Pony power!! This month on YourDressage, we are celebrating ponies of all breeds. Dressage riders who choose ponies as their mounts are eligible for many Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards as there are several pony organizations on our Participating Organization list. In this heartwarming story, a Region 2 rider shares about Lily, an unstarted mare who unexpectedly came into her life and went from being a project pony to her “heart pony.”
By Krista Ziec
“To all the ponies that have carried the weight of a young girl’s heart.”
What does the horse (or pony) in your life mean to you? If you are anything like me, the answer to that question cannot be conveyed by an article, but I’ll try anyway.
Riders often talk about their “heart horse,” which I feel can be a very appropriate term sometimes. It is the horse whose heart and soul compliments your own, or one so full of character and personality you can’t help but converse with. Horses like these aren’t always the easy ones, but when you are both in sync, you are unstoppable. Like the best partnerships, they will fight for you and you for them. As far as definitions go, this is a good start. But to better understand what I mean, let me tell you the story of my “heart pony.”
She’s a rescued 13.1hh POA (Pony of the Americas) pony mutt named Lily (variously called Bright Eyes, Pone-Pone or Lily-Pone). For the past 11 years, Lily has been many things: my project pony, my show gelding’s best friend, his comfort pony on trips to the veterinary hospital, my therapy pony through many ups and downs, my combined driving partner, and of course, my I-just-gave-you-a-bath-why-do-you-use-poop-as-a-pillow pony!
My family owns a boarding stable in northern Illinois, and one day my dad told me that someone had just left a pony at the neighbor’s farm for back rent that was owed. Our neighbor only had miniature pet ponies and she had no interest in a full-size pony, so she asked dad if we wanted her. He and I went over to look and found a young, wild-eyed, Queen-of-the-Minis pony who knew what treats were but that was about it. She was completely unbroke and clueless. However, she was also well put-together and, in my opinion, looked as if she had lots of potential. The question then was whether I was up to the challenge of taking on a project pony and, being only twenty-five years old, I was (for better or worse)! All the neighbor knew about her history was that she had been picked up at an auction in Iowa and left with another horse for payment by her delinquent tenant. For only $500 cash, we took a chance and walked her down the street to her new home.
I had helped trainers start youngsters, and restart OTTB’s after the track before. However, this was the first time attempting the primary training of a horse or pony from the ground up on my own. Over the next few months, Lily learned how to be a “good” citizen on the ground with me and then I enlisted the help of our dressage trainer. Lily was officially started under saddle! At around the same time, I broke my wrist, and my show horse was injured and had countless complications afterwards. He required two major surgeries, so I wasn’t able to devote as much time – or money – to Lily’s training as I wanted to. Despite everything else that was going on in my life, Lily evolved from “just” a project pony and started occupying a more special place in my heart. The difficult equines and the ones that get us through hardships often leave the largest impressions. She has the brains, just the right amount of sass, and a heart of gold.
During the first few years of Lily’s training, Lily kept me grounded while I was concurrently dealing with my gelding’s recoveries, relapses, and eventual euthanasia (Ethmoid Hematomas), and my own injuries and major joint surgeries. I just couldn’t let her go. Our trainer got her schooling up to First Level with some Second Level movements in dressage, and I taught her how to jump. Additionally, I took her out on trails alone and in groups. I really focused on her groundwork too to make sure she had confidence and knew how to handle herself in situations, trying to get to the “bombproof” status. I’m happy to say that we had so much fun and made lots of progress together.
Occasionally my dad would pester me about why “we” hadn’t sold this now much better-trained project pony yet. So, in order to “appease the boss,” I started listing her on local sales pages… but marked up double her value because I (not-so-secretly) didn’t want her to go anywhere! Others would tease me – in a good-natured way – for keeping a pony that I couldn’t physically ride any more, nor was she ever the right size for me to do much more than training on. During the seven years or so before we started carriage driving, the most I could do was groundwork, give pony rides to friends’ kids, and groom her. To those reasonable arguments for selling her, I would quickly joke that, “She’s going to be my kid’s pony!” Mind you, I wasn’t even married at the time, so the prospect of children was a long way off. But by that point, Lily had become too precious to me to part with, and it became my dream that she would find her forever home with me and my future family.
