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Equestrian Lessons Learned

Mistakes we made with our first horse & why we finally decided to find him a new home.

It is not without regret that I write this post, wherein I share some of the mistakes we made when selecting Teddy as our first horse, and also where I share why we finally decided to find him a new home. But, this being a blog that has a lot to do with horses in our life, I can’t not tell you what happened and how it all went down.

Some history:

Teddy came into our lives in November 2017 after I spent 6 full months searching for a horse that my son & I could share. (We had been taking lessons for some time.) I had looked at many horses online, I’d spoken to many owners selling their horses, and I’d requested dozens upon dozens of videos to send to our then trainer. Without exception she vetoed every horse, declaring most of them lame based upon the videos or completely unsuitable after speaking with the sellers.

Then, the morning after I had finally decided to give this horse shopping business a rest until Spring, a woman messaged me on Facebook. She had seen my ISO post in a horse group and had just what we were looking for. A 16 year old Haflinger gelding that had been a lesson horse and that she’d had for about a year, but that she was selling because she could no longer afford him. He had been out at pasture for months & she just wanted to find a good home for him. She was even willing to give him to us free along with all of his tack. It sounded too good to be true, but I hadn’t yet learned to be hyper-cynical (an essential equestrian skill) so I sent this woman to my trainer, who spoke with her and watched the videos. Yes, she said, this could be the ONE.

Within a couple days I was headed to Massachusetts to meet the gelding. My trainer would meet me there and we’d see where things went. When we arrived at the farm I quickly spotted him in a field with a black Friesian and fell in love. Yes, he was overweight, but he was so handsome! And when the owner led him over to meet us his personality won me over. Teddy truly was a charismatic horse – the kind of horse that enjoys being around people and spending time with them on the ground. My trainer rode him around the arena, liked what she saw and suggested we move forward with the Pre Purchase Exam. (The vet was already on the way.)

During the PPE the vet used a snap test to determine that Teddy had Lyme, but that wasn’t a deal breaker according to my trainer. And during everything – the exam, the x-rays – Teddy was so calm it seemed like he was exactly what we needed personality wise. I had no problem working to get the excess weight off and was happy to treat him at a clinic for Lyme if it wasn’t a big deal. And that was it – within the span of a few short hours we decided Teddy was “the one.”

Fast forward 9 months:

What we could not have known during that brief visit in November was that Teddy did not like beginner riders. Although I have since tracked down the woman who owned him when he was a lesson horse (where she said he’d been trustworthy), that was not the Teddy we had brought home. After months out at pasture, gaining weight and contracting Lyme, he had become so anxious under saddle that he needed a confident, advanced rider like our trainer.

We tried many things to help Teddy succeed. Chiropractic work, massage & Legend injections to rule out pain, thousands of dollars in professional training, you name it. In the 9 months we had him we probably only rode him consistently during the last 2 months, and were riding a friend’s horse the rest of the time. We thought were giving Teddy space to heal and get back into shape, but in truth we were denying reality. Teddy was not a suitable horse for us and we are lucky an accident never occurred with my 8-year-old on him during lessons. I say this now in hindsight.

Deciding to say goodbye:

Finally, one day in August I decided to go out on a brief hack with Teddy solo. It feels like an idiotic decision now, but at the time, I thought he had been making progress. He had been in training 6 days a week with a professional trainer for 9 months. We had started doing lessons together, had gone out on several hacks with other horses, had gone on a short hack around the blueberry field solo, and my trainer had said it would probably be fine to do a short hack in the field across the road. So when the woman I was supposed to meet for a ride decided to cancel at the last minute, I thought: “Well, we could probably just go across the field and back right?” I mean there we were all tacked up and ready to go, why not? I texted my trainer, who gave her blessing, and off we went. But I think that deep down I knew it was a bad choice. Because as we rode out of the barn I said to one of the barn workers: “If I’m not back in 20 minutes come find me!” I thought was joking at the time, but really I was predicting the future.

A photo from one our successful hacks around the blueberry field.

