Now, please realize I do not mean, “Do I need another horse”?
That is a totally different question!
One of my most powerful, and ultimately transformative, experiences in horsemanship came from a young gelding, named Dapper. I’ll tell you about his story as we go on, but let me take you back to my early years of horse ownership.
The Early Years
My first horse purchase happened not long after I got married. Hey, it was time to get that pony! Princess was a cute palomino half-Arabian mare about 2 years old. Perfect, right? Get an untrained 2 year old as your first horse. I was already setting myself up for my first set of lessons. Princess had a lot of handling and she was fine to lead and feed. I was tremendously fortunate to have an old time farrier named Willis, as our hoof trimmer. He immediately saw my dilemma and put me in touch with an old time horse trainer now retired from training Morgan horses of long ago. He agreed to take us on and brought a small harness and showed me how to do some ground work beyond the basics. Unfortunately, we soon realized that Princess was a pony, not a horse and not a suitable mount for my aspirations of being a Saddle Seat equestrian. So I traded up, way up, to a 16.2 hand high Thoroughbred aged gelding. As experience would have it, that was my second horse mistake, and I paid for it dearly.
But that’s another story. However, it set me firmly on the path of a belief that would guide years of horse decisions. I bought and sold horses many times through the ensuing years, with a few brilliant exceptions, I made decisions based on the belief that all I needed was a well-trained horse and I’d be all set.
I learned a lot along the way. I learned proper horse care and some good basics of training and I took lots of lessons to become a better rider and driver.
At the time Dapper came into the picture, I had learned enough that I felt pretty confident I could take a miniature horse with basic training to drive and we could improve skills together. I had worked that out with a miniature horse I had before Dapper (I’ll tell his story some day). So, as things would have it another person really wanted my driving pony and I was excited to start driving in all kinds of events including, I had hoped miniature horse shows, so I looked around and found a really cute registered miniature horse, named Dapper.
He was really well trained in his basics. I was told he was still green and needed more mileage. All true. I was sold an honest little driving miniature horse. Our early days together seemed, for the most part, uneventful to me. But looking back I can see this was not true for Dapper. His new herd setting was difficult at first. I took him to a therapy program I had started working with. It was a difficult place to relax in now that I look back at it from his perspective. As luck would have it, the program closed and Dapper came home to a stall of his own and green pastures with the herd mates from the program who I was asked to adopt.
Paradigm Shift Ahead
Once I brought him home we began to do some more regular and serious training. It was all going well, I thought, so I decided to take him outside of the ring and drive him in the grounds around my Florida home, not a simple flat area at all. The first time seemed ok, so the next time I thought we were good to go so I drove him through the gate as confidently as I would drive my ATV. What happened that day?
I have since speculated that the new noisy metal cart may have been a big surprise as it made a lot more noise over the rougher terrain, he may have spooked at something I did not see as a threat. I may never know the what, but I soon found myself behind a runaway horse.
Full Speed Ahead
As we turned toward a fence I thought for sure he would stop in response to my pull back and “whoas”. Nope, I turned him as it became apparent that we would just pile into the fence.
As we rounded the house a second time I thought to take alongside the pond as that might slow him down a bit since the going there was pretty soft. He had other ideas. I may never understand how he chose to do with he did, but he turned abruptly left toward the pond, perhaps thinking that that way was the way back to the barn?
Even two wheeled carts don’t turn that fast so, of course, I found myself on the ground and my horse and cart in the pond! Thank the Lord we had been having a drought and the pond was very low, or this could have a very tragic ending. However, Dapper is still a little guy. I saw him at the other end of the pond with just his ears, eyes and nose above the water!
I had no idea what his situation was, but I believed that I had just a short span of time to rescue him not only to avoid his panic, but to trust, I hoped, that our resident alligators and water snakes had been scared off for the moment. (Its Florida folks. Don’t make a habit of what I did next!)
So, I took a deep breath and in sneakers and jeans I waded into a pond I had NEVER dared to go in before (due to aforesaid creatures) to go get my pony!!
I walked with God that day as I calmly went to Dapper’s head and spoke soothingly to him and took hold of the lines just below the bit and turned him in a half circle and led him out of the pond. Amazingly, Dapper and the cart and harness were none the worse for wear. I, though muddy and a bit scratched, was also just fine. And the creatures I can only imagine went back to their regularly scheduled activities without our drama!
Dapper had his left leg over the shaft. No surprise there as I remembered him rearing a bit as he turned. I soothingly talked with him as I unhitched him and checked him over. I took him back to his stall and shut him in while I put away my cart and harness. It took me hours to realize I had lost my glasses. HAHA, I have my priorities!
There’s more to the story that day and afterward but let me sum it up like this. Harness and driving was traumatic to Dapper and I decided that driving might not be his thing. What to do? I had invested all the “horse money” I had in him and his rig. I absolutely would not try to sell him to anyone else at that moment as I often did when I decided a horse did not suit me. I wouldn't take the risk that anyone else might be hurt. Also, I really liked him and his general temperament was enjoyable. I decided to keep him on, make a commitment to him and maybe find him another “job.”
I was in the middle of a paradigm shift and I had yet to realize it. My other aspects of life had quite a bit of drama going on too so it was hard to really focus on the horses so they got some pasture rest and just basic daily handling for almost a year.
During that year I had realized how much I missed the special needs programs I had been a part of most of my career years. I remembered fondly, but sadly, the closing of the special needs park in which I had hoped to do some equine assisted services. During that time Pony Partners as an idea and passion started to grow.
As I began to learn about equine assisted programs I started to realize that Dapper’s reactiveness was a bit of a gift. He was the first one to shun me if I was having a bad day until I took a couple deep breaths and “found my center.” Along this journey I realized something that I had read or heard little about in all my years of study and work with horses. The best way to have success at anything you want to do with your horse is to start with a relationship!
During this time of personal growth I was also discovering some important things about myself, and sometimes my discoveries came from painful interpersonal interactions. That is the way of life, it’s a blessing in disguise. To avoid pain we can shut down or we can learn and grow. I thank God that His plan was for me to LEARN.
At that time I had moved to Virginia, rehabbed a home and begun to develop the property for the horses. A lot of conflicting things were going on in my life and I found myself recognizing incongruence as a description of my life. I had to address that. While I was working out these challenges, I kept taking care of my “ponies” and receiving their lessons as well. I began to see subtle changes in my relationships with each of the little equines in my herd.
SO, where does Dapper’s story come back in? Well, for one he is still here!! That was new. Never before had I made a true commitment to a horse that in any way disappointed me. I began to really understand that the core issue between us had been a lack of relationship. I am still daily realizing all the richness of developing relationships with my horses. I’m taking time to develop a relationship with each horse daily during both casual time and specific training time. I will tell more in upcoming blog posts about using obstacles and other groundwork to develop a solid working relationship with my horses.
If you understand and follow this, Dapper is the star right now. He and I are blooming as a team. He was the absolute star of the Pony Fair in August 2018 as he showed his skills over our jump course. Where will we go and how much will we do? Stay tuned. Will Dapper drive again? I think he will. Once we are ready and I can’t predict the timing right now. What I can tell you is that no matter what horse you have, relationship is the key. It is also the best part no matter what your goals are, make relationship your highest goal.