The question is inevitable, seemingly unavoidable. I often feel as if there’s a sign on my forehead that flashes “my mare is 18 years old, ask me about a youngster please???” in the brightest, most noticeable neon colors. Whether online or in person, it’s difficult to decipher one’s honest curiosity versus unwarranted subliminal pressure. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve spent the last handful of years sharing my journey on the Internet, which translates into giving people the right to pry into personal details of my life? Who knows.
It doesn’t, for the record, but I’m aware this tendency comes with the territory.
You would be surprised with how many times I’m met with “so, Leah’s getting up there in age, what’s your plan with her?” as a conversation starter. My response is respectfully curt, usually along the lines of “we will continue until she tells me she’s ready to slow down,” but I can’t help fight the feelings of frustration that begin to churn in the pit of my stomach. My emotions often lead to a stream of verbal justification.
Don’t you ever just want to tell someone “hey, how about you mind your own business?” I’d be lying if I didn’t; I’m just a human after all.
It is July 10th today, making Leah officially 18 years young. I feel a bit mixed between emotional and nostalgic. Maybe it’s because I’m aware our competitive years together are slowly beginning to dim, or maybe I wish I could slow down time and rewind back to 2015 when I was struggling to keep her on the bit. The last 2,190 days have flown by in the blink of my green eye. Everyday I’ve reveled in her presence; I’ve learned something, whether about my inner self, her soul, or my development as a dressage rider. Really, the list could continue for miles.
Leah is as sound as a freshly tuned fiddle, fitter beyond my wildest expectations, and in absolute top overall condition. Hours upon hours, my heart, and a substantial chunk of my finances have been earnestly poured into her nutrition, diligent training, joint and muscle health, stable routines, so on and so forth. Metaphorically speaking, she is my child. I would run to the ends of the earth if it meant ensuring her happiness and comfort. Because of this, she is thriving as an older performance equine. I can’t help but give myself, and my trainers, a pat on the back.
Ya’ll, I get it. From the outside looking in, one might see a seasoned FEI horse with a proven record at these levels. The lanky twenty-something in the tack has achieved her short-term goals, earned medals and championships, and competed in certain competitions she could have only ever dreamt about. They’re the “been there, done that” pair. But, what these folks often don’t recognize is the emotional connection that runs deep between my mare and myself. How could they? Nine times out of ten, they are blindly unaware of our story together to no fault of their own. This lack of familiarity makes it easier to ask private questions, or assume the worst.
My love for my mare goes without saying. Leah is my rock, and I’ve devoted the past six years into forming a uniquely special partnership centered on mutual respect. I trust her with my entire being; she doesn’t have a malicious bone in her body. Her heart is dipped in the finest gold, I’m convinced, and she’s helped shape the woman I have grown to be today. She is not a tool I’ve used to advance in my riding career, nor is she easily replaceable like an old pair of jeans.
I owe it to her to be better than that unfortunate trend.
Frequently, I feel as if this is what people don’t understand, or don’t care to understand. I haven’t figured out which one is more accurate.
I view my horse as my equal. Leah is my best friend, and knows me better than I sometimes know myself. We’ve grown together, learned together, failed and succeeded together. Never have I been able to resonate with those who use their horse as a piece of equipment to earn scores, medals, or tri-colored neck sashes. I’ll tell you what; those individuals are riding for all the wrong reasons. We might’ve accomplished some great things in the course of the last six years together, but that does not mean she is ready to be thrown out to pasture just because someone thinks we’ve “plateaued.” Actually, quite the contrary. Within the last 3 months, I’ve felt Leah blossom more than ever before. Did I ever imagine I’d be schooling segments of the Intermediate II with an older mare who is picking up this new work like no big deal? Nope, but I’m a firm believer that when you earn your mare’s respect, she’ll try her hardest for her human.
And, that’s just it, the emotional connection. This, my friends, is the main reason why I have come to the conclusion that I am nowhere near ready to find a second horse. Right now, my heart only has room for Leah. Have I inquired about younger mares across the country? Yes. Have I tried one coming for sale locally? Yes. Each time I get close to welcoming the idea of a new horse, I crawl back into my turtle shell. The thought of working to trust another is slightly terrifying, which tells me I am not equip to do so currently. I’m at peace with this, which is all that matters.
I don’t expect strangers or acquaintances to fathom my inference, and that’s fine. It’s challenging, though. As I opened up about on Instagram, I often find myself grumbling for words, feeling like I have to advocate my life plans, financial status, or Leah’s health. It’s not fair, and I shouldn’t allow my brain to spiral down a rabbit hole of knee-jerk defensiveness. In this particular conundrum, I can’t help but think to myself, “why would I retire a perfectly healthy FEI horse?” and often wish others would have the same analysis. To be honest, I’m still learning how to channel my emotions, thoughts, and feelings when faced with pointed questions, so perhaps my advice might be lacking in the substance category. All I can do is share my two cents with my followers who are struggling in a similar situation.
