2 Life Lessons We Learned from Horses in 2019 (Or, What Being Burned So Bad There Are Ashes Taught Us)

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It’s almost 2020 – can you believe it? Another year has just flown by. Looking back on our equestrian experiences in 2019, there are two lessons we learned that were harsh but also valuable.

1. Give People a Chance, But Don’t Get Taken Advantage Of

The longer we are involved in the horse world, the more I realize how many people lie. Without shame. This is especially true if you are looking to buy/lease a horse or looking for someone to help you with an issue your horse is having. Everyone swears they have the perfect horse. Every trainer knows exactly how to fix the problem. Rarely are these claims even remotely close to the truth.

And yet, I try to not let our many past experiences with dishonest horse folks color my dealings with new people. I assume everyone is honest, but I keep my eyes open. This is probably a good lesson for life in general.

Keeping your eyes open applies to people you already know.

This lesson was driven home in 2019. After being at a horse barn in Milton, Vermont for just over a year, I discovered that the owner had been using the horse we were full leasing for horseback riding lessons and birthday parties when she knew I would not be there.

I’d had an inkling something was fishy early on. One time I showed up to ride and Mo had a girth sweat stain, even though I hadn’t been there in days. The barn owner said it was from the last time I was there and I believed her, but I shouldn’t have.

Confirmation of her dishonesty finally came a year later, this past November. She posted a picture on Facebook of several women (without helmets!) riding horses at her barn as part of a birthday party. In the front row was a horse whose face wasn’t visible, but on his neck I recognized a small white mark. The mane looked familiar, and the front knees were a bit over extended – all features that belonged to only one horse at the barn: Mo.

I asked her if she had used him for a party. “Of course not,” she replied, “I would have asked.” She then proceeded to tell me it was her niece’s gelding. When I pointed out the neck/legs/color were different she then said it must have been her stallion. “I use him for parties sometimes,” she said. “He’s very quiet.” But I knew this was not the case because a) it’s crazy to put a random person on a stallion without a helmet, and b) because the stallion had a muscular body and neck that Mo did not have. Plus, Mo looked more like an Appendix Quarter Horse, not an AQHA registered breeding stallion.

Finally I asked another woman I knew had been at the party. “Was Mo used for the party?,” I asked. She confirmed that yes, it was Mo in the photo. It was only upon being caught that our trainer admitted she’d used him – despite our full lease contract saying we were the only ones who could ride him.

You can imagine how much this experience shook us up. We discovered that our trainer was breaking our full lease contract and that she would lie to us. I saved the Facebook conversation and decided that we should cancel our lease. No matter how much we love Mo, it didn’t make sense to keep paying all the fees associated with the full lease if we couldn’t trust that it was actually a full lease.

Plus, why would we stay at a barn where the owner had lied to us so blatantly? Suddenly that time I saw the alfalfa feeding schedule – and Mo’s name wasn’t on it – flashed into my mind. I had been paying extra for him to have alfalfa. Had he been getting it? And more than that, we also had our own horse at this barn. Was she doing any of the things we were paying for with this horse? You can’t relax and enjoy your time at the barn when the foundation of trust has been shattered.

We had just renewed our lease and the barn owner did refund us for that, as well as unused board and lessons. Our own horse is now at another barn and is being sold for all the reasons I mentioned earlier. We had misgivings about him from the start, so finding a home that fits his needs feels like a relief. We can’t ride him and there’s no sense keeping a fancy show horse we can’t even lunge on our own.

But Mo? Discovering her blatant dishonesty and losing Mo was a harsh blow. We really love Mo and always will. We are going to miss him forever. That’s probably what makes me the most upset about this situation. That Mo – a good, honest horse who had a family that truly loved him – is now going to be one of her over used lesson horses… Though as I type this I’m realizing that the idea of Mo being “our loved family horse” was a complete fantasy since she was obviously using him as a lesson/birthday party horse all along.

This entire situation has really rocked our world. I feel sorry for other folks who may fall under this horse trainer’s spell, and I know there have been and will be many. There are not many horse trainers in Vermont and if you are looking for VT horseback riding lessons this is one of the main barns.

Always keep your eyes open.

Watch what happens at the barn.

How are the horses treated? – At this barn even the farrier once told me that if a horse needed a few weeks rest for lameness and overuse there was no way they would get it. Why? Because a horse that wasn’t working wasn’t earning money.

Are sale horses represented honestly? – More than once, I saw a sale horse represented as the perfect horse. Yet I’d know for a fact that horse bucked someone off the other day or tore around the arena for an hour before that video could be taken. This practice is so common in the horse world it’s almost not worth mentioning.

How does your trainer talk about other clients? – Many times I heard the trainer trash talking one client to another. That’s a bad sign right there and one I should have paid more attention to.

All of this is valuable information. And if you discover dishonesty, don’t let yourself continue being taken advantage of. It’s like the old saying goes: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. If I had listened to the early warning signs sooner, we would have saved a lot of money and a whole heck of a lot of heartache.

2. Never Give Up On What Brings You Joy

So now, after lesson #1 above, many friends have asked: Are you giving up on horses?

Of course not.

No matter how difficult things are, if something brings you joy you can’t give up on it. And odds are, if that thing involves people and/or money, there will be challenges. Learn the lessons that need to be learned, then continuing pursuing your dream.

Whenever I’m tempted to step away from the horse world, I think about a future me, on my death bed. I know that sounds morbid but, for me at least, that’s a good way to check-in and determine what is truly important.

I ask: When I am on my deathbed looking back upon my life, will I regret having let this thing go?

If the answer is yes, don’t give up on it.

We are at a new barn now, taking lessons and just focusing on improving our horsemanship. We did go to look at one horse, but it hadn’t been honestly represented so we passed on it.

Sometimes keeping your eyes open means enjoying things as they are and being open to new opportunities when they arise. So for now, we plan to enjoy our time riding a sweet lesson horse and learning everything we can. When the right horse comes into our lives, we’ll be better horse people than we are today.

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