Barn Stories Ep. 15: The Convert

· “I love her, Mom! Can we get her please?” If you’ve ever heard (or said) these words, you’ll appreciate this episode about the quest to find a suitable first horse for a young rider.

[Christine]: “I love her mom, can we get her, please?” If you’ve ever heard this plea as a parent, or made it as a child, you’ll appreciate this episode of Barn Stories.

[Laurie] Welcome to the Barn Stories podcast. I’m Laurie Prinz, editor EQUUS magazine.

[Christine] And I’m managing editor, Christine Barakat.

[Laurie] This podcast features our favorite essays and articles published in EQUUS over the past 40 years. Although EQUUS is known for articles on horse care and veterinary research, our editorial mission has always been guided by the bond that exists between horses and people. And each issue has featured a real-life story that celebrates how horses enrich our lives and touch our hearts.

[Christine] We’ve searched our archives, chosen the stories that resonated with our readers and given them new life in this audio format. Longtime subscribers may recognize some of their favorite pieces. And if you’re new to the EQUUS community, these stories will confirm that no matter what sort of saddle you sit in, a deep emotional connection to horses is something we all share. 

[Laurie] The story we’ve chosen for this episode tells a familiar story: The quest to find a first pony for a young rider. Anyone who has ever been on this mission knows how high the stakes can be. The right pony can nurture a budding equestrian interest to grow into a passion that lasts a lifetime. But wrong pony for that particular child can quash the spark forever.

[Christine] This story also addresses a common pony-shopping quandry: The trouble of having one candidate who ticks all the right boxes, while the primary qualification of the other is simply having captured the young rider’s heart. Should an impressive equine resume trump that intangible connection? In this story, the decision is ultimately made by circumstances, over the misgivings of the nervous mom writing the check.

[Laurie] How did it all turn out? Let’s listen to “The Convert” written by Christine Willard and read by Taylor Autumn to find out.

[soft music]

[Taylor Autumn, story reader]: Unlike most horse owners, I got dragged into buying a horse. I had no dreamy fantasies of flowing manes and thundering hooves. I had never even read Misty of Chincoteague. I was thrust into it by my horse-crazy daughter, but I must admit now that owning a horse has transformed both of our lives.

Nicole was crazy about horses from the first time she saw one, when she was a year old. After that, her favorite toys were horses; she had a bouncy horse in the kitchen, and her favorite television show was a National Geographic special on Irish horses.

Each of those I found to be manageable, but as Nicole grew, she wanted the real thing. When she was eight, we moved from the suburbs to a more rural area. I decided I could take the next step for my daughter.

We got some local recommendations, and Nicole started taking lessons. The trainers she began with was a dressage rider, not really the best match f or a romantic young girl who wanted the wind in her hair, but Nicole was thrilled at just being allowed to ride a horse, and she began to master the basics. I sat on the sidelines and did my part: paying for the lessons and cheering her on.

This girl lived for horses an she began to spend more time hanging out at the ranch, doing odd jobs and hoping for occasional rides. I was beginning to realize that she would have to have her own horse one of these days.” When you’re a teenager, “I told her. That time seemed far enough off that I could think of a diversion between now and then.

What I didn’t take into account was the speed with which events can gallop u p and over take you .One day someone mentioned a small mare that might be for sale at the next ranch over. Confident of my ability to find some reason why any horse would be unacceptable I, allowed myself to be persuaded to go see her.

A dirty chestnut horse stood quietly in one of the rundown corrals. She turned to look at us when we came to her gate, hardly even responding to our presence. A young roan mare corralled with her made some nervous moves, putting herself between us and the chestnut.

The cowboy who ran the ranch explained that he’d actually wanted only the roan horse, but the chestnut came along as part of the deal. Both horses had belonged to an old cowboy who’d died a couple of years ago. No one had done anything about the horses, and the two had lived on the acreage since then, fending for themselves.

They certainly looked it with their scruffy coats. Suspicious and unfriendly, the chestnut mare was so far from the ideal pony that it would be easy to put off the decision a gain.

“She’s real gentle,” he told us, entering the corral. The roan snorted nervously and began a skittish dance, so he led the chestnut out the back of the corral, closing a rickety old gate between the two horses. “Here, look, nothing bothers her,” he said, grabbing her tail and leaning back, letting it hold him up. She took a step and gave him an annoyed look, then turned away. I watched this spectacle with a mixture of horror and relief: Even after such an extreme demonstration of her gentleness I, was sure my daughter wouldn’t want this creature that barely resembled a horse.

“Here, she can sit on her,” the cowboy went on, lifting an eager Nicole onto the horse’s back. Holding onto the lead rope, she let the horse take a few steps. Suddenly, with a snort and a crash, the barricaded young roan came thundering through the rickety gate, determined to reclaim her companion. She charged directly toward my daughter and the older mare.

