“I need help…he won’t pick his foot up.”
“I can’t make her trot!”
“He’s not listening to me!”
“She won’t stop!”
“I just want my own horse…one that will do what I tell it to, that can jump higher, and that I can show.”
I try to hide my cringe whenever one of my students blurts out such a phrase. I feel myself bristle, but at the same time try to remind myself of where they are coming from, and, that I once felt the same way. Rather than following my knee-jerk reaction and snapping, I opt for my politest reminder to not blame the horse for anything and to instead find a more effective way of asking.
Our incredible group of lesson horses are masters of their trade, knowing just when to give and just when to hold off. They provide an amazing opportunity for our students to perfect their basics and riding foundations before moving up to handling bigger fences, complicated movements or younger horses. I can’t count the number of times I’ve listened to a starry-eyed student describe to me a “YouTube video they watched last night of a gorgeous warmblood doing a grand-prix level test”, or tell me about their “best friend who has her own horse and rides cross-country”. They describe to me in detail the exact, perfect horse they will someday own—one that is forward, obedient, loving, smart, balanced, willing, and of course, their favorite color! The lesson horses beneath them are just those they have to make do with until they can ride something better one day.
In all reality, I think any horse could be labeled a “lesson horse”, because each one teaches us important lessons. But in this piece, I’m referring to the ones who give so many of us equestrians our start in the horse world. The horses we took our initial riding lessons on—these equines have some of the toughest jobs in the horse industry. On a daily basis they take our imbalance, our weakness, and our mistakes in stride. They constantly face riders falling on their backs, pulling on their mouths, asking for things incorrectly and then punishing them for responding. Of course, none of this is done by the rider intentionally (it better not be, in my ring!). It is all in the natural course of learning and growing. Maybe these horses can sense this, and that is why at the end of the day they remain so tolerant and willing to go along with it. If we are not careful, it is easy to let these incredible horses go under-appreciated on a daily basis.
Whenever I reflect on my earlier days and the lesson horses who shaped me, I’m immediately whisked back to a 15.3 red bay, black-stockinged, white-socked, quiet, aged gelding who forever wore a star and stripe alongside his knowing smirk. Being an ex-police horse, he had seen it all and was fazed by nothing. I was thankfully raised on an incredible collection of schoolmasters, but this old man was something extra special to me.
I didn’t necessarily ride “Towne” any more than the other lesson horses I was assigned. I didn’t spend any extra time with him, but he has impacted my life in a way that I could never be able to thank him for, especially now that he is gone. In the early days, my 14-years-younger self hated being assigned to him. He was “slow” and “boring” and “lazy”…he “bit” and “kicked”…all of the words that make me frown and give speeches now when I hear my own students using them to describe their mounts.
Whenever I rode Towne, I had to work incredibly hard to get the smallest payout. How tragic! Seeing his name beside mine on the lesson board I would sigh and roll my eyes as I turned on my heel to trudge to his stall. If I could go back in time and smack myself, I would.
Enter: Kandyman (my now-retired, but snarky-as-ever large pony). When Kandyman arrived at the barn I was drawn to him for reasons that to this day I cannot explain. He intimidated me and was difficult. He was outside of my comfort zone, but I loved him, saw him as a fun challenge and was assigned to him on a regular basis. I rarely rode Towne anymore because I had “graduated” to the bigger and better things. Now I was learning how to “really ride”.
The third time I showed Kandyman in a dressage show was laughable.
A: Enter resistant walk.
X: Halt, Salute, Sigh. Proceed kicking excessively, only to have my horse kick back.
C: Track left and sense the judge standing up behind me, waiting for just the right moment to speak.
E: Circle left 20m, allowing the horse to pin his ears, chomp the bit, and cowkick.
B: Judge kindly excuses me from the ring.
My second test was the same, only this time the judge asked that I have my instructor come in and school us for a few minutes so that we could end on a positive note. She also told me that if I could find another horse to ride (since mine didn’t want to play that day), she would judge my test at the end of the show on a different mount.
There was only one other horse available for me to ride that day—Kingston Towne—the boring, lazy, mean lesson horse. He was turned out immaculately, with stunning button braids and pristine tack from his earlier tests that day. Still, I was disappointed.
“Well, so much for being able to get a horse to go. Towne doesn’t move! I won’t make it any farther.” The bratty, immature thoughts of a teenager. But what did I have to lose? I had paid for the classes, I might as well try. It had been months since I’d ridden him, so I got on to do a short warm-up and try to reconnect, hoping I could figure out how to get him moving before making a last attempt at a dressage test. To my amazement, the moment I asked him to trot, he went. Everything I asked of him, he did.