Teddy was jiggy as we headed out, but it was not unlike him to prance whenever I asked him to walk. We ventured across the open field he’d been on many times with other horses and all went well. Then we decided to head home and before I knew what was happening, Teddy was galloping across the grass. I sat in the saddle and pulled back on the reins, asking him to whoa, but Teddy was in full flight mode. He was running like a banshee was after him and I was along for the ride, like it or not.

I did stay on for a good while. Even at a gallop! But then, Teddy leaped over a ditch and the saddle came forward, then started to come loose. As it slid down his side, I remember thinking: “Well, I’m either going to end up between his legs and he’s going to trample me, or I’m going to have to throw myself off this horse and hope for the best.” So, I threw myself off. But sadly, the saddle had come so far down his side that there wasn’t much room between me and the ground. I hit my head on impact and was knocked out.

When I woke up in the middle of the field Teddy was long gone. I have no idea how long I was unconscious, but it must have been a good while. By the time the barn worker I’d unwittingly prophesied to drove up in a tractor Teddy had run back to the barn, saddle beneath his belly. She’d had time to catch him, put his tack away, and put him back in his stall, before coming to find me staggering in the field with blood all over my face, my iPhone in hand, and a growing bump below a large gash in my forehead. I had managed to text both her when I came to and  that was a feat in itself, because I remember pulling my phone out and thinking that I needed to do something with it… but I couldn’t remember what. Somehow for a few seconds, I had managed to open it and send a garbled text for help.

It sounds bad – and it was – but getting knocked out like that probably saved my life. According to the ER doctors getting knocked out made my entire body go limp like a rag doll, likely saving me from a broken back or neck. And go me for wearing a helmet – if I hadn’t been wearing it, my head would have smashed like a melon.

In the end, I guess it pays to be a hard headed woman. Although I had a serious concussion and needed stitches on my face, I was mostly OK. (I would discover months later that I needed occupational therapy for lingering concussion issues.) But on the way home, I decided that we had to find Teddy a new home. No way was I putting my child on a horse that I now knew could be that unpredictable.

Some may disagree with this decision, but it was the right one for our family. Teddy was and is a good horse. But he was not the right horse for our needs. I can say this with confidence because while he could be anxious with me, he looked like a fancy dressage pony when my trainer rode him. He needed the experience and confidence of an advanced rider to succeed. And though several folks suggested I send him to auction, instead I found him a home with an experienced horse woman. When she came to see him and rode him around with ease I knew it was a good match. Even when I told her he had bolted with me, she was not concerned – she could handle a horse that did that and teach him to stop doing it too. Teddy will be happier with her, and she will get many years of enjoyment with him. I did right by Teddy.

Equestrian Lessons Learned:

All of the above very abbreviated, yet very long, story is to say – we learned a lot from Teddy. More than I can include in a blog post, in fact. But here are some things that stand out:

1. Don’t fall in love with a horse you’ve just met.

A trainer friend of mine in Kentucky says this happens more often than you’d think. People just like you and me dream of having a horse their entire lives, only to fall in love upon seeing a potential match – without really knowing anything about that horse. Teddy was a handsome horse, but there’s a reason experienced horseman say “pretty is as pretty does.” In other words, pretty does nothing for you when it comes to finding a suitable equestrian partner that you can actually ride. Take your time and don’t fall for “love at first sight” with horses.

2. Request current videos of a horse before deciding to go see it.

Always ask for current videos of a horse and don’t go see a horse without them. This is especially important if you have to travel to see the horse. One of the mistakes we made with Teddy is not asking how recent the videos we saw were. Turns out they were more than a year old and had been taken by his previous owner. The fact that the current owner did not have any videos after trying to sell him for some time should have been a warning.

