By Heather Ovelmen
When I was 16, I bought a horse for $1. A local riding school (not actually a dollar store) was looking to rehome a horse, and my instructor asked me to look at him for her riding program. She thought he was too big and dumb and didn’t want to deal with his soundness issues, but the second he dropped his massive head into my arms, I knew he was mine.
My mom took a little more convincing, but I had an after-school job, my instructor’s neighbor let me field board for $50 a month, and you couldn’t beat the purchase price, so she gave in.
He was a gray Hanoverian named Windsor, a breed I only knew a little about from my Encyclopedia of the Horse. The rumor was that he’d once been a show jumper for Margie Engle, though many years later, I ran into her at the Washington International Horse Show, and she didn’t remember him.
His leg was pin-fired. The riding school had diagnosed him with navicular, and he was being shod with rocker-toe shoes. My farrier disagreed with the diagnosis and pulled his shoes off. Windsor ended up barefoot and sound for the rest of his life.
Windsor and I actually got off to a rough start. I boarded him in a mixed herd, and he became herd-bound to a little ex-polo pony mare named Melody almost immediately. If I tried to bring him out of the field and he couldn’t see her, he’d freak out and kick my car. He was 17.1hh, and I was moderately terrified of him.
Him saving my life turned out to be the key to us bonding. I used to use an old milk crate to mount (please don’t do this!) because I couldn’t afford a mounting block.
As I was mounting one day, the crate splintered. It made this awful, plastic explosive noise and my left foot went through the stirrup while my right foot went through the crate.
He should have bolted. The noise was horrible, and I was dead weight hanging from his side. In that split second before he took off dragging me across the concrete, he turned his head, and we made eye contact, and he just stopped. He was shaking like a leaf, but he knew. He knew I was in trouble and needed him to be still. I had to haul myself up with the saddle and kick my right foot out of the crate, banging him in the leg with it several times. He kept an eye on me the whole time, and never so much as flinched. I got both feet back on the ground and collapsed with my arms around his neck. I have no idea how long we stood there like that.
That terrifying moment changed everything. We knew we could trust each other. He no longer cared about leaving his girlfriend behind and, in fact, started meeting me at the gate every day. We rode everywhere and jumped anything we could find. He was absolutely bombproof after that. My confidence in him and in myself skyrocketed. I put small children on his back, we had herds of deer jump out at us, and neighbors decide to do target practice while we were trail riding, and he never batted an eyelash. His one quirk was a deathly fear of water, but he overcame even that for me. The only thing that ever spooked him over our next 13 years was the absence of a large rock that someone had finally moved off the path we took all the time.
About 7 months after I got him, I took him to our third show ever. It happened to be the USDF Region 1 Junior/Young Rider Team Championships.
He was a rockstar. I felt so out of my element. I was just some 16-year-old in secondhand clothes on my (admittedly quite fancy-looking) one-dollar horse. Our team finished reserve champion at Training Level. I believe we also won the team spirit competition because of Windsor. When the judge came around to view our decorations, every other horse hid in the stall from the late summer heat, but Windsor came out to flirt.
At his farm in Nashville, he earned the nickname “grandpa” for his laid-back demeanor. The ponies would often boss him around and steal his food. When a new Friesian filly came to the farm, he was chosen as her pasture mate to help her settle in. He adored his new baby, though she did eat his entire tail.
I dragged Windsor halfway across the country with me, first to college in Nashville, and eventually to a new job in Austin, TX. I worked two to three jobs in college and sacrificed many weekends to be able to afford his upkeep.
In 2010, my now-husband got a job in Washington, DC, and it was time to move again. Windsor was nearing 30 at this point, and I thought the 1,500-mile trip would be too much for him. I was incredibly fortunate to find a friend of a friend with several acres and two mini donkeys in need of a lumbering oaf to tag along after them all day. His retirement home was next door to a Christmas tree farm, and every Christmas he got to be a magical Christmas unicorn and greet all the visitors.
Windsor was my best friend, my therapist, my first love. He passed away peacefully in early 2015, somewhere around 32 years of age, and took a piece of my heart with him.