Wait, what? You mean he’s not a bad horse? He just won’t do things unless you ask him correctly? What a strange notion! He carried me through my test, slowly and surely, with a steady cadence that I would give anything to feel today. It was at that moment I realized Towne was only waiting for me to do things the correct way before obliging. For the first time, I felt a deep remorse for the way I had previously thought of him. I was just starting to catch a glimpse of everything he had been giving me months ago. Even though I’d misunderstood him, spoken ill of him and basically just ignored his existence, he still had my back (or rather, gave me his) in my hour of need—when my “bigger and better” horse proved to be too much for me to handle. He got a teary hug from me at the end of that evening, and a long, well-deserved cool down full of pats and peppermints.
This is the last time I can remember being graced with back, his legs, his mind. I still handled him on a daily basis as I worked at the barn through the next several years. He was the alpha of the herd, but in the silent stoic way the best leaders are. Every other horse in the herd would throw concerned, reverent looks his way whenever they found themselves too close, but never once did I actually witness Towne whipping anybody into shape. A warning twitch of the ears was all he ever needed to call someone to attention. He clearly had an incredible amount of respect from his fellow equines. I watched his interactions with amazement because there seemed to be none, but at the same time you could sense that his presence was always felt. As far as horses go, Towne was a grandfather to me—full of lessons you didn’t even know he was teaching you.
The years went on—I went to college and moved on to the next steps in my life. The barn went through some huge changes, including major downsizing, and most of the horses had to find new homes. When I returned to the barn to visit, Towne, along with many others, was gone. He wasn’t far, living with a family that had been involved with the barn for years, but my time with him had passed…or so I thought. I never would have dreamed of the way we would meet again in the all-too-near future.
A few years later, my best friend and riding partner-in-crime died suddenly in a completely random accident. She was 19-years-old. The devastating loss and pain collectively felt at her funeral was deep. Many came to pay their respects and offer support to her family…including our beloved equine grandfather. I will never forget pulling up to the graveside service and seeing Towne standing in the distance, utterly still with his handlers—our riding instructor and barn manager. He was clad in spotless dressage attire, a pair of backwards boots affixed to the stirrups. He was braided and gleaming, and I will never forget his soft steady breaths caressing my cheek as I clutched him to my face after the service. Even in his retirement, he was fulfilling duties and paying us respects. How I wish I could do the same for him.
Kingston Towne—retired police horse, retired lesson horse, beloved friend and equine grandfather—died four years later in his mid-30’s. He was surrounded by people who loved him. I am so grateful that he was.
Towne, this article is for you, but also for all the lesson horses who have dedicated their lives (willingly or otherwise) to service. How would we ever learn to jump higher, or ask for canter pirouettes if we didn’t have the opportunity to absorb the basics at the slow-and-steady? How could we possibly handle the young, the inexperienced, the frisky if we had never learned to balance and send forward a horse that wouldn’t move? Lesson horses are like the buried foundations of our grandest structures—often forgotten or overlooked, but without which, everything else would crumble, or never even exist. These horses give us so much more than we ever truly realize.
This is my thank you to those horses that I saw as stepping stones and did not even begin to place the value on that they deserved until much further along in my education. Most of the horses that gave me my own start are gone and I will never be able to go back and give them the extra big hug I didn’t think to give them at a time when I could.
As far as horses go, Towne was a grandfather to me—full of lessons you didn’t even know he was teaching you.
Moving forward, it is through the lesson horses I now teach alongside that I can attempt to achieve my atonement for my days of apathy towards my own incredible teachers. I strive daily to help my students understand these concepts, but realize that most of these are lessons I cannot fully teach. My students will likely learn in a similar fashion: through experience and retrospect, because that is just the nature of this environment. The horses we are surrounded by never stop teaching us about life’s most basic messages, inside the ring and beyond.
About the Author
Rachel Neese has the privilege of working as a riding instructor alongside an incredible team of hard-working instructors and students at Bramblewood Stables in upstate South Carolina. She is also honored to share her teaching duties with a string of rock-star lesson horses. Her own horses consist of a 22-year-old gelding, Kandyman, who she’s had for the last twelve years, and a 6-year-young mare, Eliza, who she’s had since Eliza was born. When not at the barn, Rachel works full-time as a Paramedic with an upstate 911 system.