3. Haflingers are not beginner horses. (There are exceptions.)

I’m sure there are Haflingers out there that are perfect babysitter type horses. If you have one, you are very lucky indeed. But if I had a dime for every time a horse person has told me “Well I coulda told you not to get a Haflinger!” I’d be a rich woman. Haflingers have draft horse blood in them and, from what I’ve been told, can have a stubborn streak that makes them unsuitable for beginner riders. Teddy definitely had this trait. If he wanted to trot and you wanted to walk, it took a whole lot of effort to make him slow down. Sometimes it didn’t matter what you did he would just blow you off and do whatever he wanted anyways.

4. Always ride a horse 3+ times on different days – then do a trial.

In retrospect, it was sheer insanity to think we could select a horse after riding it once and spending a handful of hours with it. I would never do it now and am not sure why my trainer & I did it then. While I have no intention of buying another horse soon, if I were to decide horse ownership was for me again I’d ride it 3+ times, on different days, before deciding whether I even wanted to move forward with a trial period. There is no way I would ever buy – or lease – a horse without at least a one month trial period. (We are now doing a paid lease on an amazing Quarter Horse, which I will write about in another post.)

5. Always question why a horse is free.

I know of many good horses that are available for off-farm free lease. It’s a common practice that helps the horse’s owner retain control of the animal without having to bear the burden of expenses. At the same time, caution must be taken when a horse is available for a free-lease or just “for free.” Teddy was the latter case, and while I think the woman who owned him had his best interests at heart, the fact that she was offering him for free – after trying to sell and lease him for many months – should have been a red flag. A good horse – especially one that is suitable for lessons – is worth its weight in gold. If you are being offered one for free, odds are that horse is only worth its weight in fools gold.

6. Don’t overlook serious health issues & avoid Lyme.

Although horses can recover from or live with Lyme disease, in retrospect that should have been a deal breaker with Teddy. He never had physical symptoms of Lyme either before or after he was treated. But the change in his personality – from when he was a lesson horse to when we got him – could have been caused by Lyme. I have met several good horses who have dealt with Lyme just fine, but after our experience that’s just something I’d like to take out of the equation if we decide to find another horse.

7. Don’t make decisions based upon how much effort you have already put in.

Don’t decide to get a horse just because you’ve already put in the effort to go see it, try it and do a PPE. If I’m honest with myself, part of the reason I decided to give Teddy a chance could very well have been that I’d already driven to MA and spent $1,200 on a PPE exam. But if I had passed him by I would have saved a lot of money in the long run: on his Lyme treatment, the cost of shipping to him to Vermont, and then 9 months of board, vet and training bills for a horse that ultimately would not work out.

8. Wear your phone on your arm.

One of the things that helped me when Teddy bolted is that I had strapped my iPhone to my arm. Everything in the saddle took off with Teddy, and everything in my pockets went flying across the field with me. (My keys were literally scattered everywhere.) But because my phone was strapped to my arm I had it when I woke up and was able to send a befuddled text for help.

If you know someone who has been in a riding accident:

I can’t end this post without mentioning an experience I had after my accident.

Here’s the thing: a horseback riding accident can be scary, and also heart breaking if the person decides their horse it not a good fit for their needs. Don’t make things worse by telling them how stupid they were to get into an accident. One woman at our former barn literally gave me a dressing down when I finally managed to go visit Teddy. I was still struggling with my concussion, had stitches in my face and a black eye, yet there she was chastising me. I told her I knew it was a mistake in retrospect, said I didn’t blame Teddy and had learned some important lessons, but she wouldn’t let up until I was literally in tears. Don’t do this to someone. Even if you know they made a mistake, when they are recovering from an injury and struggling with their emotions is not the time to share your thoughts. If do decide to share your thoughts, try and be empathetic. Think about how you would feel in their situation and try to offer support, especially while they are on the road to physical and emotional recovery.

Also, if they have decided to find a new home for their horse, realize that they are probably mourning the decision. Even if it is the right decision, like it was with Teddy, they likely have feelings of sadness, regret and loss. Text them, email them, give them a call, offer to meet for coffee – anything to show that you care about them as a person. Even if you are not bosom buddies, it’s always nice to hear from someone who thought about you.

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