Breeding, raising, and then riding your own horse is a privilege that not many of us get to experience. Some of us (the sane, smart ones) don’t want to. I don’t blame them. It’s expensive and risky and rarely goes as planned. But still… there’s something kind of cool about riding and showing the same horse that you “made”. You were there to see that first ultrasound confirming the heartbeat. You were there when it was born. You were there when it was really really ugly and you thought “Awesome, I bred a mule.”. Okay maybe that last one was just me. You’ve all heard the abbreviated story of Sadie’s life, but what about those first 4 years when she was ugly and things were hard – the part no one wants to talk about? Let’s start at the beginning.
For pretty much all of 2005 I hemmed and hawed, looking at stallions and mares. Once I settled on the mare:
It was a matter of picking the stallion. I was stuck mostly between two: Cascani (a jumper) and Westporte (a hunter). At the time I was showing in the hunters, so I ultimately went with Westporte in the hopes of producing an A/O horse for myself. Back then he was a young horse, only shown in the Baby Greens and he only had a couple of foals on the ground, but luckily I chose well. He went on to have success in the A/O’s and Second Year Greens, and has tons of nice babies on the ground now.
In the spring of 2006, the mare was bred. She took on the first try, but when we went back in for the 45 day check, she had lost it. So she was bred again, she took again, and this time it held. There’s nothing more beautiful on an ultrasound than that black dot. Especially when it’s already cost you several grand up to that point… the first of many times that it occurs to you that you are, in fact, a complete idiot and that breeding is, in fact, the hardest and dumbest and most financially unwise way to get a horse.
But then finally, about a year later (a really ridiculously long amount of time BTW) your own personal little demon foal is born and it’s so cute you don’t care how much it cost. Sadie in particular looked like a little moose, and I fell in love.
I was the one responsible for teaching Sadie all the important stuff on How to Horse. You don’t realize that until the first time you’re holding the lead rope of your own little creature, going “Oh my God, who put me in charge? I don’t know what I’m doing!”. Don’t worry, it’s just the basic skills that the horse needs to learn to carry it through it’s entire life and make it a productive member of equine society. No pressure. Don’t mess it up.
But she learned, with fairly minimal argument, and before I knew it she was a weanling… officially her own creature, no longer an extension of her dam. This is also the last time she was cute for, well, YEARS. The uglies were strong with this one.
Finally toward the middle of her yearling year she looked a little bit more like a horse than a mule, and I started teaching her All The Horse Things. Lunging (at the walk and then later a little trot), wearing a saddle and bridle, standing tied, voice commands, ponying. She never took exception to any of that, so after the first five times you’re like “Well… that was fun. Now I’m just gonna stand here and wait for her to get older so we can do something else”. You know what feels like an eternity? Those first two years.
The older she got, and the uglier she stayed, the more panicked I became. Oh my god what if she really did stay ugly forever? What would I do then? She was also a midget – at 2.5yo she was barely 15.2h and about as wide as a fence post. I tried to assure myself that she would eventually blossom, because every once in a while she would have a really pretty week. But truth be told, I was terrified she wouldn’t. What would I do with a tiny ugly hunter?
And then finally when she was coming 3, the glimpses of a nice horse started to stay for longer and longer. She filled out a little and started moving really well. At least for a month or two. Then she would grow, and with every growth spurt she looked really lanky again. From one month to the next she could look like a totally different horse.
Year 2-3 was also The Year of the Neverending Vet Bill. Stiches, staples, a hock infection, and pretty much any other injury you can name. She also started to challenge authority a bit and developed a mind of her own. I discovered that a bored Sadie was not a good Sadie. She learned that she could sit back at will and break just about any halter/lead rope. She decided she was suddenly herdbound and could not function without her friends. My sweet little donkey had taken on the personality of a rabid teenager.
Which is why, shortly before her 3rd birthday, I sent her to a cowboy to get started. I’d started my own horses before but this one was different – she was a little too smart, and it was a little too important that she not be messed up. I would never be able to live with myself if I ruined her, and the mere fact that that thought had entered my mind meant I really needed to let someone else do it. Fear of failure is crippling to progress.
After 30 days I went up to see her and was very pleased with how she looked. She seemed much happier to have a job, and she was obedient and quiet. My sweet Sadie was back.
I was not expecting to ride that day and had not come prepared, but Cowboy Dan insisted, so up I went. And you know what? That first ride was kind of magical. She was scrawny, she was wiggly, she was green, and we didn’t do a damn thing interesting, but it was a culmination of many years worth of dreams to finally be sitting on the horse I bred.
After 60 days I brought her home and spent the rest of her 3yo year hacking, trail riding, trotting the random crossrail or two, and reinforcing the groundwork she’d learned at Dan’s. He, and in turn she, taught me a lot about young horse mentality. You have to make a lot of decisions, and every single one of them is important… you’re laying the building blocks upon which their entire life will be constructed. Sadie turned into a steady, reliable partner with an incredible work ethic and fantastic retention. We both learned how to channel her smarts for good instead of evil.
At the beginning of her 4yo year when my h/j trainer came to pick her up, she was still ugly. I was actually so thankful that it was cold enough that day to keep a blanket on her, because I was mortified when I handed the lead rope to him to load her onto his trailer. I was sure he was thinking “What the hell is this thing?” even though he was too polite to say it. And though he did give her the nickname of Muley, eventually she started getting prettier and blossomed in his care and under his tutelage.
Sadie is now 8 years old and every bit of 16.3h. I did not actually end up with a midget, she was just a late bloomer. She never did become the A/O hunter that she was bred to be, so in a way I guess you could say we failed. Turns out she really preferred the jumpers. Turns out so did I. But I think sometimes even when you don’t accomplish what you originally set out to do, it doesn’t mean you failed. It just means the universe knew better.
People sometimes ask me if I would do it all again. Breeding and raising a horse isn’t for the faint of heart. To be honest – it sucks. But it also comes with it’s own unique set of rewards. Sometimes I think the answer is an emphatic YES. Other days I’m so thankful for my cheap, quick, easy purchase of Henry that breeding again seems like nothing short of absolute insanity. But despite that, the dream of another baby horse still sparkles in the back of mind. All those hopes and dreams… all that blood and sweat and tears. That’s horses. After all, it takes a special kind of stupid to want to do this, and I’m just that kind.