in New Jersey. Not only was my mom a favorite with the kids, but the parents loved her too. She got to know one of the new mothers pretty well. As a result of this blossoming friendship, not only did her husband become our small animal vet for our two dogs, Tigger and Bonnie, but this woman also had close connections in the horse world. She led the charge to the island of “horse ownership.” Her sister rode consistently (maybe professionally, I don’t know), and had a friend, who had a horse for sale. My mom came home and shared this information and we were off and running to Cut and Shoot, Texas. (No, I did not make this name up. Cut and Shoot, Texas really exists).
It didn’t matter this horse was 15-hands short (a hony, like Flicka), an Arab, and trained in western pleasure. He had a couple of other things going for him, the first being that he was eight-years old. Age was not something I considered when thinking about the criteria of my new horse. Four legs and a tail was enough for me. It was divine intervention he wasn’t four or twenty. (Twenty would have been ok for me, but not necessarily so much for the twenty-year old).
The second thing he had going for him was he was in repossession. The owner had sold him to someone else who made payments on him, but they had failed to make the last payment. The owner only wanted that last payment for him, which was $1,500. How can you say no to a $4,500 horse that you can buy for $1,500?? Talk about the sale rack! Yep, repossession is not just limited to houses and cars.
For a while we called him “Repo Man.” His name was actually Garlibra, which was a hybrid of his parent’s names. In the barn, he was known as “Gar” for short.
Gar never saw a western saddle again. Unceremoniously, he was now a Hunter -Jumper, even if he had never jumped a stick. Ignorance is bliss. I was the blind leading the blind. When I showed up for my next group lesson and excitedly told my instructor we had bought a horse on the weekend, I will never forget the chill that passed through the barn aisle. She was not happy. My feelings instantly hurt, I assumed the stance I was becoming famous for—arms crossed, lips pursed, chin stuck out. I remember thinking to myself, while smoke started to come out of my ears, “I’ll show you.”
(I’m pretty sure this is what will be on my headstone when I die. I hope not, but it’s apt, nonetheless).
Gar lived in a co-op barn in our neighborhood where I took care of him myself. I want to be clear this was only possible because of my parents’ cooperation. They drove me back and forth to the barn twice a day to take care of him. This was a huge sacrifice. HUGE.
When we finally figured out how to rent a horse trailer to pull behind our wood-paneled van, Gar was included in the group lessons. My instructor’s demeanor towards Gar did not improve once she met him. In her defense, he was not the most appropriate horse for a beginner to have, since he didn’t know the trade either.
Over time, she softened. Gar was very generous and tried. Turned out he was brave, too. He jumped anything I pointed him at. Again, I didn’t know it then, but I figured it out later: Heart is 90-percent of the equation in a horse. If they have a lot of heart, together, you will achieve the impossible. If they don’t, you will be sitting on the sidelines crying, or be in pieces at the hospital. Even a little horse with a big heart can give you wings, and this little horse gave me mine. He had heart in spades.
Fortuitously, my instructor was also very involved in the “local” hunt (I use this term loosely. This was/is Texas, where “local” is a relative term). Kenada Fox Hounds was two hours away. Coyote is what they chased on the 7,500-acre cattle ranch, owned by Bud Adams and his family. He was a very successful business man and the owner/founder of the Tennessee Titans football team. His daughter was an avid rider, and Master of the hunt.
Fun fact: The Tennessee Titans were formerly the Houston Oilers. A former head coach (in the ‘60’s) of the Houston Oilers was our next door neighbor. I didn’t know him that well, as he was quiet, and when I was at their house, it was to spend time with his wife, who was a complete dog nut, so I loved her. I still loved to peruse his home office when invited to do so. It contained many fabulous photographs of different players in action.
A two-hour drive was a small price to pay to hunt across such vast, beautiful country. There was a hunt breakfast held after, in the main house. I thought it was a most excellent adventure at the time (it was), but of course, I didn’t realize then what a privilege it was to be included in the first place. My instructor really stuck her neck out to get her band of unkempt misfits, like unbroke yearlings, invited to this elite event.
Somehow we managed to stay herded together, despite our enthusiasm, and not embarrass our coach too much, since we didn’t really know the rules. (It was learn as you go). The Arab was my copilot on this adventure, too. He didn’t miss much. (It’s possible showing up on an Arab was an embarressment and I didn’t know it. By that time, Gar had proved his worth and was a member of our tribe of horses and kids.).
Another fun fact: On one of my first days of being a working student at Jimmy Wofford’s (after college), when his wife, Gail, was Joint Master of the Piedmont Fox Hounds, the hunt came through the farm. One of the whips, in hot pursuit, asked me hurriedly, “Which way did they go?!”
I pointed, and yelled, “The dogs went that way!”
She shot me a stern look right before her horse kicked dirt in my face en route to said direction.
“They are hounds, Jenn,” Woff said chuckling. “Never, ever, call them dogs, especially not to anyone in the hunt.”
See? It’s not always easy not to embarrass your coach…
However, when I started competing in the Hunter-Jumper world, over cross rails, the judges were not so kind to the little Arab. This is how I learned what prejudice meant. I got tired of it (as anyone on the losing side of that does). I would put in a good round and barely scrape a ribbon out of the deal when we, Gar and I, had done a good job together.
That was how my career in the Hunter-Jumpers ended. The chapter was officially closed. Gar and I were about to embark on a whole new adventure together. Thank God the little Arab had game.
I entered him in our first horse trials.
The Eventing had begun.