Sweet Seniors! In October on YourDressage, we are celebrating the special horses in our lives that are ages 20 and up through photo galleries and exclusive stories. Join us all month long as we celebrate the ‘Golden Oldies’ of the dressage community! Here, a Region 1 rider shares the Golden Oldie in her life, and some of the highlights of their lifelong partnership.
By Jennifer Supinger
Halylujah (Hal) was supposed to be a Christmas gift to my mother as a weanling. She had gotten into endurance riding when I was very young and started buying, and eventually breeding, Arabians and Arab crosses, but Hal was our first baby. As I got older, and took an interest in training and riding, I began teaching the babies to lead, load, stand for the farrier, and to saddle break the three-year-olds. I actually skipped over Hal as a three-year-old because he’d fallen in the pasture, causing a hairline fracture in the right wing of his pelvis. We were told to turn him out and see if he trotted sound again in a year, which he did, so I started him under saddle as a four-year-old, with the intention of selling him. My mother just never seemed to get along with him, but the more I rode him the more I liked him, and when I admitted that I wanted to keep him, my parents happily called him mine.
We started first in endurance, but it was clear from the very beginning that he hated it. I often had to be led out of camp, and he only moved as fast as my incessant prodding and the threat of being left behind could force him. The only time he perked up at all was when we hopped over the occasional log, ditch, or other obstacle in the trail, so, deciding to stick with my horse instead of the sport, I started taking hunter/jumper lessons. Hal immediately loved the change, going from dragging his feet to happy and forward almost the second we entered the ring.
For a few years we learned together, and eventually outgrew the hunter ring. Jumpers was bigger, faster, more exciting, and seemed more fair to an adult amateur on an unregistered grade gelding in a synthetic saddle and hand-me-down everything. I didn’t have the money for rated shows, but we could earn enough cash back in local shows to pay for our classes and a nice dinner afterward. I was extremely competitive, desperate for recognition and praise, but also cripplingly anxious about showing. Generally we either won the class or I forgot the course and got rung out.
Hal would clear anything I pointed him at, and I was ambitious enough to keep asking for bigger, scarier, more difficult feats. We regularly schooled cross country up to Prelim, and rode in any hunter paces I could find. It wasn’t until we had a fall in 2016, where he nearly somersaulted and I broke my ankle, that the reality of what we were doing, and how long we’d been doing it, started to set in. Hal would have been 15 at that time, with a lot of hard riding in those years. I got back on and started jumping again soon after surgery, but I’d lost my passion for the big jumps and trying to impress people. I felt aimless. It was my mother who reminded me that Hal didn’t jump because he wanted to be a famous jumper, but because I’d asked him to. He loved me and wanted to please me. We’d switched disciplines once before with good results, so why not again?
Soon after, Hal had enucleation surgery to remove his eye. People always want to know how Hal does with only one eye and how he reacted to losing it, but truthfully, I didn’t even know he was going blind on that side until the pupil was already scarred, completely shut, and functionally useless. There was nothing to do for it, and the eye was otherwise healthy, so I left it alone until 2017, when he developed a painful ulcer and wouldn’t stop rubbing it. I was afraid he’d puncture the eye when I wasn’t home, so I had it removed at an emergency clinic over Thanksgiving weekend.
He was never spooky or reactive and I never gave him any extra room on right hand turns in the jumper ring. I don’t ride him any differently going one way or the other now, even for lateral work where he sometimes has the sighted side bent completely away from the direction of travel. He either trusts me unconditionally not to run him into anything or he just doesn’t care if we do or not. I actually wish he was more careful. I’m afraid I’ll make a mistake one day and he’ll bump into something and lose confidence. I’d feel terrible.
I decided to take dressage lessons over the winter of 2018 and Hal seemed to really enjoy that change too. I quickly fell in love with the detail-oriented discipline. For me the progress is slow, changing old habits and postures, but Hal looks and feels better every month. He’s constantly getting stronger and more flexible, despite his age. If it wasn’t for the grey hairs starting to pepper his brows and muzzle you wouldn’t know he’s an old man at all, schooling canter serpentines and haunches-in.
I’m hoping one day we can make it to Third Level so I can try to get my USDF Bronze Medal with him. It’s a big dream and it’s still a long way off, but even if we never make it that far I’m already so proud of what he’s become. I’ve promised him he can retire any time he wants, but so far he’s happy to keep going, so we’ll see how far we get.
Hal is a really funny and personable horse. My favorite moments with him are less the rare accomplishments, and more the commonplace pleasantries. When I talk, he likes to turn his head to me on the side without an eye and cock his ear, listening. Sometimes he even wiggles his lip at me like we’re having a human conversation. He licks people like a dog, especially my dad and my wife, neither of whom enjoy it much. I had to train him to pee only when I whistle under saddle, because he would go every time we entered a nice arena, especially at shows. The higher end places will charge you a fee and sometimes ban you for that, I found out. He likes to play with zippers on my winter coats, and grab the sleeves and flap my arms around like a puppet. He scrunches up one nostril when he’s thinking about something he doesn’t like, and he has the highest pitched voice I’ve ever heard on a full size horse. People sometimes mistake his whinny for a foal. He’s only naughty about once a year, when he feels like he’s been working especially hard at something and hits a soft spot in the arena. He gets so offended by it, he leaps straight up and does one big buck like a rodeo bronc or a Spanish Capriole. If he ever did two in a row I’d go flying, but it’s always just the one and then back to business as usual.
Don’t discount senior horses just for their age; senior horses have a lot to give. Barring any serious health concerns there’s no reason a horse can’t happily work well into their twenties, and even thirties, with careful management. I have a failed broodmare pony that I started under saddle in her twenties. She might not be the fastest ride, but she’s a lovely trail horse, regularly does breakaway roping practice, and is learning to move like a little pleasure horse in the arena. She loves the attention, and much like people, one of the most important things to do as they get older is keep them moving.