For better or for worse, you can learn something from every horse that you ride—whether it is a skill or a life-lesson. Sometimes you learn something you should always do, or something you should never do. I’ve been fortunate that in my lifetime, I have ridden thousands of horses. From them, I have gained invaluable experience. While the old-time wisdom says you are fortunate to have one good horse in your lifetime, I know am very blessed to be on my fourth. This month, I said goodbye to Chavo– one horse that will always leave a mark on my life. His passing made my mind reel with old scenes of all of my dear horses.
My first true love was my childhood horse—Minnie. She was a pretty bay Morgan mare that would take me anywhere and do whatever crazy-kid thing I asked. From her, I learned to stick on the back of a horse and gained all the confidence I would ever need in life. Some horses will give you confidence; some will take it away.
Next came George—an off the track Thoroughbred turned hunter. My dad bought him for me when I was 14 and he totally “made” me as a rider. He was a push-button equitation machine, always in the ribbons, and we paid the un-heard of sum (at the time) of $1500 for him! George taught me the finer points of riding a finished horse and on him I mastered the important principles of classical riding.
Pepsea came into my life after college and stayed with me for a couple decades. She was a high-powered classic Morgan show horse and it was just through luck and circumstance that I got her—I could never have afforded her as a young horse trainer. Pepsea was hot-blooded, sensitive, athletic, smart and brave. True to her breed, she could do anything—and she’d do it better and faster than any other horse. These are the principles that helped shape my career. Together we climbed mountains, led pack strings, sorted cows, jumped, ponied colts and taught many, many clinics. I had her for almost 25 years, until she laid down and died peacefully earlier this year at the age of 29.
My current horse-of-a-lifetime is Dually, an athletic cow-bred Quarter Horse with an amazing temperament and undying eagerness to please. We have been a team now for eight years and he is absolutely perfect for me at this point in my career. He’s awesome to teach off of at clinics and he is a super-model when it comes to photo shoots, TV shows and expositions. He has taught me so much about willingness, the intensity of cow horses and about high-level athletic maneuvers. He and I will be making more memories for quite a while.
The horse I’m remembering most right now was an incredible lesson horse. While he wasn’t just mine, he was a horse of lifetime. I have worked with some incredible school horses throughout my career— I call them “The Professors” –and Chavo was the best of them all. Where would our sport be without the professors? From the gentle beginner’s horse that babysits her rider, to the intermediate horse that provides just enough challenge to force the rider to step-up, to the higher level school masters that teach refinement skills to experienced riders—school horses keep our sport going.
Chavo was such a horse—a “School Master” for all levels of riders. He came my way about 20 years ago, because his owner could no longer care for him. He was a handsome and balanced grade horse with a temperament of pure gold, so I was happy to give him a try. Unusual for a school horse, he would work equally well for any level rider—from the never-ever to the advanced—trail, arena, jumping, cows, you name it, he would do it. Here at my farm, he taught literally hundreds of riders, including my son and my husband– for whom Chavo will always have a special place in their hearts.
I remember watching my son, all decked out in his Charlie Goodnight outfit, with BB gun slung over his shoulder, riding out alone on the trails around our house with Chavo. How many horses could you turn your 8 –year-old son loose with and know he would be safe as he rode around the pasture, pretending to be a Wild West gunslinger?
My husband first learned to canter on Chavo. For him, the horse was a teacher who inspired him to keep learning. After Chavo’s patience with him, Rich went on to compete on versatile ranch horses and win championships. He still credits Chavo with getting him started and giving him the skills and confidence needed to ride more high-powered horses.
About 10 years ago, I decided to no longer have clinics here at my ranch, making our school horses obsolete. By then, Chavo was ready to be semi-retired and I found a great home for him with two young boys that he would babysit, and we said our sad goodbyes. Little did I know that he would come back home 10 years later.
When we heard that Chavo needed a home, we were more than happy to bring him back. Old and frail, in his mid-30s, he was still alert and always happy to see anyone that walked in the barn. Long past the age where he could be ridden, Chavo still loved people and clearly wanted to be useful. Whenever we had our working horses out, Chavo would always come stand at the hitching rail with them– I suppose with fond memories of having a daily job.
Chavo touched an incredible number of people in his long and illustrious career. He has a special place in the hearts of many people and it was with both sadness and a sense of peace that we recently saw him off to greener pastures.
I’ve encountered some great horses in my lifetime and I know how valuable it is to learn and grow on horses that provide you with just the right challenge, at the right time in your life. Some horses cooperate with the rider and tolerate our mistakes; while others throw tantrums at the slightest provocation. Some are shy and reticent—in need of our softness; while others require our boldness and direction. Take time to learn whatever lesson your horse is teaching you. Horses are our greatest teachers and all we have to do is listen to the lesson.