Barn Stories Ep. 39: Scars and strength

Christine: A woman rehabilitates a horse after a disfiguring accident, and he repays the kindness by tending to her heart. This episode of BarnStories celebrates the deep emotional connection that can develop between horses and humans in need.

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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 is a story about helping a horse heal—not just from physical wounds, but from emotional trauma. While there are perils to ascribing too many human attributes to horses, there’s no doubt that good mental health is an important element to their well-being.

Christine: When the narrator of this story meets Frankie, he is a withdrawn horse with a troubled past. Some horses react to trauma by lashing out, while others—like Frankie—pull into themselves, creating an emotionally defensive shell. With patience and kindness, however, our narrator convinces Frankie that it’s safe to emerge—transforming his life and enriching hers when he returns the favor in her time of need.

Laurie: This is a wonderful story that portrays the very best that humans and horses have to offer each other. Let’s listen to Scars and Strength, written by Janet Steinbach and read by Taylor Autumn.

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Taylor Autumn, reader: At the center of the paddock stood the sorrel gelding—tall, lean and muscular—with his head lowered almost to the ground, his handsome face turned away. Although I had visited often, he would not look up. I lingered, leaning on the paddock rails, resting my head on my arms and willing him to lift his head and look at me, but he never did. Eventually, it was time to head home.

When I first started visiting Frankie, I was new to the horse world. I’d never owned a horse nor known anyone who did. But as I entered midlife, I decided it was time. So I sat down at my computer, googled “horse riding lessons,” and located this Quarter Horse ranch about 45 minutes from my home.

I will never forget the day I arrived for my first lesson. A perky young girl got me started grooming the mare I was to ride. Then we tacked her up and followed the instructor to a round pen. Settling proudly into the saddle, I took up the reins. Circling on this big animal, feeling her natural rhythm and the rush of air on my face, was magical.

I was hooked. I returned for weekly lessons and became a dedicated student. And after each lesson, I strolled the ranch, visiting the broodmares, stallions, yearlings, foals—and a large collection of goats, chickens, cows and ranch dogs.

These strolls led me to Frankie, short for Frankenstein. I was drawn to this horse, so tall and handsome, yet also so aloof. I got permission from the owner to bring a bag of carrots with me on my lesson days, hoping to attract his attention with the lure of a treat.

Each week, I would cautiously approach his paddock, lean quietly against the rails with my hand outstretched, balancing a few carrots in my palm and just wait. But I may as well have been invisible.

Then one day, Frankie finally lifted his head and looked toward me—that’s when I saw the damage. The narrow white blaze that started between his nostrils stopped abruptly at a thick mass of scars that stretched from eye to eye and continued up his forehead. 

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Taylor: I did not move as he walked toward me, stretched his neck to scoop the carrots into his mouth, and backed away.

I sought out the owner to ask what had happened. I learned Frankie had outstanding breeding and had once been a highly trained reining horse with superior potential. But some aggressive horses had driven him into a pasture fence. His forehead was badly lacerated, and veterinarians tried to mend the injury with skin grafts from his belly. Despite their best efforts, Frankie was left with significant scarring. After the accident, his owner explained, Frankie was effectively unsaleable. He proved resistant to training and fought every time someone tried to get near his face. Competitive riders just weren’t interested in him.

I thought we were perfect for each other. At the time, I was a licensed clinical psychotherapist with a successful private practice. Each week, I helped dozens of patients learn to cope with anxiety, depression, trauma, grief, anger and dysfunctional relationships. To me, Frankie was a 16-hand, 1,200-pound patient, and I was drawn to try to heal his spirit. I bought him, found a small boarding facility closer to home, and we began our journey.

Our first year together was challenging and required every bit of patience I had. For one full month, I stood motionless, waiting for Frankie to approach so I could slide a halter over his head and attach a lead rope. We circled his paddock over and over at the beginning, getting to know each other while I talked to him, reassuring him with my voice and calm.

Eventually, I swung open the gate and led him out for a walk around the boarding facility. Frankie stayed behind my shoulder as we went. Sometimes we stopped and I let him graze, talking to him the whole time. This was our routine for another month as we bonded and learned to trust one another.

In the meantime, I was busy reading everything I could find about horse care, watching videos on ground training, educating myself about appropriate equipment, supplements, immunizations, equine illnesses and injuries. I secured a farrier and a veterinarian, and I purchased a used saddle and other tack.

After three months, I moved Frankie to a bigger facility, which offered the companionship of other seasoned riders with quiet horses and plenty of woodsy trails to explore. I met new friends I could ride with and who could help guide my training and build my confidence.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. I stoically climbed back into the saddle many times after being bucked off. And Frankie and I had to work out many issues. I loved every minute of it.

All that was 16 years ago. Today, Frankie is known as the “trail boss” among those we ride with, as he gently leads new riders on the trail. He helps keep their horses calm and focused, pausing now and then to look back and make sure everyone is safe with all four feet still on the ground.

He has a special place in his heart for children, and he will pause, drop his head and stand still so that a small toddler can pet him. I am still in awe as I watch little ones cautiously place tiny hands on his scars while Frankie remains calm and affectionate.

Watching Frankie interact with people often reminds me of the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” It would be easy to understand how a horse who’d endured a trauma like this might remain head shy and wary of people. Instead, Frankie stands tall and is easily approachable. At 20, he is healthy, energetic and sleek, galloping around the arena with tail high and nostrils flaring.

Friends have told me how lucky Frankie is to have me. But I am the grateful one. It was I who needed his devotion and steadiness when my own life crumbled, and I needed time to heal and regain the ability to hope.

There were many days I sat on the mounting block in the middle of the arena, tears rolling down my face, while he calmly stood over me, his head on my shoulder and warm breath caressing my cheek. Frankie has remained steadfastly present for me when family members passed away and my dogs fulfilled their time on Earth. His strength and love and quiet loyalty has never faltered. We are unquestionable partners for life. 

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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 [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, LLC.

Looking for more great horse-centric podcasts? Check out the other offerings from the Equine Podcast Network. 




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