I once tried to disprove the old adage, “there’s no such thing as a free horse.” I thought it was bosh. There were plenty of people giving their octogenarian horses away to forever homes, and I wanted to hop on that train. I got my chance in 2006, from a friend of ours whose client was giving away an eight-year-old mare. Trailer in tow, we traveled the two hours into Virginia hunt country to pick up my free horse. My mom signed some obligatory paperwork, Lilly loaded nicely, and off we went. Piece of cake.

Lilly, a registered American Quarter Horse with the hind end to prove it, was sweeter than Southern tea. Though she was trained western, I saw visions of the hunter ring in her future.

The first time I asked her to halt, she nearly sat down on her haunches and left me clinging to her neck. Lilly responded to vocal commands as though a tiger were roaring in her ear. If I clucked, she’d jump into a discombobulated trot or spastic canter as though trying to escape the horrid noise.

I imagined that if she were a person, she would have probably curled herself up into a ball and rocked back and forth in the corner of the ring, mumbling something about voices.

Backing up was her specialty. Lilly decided that it was the best answer to any question she didn’t know. If she was confused, she’d back up. When I asked for a half pass, she’d back up. I’d set her up for a bend to the right or half turn in reverse, and backwards she would go. If she was scared, she’d back up. If she didn’t like what was asked, she’d just throw it in reverse!

Training became quite literally one step forward and two steps back. I decided the best way to break her of this habit was to kill with kindness. If she wanted to back up, then by golly we’d back up to Kentucky! Each time she set her sights on reversing, I’d keep her going all the way around the ring, nudging her on when she wanted to stop. She soon grew sick of reverse and stopped the nervous tick.

And then there were bills. There was the initial vet check and vaccinations, then worming. My summer savings dwindled to a “I’ll have to hold off on buying anything name brand” manageable level. I expected those. But Lilly was low in the pecking order, and even though she had 14 acres to stay out of the way, she somehow managed to cross every horse. I dutifully cleaned and dressed the major abrasions, but then her left hind fetlock swelled to an uncomfortable size. The vet was back, and his presence alone sent hard-earned cash flying out the door.

When she wasn’t getting assaulted in the field, Lilly would turn up with a slight limp. Off to the store for Epsom salt, diapers for wrapping, medical tape, and duct tape. She had an affinity for accidents, minor or major, and phone calls to the vet or my trainer for medical advice became frequent.

One day, I went to the barn for an afternoon ride. As I grabbed her halter, I saw Lilly in the corner of the run-in shed in the paddock, contentedly swatting flies. Her ears pricked forward when she saw me.

“Hey, miss mare,” I cooed as I opened the gate. I hadn’t turned on the barn light, and as my eyes adjusted to the shadows, I realized there was something oozing from Lilly’s forehead. I started back when I saw the golf-ball sized gash on her normally white blaze. Lilly had managed to crush her skull in! Gingerly pulling back her forelock, I fingered the damage. She didn’t cringe, but watched me with bright eyes as if to say, “Hi! Whatcha looking at?”

The wound was a mess with blood matted hair and shredded skin. It appeared that the skull was broken or fractured under her forelock. She wasn’t in shock and by the congealed blood I could guess the accident happened earlier that morning. I noticed the corner of the hay rack had blood and hair spattered on the wood.

I cleaned what I could as I waited for the vet. He said it wasn’t deep enough to disturb any major sinuses or tissue. Lilly was breathing fine, and as long as I kept the wound clean it would heal, though the indentation would always be there. He handed me some antibiotics costing approximately as much as a brick of gold.

Days later the vet bill came. I had been keeping track of her medical bills and sighed when I opened this one. I looked outside our kitchen window and gazed at the allegedly free horse. Lilly’s white blaze blinked in the evening sun, she shook her flaxen mane and snorted. She made a pretty picture against the Blue Ridge Mountains and azure August sky. There are no free horses on this earth, but there are certainly ones worthwhile.