A year ago, I wanted to retire my horse. Here's why I'm glad I didn't.
A few days ago, I found a memory coming up on my Facebook page. It was a post I made about leasing my horse out. In it, I said that I was thinking of taking expressions of interest from a confident rider to lease my then-10 year old Clydie X mare. At the same time as making the post, I emailed a few spelling paddocks nearby to find out if they had any places. If I didn't find a lease home, I was thinking of retiring Penny.
A year later, I'm riding Penny five times a week, taking her off property almost every weekend, entering competitions, and heading out to our first two-day event next month.
What changed? And why did I think our journey was over in the first place?
Anyone who follows us on Instagram will know that Penny is not an easy ride. She is a typical mare, and I have the hindsight to see that I was a very novice rider when I first got her. We had a lot of teething issues, but by the time I posted about leasing her out, we'd been together for two years and moved beyond most of those problems.
But as much as we weren't arguing much under saddle anymore, we also still didn't really have a bond. And, what seemed crucial at the time - we weren't competitive when compared to the other riders and their horses at the barn. Where they were picture perfect on school masters and talented Warmbloods, I felt like I was lagging behind with my argumentative Clydie X.
When I made that post, I had only taken Penny off property a few times, had never trail ridden her, never played in the paddock, never gotten on her bareback, never given her a massage, never jumped her (which it turns out, is the thing she loves the most), and never allowed her soft, gentle, sweet side to show.
I would show up to her full-care agistment, tack her up, ride, return her to her stable, and leave. And then I'd look at other people's Instagram accounts and see them winning ribbons and wonder if Penny just wasn't the right horse for me, because we didn't seem to connect like that.
I can see now how backwards my thinking was. I was putting all of the onus of building a bond on Penny, and taking no responsibility myself. I was looking at her like she was a product and she wasn't returning on my investment.
Now, the fact that I EVER considered retiring my beautiful, fit, athletic completely sound mare at 10, just so I could save money for the $30,000 dressage horse I thought I needed seems flat out crazy.
So what changed?
The first thing that happened was someone came to try Penny, with the goal of leasing her. A perfectly lovely teenager gave her a ride and fell in love with her immediately. She was ready to move Penny to her agistment within the week, and start their journey together. And the thought of that happening made me feel sick to my stomach.
I realised that I wasn't ready to give up on Penny just yet. But I also realised that my priorities were all wrong. It took the better part of a year to unravel all of the knots in my thinking.
The next tipping point was that we moved from a full-care agistment to an owner-care property. I was lucky to be in an incredibly supportive environment when I first got Penny, with talented and generous coaches who taught me what I needed to know about caring for a horse. But I needed to save money, and when a spot opened on a private property near me, I took it.
It was very daunting taking on the care of Penny myself, especially because being away from our old barn made me realise how little we really knew each other. The first few weeks, I could see how little Penny trusted me. She was spooky, unsettled, and stressed.
But then, something amazing happened. Every day, Penny saw me come to see her, brush her, rug her, feed her and turn her out. She started to associate me with more than just riding.
She started walking to me in the field, and following me when I poo picked. She nickered when I arrived in the morning to turn her out of her stable, and she started relaxing with me on the ground.
I started to spend more time with her in her paddock, and soon we were playing liberty games, and having fun together. Then, we went for our first solo trail ride - having ridden entirely in arenas before that, it was amazing to walk her out on a long rein and realise that I trusted her.
Fast forward a year, and Penny is the light of my life. We've found our mojo on the ground and under saddle, and I couldn't imagine life without her. She's still a mare, and I'd be lying if I said she doesn't test me sometimes - but I've learned to focus on her needs as much as my own, and I no longer let things like arbitrary competition goals get in the way of our bond.
I think the mental game of horse riding and horse ownership is often understated. Being resilient, compassionate, self-aware and reflective is just as important as having a good seat, or the technical ability to ride. Penny may not have propelled me into the upper levels of our chosen disciplines, but she has taught me more about myself and about horses than I could possibly have hoped for.
Now, I'm focused on being the best possible human for Penny, to do her justice and give her a happy, fulfilling life. And I'm finding that the more I offer to her, the more she is willing to give in return.