Green Horse Tales is a new series where riders share their daily struggles, triumphs, and adventures producing a “green” horse. Today, Horse Junkies United blogger Danielle Keating shares the story of her partnership with “The Black Mare.” Send us your green horse tale to hello(at)heelsdownmedia.com.
I wasn’t looking for a horse. The summer between my freshman and sophomore year in undergrad, a friend of mine suggested we go to our local SPCA and look at the horses they had. I though it would be a fun outing, maybe we’d sign up to help volunteer.
At the time, the rescue had a bunch of Morgans, which are coincidentally, my favorite breed. I grew up on a variety of horses-from Saddleseat Saddlebreds to Hunter-Under-Saddle Paint horses to Western Showmanship Quarter Horses to Warmblood Hunters and Jumpers; I’d been exposed to a fair amount, but it is Morgans that have always held my heart.
I found a handsome looking, unbroke 6-year-old gelding, and had these fantastic notions that he would become my first horse. 2 days after we went out to see the rescue barn, the manager called me to inform me that he’d been adopted out. “I always tell potential adopters that if it doesn’t work out, everything is happening for a reason”. She could not have been more right. I mulled over the sting of denial, but decided it probably was for the best–I couldn’t handle a horse right now, let alone an unbroke one.
The next day, she called again. “We just got one of our mares back from a foster, and I thought you would be interested. She’s not on the website yet. Come out and meet you. You won’t be disappointed”.
I dropped everything. My trainer was unavailable, so I dragged my mom out to the rescue with me. In what I can only describe as the most surreal moment, I walked in and in the first stall was a dusty black mare staring at me behind a thick forelock. She locked eyes with me, and proceeded to follow me back and forth along the length of her stall.
2 days later, I took my friend who suggested the initial trip, as well as my trainer. We loaded up her trunk with a spare saddle and bridle. The dusty mare greeted me once again in the first stall. It wasn’t until I had been given a leg up that I was told that it was only her second ride since they’d gotten her. And despite all the other horses being outside on a lovely summer day (including one of her babies), and pigeons dive-bombing from the rafters, she dutifully tried to please in that first pilot ride.
“If there was a such thing as a ‘safe project horse’, you’ve found her” quipped my trainer. Before we left, I tried to take some conformation-type pictures of her-but she made it difficult; she wouldn’t take her eyes off me.
I knew I was done for when by the time I’d gotten home, I’d already named her.
I knew she had to be mine. A week later, I’d signed her adoption papers, and my trainer agreed to bring her back to the barn, put her up in a stall, and we’d work out the rest later. I had no tack of my own, no experience training any type of horse, and no idea what I was getting into.
Wearing a brand-new halter, the first experience with my new horse, was spending 40 minutes trying to load her onto the trailer, which she was adamantly opposed to (not afraid, just very much a mare). I was about ready to walk her back down the hill and give her back, when one of the lunge lines we’d been using to corral her onto the ramp slipped under her tail and she proceeded to jet up the ramp and stand like a perfect lady the rest of the trip. She unloaded like a dream, loudly bellowing her arrival.
Our first couple weeks together were a major learning curve. She was quickly moved from her corner stall-originally chosen so she could see other horses and people-because she was biting at other horses as they walked by. She was then moved to a stall with a solid door because she’d figured out how to take the swinging gate doors off their hinges. She liked water, but hated water pressure. You could give her a sponge bath, but you couldn’t start at her legs, you had to start on her body. She was butt-shy, and didn’t like if you walked on her right side. She would stand sideways in the cross-ties.
Since I had her papers, I decided to do some sleuthing. I knew she was 8. Did she had a show record? A breeding record? What had this horse done? I didn’t even know. In what turned out to be scarily easy, I found out where she’d been bred, that she’d been sold from her breeder at 2, and beyond that, had probably been sitting in the field she was rescued in, having babies. Most Morgans are broke out to drive, so I figured that going back to ground work would be a good place to start with her.
