It’s the holiday season. A time for ugly sweaters and drinking too much at the office party then regretting it the next morning when you see your boss. Wait, that’s not right… It is a time for family and friends, being thankful for all you have, and crying during those damn Sara McLaughlin Humane Society commercials! (you know you do, admit it!)
Which means I guess it is only appropriate to share my most memorable Christmas horse story. No, it isn’t about the pony I got or the tack trunk I still have, but rather, a horse that knew just how much he was needed.
It was the winter of 2004. I had just finished working on the Presidential campaign, spending 6 months on the road criss-crossing the country creating rallies and events designed to woo voters to cast their ballot for our candidates. Exhausting work. I was without a permanent address (or even a temporary one) at that moment, so I was living in my parents’ basement recuperating and searching for a real job. It sounds more pathetic than it was, I swear.
About a year before that, my mom and I had gone to see a mare advertised in the local paper as my mom was in need of a new mount after losing her fabulous best friend to EPM. We tried this beautiful palomino mare, aptly named Barbie, who had this amazing little collected lope and was soft in the bridle. We’ll take her, we said! And the family selling Barbie asked if we would also take the Pinto Mountain Horse, Skeeter, as they were moving to another state the very next day.
We needed this horse like we needed a hole in the head, but my mom has never been one who could pass up a situation where an animal was in need. So we brought home a 14.2 upright brown & white gaited gelding to add to the menagerie. His neck came straight up out of his shoulder, he was sturdy as can be, and absolutely in LOVE with Barbie. Who of course showed him nothing but disdain and anger when they were together, but pretended she was going to die when they were apart.
Fast forwarding to the Christmas of 2004 again, Skeeter was living at a friend’s farm and was for sale. My mom put an ad in the local paper – $500 for a quality trail horse. By that time she had purchased Dancer, the best damn paint with no spots to ever grace Door County, WI, and Skeeter didn’t have a job. Not to mention, no one to love him. Skeeter needed to find his own person.
My mom got a call from a local farmer who said he was interested in buying the horse for his daughter as a Christmas present. Since I wasn’t doing anything but laying around watching CNN and lamenting my lack of sustainable income, I was dispatched to meet the pair and show the horse.
When I got there I was in for a shock. What the gentleman had neglected to tell us was that his daughter was 14, had never ridden before (but of course loved horses), had recently experienced the divorce of her parents, and oh, she was moderately autistic.
As a life-long horsewoman, my red flags were being thrown up everywhere – this family wasn’t prepared for a horse! They needed to have a special therapy program where the daughter was supervised and taught how to ride and take care of a horse, they couldn’t just buy any $500 animal from the newspaper. I had a really bad feeling about it, but they were incredibly nice (and frankly I had nothing better to do, anyway) so I tacked Skeeter up and rode him around for a few minutes.
The young woman whispered a bit and her dad asked if she could get on. I figured it was fine, we were in a round pen and I’d keep a hold of her for a little walk and then they would be on their way. But what happened after that moment, and in the hours thereafter, made my Grinch heart grow two sizes that day.
She got on and started a running dialogue with Skeeter and immediately I could sense a total shift in his personality and mannerisms. That horse just knew. He knew that this girl was unique and he had to take care of her. He was careful and polite and listening to her chattering with such attention it was astounding. I’ve been on how many horses in my life, and of course your body language and way of dealing with them impacts their actions, but this was different. This was a horse and rider truly becoming one with each other. This was a horse understanding the needs of his companion without being taught. It was pure and true and unbelievable to me.
Before I knew it, I felt comfortable letting them walk on their own in the round pen and eventually she was even trotting a bit. You could have knocked me down with a feather. The whole time she just kept talking and he kept listening. After the trial was over, the farmer said, “I’ll take him, let me go get my trailer.” We had a discussion that he couldn’t just put the horse in his backyard, that no matter how good this match seemed things still happen, they needed proper supervision and training for general safety. He assured me that the horse was going to the barn of a very well-known and respected breeder/trainer in the area – who has some of the most well trained barrel horses I’ve ever seen – and we agreed that it was a deal.
We decided to meet back at the farm in a few hours so I could help get the horse on the trailer and off we all went. I called my mom, already in tears, telling her in detail about the entire thing, wishing she could have been there to see it.
Back at the barn a couple of hours later, the farmer pulled up at the bottom of the big pasture in an old stock trailer. Skeeter hadn’t proven to be the most willing of loaders, so I told them I’d run up to grab a bucket of grain to coax him on. I wasn’t gone but 2 or 3 minutes, and as I walked back down the hill toward the trailer I saw the daughter leading Skeeter toward it. I yelled to wait, broke in to a run, but then it happened – he walked right on. I almost burst into tears again on the spot. We exchanged money and off he went to his new home.
I drove directly to see my mom and we both just cried and cried. It was the most perfect gift that anyone could have given us for Christmas. That horse and that girl had found what they both needed the most in life at that moment – each other.
In general I think that horses “know” much more than we give them credit for, but when it comes to special needs, horses are built for the empathy and understanding it takes to work with people. Maybe it is the non-verbal connection, maybe it is the feeling they get when someone is in the saddle. But I think it is a sixth “horse sense” that they all possess and use when they know we need it most.
So for me, that’s Christmas. I wish I would have kept up with the farmer to track the progress of his daughter and Skeeter, but time and distance often get in the way of our best intentions. Years later though they still have an impact on my life and my heart.
I’d like to thank Skeeter for that, and all the other horses who have made millions of people all over the world whole again through their kindness and understanding. These amazing animals make my world go round, bringing peace, comfort and joy.