Once I had been riding with my trainer, Holly, in Maryland for several months, I knew that I trusted her to help me find the right horse. I had the right trainer, and through working with her, my riding skills and fitness were improving. I had a good boarding facility available in Woodbury Equestrian Center, which was managed by my friend (and also a professional trainer), Julie. In addition to Holly and Julie, I had my riding buddies Diane and Susan to enjoy the “equestrian life” with. All that I needed was a suitable horse to complete our team!
I had been without a horse for about two years by the time I moved to SOMD. That gave me a lot of time to think about what I wanted in a potential mount. I think it’s fair to say that my expectations were a little too high and my criteria a little too narrow. I wanted a: quiet-tempered, dapple gray, 16+ hand warmblood or warmblood cross with hunter show experience that was young but no younger than four. When I informed Diane, she laughed and said that I would probably end up buying a small, brown Thoroughbred with no socks. “Sacrilege!” I told her. I was very indignant and swore that would never happen. I also added that I might consider a bay with some socks and perhaps a blaze. Holly shook her head and said that the search would be tough, but we would try.
Just as an aside, I am a hunter and equitation rider and it is silly to pick a horse or rule out a horse based on color. Hunters are judged on way of going including their movement and jumping style. In equitation, the rider is judged. Color and breed have little to do with anything and are really just a matter of personal preference. This is why my request for a dapple gray warmblood caused so much eye rolling, particularly from Diane, whose horse, Lincoln, is a 17 hand chestnut and white paint draft cross! She competes successfully with him in everything from equitation to jumpers to eventing.
Holly and I set out on our search. I screened hundreds of print and online ads for horses trying to determine which we should go see. Holly networked with trainers up and down the east coast. We saw at least 10 horses (most of them gray) in 4 different states over several months with no luck. I was getting disheartened. We saw some physically beautiful horses, but none of them were right for me. The biggest wakeup call was a horse that we looked at in Southern Virginia. He was a large 8 year old dapple gray warmblood cross. He was GORGEOUS. In my mind’s eye, this was the horse I pictured. This was what my dream horse looked like. The problem was that he wasn’t great to ride, was far too green for his age with some bad habits to boot. He was NOT my horse. Holly and I were both disappointed on the long drive home to Maryland, but this experience was the turning point of our search.
I realized that if I wanted a horse with the right traits to be a successful hunter and an enjoyable partner for me, then I had better loosen up some of my criteria, starting with color and breed! Additionally, I had realized that I didn’t feel up to taking on a green horse project. Although both horses I owned in the past were green, I really wanted the opportunity to own a well-schooled horse and focus on some aspects of my riding, if possible. Meanwhile, Holly had redoubled her efforts, planning a horse searching trip to Middleburg to see multiple horses. Julie was keeping her eyes open for both myself and Susan, who was also searching for a new horse. Julie had identified two additional horses for me to look at in the Middleburg area; one chestnut with socks and a blaze and one plain bay with not a sock, star or stripe to speak of. Holly got a hold of the sales video of the bay, named Patrick, quietly jumping a 3’ course on a loose rein while snapping his knees up to his eyeballs at each jump. “Erin, I know this horse is BROWN but I HIGHLY RECOMMEND that you try him” she told me. Julie, Susan and Diane were also pro-Patrick. “Okay fine, I’ll look at him” I said.
Holly set the Middleburg appointments while I spent the rest of the week pondering what it would feel like to own a brown horse. Even if the horse was perfectly wonderful, would I regret not buying a horse that looked like the one I had envisioned for all those years? Owning a horse is a tremendous commitment, and I wanted to make sure I would really love everything about the horse. I decided that I could live with brown, PLAIN BROWN even, but only if that brown horse was the best I had ever ridden in my entire life. I couldn’t let go of all of my standards, afterall!
Later that week, Holly, Julie and I set out for Middleburg. We saw several horses in the morning. It was the nicest group yet, but none were exactly right. We drove into town for lunch and to visit the tack shops. Middleburg, by the way, is a little like Disney World for horse people. It’s all cute streets, storefronts, tack shops and little ladies walking around in breeches and boots, all surrounded by pretty farms. In the afternoon, we headed out to see the final two horses, one of which was Patrick. He was by no means a 17 hand gray stunner. He was a 16 hand Connemara/Thoroughbred the color of dark chocolate. My first impression of him as they tacked him up was that he looked kind of quiet and “friendly.” The exercise rider hopped on. It was a frigid December day, so we were in a large but crowded indoor ring. He put Patrick through his paces. The horse had excellent gaits. He willingly went on the bit and did his flying changes. Then the rider began to jump. At first, the pair missed their distances. “You need to slow down,” barked Patrick’s trainer to her rider. “You always ride the horses too fast when the customers are here!”
Sure enough, the rider slowed down slightly and Patrick started nailing all of his distances to the fences, jumping them beautifully. Then it was my turn to ride. I was boosted into the saddle and took off at a walk. Even his walk felt like a straight, quality gait. I picked up the trot. He had some suspension, which made him feel springy and athletic, but not too bouncy or uncomfortable. He had a very soft mouth and was a push ride. Taking leg off was his invitation to slow down. I figured he would be a lot of work in the heat of summer! We picked up the canter. It was to die for; the most comfortable canter I had ever ridden. He completely carried himself. It was like floating. I remember thinking to myself that if I never jumped another jump, I could ride that canter for ten years and be happy. That must’ve been when I fell for him. He proceeded to do some lead changes for me. He marched down a couple of jump lines and over a 3’ oxer. He seemed brave and he jumped very round, just like a good hunter should.
I am a fairly analytical person and I thought that even if I found the right horse, I might still have trouble making the commitment to buy. Luckily, that ended up not being the case. I felt sure that Patrick was the right horse for me. A week later after a clean vetting and a short trial at our farm, I was the proud owner of a 16h brown pony-cross with a successful record of competition in the 3’/3’3” hunters and equitation. I finished his purchase just before Christmas, which had the nice side benefit that I could truthfully say that, after 20 years of begging Santa, I finally got a pony for Christmas.