Behind the indoor arena at home, we have a wonderful round pen with solid walls, high enough that you could only see the tips of my mare’s ears from the outside. The first day, she spent 20 minutes rearing and trying to come back into the center of the pen with me. I couldn’t get her to move away from me. She wasn’t afraid of the whip, or the noise. She just wanted to stand in the middle with me. Once we got past that hurdle, it was clear that the gears were turning again. If she didn’t know the answer, she was trying. Her trot was fast and irregular, and her canter was sporadic and terribly unbalanced. I spent a week in the round pen, working on vocal commands and lunging. And every day we worked on her other quirks-baths, cross-ties, obstacle courses, being in the arena with other horses…anything I could think of to expose her to, I did (although most of it, she was thoroughly non-plussed by it).
We graduated from the round pen and started working in the indoor arena. I started to add in some in-hand work, another common skill taught to young Morgans. When I asked her to set up for the first time, it was like more light bulbs were going off. Yes, this was something that, at some point, she’d been introduced to.
I consulted with my trainer, and we picked a bit for her-a half-cheek driving bit commonly used with Morgans. My friend (who I’ll blame and thank for my horse ownership) graciously lent me her saddle, which she wasn’t using at the time, and we started adding tack to our lunge work. Our first ride together was only about 20 minutes, but she handled it all with poise. After a few days of seemingly too light contact, I had her teeth checked. Unsurprisingly, she had buccal ulcers from years of neglected dental care. Satisfied that she was not in pain, I started to ask more of her.
The first time she cantered with me aboard, I made sure my trainer was supervising. We concluded that she probably had never been cantered under saddle, based on her genuine cluelessness, and the fact that she ran around the arena, laying her shoulder down like a barrel racer around every turn. “She’s just got to figure out where her feet are” was my trainer’s consensus. Honestly, I was terrified. I wasn’t a speed demon, and her unbalanced form made me uneasy. I put a grab strap on the front of my saddle, made sure I would have the arena to myself, and we would gallop until neither one of us were terrified. As she got more fit, and I got more brave, her canter got less ‘Kentucky-derby-wannabe’ and more ‘uncoordinated-bull-in-a-china-shop’.
We celebrated small victories, like a slightly slower canter, a more regular trot rhythm, a slightly more consistent head set. I didn’t know I could be so happy about a nice canter to halt transition, or a long wall of moderately slow canter.
She continued to improve every day, and there wasn’t a day that I missed working with her, except when I had my wisdom teeth extracted (and I made sure that the other girls at the barn got her out and worked with her in my absence).
I started having a few other girls at the barn sit on her, because I was going to have to go back to school at the end of the summer, and to keep her stall she needed a job. She was going to have to give lessons-something I didn’t know if she could do. Almost as if she understood the situation, she took on the role. She was not a great lesson horse; she was still unbalanced and awkward at the canter, and only about half the students who sat on her actually liked her. But it was good for her. She experienced a lot of different types of riders, and she was as patient with them as she was with me. I would come back on weekends and breaks as often as I could. And each time I came home, she was better (although my trainer also claimed that she was never as good for anyone else as she was for me).
At this point, I got this crazy notion that it would be really cool if she learned how to jump. Ever hear the phrase, ‘green plus green equal black and blue’? Or, green horse and green rider only results in someone getting hurt.
I’d only been jumping since I started undergrad. For as little as I thought I knew about training a horse on the flat, I really had no clue what I was doing with a horse over fences.
After I found out that I would be living in the apartment attached to the school’s equine center, my parents graciously surprised me with boarding my horse at the school for the summer. My horse trailered (much more willingly this time) down to school alongside my mattress and couch.
This learning curve was different. In some regards, I was nervous; she’d been trained by me, still was barely finished on the flat and cantered around like a banshee most days. Now, she was at our fancy school barn, and I wanted my Morgan, free-flowing mane and bagged tail and all, to learn to jump.
I cannot stress enough that our success was in majority to the trainers we had. My trainer at home was crucial in getting us started in the right direction and providing priceless advice. At school, my coach took us on a project. She gave us exercises that worked on slowing both our brains down, and getting us both to relax.
And when we introduced jumping for the first time, it was like I was riding a whole new horse. This. This is what she was meant to do here. My roommate helped me cut her mane and tail to look the part, and we immersed ourselves in hunter-jumper world.
