Haley + Gilligan
Ever since buying my first Morgan horse, Yankee, I have been in love with the breed for their intelligence, heart and versatility. I spent my teenage years growing up with Yankee and doing everything from barrel racing to eventually jumping and equitation courses with him. I brought him with me to college where he became quite the professional. He got used by my college equestrian team for practices, tolerated me learning to jump gymnastics and went in our hunt and western shows and took it all in like a saint.
However, he was getting older and more perfect by the day, so I decided that it was time to find a second project to take over some of Yankee’s workload during my sophomore year in college. I stumbled across Forever Morgan’s Facebook page and was immediately intrigued by the little red Morgan horse named Stowaway that was being fostered about three hours away from me.
His bio read “He was the first foal by a well-known show stallion who was only 14 months old when he jumped through his stall window and cleared the paddock fence to visit some young mares. Miss Congeniali-te was sold shortly thereafter and surprised her owner with a chestnut colt the following summer. The colt, Stowaway, was handled but only green when he was sold. A broker bought him at auction and took him to New Holland with the intention of selling him for slaughter, but Forever Morgans outbid them and saved him. After quarantine, his breeder (Benediction’s owner) fostered him. Since she had never met him and had only seen a few foal photos, she was glad for the opportunity to get to know him and then help find him a forever home.”
I reached out to Forever Morgans who connected me with his breeder, and soon I was driving down to meet him. By that point not much could have convinced me otherwise- and when I saw his big, white, blaze, long mane, and floating trot, I couldn’t wait to get home to fill out the paperwork.
When he arrived in October, I decided to name him Gilligan. He was sweet as could be, but barely halter broke and afraid of everything that moved and most things that didn’t. He was very smart and learned quickly but needed to learn a lot of manners before we could even begin to get into starting him under saddle. I taught him to lunge and we worked on standing tied and picking up feet. I ended up taking a horse training techniques class as part of my equine studies minor that spring, so he became part of my coursework that semester. He learned alongside the younger horses to long-line, stand for polo wraps, go for walks outside of the arena (a scary ordeal for Gil), and finally, I got to riding him.
Gil is EXTREMELY smart. He learned voice cues after maybe two lunging and round pen sessions and would “whoa” from a dead run the instant you said it. He learned that “good boy” meant that he could relax, and he quickly started testing what he could and couldn’t do. This was good and bad; he never stopped thinking and rarely stopped testing. If you weren’t challenging him enough, he would get bored.
The first time I rode him outside of the arena, he immediately learned that if he wanted to, he could “spook” out through the open gate and go on his own adventure every time he went by. He learned that if I wanted him to stretch his neck and back, he could throw his head to the ground. And he learned to anticipate EVERYTHING I might ever ask and think of some sort of escape plan that usually involved snorting at a bucket that had been in the arena since the dawn of time, or a dark patch of dirt, or his imaginary friend outside of the arena.
This was especially tough when we could barely steer under saddle to begin with. As we started learning new things and I could keep his mind more occupied, things improved, but not as fast as I would have liked. Gil never stopped challenging me. I couldn’t trust him not to spook because he might have imagined a new frightening demon since the last lap around the arena. But he was so smart. He learned so fast. And he always tried to please. He learned to pivot and side pass in a day. I pointed him over tiny fences to give him a different way to transition to a more balanced canter and he barely batted an eye. He knew exactly what I was asking for 90% of the time, and he got frustrated when he couldn’t get that walk-to-canter transition. He squeezed and bunched up his muscles and tried his little heart out until he got it.
I rode him during equestrian team practices and he barely flicked an ear at the 14 other horses going by him in the arena. I free-lunged him in the indoor arena and he would stay on a perfectly round circle with me no matter where I walked. He wanted to please.
These small victories went on and on. When I brought him home with me for the summer I hauled him to a new arena several times and he was better every time. When I brought him back to school with me I rode him several times a week, and even created an independent study course for myself so that I could continue training him for another semester of college credit. The biggest challenge was building strength in his back and hind end, so we continued to do a lot of lunging and long-lining from the ground. By the time I graduated, I had to decide what to do with him. I finally got a job in August, and by November I was able to find a place to board him that I could afford and get him back into work.
When we got him to his new home, it felt like we were starting all over again. Gil did not like his box stall with no turnout. He did not like standing in the cross ties. He did not like the new arena or the new barn or the new small eight-year-old boy banging his toys against the stall bars. It felt like almost every ride in the new arena was spent overcoming something scary, and we were barely learning anything new.
After a month or two he settled in, and a stall with a turnout attached opened up and I was able to get him some freedom to go outside if he wanted. About that time, I had surgery on my knee and was unable to ride for three months. Back to lunging, and eventually long-lining when I was mobile enough. When I was finally able to ride, I could barely trot him because my knee was not strong enough for me to post. We sat the trot a lot and cantered a little. By that summer I decided that we would need to do something different, so I went back to my parents’ house and got Yankee’s western saddle.
From that first ride, our lives changed forever. With the security of my western saddle I could finally let Gil stop as hard as he wanted and encourage it. I could finally sit his big saddle seat trot and manage it into a nice, relaxed jog. Why hadn’t I done this before?! I was so much more comfortable, and it was clear that Gil appreciated my improved seat too. Soon enough I decided he should learn to neck-rein, and before we knew it we were jogging around on a loose rein. Gil learned that he could STOP, and soon I was practicing ranch work with him. I grabbed a rope and started swinging it around him. I introduced him to cows. I started working on lead changes. We perfected our rollbacks. Who was this horse that had been so feral and uncomfortable 6 months before?!
By this past March, it was time. I took him to his first American Ranch Horse Association Show in St Louis, Missouri. We got out of the trailer and his eyes looked like dinner plates. Everything was new and BIG and flapping. He had never seen an arena like this. He had never had 20 horses loping shoulder to shoulder in a warmup pen doing stops and rollbacks and lead changes right in front of him. But by the time we got through the second day of showing, he didn’t care. He was happy to walk by the plastic bags and folding chairs and tables, as long as he got to go back to his stall. He was happy to hang his head by the cattle pens to watch classes and take a break. He was falling asleep in the horsemanship lineup. And he was happy to do his job!
I had been so nervous to take Gil to a show, because I knew we would spend most of our time worrying and spooking. I also knew that if I never took him anywhere and gave him a chance, he would never learn what it is like to see the world and have a job and enjoy it. I love Gil, but I love competition as well and want him to love it too. I needed him to be okay with going places and doing new things. Fortunately, the years of learning together, sweating together, and hanging out together helped Gil to trust me enough to try this scary new thing. I couldn’t afford to pay a trainer, and I made a lot of mistakes and made much slower progress on my own because of it. But because we struggled together, I know Gil like the back of my hand. I know what will annoy him, and I know what will allow him to relax. I know that I can’t bully him past what is upsetting him, and he trusts me not to put him in danger. We’ve become a team. We still have silly moments, but we’ve also had moments where I trusted Gil with my life and he was steady as a rock. We will be going on many more adventures together, and I know that he is my heart horse and that I am his person.
What #RightHorse means to me
The #RightHorse is a horse that teaches you something about yourself and makes you want to be a better horse person. For me, Gilligan taught me to be patient and to be the pool of calm water when things get scary and stormy. He has helped me enjoy small victories and learn to see the small details in a big picture. I would not be half the horse person I am today if it weren’t for my horse (and his imaginary demons).