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 about the lease horse whose presence has made all the difference in weathering every season of life.
By Colleen Dodd
October 2007 left me feeling lost. I was a freshman in high school and had just completed my very first season on the equestrian team, having had to borrow a friend’s horse at the last minute for our third and final meet. My then-lease horse had injured herself at the second meet and her owner made the wise decision to pull her from any further strenuous activity, to allow her to fully recover.
I suddenly found myself in need of a new horse to lease if I wanted to continue to ride. At fourteen, I had big dreams of showing and bringing home handfuls of ribbons, but I knew the task of finding a horse that was not only safe and well-trained, but one I could connect with on a deep level, was a daunting one. We took a family friend’s advice and drove 45 minutes to a farm in the middle of nowhere to see an 11-year-old gelding, who was in need of a new partner and some exercise.
The first time I saw Lakota, I was awestruck at how handsome he was. As a little girl, I practically ate, slept, and breathed the movie Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and he was as close to a spitting image of Spirit as I was ever going to find. His golden eyes were the first thing I noticed, having never seen a horse’s eyes in that shade before. I led him out of his stall and ran my hands down his neck, and it was instant love. We started lessons together the next week.
Training for the equestrian team meant we needed show experience. Lakota and I worked tirelessly to learn Western and English equitation and pleasure riding, showmanship, and even a few speed events here and there. We truly gave almost everything a try, from egg and spoon races and costume classes at fun shows, to reining patterns at the high school meets, and Training Level dressage and barrel racing in 4H. Lakota tried everything to the best of his ability, even if he thought teenage me was making some really odd requests.
Our efforts together paid off tremendously across the board. We often came home with placings at local shows, earned a total of 73 points together and my letter jacket in a cut-throat equestrian team season in my junior year, and co-captained the team with a friend during my senior year. Lakota even helped me fulfill my dream of competing at the 4H State Finals in 2013, and with it came a wonderful surprise; his cooperation and patience with me earned us third place in the state of Michigan that year for showmanship.
Going off to college in 2011 meant that showing and competing had to take a backseat for quite a while, but Lakota never seemed to mind, and neither did I. In fact, once we earned our 4H State title, I felt so content with our accomplishments that I made the decision to take the time to really enjoy Lakota and our time together, rather than start planning for the next goal. At that point, he had truly given me everything I could have ever asked of him, and I was grateful. I was still only leasing him however, and I was feeling anxious about the future.
A month before I began my freshman year of college, my parents sat me down to tell me that my dad had been diagnosed with stage three colon cancer. I came home often that year to spend time with Dad, and support him and my mom throughout chemotherapy, radiation treatments, and various surgeries and recovery periods. My world felt like it had been turned completely on its head with so much change and uncertainty thrust upon us as a family. But my one assurance during those difficult days was that I had a velvety nose to kiss (and two golden eyes waiting to inspect me for carrots) waiting for me at the barn. Lakota seemed to know when I needed some extra peace, and was content to let me cry to him, vent, or simply sit in silence. His steady presence was my safe harbor in those days.
That safe harbor became a permanent fixture of our family in the fall of 2012, when Lakota officially became mine. Having leased him for five years at that point, and my parents knowing how much he meant to me, I was given permission to buy Lakota with what savings I had. They generously agreed to help me until things were more steady on my end, agreeing without hesitation that the best place for him was with us; I believe my dad told my mom in their conversation, “She can’t lose both me and the horse.”
Lakota had always been part of our family, but having it in writing was truly surreal. My grandmother cried when I called her to share the news. I could hardly sleep for the excitement of being able to see him again—MY horse! I promised him a forever home with me, however I could manage it. For better or worse, he would be mine always.
The gift of being able to own my first horse is the most priceless thing I have ever received. My father’s blessing would especially become something I treasured, as he unfortunately passed away, after a valiant five year battle with cancer, in 2017. He knew Lakota was my dream, and I am so thankful that he allowed that dream to come to fruition. Lakota, ever steady and sweet, was my escape in the weeks and months that followed Dad’s passing. He seemed to know I was shouldering something heavy, and was content to carry me until life started to brighten up again. I began a career, entered and ended new relationships, brought him friends’ children to tote around, and found my way back to myself again with Lakota at my side.
These days, Lakota and I take weekly lessons in basic dressage. At the age of 26, and with the beginnings of arthritis, it is important to me to keep him moving as well as he can, for as long as I can. We are enjoying circling back to being a lesson horse and a student all over again after all we have experienced together, and learning new ways to help keep his aging body supple and flexible has been invaluable, thanks to our wonderful instructor, Sue. He and I are a better team now than ever before, and he is encouraged to use his body correctly and to its full extent, which I can now see is something he had been needing and wanting all along.
Lakota has become so much more than the simple equestrian team mount I had intended for him to be fifteen years ago. He is known and loved by my whole family, especially the youngest members, and has given many of them their first ever rides on a horse. He is my trail riding buddy and my tack model for all colors of saddle pads. He is a soft gaze at the gate, a slow, steady ride for a nervous child, a memory of all we have accomplished, and a promise of all of the life we still have to enjoy together.
His most notable role to date has been being the unofficial judge of each of my relationships, and he clearly told me when I had found the right one. Adam asked me to marry him with Lakota between the two of us this past summer, and surprised me with a photo shoot that I will cherish forever. My hope is that Lakota will someday meet our children, but for now, I think he is content to carry all of the horse crazy kids I send his way. He hauls them along with a huff and a little roll of his eyes, but secretly I know he loves it.
Fifteen years has shown Lakota and I hardships, triumphs, and everything in between. I am so lucky to have had the life I have had with him. His presence has made all the difference in every season of life that I have lived, and I will spend the remainder of his years thanking him for everything he has done for, and meant to, me over the years.
Here’s to you, Big Kid. I love you dearly.