*note: update and video at end of article
When my coach put me on the lanky, copper coloured bay Thoroughbred gelding with a dish in the side of his face and a stripe the shape of a bowtie, it was instant – this wasn’t the same horse that everyone in the barn thought he was. He was hiding something deep down that he was afraid to show, and I was lucky enough to get all of the love and partnership from him that he’d been waiting to give someone. For that, to Cash, I am eternally grateful.
Cash was a special horse from no extraordinary background. He was an off-the-track Thoroughbred (OTTB) from New York, and was from there bought by a man in Winnipeg. He wasn’t switching tracks, though. Cash was to make someone a new partner.
Cash had a few owners before me. One of them had almost the same relationship with him as I did, and she tells me she thinks about him often. I really lucked into Cash. The girl who owned him right before me didn’t get along with him, and was talked into selling him by our mutual coach. Cash was an amazing horse that was being ridden improperly, which made him look bad. Most people at our barn thought that he was a bad horse, except for our coaches, a few of the other riders and my family. Some of them wondered why we would think to buy him; that is, until they watched him and I in the ring.
It’s tough to think of exactly what it was with Cash; maybe it was the turnaround in his behavior or maybe the connection we developed over the years, but there was something about that graceful and quirky horse that really got me.
He was a really special horse…
Cash was quirky; let’s get that straight. The first few weeks we had him he couldn’t be out of sight from another horse, unless I was riding him. The first few months he couldn’t be in the barn alone. If he was being pushed into doing something he didn’t want to do, even in the softest of ways, his brain would switch off. My sister and I always attributed this to his hard life on the racetrack, where we think he may have had head trauma in a small area – he was claustrophobic and ridiculously head-shy.
Cash went from the horse no one could catch to the horse that would gallop over an acre when he heard me call his name. He had the biggest heart of any animal I’ve met.
I think it was after one time that Cash had one of his typical, Thoroughbred freak-outs and I was there to help him. I reached out and touched his neck, and he looked at me; he knew. It was then that Cash went from this misunderstood horse to the most kind, loving and sweet horse I’ve ever met. When he would get nervous or freak out, from then on, my voice or touch would be enough to calm him. When he was unsure of anything, I could reassure him and he would trust me to any end.
I remember fondly after our first horse show my mom told me something I’ll never forget: “I don’t know what it is about you and that horse, but he would try for you until his legs fell off.” It was true, and everyone saw it. The connection between me and Cash was electric.
He saved me
Cash pulled me through the toughest time of my life. Through high school, I, like many young girls, went through a pretty bad eating disorder. I felt an all-time low at that point, and I felt like there was no way out of it. Cash gave me the strength to be better – he made me feel whole. Cash taught me how to love and to trust, and for that I am forever indebted.
When Cash and I were together, we were both at our best. We were strong, happy and brave – things we had both been searching for all along. Cash loved to make me happy and would do funny things to make me laugh and would make me so proud it often brought me to tears.
My sister Jenna tells people that Cash and I are soulmates; she says she’s never seen a connection and transformation like the one we both went through.
Most horse people have this connection at least once in their lives
Almost any horse person would have at least one similar story to share. Jeff Papows, an amateur showjumping athlete and the author of “Unbridled Passion.” The book is full of stories about some of the top horse combinations from the sport. Papows conducted intimate interviews with the riders about their careers, and, most importantly, the relationship with their horses.
Jeff Papows talks about how this is common
“Every one of them had this overwhelming passion for that special horse that really made their career,” Papows said. “I think what these animals do for us is anything but natural and anything but pedestrian, and they do it simply because we ask them and they love us back and are loyal beyond reason. It could be so taken for granted and it’s so unfair to think of it in those pedestrian kinds of terms.”
Papows shared a heartwarming story about how one of his horses changed his life.
“I hear people say horses are dumb and they have brains like a walnut,” he said. “I had a bad fall on one of my horses and was banged up bad enough that I lost consciousness and one of my other horses, Roxett 7, was waiting by the in-gate… he got away from his groom, ran into the ring and was pushing and prodding at me while I was on the ground.”
“It took six people, two lead ropes and a golf cart to get him away from me to get me into the ambulance. Now, if you were to tell me that those horses don’t care or don’t understand, after having an experience like that, I’ll tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
More stories of the bond between horse and human
Danae Martin, owner and head coach of Eastridge Stables in Winnipeg, Manitoba, says she has numerous stories about these connections with horses and students. She recounted a story to me about a student, Jaclyn Yetman, and her horse Silven. “The best story would be the empathy that Silven showed when Jaclyn’s father died,” Martin said, “He was one horse that never stood still. Jaclyn’s dad had died suddenly one morning, we were at a horse show, and she walked into his stall and hugged his neck sobbing. He curled his head and neck around her and didn’t move for over an hour. It was amazing.”
Papows said he thinks these relationships with animals are unique to the showjumping world.
“Their stature by themselves is sensational and once people are bitten with the horse disease, nothing else in nature compares to that level of beauty,” Papows said.
“Then, when you add a relationship to it, you’ve got this immense and powerful equine athlete that’s 1600-pounds of muscle confined only by grace and kindness and nothing else. They don’t have to do it because we pull on the reins or we kick ‘em in the ribs. They’re so much more powerful than us — there’s simply no other way to explain it.”
“So if you think these partners of ours can’t be legendary in their own right,” Papows added, “They are personalities and stars and infamous in their own right. And they damn well should be, and the great thing about show jumping is they are.”
Another horse owner, Vincent Wouda-Seguin, said he had a horse in his life who came at a tough time and taught him more than just riding. He said for him, he hadn’t connected with any horse until his coach suggested he ride a horse named Royal.
“Why still to this day I think about Royal is because he re-connected me to the passion I once felt about riding,” Wouda-Seguin said.
“Royal took a chance with me and was patient,” he added. “He was more than a horse – he was a mentor. I now work with children in equine therapy, and the connections that these children make with horses is unbelievable. Now that I see this, it’s like I was participating in equine therapy with Royal.”
Papows interviewed one of the most notable and most highly-respected breeders and horsemen in the industry (and the husband of Olympian and possibly the best female equestrian to ever have lived, Beezie Madden) John Madden.
Madden shared some insight with Papows that describes the industry perfectly.
“If you’re not blindly in love with horses, get out of the sport before you begin,” he said. “Proceed at your own risk because you are going to experience failure, heartbreak and injury. Persevere and you will end up with a wall full of memories, gratification like none other on earth, and all your days will be filled with admiration for the generosity of the horses you’re blessed with.”
Two weeks after finishing this article, something amazing happened to me.
My family took me into our barn after I arrived home for the holidays. They told me to wait outside while they got ready; I was going out to the barn to see the horses and the Christmas tree. When I walked in, “Someone Like You,” by Adele was playing. That was our song.
I remember staring at the Christmas tree while they video-taped me and was wondering why they were taping me looking at the tree. And then my sister pointed down the hallway of the barn.
I think the look on my face at that point tells the rest of the story.
I was in such shock I don’t really remember any of this happening.