· You know your horse best, and take that sentiment to your heart as you kindly convey your reply. Accept inquisitive minds for what they are, and try your hardest to remove any pressure from the conversation. Ninety-nine percent of the time, those querying simply don’t know any backstory. They’re naturally curious.
· A major tidbit I have learned? Never feel as if you have to explain yourself. Plain and simple. You do not owe anyone an interpretation of your personal circumstances.
· If the conversation escalates and begins to make you feel uncomfortable, politely excuse yourself. Everyone has boundaries, and there’s no harm in just walking away. Occasionally, it’s the best route to navigate.
· Find your voice and never be afraid to use it. Ever since the topic of Leah’s age hit the table, I’ve become a lot more proficient in this area. I am no longer apprehensive to speak up against pressures cast from friends, professionals, or horse show buddies. I am Leah’s voice, too, and it is my duty to be her advocate. This is our life, and I’ll make the “next horse decision” when the time is right for me… no one else. Once you carry this mentality, you’ll be amazed with how easy it is to wash the stress away.
· Lastly, and allow me to say it loud for the people in the back: there is no age requirement for retirement. Breaking news! Horses can happily compete in the FEI, Grand Prix even, well into their twenties with proper management. It isn’t a subject of taboo, and shouldn’t be frowned upon if the horse truly enjoys their work. It might sound like a total cliché, and well, maybe it is, but age is just a number. Just look at the international dressage stage and you’ll find this statement to be positively true.
If your curiosity can’t help but creep through, speak or ask gently and thoughtfully. The grand majority of us considers our horses to be our world, and cannot fathom life without them by our sides. Remember, it’s a sensitive topic.
So, what is my future plan? Truthfully, there are a handful of factors that come before adding a second horse to our family. For starters, take a new last name that starts with H. Weddings require budgeting, whether you’re hosting an extravagant affair, a backyard ceremony, or eloping to a magical destination. A new horse plus a wedding? Well, you do the financial math and you’ll see why that’s just not feasible. This special time in woman’s life (ideally) only happens once, and deserves my focus, attention, and devotion.
Secondly, I’m not even sure what I want! Because I feel emotionally “shut off” from anything other than Leah, I haven’t decided what direction I intend to follow. I’ve toyed with serious interest in finding a quality Quarter Horse and developing HER – yes, mare power – through the levels and ideally into the FEI. My inspiration stems from Katherine Abrams, @katherineabrams on Instagram, and her partnership with Blue (we have twin Blue horses, isn’t that awesome?), her Quarter Horse gelding she’s trained from the bottom. They’re now schooling the Grand Prix work.
Another Warmblood would be gloriously fantastic, too, ideally younger and something I could also build and mold into my own. I’m all over the map.
In the meantime, I’ll focus on the present and God’s gift to me in the form of a horse. I’ll continue to enjoy my wonder mare with every fiber in my being. We’ll progress our daily training, working towards goals and hopefully grasping them with an open heart. You see, the older she’s become, the more I’ve realized competing isn’t my priority anymore. Sure, would I love to earn my USDF Gold Medal? Absolutely… I feel as if every serious dressage competitor dreams of riding their first Grand Prix. Do I think it’ll be with Leah? Doubtful, as she is not confirmed in piaffe, passage or one-time flying changes. Am I okay with this? Assuredly yes. My focus has turned from show-hungry to the yearn of being the best rider I can be not only for myself, but also for Leah, and any future partner that may come to fruition. Our relationship means more than any type of medal, score, or placing.
That mare has given me everything, and so, so much more.
Do I believe there is another horse out there that’s just right for me? Yeah, I do, but I am certainly in no rush to seek her out. Leah is my once in a lifetime, unicorn, heart horse, and whoever trots into my world next will have very large horseshoes to fill. It’s an extremely emotional decision, as well as financial, and a process that cannot be rushed. I’m willing to wait however long for the next mare to pick me in her time, too.
Leah will be with me, and my family, forever. She’ll come to the ranch, relax underneath the enormous oak trees that rustle in the South Texas breeze, and create a bond with Smoke and Tecate. She’ll teach my mom and help her regain her riding confidence just like she did unto me. I’ll spend my early mornings sipping coffee, walking to her paddock fence and offering a gentle scratch… and try to keep the burning lump from forming in my throat when my memories of our journey together replay in my mind. Her teenage years will inch by, and before I know it, I’ll have a twenty year old on my hands. Nothing will change, she’ll still receive the very best care around, and together, we’ll enjoy her senior years like she utmost deserves.
Until her retirement rolls around, we will keep on keeping on. When she’s ready to go home, all I’ll have to do is listen. She’ll let her human know.