That was the dream, but the reality of the situation was far from ideal. The truth was that major health issues ended my competitive riding career, and my capacity to keep up my equestrian hobbies was shrinking. Was saying “she’s going to be my kid’s pony!” just the easiest excuse I could come up with to avoid the pain of parting? Was I doing Lily a disservice by keeping her for selfish reasons? Could I have found her loving owners better for her than me? Surely someone else could help her reach her full potential. These ideas made me seriously reconsider selling her. I listed her again for a fair price and was contacted by a therapeutic riding center who was interested. They came out and Lily passed all the groundwork and bombproof tests with flying colors, but once they got on to try her under saddle she failed miserably. Her movement was too huge for a therapy program, she even left the catch rider behind… darn dressage pony! Shortly after I, luckily, found a twelve-year-old share-boarder. This became my preferred solution because Lily got to stay at our farm, “kid’s pony” was officially added to her skillset, and the boss man was happy that the “free-loading pony” was finally earning her keep.
In 2017, while Lily was being shareboarded, I attended the Midwest Horse Fair. Waiting for the dressage clinic to start, I caught the end of a combined driving cones demo. I couldn’t believe how fun it looked! Silly me, I thought driving existed only in the working horse and breed worlds. I had no clue it was a competitive sport in and of itself! It was so appealing to me because it combined all my loves: dressage, speed, and getting out on the open trials in the forms of driven dressage, cones, and marathon. I wasn’t sure how my newfound diagnosis would fare in a carriage, but I figured it had to be better for me than riding.
I found a local driving instructor and started taking lessons on her school pony, Stella. My joints and back were holding up and I was having so much fun learning a new discipline. Once I knew I loved it, I asked her if it was something we could teach my pony Lily. She came over and started from the ground up teaching Lily how to drive. Lily was enjoying learning something new as much as I was! There are TONS of hours that need to be done on the ground before you hitch to a cart and I did all my homework with Lily religiously. Even though my riding career was over, Lily and driving gave me back my ability to participate actively in equestrian sports and grow in a new direction as a horsewoman.
I purchased a training cart and refurbished it for Lily’s big day: our first hitch! I brought it to the farm on a Thursday night and we incorporated it into our ground lesson getting Lily used to everything about it. I parked it in its own little spot in the lean-to between the barn and silo. Little did we know that would be the last time I would see it whole.
The following evening – Friday July 21st, 2017 – our dairy barn was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Luckily my husband and I were in the arena barn just down the driveway and were able to get all the horses out safely. All but one of the horses had slight smoke inhalation, but otherwise no burns or major trauma to any of them or us. Lily-Pony, who lives outside, also had smoke inhalation, as she was putting herself between the fire and her herd, keeping them to the back of the property. No humans or animals were injured, but my family farm that we had rebuilt over the years – my “happy place” that I had grown up in – was gone in a blaze. I have never felt so helpless in my life as I did that night watching it burn to the ground. It was yet another life-changing event that Lily got me through as my mental health pony, all 13.1hh of her, carrying the weight of my world once again.
We picked up the pieces over the next few months, and Lily and I got back to driving. That October, we hitched for the first time. Lily took to driving like she had been doing it her whole life! We were a little ambitious, but I entered to participate in the Midwest Horse Fair Andy Marcoux clinic, exactly one year from when I first discovered combined driving at the same event. We were selected, and only 6 months after our first hitch, we were off to the clinic! She performed amazingly in the chaotic atmosphere, and we both grew immensely over those few days. Steffen Peters was ringside at the end of one of our clinics, so of course I had to do a fancy Lily-trot right past him. I have no clue if he even noticed us, but I like to pretend that he did!
Over the last 11 years, Lily and I have traveled many states together, attended some amazing clinics, competed in rated and non-rated combined driving and pleasure driving competitions, camped together, and have logged many miles on roads and trails. She has taken care of my emotional wellbeing and melted away my worries time and time again. We have an infallible partnership now, and I feel like we are a cohesive team that could conquer the world together. In hindsight, we are finally where we were meant to be from the very beginning, or so I think.
In the beginning of this article, I told you about how Lily is my “heart pony,” and I tried to illustrate just what that means to me over the journey we’ve shared. And now after all of that, I’m going to task Lily with the next big job of her life, as well as mine. The running joke of eleven years that Lily will be my kid’s pony is about to come to fruition in early June. She got me through daily struggles of fertility treatments. She got me through every negative test, and every single tidbit of bad news. Every time I’m confronted with an upsetting situation, I can usually be found, like most other barn rats, running off to our barn to get away from it all. For all the agonies she let me cry into her neck over the years, I feel by rights she has come to know me as well as any other living creature could. She is usually more opinionated and mischievous when I’m around, but last fall she started acting like she does around children with me: very quiet, docile, and cuddly. At the time, I thought she was just being weird, but now I think it’s only fitting that she knew I was pregnant before I did. My husband Filip and I have been waiting for this little bundle of joy for years, and it’s about time that Lily-Pony will finally become our child’s pony. Though in truth, I know that Lily is waiting to become our child’s heart pony, too.