We spent the summer throwing any and everything we could at her, and she ate it up. Her canter got more balanced, I learned how to help her more. She learned how to do lateral work. We ended the summer with 2’6″ courses and going to a little unrecognized show (where she was utterly unfazed by anything).
I thought I needed to focus on my studies during the year, and I didn’t think I could afford to keep her at school, so she ended up leased out with a pony clubber until January. When she came back to me early, I kept her at another local barn until I could get her back to school. I’ll fast forward through this part, because if anything, she regressed a little in her training. The arena wasn’t very large, and we couldn’t jump. Keeping her occupied on the flat was difficult, and our joint frustrations left us frazzled.
Once I had her back at school and back in shape, we picked up where we left off. We changed bits, played with nosebands, found the combination to make her most comfortable. The fussiness I’d seen early in our career together (and that I’d correctly attributed to her dental care) was still manifesting in a manner. We finally settled on a mullen mouth, Happy Mouth bit, with the hunch that the roof of her mouth is hypersensitive, making even a plain snaffle offensive to her.
During our bit trial was 1 of 2 total times any of my trainers have sat on my horse during her education. My coach got on her after she’d taken off with me in the middle of a course-she had in a corkscrew snaffle at the time because she’d been getting increasingly stronger. She discovered my horse is ‘secretly lazy’ and the most leg you add, the slower she goes (positively backwards thinking for a horse that is notoriously quick). We added spurs, and the ‘pacifier’ bit, and haven’t looked back.
As The Mare settled into her job, we asked more of her, and in the Fall of last year, my trainer began hinting that she wanted us to go somewhere. Right before winter break, we tested the waters at the 3’6″ level, and when I could put aside my fear, The Mare could be unstoppable.
We spent Spring preparing for show season, and The Mare really came into her own. She is quieter at shows that she is at home, requires no prepping, no lunging, and minimal schooling. Multiple times, we would jump 2 or 3 fences and head to the ring. She is ring-savvy, quick on her feet, always in the moment, and a total crowd-pleaser. Nothing phases her now. She spent 1 show day tied to to a stall front with a hay bag because we could only get 1 stall for 2 horses.
We made a splash this past summer at our local rated show series. In one summer, attending less than half the shows in the series (due to me moving for vet school), we won more blue ribbons that I have in any other season, combined. She was champion and reserve champion on 2 separate occasions, and ended the year with 2 Top Ten Series finishes. I can only imagine, if we had finished out the series, how we would’ve ended up. She gained a bit of a following in the jumper ring, and I received so many absolutely lovely compliments about my little horse, from people who probably had no idea that she is a rescue trained by a complete amateur. Walking back to the barn after every round, she would gain a “good pony” from our coach. And during one walk back, she very matter-of-factly said, ‘you know…it’s pretty amazing what you’ve been able to do with her in this amount of time. Those big warmbloods out there trying to get down the lines and still chipping out, and yours is just zooming around the ring making it look easy. Pretty cool.’
Under any other circumstances, it should have never worked.
‘It’ll work out the way it’s supposed to’ has been our mantra from the beginning. While I don’t normally like flying by the seat of my pants, having a horse has given me an education in doing just that.
I have no idea how much she knew when I got her, but I can guess where her education stopped. And jumping was something that was definitely nowhere in her vocabulary. I can only stress that had I been on my own trying to do this, it would have been a disaster. I had 2 phenomenal trainers holding my hand along the way. Horsewomen who were able to diagnose problems in my riding and help us through them without ever having sat on my horse. I have jumped the highest, not on a schoolmaster at my undergrad, but on my own mare. My riding improved exponentially while owning and training my horse, and I have become a million times more brave.
Now, she has accompanied me to vet school. While that has presented its own unique set of challenges, I hope for my not-so-green horse to get back in the show ring again this year.
Under normal circumstances, it is likely that green + green = black and blue. It’s usually a recipe for disaster.
But in my case, green + green turned out to be The Black Mare and blue ribbons.
It might not be for everyone-the whole rescue horse/green pony project-but I had to do it all over again, I would in a heartbeat.