Barn Stories Ep. 32: Better Than Black Beauty

Superheroes always have great origin stories, and so do super horses. In this episode of Barn Stories, a woman sees her plain bay mare in a new light after learning about her fascinating past.
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Christine: Superheroes always have great origin stories, and so do super horses. In this episode of Barn Stories, a woman sees her plain bay mare in a new light after learning about her fascinating past.

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Laurie: Welcome to the Barn Stories podcast. I'm Laurie Prinz, editor of 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: This story in this episode starts out with a familiar narrative: Two young sisters become the owners of a physically unremarkable mare. While the mare, named Dancer, seems to be nothing special, she suits the girls’ needs just fine. The next chapter of the tale is also familiar, as Dancer works her way into the heart of the youngest sister, who begins to appreciate her true value.

Christine: This story takes a twist when, through a serendipitous conversation, Dancer’s past is revealed. We won’t spoil the story for you, but suffice to say, the unremarkable mare turns out to be anything but. She had already lived a life of adventure and accomplishment before coming into the lives of the sisters. And the more her owner learns about her mare’s past, the more she realizes her good fortune in getting to be part of her life.

Laurie: If you’ve ever been delighted to learn even a little bit about your horse’s life before you met him, you’re going to love this story. Let’s listen to “Better than Black Beauty,” written by Jennifer van den Bogerd and read by Taylor Autumn.

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Taylor Autumn, reader: To see the old bay mare grazing in her field, her goat leaning up against her leg, you’d think she was nothing more than an aged “kids’ horse.” In one sense, that’s exactly what she is. But in all the ways that matter she is much more than that.

Dancer entered my world when I was 9. My older sister was saving every cent of her babysitting money for her dream horse. I’ll never forget the day our horse-expert friend called to say he’d finally found a candidate for my sister. We all piled into the family van, and the drive seemed to take forever. My hopes were set on a Black Beauty of a horse with a coat as dark and glossy as polished coal. A flashy pinto would do, too.

My heart dropped when I saw the completely ordinary-looking brown “pony” in the dimly lit stall. She was a 19-year-old Standardbred and stood Better than Black Beauty14.2 hands, and the only negative thing the seller could say was “She can kick a dog without missing a stride,” and even that he said puffed with pride.

Still, I bounced like popcorn all the way home, the horse trailer ahead of us, and for weeks none of us could stop saying, “We actually bought a horse!” But Dancer was no Black Beauty. She stomped at flies with a vengeance, galloped only with my sister—never with me—and oh yes, she kicked my dog without missing a stride. But it would be another three years before Dancer and I really began getting to know each other.

By the time I was 12, my sister was drifting out of the horse world, while nothing mattered more to me than riding, so I became further invested in Dancer’s upkeep. She and I spent hours in the field, and now that I fit my britches, she’d gallop for me. But I wanted to ride jumpers, and Dancer did not do fences. I divided my time between Dancer and a riding stable filled with jumpers. Yet I came to increasingly appreciate the hours I spent with my own mare.

Dancer officially became mine when my sister headed to university, and after a year that included a bout of colic and a hoof abscess that looked terrifyingly like a broken leg, I began to wonder just how much longer I would have this treasure. The older Dancer grew, the more I wanted to know about her past. But I never could have imagined the many stories I would hear.

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Taylor Autumn, reader: It started in the unlikeliest of places, in the bleachers of a calf-roping show. I was chatting with one of the rodeo veterans about his roping days and my own adventures with horses. When I mentioned that I owned a Standardbred, he told me about a Standardbred mare he used to see clean up in the barrel-racing rounds. He’d never forget that horse, he said—just a little bay thing, no bigger than 14.2 hands.

Once home, I made a few phone calls and managed to reach the man we’d bought Dancer from years ago. Her previous owner, a woman, had boarded Dancer at his farm for 15 years. I thought I’d have to jog his memory, but he remembered my mare the instant I said her name and spoke of her fondly.

Dancer had been a racehorse, retired at the age of 2. She was picked up by a horse dealer after it became clear that she didn’t see the point of racing at the trot. But that didn’t mean she didn’t love speed—she was indeed the same horse who had become that amazing barrel racer I’d already heard about. She loved to run and, even at the boarding farm, she and her owner participated in many match races.

In fact, one day the owner of a certain Quarter Horse had bragged a little too much about her horse’s speed, so Dancer’s owner challenged her to a match. They burst off. When the Quarter Horse reeled to a halt at the verge of a steep embankment, Dancer kept right on going.

Some winters, Dancer and her owner would skijor—galloping through the snow with a skier in tow—and in the summers they explored the trails. One day, on a bad path, Dancer sank to her neck in swampy quicksand. Her owner ran for help in tears, certain her mare would panic and drown in the thick soup. But Dancer was standing and waiting patiently when she returned.

When people ask me how old Dancer is today—she’s 29—and then ask what the average lifespan is for a horse, I see empathy. Still, Dancer looks better than any senior horse I’ve known, and I’m expecting her to continue to do well, as she always has. I’ve decided that Dancer and I no longer owe each other anything. We’ve given each other all we need to give, and now we’re just enjoying one another’s company.

Dancer has left her hoof print on many hearts. The children we’ve met whom she gently carried on short “pony rides.” The rodeo fans who thrilled at her speed and daring. The woman who adored her for 15 years, and the many others who were touched by her sweet nature. And, of course, my family and me. This mare has been so dearly loved through every step of her story.

Dancer didn’t have to capture my heart at first sight, when I was still so smitten with childish fantasies about Black Beauty. She’d win me over in the long run. In a match race, she’d leave that black steed far behind. She proved to this skeptic that she really is a once-in-a-lifetime horse. And while she won’t always be here physically, I know—like all the beloved horses in children’s stories—Dancer will live forever in my heart.

Christine: If you're a fan of Barn Stories, you'll want to check out the newest ad from EQUUS magazine. It's called 3 Things from EQUUS and focuses on practical and timely horsekeeping tips. You can find it right now on SoundCloud.com and on iTunes and other podcasting platforms.

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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 EQUUSBarnStories@gmail.com.

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

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