Life Lessons From My Heart Breed

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Tilly

Salute to the Thoroughbred!  This month on YourDressage, we are saluting the versatile Thoroughbred and Thoroughbred crosses of all kinds.

Dressage riders who choose Thoroughbreds as their mounts are eligible for Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards asThe Jockey Club is a Participating Organization.

We recently asked our social media followers to share about what makes these horses so special. 

By Debbie Berry

Yes, there are heart horses. I have one now. They are those horses that connect with you in a special way. They may have opinions, they may be cranky, they may be explosive, they may be tense, they may be in your pocket all the time. The difference between a heart horse and another horse is that the heart horse chooses you. And when they do…your whole perspective and experience, and dare I say life, shifts.  

Sherry

I have a heart horse now. I never fully appreciated what it meant to be owned by a horse, until now. But more than that, I have a heart breed. Throughout my life, I have owned Thoroughbreds and Thoroughbred crosses. The breed chose me. And since we are using the word heart, I will say it is the greatness of heart that is the connection for me.

 And each one of them has given me a life lesson.

As a kid, my first horse was a Thoroughbred Quarter Horse cross, Sherry. She was cranky. She was a dominant mare. She was a cow pony. And she jumped for me, and did Pony Club and 4-H for me, and won in horse shows for me, and let me ride her bareback, galloping across pastures in Hawaii. I was nine.

She taught me about the world of horses. 

My first horse as an adult was a 5-year-old, off-the-track Thoroughbred, Alex, who showed up on the property next door to us in Washington. He’d bowed a tendon on the track and was next door to heal through the winter. I bought a blanket for him, and brushes, and hay, and the neighbors never said a word. When he re-injured his leg the next spring back at the track, I told the neighbors I would buy him. So, for $200 and $25 a month board, he was back in the field next door, healing. 

Alex

When I decided the time was right for him, I put a saddle on and mounted him from the ground. He took off across the field as I struggled to get my leg over the saddle. I happened to be 3 months pregnant and thinking, in that moment, this was a VERY BAD CHOICE. As if he knew, Alex slowed and let me swing my leg over the saddle and then ride him forward. He obviously made better decisions than I did. 

Alex was such a gentle soul. I found him one winter day blowing weirdly into a pile of hay on his stall floor. There was a newborn litter of kittens. He was so careful where he placed his hooves all day until the mom cat moved them to a less risky spot. Another time, I was cleaning stalls and lost track of my young daughter. I found her out in the pasture with her arms wrapped around Alex’s front leg. I panicked but he stood stock still until I could get out there to pry her away. 

And this is the horse who introduced me to dressage. He was tense at the shows and in the trailer. But I, on the other hand, was happy and sublimely ignorant. For our first few schooling shows, our scores were in the 40s, and well deserved may I say. Not Alex’s doing, mine. However, I remember how proud and excited I was to earn a 56% in our first recognized show. My trainer very diplomatically commented on how much we had improved.

Alex foundered in his late teens, but came back to show another year before I knew it was time to retire him. That final year of showing he did on heart alone. During our years together, his issues led me to explore chiropractic and acupuncture work, and to try an animal communicator. He lived with me until the distinguished age of 27. 

While I learned so much from the mistakes I made with Alex, what he really taught me was to look at the world through different eyes. 

Seamore. Note: USDF strongly recommends all riders wear protective headgear when mounted.

Seamore was an off-the-track Thoroughbred who’d had a second career. He came to me when he was 13. He was so nervous and not trusting. I never could tie or cross tie him. So, he learned to ground tie. When we’d trailer out for a show or trail ride, I would hold his lead rope the whole time I groomed and saddled him. We adjusted. 

He was talented and scopey. But it took a long time to find his trust. He forgave my inexperience time and again and gave me all he had. He did not enjoy the shows, but he did like the trails, oddly enough. The longer we were out, the quieter and happier he became. I remember his content sighs back at the trailer.

I learned to listen during my time with him. And I knew something bigger was there that I had not yet seen. I wish I had my time over again with him. I think I might have done him more justice. But I have come to accept that he was in my life to teach me…something about dressage…but also something more. Seamore moved onto the eternal pasture when he was 28.

After he was gone, I realized he had taught me that life is never really about me. 

Gryffin is a big grey Thoroughbred with lots of talent. He was the first really well-trained horse I’d owned, and he was such a delight to ride. He was also off-the-track, with an abysmal three start record of last places. After the track, he had been trained for eventing but was just not a bold enough jumper for cross country. The trainer thought he would be a good dressage horse for an adult amateur looking to make the next move up. Yes, that was me. Gryffin was 6 when he came to me.

Gryffin. Note: USDF strongly recommends all riders wear protective headgear when mounted.

This horse taught me methodically every step of the way. During the first few years, we had no trainer to help us. So, friends would video my rides periodically.  I would study those videos for hours, and then compare my riding to videos of internationally well-respected dressage riders. And I read everything about dressage I could get my hands on.  During those years, Gryffin taught me to sit the trot, to canter from the seat, and all the lateral movements. This horse showed me what riding in complete harmony felt like. I did my first ever canter half-pass on him.  With his talent he deserved a better rider, but he gave me his all, and with it my confidence grew.

Several years into our relationship, Gryffin was gored by an elk in the pasture during rutting season.  It took two years for him to recover, and while he was never quite the same mentally or physically, he still put his heart into everything I asked of him.  Today, he is 23 and retired to a large field with several other older gentlemen. I visit him weekly to thank him for the years he has given me.

His greatest gift was that he taught me I am good enough.

Rainboots was a Thoroughbred/Warmblood cross with a funny little personality and a host of physical issues. I got him for the cost of doing stem cell therapy for one of his stifles. He recovered, and every ride he tried with all his heart to please me. But we were destined to walk this life together for only two years. Colic and a twisted gut claimed him.  He was such a gentleman to the end, and I have never regretted the extra work and worry.

Rainboots

Because he taught me that everyone is worth it.

Now I am 65 with many, many years of horse ownership and care under my belt. And I am still riding a Thoroughbred. When Gryffin retired and it was time to get another horse, I swore I would never buy a mare. I would never again get a horse over 10 years old. I would never show again. 

Enter Till the Wind Blows, Tilly. 

My trainer at the time saw the match well before I did. The horse was a mare. She was 13. And within four months of buying her, we were showing.  Then, a few years later, I did my first (and probably only) 3-day event. 

I can still remember the very moment Tilly turned her heart over to me. It was when I chose to reassure her rather than discipline her for a particular behavior during a ride, and suddenly the whole relationship changed. This is a horse who has my back. She can be very opinionated and sometimes explosive. And I have to ask just right. But when I do (and I’ve gotten better at it), she gives me her entire being…every single time. There is nothing quite like it.

Tilly is now 20 and I have promised her, as I have with all my horses, that this is her last home. She will retire with me when she’s ready and I know she’ll tell me when she is. After all, she IS a mare! But I won’t be surprised if that’s a few years off. I think she might still have a few things to show me. 

Tilly

Because her lesson for me is to never say never.

I am already mentally preparing for my next horse. When the time is right, I’m confident he (or she) will drop into my lap as all the others have done. While Tilly’s lesson for me is to be open to all possibilities, I will not be surprised when my new partner turns out to be a Thoroughbred.

My life would not have been the same without my Thoroughbreds…my heart breed. At some point the edges have become blurred, and I cannot see where their spirits end and mine begins.  We have become inextricably bound together.  As each one has gone, a piece of me has gone with them.  But a piece of each of them remains with me, residing in my heart, where all lives on.

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