When people talk about a “heart horse” we all know what they mean — it’s a horse with whom we have an unusually strong connection, an equine soul mate. This is a horse who makes you smile every time you go to the barn, who makes you feel better when you’ve had a bad day, who trusts you the same way you trust him or her. This is not just a horse that you like a lot. It’s a horse that you love.
Last week a friend of mine lost a horse with whom she had that kind of connection. At 34, he had lived a long, loved life and when he finally found it difficult to stand, it was not an unanticipated development, but it was still hard to let him go.
Some people believe that you are lucky to find one horse that touches your heart in this way. I hope not. I believe heart horses (and other lucky sentient beings) are like children. There is room in your heart to love them all. Not in the same way, but with an equal fierceness, a protectiveness that encapsulates the specialness of that relationship.
I’ve ridden dozens of horses and owned a few. My first “heart horse” was a summer love — a camp horse at a riding camp where you were able to ride, and care for, one horse over the summer. Reverend Radar was a chestnut gelding. I was besotted with him. I groomed him until his coat shown, I took him out to graze; I practiced mounting him bareback until I could swing onto his back with an ease that astounds me from the distance of time. That year I won the award for Best Care of Horse, a testament to my obsession. I cried when I left New Hampshire and headed back to Manhattan.
My next “heart horse” was another chestnut gelding (do I sense a pattern here?). Fred was a quarter horse who was for sale by the trainer I worked for the summer I turned seventeen. A former “A” circuit junior jumper, Fred had slid down the ranks when he started to stop at fences. In retrospect, he probably had some navicular pain. Fred was at the barn for several months and from the first day I sat on him, I felt the connection. Although he would often stop at fences when potential buyers came to try him, he taught me how to jump big fences — four feet might have been nothing to him, but to me it felt like flying. He gave me the gift of confidence.
My third “heart horse” was yet another chestnut gelding. Definitely a pattern here. Bogie, named for the golf term one over par, was a school horse when I started riding him — a school horse who didn’t much like kids. After life got in the way for nine years, I returned to riding and was looking for a horse
that could help me get my confidence back. While I was looking for a horse, Bogie had been looking for a human. He was tired of multiple riders and blossomed under my care. One day my trainer pulled me aside and told me that, while I might not realize it, he was my horse and I should buy him and make it official. When I planned to move out of state, I decided to take him with me, but he came up lame. When I explained my dilemma to the local vet, he said to me, “Look that horse in the eye and tell him if he doesn’t get sound you’ll leave him here.” Surprisingly, it worked. He stayed with me for several more years and while he never had the guts to event, he was a great jumper and never took another bad step. Eventually, I sold him to a girl who had leased him from me for several months, and was looking for a confidence builder. Within weeks, he came up lame. When hock injections didn’t help, I took him back, got him sound again, and found him a home more to his liking. He “retired” to live with an old cowboy who had owned his last horse for 32 years. Bogie took to this gentleman from the start and I gave him away on a free lease. He lived out his life in a 14 acre pasture and probably thought he’d gone to heaven long before he crossed the Rainbow Bridge.
Kroni — Kronefurst — was my next heart horse, and for once, not a chestnut gelding. A beautiful, almost black Trakehner, Kroni looked like Black Beauty. A client of mine found him at a barn near her, and I tried him out on a business trip. A sensitive horse with a few quirks, Kroni really came into his own when we discovered foxhunting. He loved to hunt and was honest and steady, jumping anything you aimed him. I hunted him bitless because he was a horse that was so in tune to what I wanted to do, I had only to whisper to him. An enormously brave horse, Kroni once faced down a herd of heifers, which charged the fence when we were riding in Vermont. He shook like a leaf, but he held his ground. Sadly, Kroni died quite suddenly from a blood clot that lodged near his brain. He was seventeen and I had expected to have many more than the 12 years I had with him.
I already owned Freedom when Kroni died, which was lucky because I don’t think I could have gone out and bought another horse. It wouldn’t have been possible to find one that compared to Kroni and a new horse would have suffered in comparison. Freedom was so completely different that I never
expected him to be like Kroni; probably a good thing because he’s special in his own way. Another chestnut gelding, I’d taken Freedom in as foster for CANTER, an organization that helps find thoroughbreds non racing homes. I had no intention of keeping him. In fact, when I went to pick him up, my first thought was he was too small and too skittish for me. That changed the first time I sat on him. He feels like a much larger horse than he measures, because he has a huge heart. I felt an immediate sense of belonging and I realized, soon after, that he wasn’t going anywhere. Freedom has been a part of my family now for 16 years. He’s been my first flight hunt horse and a partner in adventures. I’m glad we never had to face down any charging cattle, but at least I know we could have outrun them. Freedom isn’t a cuddly horse, but he’s definitely my horse. He is not an easy ride — members of my hunt laugh as he leaps and bounds after the hounds, and not a single person has ever asked to hunt him — but I’ve always trusted him completely. When I came back to the barn after my accident this year, he came and put his head on my shoulder and gently blew onto my face. He was most certainly welcoming me back.
Then, of course, there is Zelda, who currently shares my heart with Freedom. Zelda looks a lot like Kroni (another trend?). Zelda came to me to be sold. Funnily enough, the same person who found Freedom for me, owned her. I guess she knows my type, even though the two horses couldn’t be more different. Freedom was laid up with a check ligament injury, and I needed something to ride. I warned her owner that, although I’d help sell her, I wouldn’t buy her. I didn’t like
mares and wasn’t interested in a draft cross. The first time I got on her, she squealed and tried to buck me off. We spent several weeks figuring out who was in charge. She bucked, she squealed, she tried to rub me off on trees. I hated her. The first time I hunted her she was terrible. She bucked, she stopped and refused to move. She squealed. It took months before she decided that we could be a team. She tested me every single time I rode her. But, over time, we started to have fun. The fourth or fifth time I hunted her, I was at a joint meet where I thought she might find her next owner. She’d gotten better each time I took her out and this time she was great. At the end of the hunt, someone came up to me and told me I’d better keep her for myself. My husband obliged by buying her as an anniversary present. Best gift ever. Zelda is probably the smartest horse I’ve ever ridden. I suspect that’s what made her so challenging at first and what makes her a delight now.
I don’t know if I’ll ever have another horse that touches my heart the way that some of these horses in my past have done. I feel immensely lucky to have had time with each of them — and there were other horses that I rode, owned, or cared for that were also nice horses but somehow just fell short of being heart horses. I hope they found their special humans after they moved on from me.
How about you? Have you had a heart horse?