This story is part of our series, “Clear Eyes, Sound Mind, Halt, Salute.” Focusing on equestrian mental health, these articles come from riders across the country who wish to share their struggles and triumphs. With so much focus on the physical health and fitness of riders, it is important not to neglect the mental health aspect of becoming a great equestrian and the therapeutic role horses can play in helping us. We hope these stories and bits of advice show you that you’re not alone and inspire you to push on through all challenges.
By Amy Flemming Waters
I started riding horses at 14, and by 16 I was lucky enough to own a horse of my own. Fast forward though life, and I sold my beloved horse, got married, lived abroad, got a “real job”, had some kids, and life was good, although horseless. Life then suddenly changed for our family.
In 2014, my husband was murdered, and I was suddenly widowed at age 40. I was left with an eight-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter. Our world was turned completely upside down. I was broken. I faced a murder trial and explaining why this happened to my children. I needed to sell our house and start life over in a different state. Without doing that, I do not think I could ever have moved forward in my life.
In 2016, I was randomly looking on Facebook and stumbled upon a post from the American Saddlebred Legacy Foundation. My previous horses were Morgans, which I love, but I had always been curious about what it was like to ride Saddlebreds. The horse in the post I saw had been placed, so I browsed through their Facebook page and pictures of available horses. And then my heart stood still when I looked through the folder titled “Available: Sam”.
Sam was a bright copper chestnut gelding. Four years old and not broke. His pictures just spoke to me like no other horse’s pictures did. I discovered that he had been at an Amish broker’s barn as a three-year-old, brought to the New Holland, PA auction twice as a three-year-old, and sold to a meat buyer there. The American Saddlebred Legacy Foundation had been tracking him and bought him from the meat buyer, putting him into their herd of rescues. They evaluated him as “special” and felt he needed to go to an equally special home that understood his needs. I remarried, and fortunately my new husband was on board with my wanting to take on Sam. I adopted him with absolutely no future goals for him other than to just to heal his brain and body. I hoped that I would be able to ride him one day, but that really wasn’t important to me.
Sam left the rescue and started his journey to us on the two year anniversary of my late husband’s murder, and he arrived on my daughter’s eighth birthday. Clearly, this was a sign that he belonged in our family. Sam spent about three months living out in his new herd, just being a horse and learning a new regular routine. Once he was used to regular handling for feeding, farrier, vet, light grooming, and general care, his very careful groundwork began. He learned that he was okay if he didn’t walk right on top of a person when leading. He learned to pay attention to the handler, and to read human body language. He learned lunging and voice commands. He was a challenge to work with because he was terribly nervous about almost everything. He wouldn’t stand still in crossties. He panicked in stalls, and would run you over to get out – like he didn’t even see you there. He would walk right onto a trailer, but immediately want to jump right off. This is still a challenge to this day.
Working on little things with Sam forced me to slow my mind down and think in the moment. It was exactly what my PTSD damaged brain needed. And Sam needed it, too. He flourished with our work, and you could really see his mindset change. It was so very rewarding to see. And it was a welcomed change in me, too.
Sam is the kind of horse that will always walk up to something he is afraid of and touch it. He will always try what he is being asked, and he gets nervous if he doesn’t know what he is supposed to be doing. He really likes people, and he really tries his hardest to please. He accepted the saddle easily. He accepted me riding him easily.
I brought Sam along slowly for several years. He was clearly mentally immature from his previous life experiences. Since I had no riding goals for him, there was no pressure to be ready for a show. There was no pressure to do anything but work at Sam’s pace. In 2020, a little over three years after he started his job of being a part-time riding horse, I felt that he was mentally ready to take on work more seriously. This included doing dressage and low level eventing.
Late 2020 when shows started opening up again, Sam was entered into a dressage show with my husband riding him, and two unrecognized horse trials with my sister-in-law riding. He handled everything wonderfully with nervous compliance. We were excited for his future.
Since 2017, my daughter, Lilian, has been taking riding lessons weekly. In early 2021, she was starting to get serious about her riding and wanting to compete. She had started competing at farm shows with the lesson ponies. Of all the horses in our family, we didn’t have any that were appropriate for her skill level, so the plan was to lease a pony for her over the summer. But when we couldn’t secure a lease situation for her, my sister-in-law suggested that we have Lily try out Sam. Sam was an angel for her. After only a few weeks together, they started competing at dressage schooling shows, something neither of them had ever done.
It has been only a few months of the two of them working together, but you’d never know it hasn’t been longer. Lilian has been the first one to ride him bareback, they hack out and trail ride, they have done working equitation clinics involving obstacles that he’s never seen before, and other schooling clinics. He is learning, she is learning, and they are forming that very special bond that only other equestrians know. I love this horse so much, and to see my daughter building this type of relationship with him is amazing. Her years of being able to have that special “girl and her horse” relationship is so short. I know very well how important this kind of relationship with a horse is to Lilian’s development as an adult.
Sam, as well as the American Saddlebred, has gained some unlikely fans along his journey with Lilian. We are always asked, “He is stunning; what is he?!” I’m proud to tell people that he is a Saddlebred with the classic Saddlebred heart and personality!
He was thrown away and given up on. He was deemed unworthy and useless. I will use the rest of his days to let him know that he is a valued part of our family. To make sure he knows that we are not going to dump him, throw him away, or treat him unkindly. He saved me more than I ever could have anticipated. He was so much more than I expected, and he still makes my heart stand still like he did when I first saw pictures of the gangly four-year-old.