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Barn Stories Ep. 34: Learning to Love Loki

His bloodlines were known for stature and elegance, but he was lazy and a little awkward. In this episode of Barn Stories, we learn how a horse named Loki earned his place in one family’s history just by being himself.
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[Christine] His bloodlines were known for stature and elegance, but he was lazy and a little awkward. In this episode of Barn Stories, we learn how a horse named Loki earned his place in one family’s history just by being himself.

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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: The story in this episode is notable because it features a Lippizaner. You’re probably familiar with this historic breed—these are the “dancing white stallions” of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. Endangered Lippizanner breeding stock was evacuated several times during World War II, perhaps most famously in the spring of 1945 when General George Patton, himself an avid rider, oversaw the relocation of 375 Lippizanners by American troops.

Christine: It’s a fascinating and dignified breed, for sure, but I really love that this story is about a “regular” Lippizanner, purchased by a family for his charming personality as much as any fancy dressage potential. The horse, named Loki, ended up being talented under saddle and successful in the show ring, but it was his wonderful personality that made him the horse of a lifetime for one woman. This story is a great reminder that while we may have particular breeds we like, it’s individual horses that we truly love.

Laurie: This story is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster so hang on for the ride as we listen to “Learning to Love Loki,” written by Ashley Holden and read by Taylor Autumn.

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Taylor Autumn, reader: On a late summer day in 2002, my mom and I decided to take a break from mucking stalls and go on a road trip. My mom had always been fascinated by the Lipizzaner breed and was delighted to discover there was a breeding farm within driving distance of our Vermont farm.

I was a teenager then, and the prospect of visiting the farm brought back sweet memories of a childhood trip to see a performance of Herrmann’s Royal Lipizzan Stallions. I vividly remember the ivory horses performing their incredible feats of agility like ballerinas.

As we turned into the driveway, the pearly-coated horses in the surrounding fields indicated we were at the right place. Donna, the farm manager, welcomed us warmly and offered to give us a tour. First we met Maestoso, affectionately known as Maestro, a founding Lipizzaner sire in North America. Although most Lipizzaners are born black or bay and turn gray as they mature, a few retain their dark colors. Maestro was one of those rarities. Calm and majestic, the stallion was a glossy pure black.

We also met the broodmare band. My interest was piqued, though, when Mom asked to see the sale horses. Sure enough, I could see that the wheels in her head were turning as we climbed into an old farm pickup truck and headed down a gravel road. I stayed silent, wondering what Mom was thinking, given that I already had a horse and she hadn’t ridden regularly for more than a decade.

“I have one you might be interested in,” Donna said. “Zeus is 7 this year, and he is broke to ride and drive.” When we stepped into a lush pasture, a young horse with a dappled gray coat stood out among the herd. He looked just like the ideal image of a Lipizzaner I had etched in my mind. He was, quite simply, stunning.

Instantly I was planning our future together with Zeus, and I looked around to see what my mom thought of him. But there she was, hugging the chest of what looked to me like a plowhorse, a random crossbreed who was out in the field. The dark bay gelding was covered with bite and kick marks and his feet were gigantic. A sparse mane sprouting from a low-set neck, and he hung his head like a donkey. But he was pitifully cute with a small star and tiny snip.

“This one is so sweet. What's his name?” Mom was practically gushing.

“Loki,” Donna replied. Contrary to my first impression, Loki was all Lipizzaner, with the impressive name Maestoso Anastasia. Donna told us he had been so gentle as a foal that he would literally sleep on her lap. She also described him as lazy, content to be coddled, and said he’d rather spend time with people than horses.

I asked about his training under saddle. “He’s halter trained, but I haven’t started him yet,” Donna said, and then she told us why: “He has an old knee injury. We took x-rays and found out that he fractured his accessory carpal bone. It happened as a yearling but I’ve never seen him take a lame step.”

I interrupted to explain to Mom why Zeus would be a better choice because he was already trained, and he had a better potential for long-term soundness, but she cut me off: “I will train him. He can just hang out and maybe do a few lessons or give pony rides. I’ve got a good gut feeling about this one.”

Suddenly, the deal was sealed, and the plans were in motion to bring the young Lipizzaner home.

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Taylor: It had been Mom’s intention to train Loki under saddle herself. But soon after he arrived at our farm she realized she had bitten off more than she could chew. She still loved how “cute and cuddly” he was, but I knew if I didn’t take on the challenge, he would end up being only a pasture pet. And I thought he deserved the opportunity to become the best version of himself as a riding horse.

