Who is your favorite horse, Ms. Alica? The one you love best?”
I gaze down into the small face. My students ask this often. Most are waist high, their hair tucked under pink helmets. Some come once a month, in worn jeans and borrowed boots. Others come weekly in expensive outfits from the local tack store. All are starry-eyed and breathless with their first ride, their first canter, their first ribbon. They all still have so many firsts ahead of them.
I pause to think. What horse do I love best? I have been in the business for more than four decades and have loved many horses for different reasons. There was Sugar, the backyard pony who helped me perfect my emergency dismount. Floyd, my first training project, whom I eventually paired with his perfect owner. Castlewood’s Checkmark, a seasoned performer, who taught me showmanship and gave me my first blue ribbons. I owe my reputation as a trainer to the many talented horses I’ve worked with over the years, many of whom brilliantly carried my riders to victory passes. And, of course, my riding program would be nothing without my school horse partners, who do their jobs unerringly, day after day.
Yes, I have loved many horses. But as I face the pure innocent emotion beaming from a little girl’s eyes, I wonder what answer could possibly satisfy her expectation? In truth, the horse business is often exasperating. Hours of sweat, freezing cold, flies and bone-weary exhaustion blend with the moments of triumph and jubilation. There is disappointment, loss, injury, old age and, yes, inevitably, death. This little girl wants a love story that transcends all this. She wants to hear a fairy tale about a forever horse.
So what is that elusive something that elevates one horse above all others to become a superstar in your heart? What name pops up again and again when I try to define words like heart, presence and courage? What single horse could also be friend, teacher and business partner?
There is one.
As the years have passed, I suspect the facts of his life have gotten mixed with the myth of what remains of him in my heart. I don’t know that they can be separated. He is the horse by whom I measure all others. He helped “make me,” not just as a professional, but as a better human being. I smile at my young student and say, “There was an American Saddlebred called Folly’s Topcat….”
I never officially owned Topcat, but he owned my heart from the first day I met him. He arrived at the barn and stumbled off the trailer, tall and gangly with multiple conformation faults. He was over at the knees and had one dished foot. His head was as long as his neck and his ears flopped. He tripped once on the way to his stall, and I tripped twice leading him. We seemed destined for a future together.
His previous barn name had been Cornbread, but we always called him Toppers. I had the privilege of schooling him for a juvenile rider over the next few years. I called it luck when our careers merged at that time, but perhaps it was fate. Something happened when this horse went to work: There was a dramatic shift you could feel, from croup to poll. He had a way of looking at things in the far distance and a desire to get there that changed his whole demeanor. I had my first introduction to “presence.”
Presence makes a horse seem much bigger than the competition. It is a quality that emanates from within that surmounts physical flaws and draws people closer to the rail for another look. It can hold a crowd in awe and stir them to a frenzy. Presence—it’s not what you have, but how you present it to the world. Standing in his stall, Toppers was just plain old Cornbread. But when he hit the show ring, he owned it. He taught me, too, to stand tall and proceed with confidence.
Folly’s Topcat carried his young rider to many victories, but the show I remember most was a little two-day event in the mountains of North Carolina. It was there he demonstrated the true meaning of “heart.” The Saturday night American Saddlebred Pleasure Championship class started with 30 horses, who had to walk, trot and canter both ways in the ring. In a class that big, it is common to pull the top horses in for a second workout and send the rest out of the ring. Topcat and his rider made that first cut.
So 18 horses went back to the rail to perform again at all three gaits. As the horses lined up once more, steam rose from lathered necks, shoulders and heaving sides, fogging the ring under the lights. Who among so many would win the blue ribbon?
Then the judge did something rare, even in those days: He cut the class again and sent eight horses back out to work a third time. Topcat had already put everything he had into each workout. His rider was exhausted.
But, on the way back to the rail, Topcat seemed to gather himself, pulling on the reins, as if to say, “Trust me, I will handle this.” Then he settled back and started climbing—trotting higher and higher as the mist swirled and the crowd cheered. It was as if he were drawing energy from some divine reserve. He won more prestigious ribbons in his career, but that blue stands out in my memory as his best performance.
In his later years, Topcat had an eye infection that required drops every two hours. The whole process was painful. He was a tall horse and could easily have slung me against the walls. Instead, he kept still, body tensed, until I finished and we both sighed with relief. He lost sight in that eye but continued his career as school horse. He was my go-to choice when a rider was ready to go from school ponies to show horses. A rider who could post his big trot without getting left behind was ready for just about any Saddlebred. One quirk Topper had was that his canter always started with a long stride and then settled. That stride was intimidating. But he helped me teach my students one of the most valuable lessons a rider can learn: Trust enough to let go.
Time passed, and I got married and drifted out of the horse business for a while. I had lost touch until a barn manager I knew asked me to feed while they went on vacation. As it turned out, Topcat was boarded there. I arrived and took a look at my old friend. He was down in the stall but got up and shook himself off when I approached. He was well over 20 and showed the signs of age. I went on with my rounds, but when I got back to him he turned to the corner and ignored his grain. I immediately called his owner and the veterinarian and haltered him to start walking.
He followed willingly with a few pauses as dusk deepened to dark. When he lay down again, he wasn’t stressed, so I let him rest while I waited for the veterinarian. I ran my fingers into the deep hollow above his blind eye, traced the gray hairs on his face, and stroked those ears he always used so well. His knees had grown knobby and stiff with age. I suddenly realized I had never owned this horse, and yet here we were, together again by some quirk of fate. I sensed it might be the last time.
People want to continue a tangible connection to what we love. This was the horse who never gave up. Surely he could be saved? This was the horse who taught me the most important lessons of my career and symbolized the characteristics I continue to strive for. My mind raced wildly for ways to resurrect his body, forgetting for a moment what the cost in quality and dignity of his life might be. Where was the vet?
I tugged at the halter. Topcat raised his head, ears forward and looked up past me, as he had done so many times from a center ring lineup. This night there were no crowded rails, no spotlights, no organ music or cheering. It was just him and me joined once more under an infinite country sky littered with stars. I’m not sure I believe in animal communication, but at that moment as he lay his head down once more, I felt the words, “I’m so tired.”
Love. It is how we can best serve our equine friends. Sometimes we have to give them permission to go without the added trauma of our own selfish needs. Sometimes we simply need to say goodbye. The veterinarian arrived, but once again Topcat, my forever horse, had already taken the reins from my hands to handle it his own way.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #453, June 2015.