Danielle + The Mare
I am a first-year veterinary student at Purdue University. I completed my undergraduate degree in equine pre-veterinary sciences and biochemistry at Otterbein University in central Ohio last spring. I have been riding since I was eight, at a barn in northeast Ohio where I dabbled in a little bit of everything: western halter and showmanship, English hunter under saddle in the quarter horse and paint circuits, saddleseat, in-hand…but it was the Morgan breed that I fell in love with. It wasn’t until I went to college that I entered the Hunter/Jumper world, and showed on an intercollegiate team and learned to jump. I was introduced to the world of warmbloods and horses that are worth well into the six figures and beyond, but I turned to my local SPCA for my first horse and she has proven to be priceless.
This is my story.
I always knew that I wanted my first horse to be a Morgan. After growing up in a lesson program with several wonderful Morgan schoolmasters, their personality and athleticism charmed me. Even after going away to college and seeing some of the nicest and fanciest warmbloods I’d ever laid eyes on, there was still something about a Morgan. During summer break after my first year of undergrad, a friend asked if I would go with her to our local SPCA barn to see about volunteering opportunities. Coincidentally, there had just been a large raid and the barn was full of Morgans. I met a young, unbroke gelding and fell in love with him. Unfortunately, the cards were not in our favor, and he was adopted out shortly after I visited him. Talking with the barn coordinator, she told me, “I always tell potential adopters that when it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out for a reason.”
She was right. She called me back a few days later, with news of a horse they’d just gotten back from a foster. “She isn’t on the website yet, and only a few people know about her, but I don’t think she’ll get on the website before she’s adopted. Come out today. She stressed. You won’t be disappointed.” I dragged my skeptical mother (who was wary of a mare for my first horse) out to the barn where a sun-bleached, potbellied black Morgan mare was waiting in the first stall. We locked eyes, and in that moment, she chose me. She had “lost her personality’” the barn coordinator said. She didn’t want anything to do with people, she’d given up. I walked back and forth across the length of the stall front and the mare followed me, back and forth. I had to have her. I came back two days later with my trainer to rider her. It wasn’t until after I’d gotten on that I was told it was her second ride since she had arrived at the shelter barn. My trainer deemed her a “safe project if she ever saw one,” and I was sold. A week after I first laid eyes on her, the ink was drying on her adoption papers.
I spent our first summer putting miles on her and trying to find out what all she knew. We literally started from the ground up. She obviously had some training in her past, but just how much is difficult to say. Our best guess is that she had never cantered under saddle, but she was willing and tried to please with whatever I asked her to do. There was a learning curve for both of us; not only was she my first horse, but she was also my first training project. (Normally not a good combination.) I can only attribute this to being the right horse, and having a great trainer who helped me devise a plan for her. My trainer was there for advice, lessons and help every step of the way from the get-go. My horse trusted me and I trusted her. By the end of summer, she had enough training that I was able to leave her at home when I returned to school, and she spent some time in the lesson program at my home barn. But every time I visited on weekends or breaks, my trainer commented on how much better my mare rode for me than anyone else.
The following summer, I brought her to my undergraduate university since I was staying there to work. I wanted to teach her to jump since I had just learned. (Again, green horse and green rider – it never should have worked!) She was pretty athletic on the flat, but she took to jumping like a fish to water. We had found her calling. She loved jumping more than anything else I’d ever asked her to do. We went to a local hunter/jumper show at the end of that year and she acted like the whole thing was old hat.
She stayed with me then until graduation, and she really began to blossom over fences. We learned together and grew more confident, pushing our limits. Under the wonderful direction of the coach at my undergrad, my mare and I were successfully schooling 3’6″, quite a feat for a little 14.3-hand Morgan. While competing hadn’t been a major goal of ours, my coach kept hinting that she wanted us to go somewhere to show her off.
Unfortunately, I was only able to show in about five show days out of 12 on the circuit near us before I had to relocate for veterinary school. But in those five show days, we competed in 3’0″, 3’3″, and 3’6″ unrated and rate jumper classes. While it was never about ribbons for me, my little rescue mare brought home more ribbons in one fraction of a season than I’ve ever had before in my life. We only left the ring ribbonless twice, and only placed less than first or second twice. She ended up with multiple top-ten year end finishes, even though we were there less than half the season. (I can only imagine her success had we been able to finish out the series.) She gained a lot of compliments and support from competitors and spectators at the shows we attended. One quipped that she must be “part superhero,” and many commented on how hard she tries for me – something my coach reminded me of frequently. Walking back to our stall after one show, she complimented how far we’d come together and how cool our journey had been. My rescue, who cost me less than a month of board, was successfully showing in a division where it is uncommon to see rescues or Morgans. (My coach was quick to point out that she was a rescue to anyone who would ask about her at shows. She was quite proud of that fact.)
And now, she has accompanied me to veterinary school. I know that wherever life takes me, I will have her at my side.
For me, she is the “right horse,” my heart horse, a part of my soul. She has brought me more success as a competitive equestrian than I could’ve ever imagined, and I know that our presence in the show ring isn’t over yet. But more than that, she is my companion. The first full school year I had her with me, my grades actually improved. I graduated my last semester with a 4.0GPA. She is my sanity, my other half, my kid. I understand her on a level that I cannot accurately describe, and she has made me a better equestrian and horsewoman. She is my greatest source of pride, and just being with her can erase whatever stress I am dealing with. And I know that she will be by my side, always.
If I had to do it all over again, I would do it exactly the same. I took a huge leap of faith when I adopted my very first horse, but I had a ton of knowledgeable support from family, friends and trainers who guided us to where we are now. There are so many talented horses waiting in rescues to find the right person, and whenever people ask me about my mare, her being a rescue is one of the first things I bring up. Not because it makes her success even more exceptional, but because I think it’s important for people to realize that there are some really fabulous horses in rescues, an avenue many people don’t consider when they start looking for a horse. And I truly think that rescued horses have a different bond when it’s a match between the right horse and the right person. When you choose a rescue horse, they pay it back to you a million times over.
This is what “right horse” means to me.
I think right horse is synonymous with heart horse. The horse industry lends itself to the temporary. Kids are started on small ponies, graduate to medium and then large ponies, and eventually to their first horses. People outgrow a horse, and set out in pursuit of something bigger, fancier, more broke, less broke, more of a challenge, better suited for the discipline, more likely to win them blue ribbons or a faster time, younger, sounder, etc. Horses are often used more as a tool than a living, breathing partner. The right horse may not be the biggest or fanciest horse. It might not be the youngest or flashiest horse. But there are some combinations of horse and rider that you observe and the bond they have is indescribable. That horse – with any other rider were aboard –would not be capable of the same things. And that rider – were it any other horse beneath the – would not be capable of the same things. The right horse and rider better with each other, and no matter what the circumstances, as that rider improves or as that horse ages, it will still be the right horse.