5 things no one told me about owning my first horse
Every horsey person's dream is to own their own horse - to be able to build a relationship with a steed, to become a genuine partnership that's based in trust, and friendship. And to be able to ride as much as you want! It's the ultimate goal for many equestrians, and when the time comes it can be very exciting to start imagining the future for you and your dream horse.
But those of us who have embarked on our horse ownership journeys can attest to the fact that owning a horse isn't always a dream come true - or at least, there are lots of challenges and ups and downs that are inevitable when you introduce a big, intelligent, high-maintenance animal to your life!
I bought my first horse a little over two years ago. Like many people, I rode as a child and teenager, and then took a break when I started university and had the first few years of my career. I came back to riding in my twenties, and it took another four years before I was ready to buy a horse of my own.
I did a lot of research and sought a lot of advice from my coaches and the wonderful team at Gooromon Park Riding Centre in Hall, NSW, where I ride and agist, before I took the plunge. But despite this, there were still plenty of things that completely threw me for a loop in my first months of horse ownership (and there are probably more surprises to come!).
My lovely Clydie X mare, Penny, and I have come a long way together, but I do wonder if our journey would have been easier if I had been better prepared.
Here are just five of the things no one told me before I bought my first horse:
1. It won't always be rainbows and sunshine
On the day that Penny arrived at her new home, I was beside myself with excitement. The horse truck actually arrived from Victoria at 1am in the morning, and I had to meet them at the bottom of the long driveway to the stables, because the truck couldn't physically fit through the gate.
Penny was standing on the truck, her eyes wild and her feet firmly planted - she was stressed out of her mind, and had decided that she was pretty happy to stay exactly where she was, thank you very much.
It took a lot of coaxing, and eventually the smell of an apple to get her to gingerly step down the ramp and off the truck. I turned her into her stable with a fresh biscuit of hay and stared at her while she ate with starry eyes - so far, so good!
The next day, we had our first ride - and it was terrible. Penny planted her feet, backed up, threw her head and basically tried everything she could to avoid my aids. Where was the (yes, opinionated, but) straight-forward mare I had tried a few weeks ago??
As I learned over the next six months, horses are very adaptable, but it isn't always a seamless transition for them from one home to another - especially if they're moving from a more experienced home to a less experienced one, as in my case!
They have to get used to a new environment, new horses, new routines, and as prey animals this can cause a lot of stress to them, because they are happiest when they feel comfortable and safe in an environment they understand.
It took months of getting to know each other, understanding each other's strengths and weaknesses, and getting a lot more confident on my part, before I could really start enjoying having Penny.
In fact, a lot of the first few months was spent being stressed and a little scared of riding, with plenty of internal pep talks given while driving towards the stables.
First horses are a huge learning curve, and they require perseverance and resilience to really get the best out of the experience. Now, I look back on those initial days of figuring each other out with fondness, because Penny and I have a genuine bond. But I wish I had known earlier that it can take over a year to really form a relationship with a new horse, so I could have managed my own expectations!
2. Whatever your expectations are about how much gear you need, double it
I remember thinking, in the early days of horse ownership, that you simply purchased a single saddle, bridle and bit and you were set until something broke.
Most of you will find that hilarious - how naive I was!! Horses are individuals, as are riders, and the gear that you'll need will depend on so many factors, including the needs of the horse, the disciplines you want to do, and your ability as a rider.
You have to be adaptive to all of these factors, and that can often lead to needing to change equipment, like having to replace a rug the day after you bought it because your horse already managed to destroy it in the paddock, or realising that the saddle pad you bought is made of a material that makes your saddle feel like it's slipping, or that your horse goes much better in a particular bit over another, etc etc etc.
Add to that the tendency of equestrians to be obsessed with breeches, jodhpurs and riding tops, and you might as well just commit all of your expendable income to horse things now and forget about ever affording a holiday.
The most important thing I learned, though, was that when it comes to horse gear, it's always best to just invest in quality items, for the sake of your horse's comfort, rather than opting for cheaper brands. And it's super important to get gear properly fitted to your horse!
The good news is, someone else is always looking for an item you no longer need, so reselling gear is quite easy and can help you avoid cluttering your home with an endless supply of gear you don't want anymore!
3. For every step forward, there will be a step back
There is nothing more exhilarating than achieving something on your horse that you've been working on for ages. Whether that's a new dressage movement, or a higher jump, or just being able to trail ride alone, or load onto a float - whatever the challenge, it's incredibly rewarding when you achieve it.
But the thing with horses is that everything changes all the time. Just as you fix one issue, another might emerge. Or your horse will get injured or throw a shoe. Or you will get injured. Or your 'good' rein will turn into your 'bad' rein for some unforeseeable reason!
I've been through many ups and downs with Penny, and for every up there has definitely been a down around the corner - but it also goes the other way. My coach told me when I first got Penny that I would be amazed at the horse I had in a year, and she was absolutely right. I never thought we would achieve what we have together.
And it's reassuring to look at other riders in my stable and see that all of us, no matter what level of experience we have, will always come up against setbacks - but we also all make it through them.
These days, I take absolutely nothing for granted. When I have a good ride, I am really grateful, and when I have a bad one, I just remind myself things can always be worse!
4. You won't actually always feel like riding
Before I got Penny, I was only riding the very nice and educated school horses at Gooromon. I couldn't get enough of them, and I assumed that when I had my own horse I would want to ride ALL. THE. TIME. I knew I had to limit her exercise for her own strength and fitness, but it never occurred to me that sometimes I would be so tired I'd opt to lunge Penny, or not ride at all.
But it turns out, horses are exhausting, and unlike riding school horses (it takes a very special horse to be a school horse!), riding your own horse is much more intense. Every ride with Penny, I'm thinking about what we need to improve, what habits she has that I'm trying to correct, what my weaknesses are that I can improve on, and so it goes.
Even if you don't school your horse often, the associated chores of horse ownership can be so tiring you don't have energy left to ride!
I have a rule though - if I decide not to ride on a day when I normally would, I go out and see Penny, give her a brush and a cuddle anyway, because having a horse is about so much more than riding, and never want to forget that!
5. Nothing about horse ownership is predictable
Every week of owning a horse is different from the one previous. This is in both good and challenging ways. There are the usual risks associated with horses - falls, injuries to you or your horse, accidents, illnesses. But there are also surprising positive things - like cracking through a particular riding challenge when you least expected it, or suddenly having a new opportunity to attend a clinic or take a lesson with someone amazing.
I love the adventures, but it also plays havoc with my stress levels, because I'm the type of person that wants to have a plan for everything.
Horses are definitely a sort of forced mindfullness for me - when I'm with Penny, I can't be anything other than present, because it's so important to our safety that I pay attention and don't get distracted by my phone! I love this because my mind can go quiet and really enjoy the moment, but it also means accepting that there's little you can control with horses.
Owning a horse is definitely a dream come true, though maybe not in the ways I expected. Is there anything you wish you had known before you got your first horse?
You can follow my adventures with Penny on Instagram!