Kiowa + Geronimo
I didn’t intend to adopt a horse at all. I was trying to build a new life in a different state, with a new job and a different outlook on my future. When I started working at Days End, I told myself not to fall in love with any of the horses. I wanted to be more financially secure and take my time finding just the right horse. In my mind, I saw a young Anglo-Arabian with limitless potential, and I was planning to just wait until I found that horse.
I met Geronimo in May, a week or two into working at Days End. He was a ten-year-old gray Morgan/Walker/something gelding and was seized from the streets of Baltimore, where he’d been pulling a cart. While he was very well behaved – walked quietly anywhere, stood tied, picked up and held all four feet, good for the vet and farrier – he was terrified of everything and had clearly been abused. He would throw himself in the back corner of his stall and shake if you threw hay in the stall door instead of gently setting it on the ground. He flinched any time you moved towards his head or if the lead rope moved towards his neck. He would rush through gates and around you out of fear that you’d slam the gate on him, but also that you’d hit him if he ran into you. He didn’t like to be caught in the field, and if you made any big motions in the field, he’d run.
Knowing that it’s my job to help get horses like him ready for adoption, I used some natural horsemanship techniques to try to build his confidence and help him think through his fear. After a few weeks of working with him, he would walk quietly through gates and turn to face me as I closed them. He would greet me at the stall door instead of flying to the back corner. I could catch him without him running away. He started to relax a bit, sometimes licking and chewing or sighing deeply after something I taught him, or bobbing his head as he walked with me to release the tension in his neck. I called him “Cutie,” and if I walked into the barn or down towards his field and called, “Hey Cutie,” he would pick his head up and watch me until I reached him.
I swore up and down that I wasn’t taking him home every time my coworkers asked. One afternoon in June, I was walking him to his field on a very loose lead. I looked over at him and asked, “Would you like to come home with me?” Geronimo bobbed his head and let out a big breath, and I knew I had to adopt him. He was only this relaxed with me, not with any of my coworkers who had known him much longer.
I had time before I could take him home, as he was still part of a pending court case at the time. I got my papers and money in order while waiting for some kind of resolution from the courts. Another two months went by and I only fell deeper in love with him. He quickly learned my specific way of doing things, like putting a halter on or picking up his feet, and was always soft and respectful when I worked with him. I couldn’t wait to be able to bring him home, and I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to. What if the court case didn’t go in his favor? What if, unlikely as it was, someone else tried to adopt him first? What if they wouldn’t let me take him home?
One August afternoon, I was taking care of our newest arrivals in quarantine, as they had only been with us a few days and were still under careful surveillance. Our program director came into the barn and said that she needed to talk to me. I, of course, went straight to the worst-case scenario: I’ve done something wrong, they’re going to fire me, this is it. I put on a brave face and asked what was going on. She said she’d just been at an important meeting in Baltimore and thought I’d like to know the results. Sure, I guess I did. She told me there’d been a hearing for the owners of a few horses still caught up in a court case, and Geronimo’s owner failed to show up. The courts automatically awarded custody of him to Days End, and he would never be going back.
I promptly burst into tears in the barn aisle and hugged her; my right horse would be safe and I could finally begin the adoption process. I had to wait until the end of the day, when I was completely decontaminated and out of quarantine to see my boy and tell him the good news. Not that he understood why I was crying and hugging him.
I brought him home at the end of September, about five months after meeting him. Even though I knew he was broke to harness and likely to ride, I decided to start completely over with him and retrain him from step one. He loved doing liberty work in the round pen, but was less excited about the saddle. He clearly had been ridden before, as our first ride was much easier than any of the unbroke horses I’d ridden in the past. He did show me that he was still afraid I would hit him, but only when in the saddle, so that was our first major hurdle: learning to steer without panicking every time he saw my hand and the rein move.
It easily took six months to get him to the point where he wouldn’t panic at all about seeing my hand, and even then, he still would sometimes spook if the ends of the rein flapped just so. He learned and relearned all his cues, picked up new skills like ground tying and lateral work, and eventually started adventuring outside of the arena. I discovered that he was terrified of both open spaces and enclosed areas, so we went back to the arena. A lot of people recommended pushing him through it or wanted to know how I was going to make him a trail horse if he was so panicky.
The thing is, he doesn’t have to be a trail horse. I didn’t adopt him to be one. I adopted him because I love him and I want to help him grow and have fun with him. If he doesn’t like the trails, he doesn’t like them. He doesn’t have to be anything he isn’t. I love him as he is and we’ll do whatever we’re both interested in.
I ended up moving him to a closer barn in August, eleven months after adopting him. In the new barn, I figured out that he takes about two weeks of constant exposure and very basic groundwork to relax in a new setting. He’s never going to be a trail horse or go to weekend shows, rodeos or clinics. Those kind of moves would completely unsettle him. So what? At the new barn, he’s comfortable riding in the indoor and outdoor arenas, as well as riding in one of the fields. He’s always been gaited, but now that he’s getting consistent work and building muscle and balance. He’s learning how to trot under saddle. I can ride him in a frame or on a loose rein without him panicking. He’s learned how to give hugs for treats, and I’ve learned that his favorite treat is a white chocolate macadamia nut Clif Bar. We used to share them, but he usually gets the whole thing now.
Geronimo is the right horse for me in part because I had no expectations for him. I didn’t need him to do a certain job; he just needs to be himself. He’s exactly the kind of horse I like: smart, but a little timid, and very athletic. And I’m the right person for him. He clearly has had trauma in his past, and I don’t expect him to be over it. I let him react and help him think through and recover from his fears. I ask him for what he’s capable of giving, not for what other horses might be able to do.
Maybe neither of us quite knew what we were getting into that day in June, but we’re here now, and we’re growing together. He’s learning how to relax and have fun being ridden, and I’m learning how to condition a gaited horse to trot and do all sorts of fun things in an arena. We accept each other as we are. There will be other horses, I’m sure, that I will love to ride. I’m sure one day Geronimo will want or need to be retired, and that’s okay. Right now we’re having fun together.
That August afternoon, I promised him that he would never have to worry again, because I would take care of him for the rest of his life. He’s my heart horse, the one I couldn’t let go. I’m so grateful for all the little twists and turns that life took to get us to each other.
This is what “right horse” means to me.
We all have a lot of different right horses in our lifetimes. The right horse is the horse that meets your needs and helps you at that time of your life. Sometimes you need a steady teacher. Sometimes you need an easy to work with partner. Sometimes you need a challenge. We all need different things from our horses and we can have multiple right horses in our lifetimes, or even at the same time. The right horse is the one that matches you; it’s a horse that you can help grow and will help you grow. I had one right horse in high school and another during college, and now I have my own right horse.