My love triangle

Much to my surprise, bringing home a new horse has helped me forge a stronger and happier relationship with my old one.
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I feel like I am having an affair. Blame it on my recent retirement, or the acceptance of my own mortality, but I was beginning to feel like something was missing in my life. Whatever the source of my dissatisfaction, I allowed my heart to rule my head: I fell in love with a second horse.

On the plus side, my aging heart races when I see him approaching, a white shock of hair falling rakishly over his forehead. I feel younger and more vital, and my friends notice my increased energy.

On the other hand, I feel guilty. I had to change my routine, walking a different route to do my chores to avoid being seen by my old horse, Cleo. Each hour I spend with my new horse is tainted by feelings that I am slighting Cleo, and I spend too much energy justifying my behavior. I have bored my friends obsessing over my situation, trying to validate my decision.

My friends have taken different approaches. One rode her gelding, Cookie, for 26 years, and she never considered getting a second horse until he died at age 32. After searching for three years, my friend decided that no one could fill Cookie’s shoes, and she has adjusted to living without a horse for the first time since she was a young girl.

Then there are those who are never satisfied. I have another friend who, in her search for her perfect partner, adds to her herd every year or so. And she had to buy a new property equipped with an arena and training pens to accommodate her current herd of four horses of varying breeds, temperaments, sizes and genders.

In my case, age had been creeping up on Cleo and me at the same time. Although we have accomplished many goals over the past 10 years, I was becoming frustrated by her increasing stubbornness when I asked her to do something she preferred not to do. By the time I convinced her to cooperate, I was too tired to appreciate her obedience. I was becoming less optimistic about how much more progress we could make together, and as the years passed, the ground began looking awfully far down. I found myself fantasizing about a horse who was compliant, eager to please, easy to canter and not quite so tall.

Then I heard through the grapevine about a horse---actually a large pony ---who needed a new home. Buddy, as he was called, was developing a bad reputation. He was confined to a small pen or a dark stall, and he had taken to sticking his head over the rail and snapping at passers-by. He had had a brief career as a children’s lesson horse until he dumped a couple of his riders, and he actually nipped the daughter of the trainer. The huge Thoroughbred boarded next to him was giving Buddy a complex by constantly rearing above him and threatening to eat his food. Buddy needed some work: His attitude had to be adjusted and his confidence rebuilt. Moreover, he was white---a grooming nightmare.

At the same time, he fit most of my basic criteria: He was small (14 hands), a gelding, middle-aged (15 years old), generally unflappable, with an easy-to-sit canter and in my price range (free to the right home). So I took the plunge.

After a 30-day trial period, a veterinary checkup, new shoes, dental work and a new name---Aubergine---“Aube” was transformed. He loves his new paddock, kindlier neighbors and predictable routine. He doesn’t kick, bite or dump his rider. He has lost flab and put on muscle, and he is grateful to have a single, albeit heavier, adult rider rather than a series of children pulling on his face, mane and tail. Now, Aube eagerly runs to the gate when he sees me.

However, I felt guilty about Cleo. When I got Aube, I wasn’t ready to give up on her. I figured that, since I was retiring from my job, I would have twice as much time to devote to horses, and I could maintain my current riding schedule and then add the same time commitment to Aube. My plan worked for several weeks. I was learning new skills on Aube and applying them when riding Cleo, and she and I were both improving. But a realization hit me: Aube is more fun, and I found myself looking forward to each ride. Meanwhile, riding Cleo was feeling like an obligation, which exhausted rather than exhilarated me.

Finally, after serious soul-searching, I made the decision to retire Cleo, and I moved her from the riding stables to my backyard.

I felt as though I was abandoning her. Instead, I found, we were simply forging a new, more comfortable relationship. Since I spend most of my days working in and around the house, Cleo plays a greater part in my daily life than she did when she lived at the stables and I rode her three times a week. Each day now, she watches for me so she can neigh and beg for treats. She has become my alarm clock in the morning, calling for breakfast when the sun rises. I take frequent breaks from my schedule to brush her coat, muck her pen and clean her feet. And she has taken on a new role: She is my sounding board and confidant. She provides me comfort, continuity and companionship.

I am getting over my feelings of guilt. I maintain many friendships, each meeting some different emotional or spiritual need---I have my dog-walking friends, professional friends, parenting friends, riding friends and “best friends” from years ago. And even with my children, loving one fully does not diminish the love I have for the other.

So it is with Cleo and Aube---I have room in my heart for both, time in my schedule for each, and the resources to provide them with everything they need to live long, happy, healthy l ives. And I am delighted to accept the unique gift that each provides in return: quiet acceptance and love from one, and pulse-quickening excitement and joy from the other. 

This article first appeared in the September 2017 issue of EQUUS (Volume #480)