The chestnut looked over her shoulder at the commotion, laid her ears back and stood her ground. The roan eventually settled at the chestnut’s side, until the cowboy haltered the younger horse and led her away. The chestnut stayed steady through it all, my daughter secure on her back. Nicole began to walk the horse around the corral. I was relieved that disaster hadn’t overtaken us and grateful that the old mare had not taken the separation from her buddy as seriously as the roan. But Nicole saw a dream coming true.

“I love her, Morn. Can we get her? Please, please?”

“Well, we’ll see. She’s very nice. What a good old girl.” I would say anything to get out of this.

But something had changed for me. I realized that I had committed myself to getting Nicole a horse. No turning back now. I was terrified of acquiring this one, though, because she was a mess. I had no experience with horses. What kind of potential problems was she harboring, and how would we know how to deal with them? What we needed was a pony all set up, ready to go.

Nicole grudgingly said she’d look at other ponies but swore that she loved this one. I felt sure that we would find some other horse that she would love even more, something we could manage.

We traveled around and tried out other horses and ponies. We met Tony the Pony, who’d won jumping classes and presented a sharp, ideal pony appearance. His teenage owner showed him well. Surely this was the answer. We arranged for him to come out for a lesson.

Although Nicole still insisted she wanted only the old mare, I felt certain she’d come around and fall in love with Tony. Every day we passed the old mare on our way to the ranch. We’d bring her small treats and visit with her. One day I brought an apple. Perhaps she hadn’t tasted an apple in years, but for the first time I saw a light come on behind her eyes as she ate it. Carefully taking each piece from my hand, she showed me some sparkle. Her grateful old eye took on a younger look.

“Why, I hardly remember ever having anything so delicious, dear, she seemed to say. She really was a gentle old girl, a honey of a pony.

We asked a friend to ride her. The mare had all her gaits and was a willing and honest horse, the friend pronounced. What does “honest” mean, applied to a horse, I asked. Well, she does what you ask as well as she can, our friend explained. That sounded positive.

Perhaps the veterinarian would save me from winding up with the old mare. We had him out, a kind, youngish man in whom I’d developed confidence as I watched him work with horses at the ranch. Surely he’d find this ancient critter unsuitable and free us to find the Perfect Pony.

No help from him. He pronounced her sound and healthy-thin and dirty, with some paddling in her gait, but nothing to keep us from using this horse for a girl’s first pony. He found her to be much older than the 15 years the cowboy had claimed was her age, probably more than 25. Too old, I said, adding that to my list of objections.

Yet something inside me was slipping. “At least give Tony a chance,” I told a pleading Nicole. “Try him for the lesson Monday.”

But Sunday afternoon Tony’s owner called. A nice family had come to see the pony and had bought him, she told me. No lesson tomorrow; sale canceled. I regrouped for a minute and finally looked the future straight in the eye. “Well, I guess you can get the old mare,” I heard myself tell Nicole. She whooped with joy.

After dickering with the cowboy over price, we walked the mare, whom we named Honey, up the hill to her new home. Nicole was thrilled, but I still had my doubts. What would we do with her? What did either of us know about owning a horse? Fortunately, the dressage barn provided full board-albeit at a price, both in dollars and in sneers. But it gave us time to learn what feed was best for her, what farrier we trusted to trim her feet and the basics of horse care. Soon we were ready to move her to a self-care ranch where we’d all be happier.

From that first day, when keeping Nicole on her back was more important than indulging her companion’s antics, Honey seemed to take real pride in protecting my daughter. Somewhere in her past, perhaps, she had once had another young girl of her own whom she’d trained to be a responsible horsewoman.

Honey seemed to take personally any insufficiency on her rider’s part as an areas he’d have to work on training. Nicole was fortunate to have good natural balance, and Honey turned out to be a trustworthy companion on whom my daughter could learn to ride as well as grow up. The two of them cantered across the fields together, rode to the beach, rode trails into the hills.

Having her own horse legitimized Nicole as a serious rider at the ranch. No more begging rides and hoping for the best. Now she worked on mastering skills in earnest.

Eventually, Honey took her to local horse shows, and Nicole covered a wall of her room with ribbons. She took up sidesaddle riding and won a trophy in a parade. Presently, they are learning to drive in harness. If Nicole wants to try something, Honey does her best, which often is very good and rarely less than respectable.

As for myself, a bookish type who thought having a second cup of tea was an eventful afternoon, I’ve changed my life completely. Now we are outdoors in the fresh air, working and playing hard every day, with Honey, our faithful companion and teacher. I never tire of her patient company and, in return, I take great pride in keeping Honey looking nice.

The entire focus of our lives has changed. Even at the very start, Honey’s patience and devotion transformed us. She continues to lead us to greater humanity with every fulfilling day. I’ve never regretted for a moment that quiet evening when I agreed to buy this Perfect Pony.

[Christine] Thanks for listening to Barn Stories. We hope you enjoyed this episode. If you have a favorite article or essay from the EQUUS archives that you’d like us to feature in a future podcast, let us know. You can reach us at [email protected].

Did you enjoy this episode of Barn Stories? Head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate and leave us a review. Thanks for listening.

The Barn Stories podcast is a production of the Equine Podcast Network, an entity of The Equine Network.




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