So, day by day, Loki and I spent time together, learning how to trust each other. Within two months, he had accepted the bridle, learned to longe and been ground driven. The first time I climbed into the saddle, Loki peered around and sniffed my leg as if to say, “This is it?” He took everything in stride, and soon we were ready to advance beyond the basics.

We spent our first winter working with a local Grand Prix dressage trainer. Loki arrived at the farm wide-eyed and nervous, and we faced many challenges. Riding him often felt like steering a noodle that hauls like a Mack truck, and we often came within inches of slamming into the wall around one corner at the canter. He frequently spooked at nonexistent boogiemen in that corner as I worked hard to maintain my composure. By spring, his responsiveness, rhythm and attitude were improving and his confidence was growing.

As he matured, Loki developed the noble presence of his breed. He became the leader of the herd but would frequently walk away from his four-legged friends to spend time with people—often content just to stand and watch us over the fence. And, I found, he would let you throw your arms around his neck and hug him tight while you weep, his hooves firmly planted in the ground as he turns to nuzzle your shoulder. He and I were becoming great friends.

But it wouldn’t last. The economy went south, and both of my parents lost their jobs. Loki was now worth much more than my mother had paid for him, and reluctantly, we decided to offer him for sale. We got a serious offer from a woman in Florida, and my mom and I instantly began second-guessing the decision. But we had little choice.

When the day came, I pulled Loki’s mane, combed his long, wavy tail, slid the brush across his stout body and then hugged him for the last time. “I love you,” I said aloud. “And I promise, someday I’ll get you back.” When Loki was loaded into the van, I secretly hoped he would bang the door open and come flying off that ramp and disappear into the field behind our pond. But instead, he stood perfectly still like the honest horse that he is. And then he was gone.

I kept in touch with Loki’s new owner and appreciated her updates and photos. He continued with his dressage training and was shown and pampered. I was happy for him, despite the occasional pangs of jealousy, as I had hoped to share those milestones with him.

When I was financially able, I even went back to the breeder, hoping to find another horse like Loki. Zeus was still there, but when I looked into his eyes, I didn’t see the same soft, peaceful expression as Loki had. Zeus was content to be scratched, but he didn’t entertain me with funny camel facial expressions. He had all the qualities of a lovely riding horse, but I decided he was not the one for me. I knew if I took Zeus home, I would always resent the fact that he wasn’t Loki.

Years passed, and I continued to keep tabs on Loki’s career, until one day I received an email that set my heart pounding: His owner had experienced some life changes and would be placing him for sale. Had the day finally come when I could get my horse back? But when she told me his asking price, my heart sank. It just wouldn’t be possible.

She continued to keep in touch, informing me of when he was being shown to potential buyers. In the meantime, I bought a project mare that I hoped to resell for profit after a few months of training. Those months turned into a year, and by some miracle, Loki had not yet been sold—apparently, all potential buyers had turned away, dissuaded by the knee injury he’d incurred as a yearling.

Could it be possible? If I sold the mare I was training, I might just be able to get enough to buy Loki again. And then I had an offer, and everything fell neatly into place.

In June 2007, the van from Florida pulled into the drive and came to a halt. I was anxious to see my beloved Loki again, but also nervous. Would he remember me? Would we still even share the same special bond? I stood on my tiptoes to peer behind the bars and found myself looking into the familiar eyes of my handsome bay horse, his kind expression never wavering. Looking every inch like the noble Lipizzaner, my gelding stepped off the trailer, even more sleek than I remembered, his coat tanned from the Florida sun.

My horse was home. As I wrote in my journal, “I never thought this day would come. In my heart, I knew he was the one…. But it took me the experience of letting him go to understand just how special our relationship was…. He is not just any horse, but my once-in-a-lifetime horse.”

We wouldn’t always have it easy. As I worked my way toward my college degree, Loki proved to be a wonderful confidence builder for my younger beginner lesson students. He patiently allowed children to learn how to properly apply polo wraps to his big-boned legs, and he protected his young charges during their first bouncy trots, responsive to their unsteady commands. In our spare time, we galloped through the green farmlands, discovered new trails together and even went out to our first dressage show.

But now, settled into a full-time job, I look back on the years we have spent together with joy. Home now is wherever my horse is, and I fall in love with him all over again every time I see his sweet expression greet me as I open the gate to his paddock.

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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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