When I was about 12 and horseless, we had a family friend who invited me to ride her horses any time. She only lived five miles away and my parents would drop me off for the whole day if it were summer vacation, or a Saturday and the weather was good. It was like a gift from heaven.
My horse benefactor owned acreage and several horses that lived 24/7 out in her vast grassy pastures. Her horses were in their late teens and early 20s and she used them for foxhunting and hacking around the hundreds of acres adjacent to her property. She also had a few boarders whose horses mingled with her herd.
Jim Dandy was a twenty-something Quarter Horse with a bald face and a hard mouth. Peanut was a lanky red gelding with a Roman nose and good nature. Reggie was a tall, thin liver chestnut with a hot edge. These were my earliest teachers who imparted the secret of how to run and jump and revel in the beauty of the outdoors.
The boarder girls similar in age to me (with their own horses) and I would go out on endless trails and have all-day adventures like riding through a cemetery and jumping headstones (which I now realize was completely disrespectful) to packing a picnic lunch and dining in the middle of the forest preserve, far away from civilization, to one time even swimming in a water hole with the horses.
At some point the girls and I began taking proper riding lessons together. We literally rode across the street from our barbed-wire enclosed giant pasture with a small lean to for the horse’s shelter to one of the Midwest’s premier show barns outside of Chicago.
I didn’t realize it, because I was ignorant of the world of competition, but our instructor was an up and coming star of the three-day eventing world. She had been an A Pony Clubber and I later found was hoping to make it to the Olympics.
An interaction I had with her shot down my horse dreams in a few sentences. The scene still plays in my head like a television show and when I think about it as an adult, I wish I could go back and replay the ending. I want to give my younger self a voice.
One day at the end of the lesson, the trainer encouraged our group to consider joining the local Pony Club. I thought you had to own your own horse which meant I couldn’t do that and I was the oddball because the other girls I took lessons with all owned their horses.
Well, like Nancy Drew, I investigated Pony Club. I found a brochure at a second-hand tack shop, read the info, and was thrilled to find out you only had to have access to a horse, not necessarily possess your own. So the next week after the lesson I excitedly told the trainer my parents said it was okay for me to join Pony Club, to which she responded that she didn’t think it was for me.
She didn’t think it was for me.
I was devastated.
She matter of factly told me that I should have my own horse and that I’d need a better saddle, new breeches and that my rubber riding boots (the tall black ones that looked sort of like real boots) would have to go. She basically picked me apart from head to foot. I was an insecure, shy adolescent and she was a grown-up with horse skills. She was my idol until that moment.
My joy at the thought of being part of a group of other kids who were just as horse crazy as me and learning how to ride better and be an-all around horse person were dashed. I was heartbroken. I don’t think I went back to another riding lesson with her after that.
As soon as she dismissed my horse dreams with her curt response, she then turned to one of my friends who was riding her athletic bay 14.3 mare. “You know, you should really join Pony Club.”
My friend said her grandmother technically owned the horse and she wasn’t sure if she could. The trainer said, “Well, we can wine her and dine her and win her over.” I remember that because I had never heard the expression “wine and dine” before.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was bullied by an adult. She said in not so many words that I wasn’t good enough. My borrowed horse wasn’t good enough (which still doesn’t add up: how could Jim Dandy be good enough for foxhunting, but not good enough for me to use for Pony Club?). My Harry Hall breeches weren’t good enough, nor was the saddle. And my rubber riding boots were definitely not good enough.
Looking back now I wonder, what kind of person dashes the hopes of a child? (If not a bully, definitely a meanie.) Why would the trainer shoot me down in front of my friends and then immediately try to recruit another one of the girls for the same opportunity that I was supposedly unworthy of? Talk about cruel.
Wouldn’t she have been wise to encourage all of us girls to get involved in Pony Club, thereby doing her part to encourage the next generation of horsewomen?
If she really had a concern about the horse’s suitability or my clothes, could she have asked if I had access to another horse or “It would be great if you could get some leather boots. Do you think your parents could make that work?” Nope. She didn’t probe to find out my situation. Just quickly shoved me and my dreams to the side.
I never did join Pony Club.
At the time and for many years after that, I felt “less than” in the realm of horses. Thankfully my passion for the animals outweighed my insecurity of feeling like I was not good enough. And I had enough backyard-type horse situations to keep me going until I finally saved enough money to buy my own.
During college I met a hunter/jumper trainer who was as welcoming and kind as this Pony Club naysayer was cold and aloof. She not only won me over as a long-term client, but as a friend. She helped me find my heart horse, a bay Thoroughbred gelding I had for 16 years until he colicked. That trainer and I now live 2,000 miles apart but we are still in touch. She is one of my greatest inspirations.
I did a little Googling to find out whatever happened to that dismissive trainer. She definitely never made it to the Olympics. I guess she wasn’t good enough.
These days I make a special point of trying to say hi to people I don’t know (and assume are new) at the barn and ask the kid riders (especially the ones on lesson horses) how their ride was. I want to be an ambassador for horses and model hospitality for the next generation of riders. In an increasingly urbanized and high-tech world, we need to recruit as many horse lovers as we can from all backgrounds to mingle deeply with horses so that our art and passion for the equine is preserved for the future–for all kids. Especially the ones on borrowed horses.
Susan Friedland-Smith of the blog Saddle Seeks Horse is a grown-up horse-crazy girl and middle school teacher who is “striding toward harmony at home and barn.” Susan’s off-track Thoroughbred Knight is the inspiration for writing topics ranging from fitness trackers for equestrians to how to deal with colic and ulcers. Susan, Knight and the rest of the family including horse husband Mark, Tigger the Golden Retriever, and Missie the Doberman live in Southern California. Trot along with them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.