zrBy the time Great Grimsby -- or Grimm as he came to be called -- entered my life, I had been riding and training horses for almost two decades. I'd had a successful show career as an eventer in my college days, and I had a wall full of ribbons and trophies won on horses I'd made myself. I'd ridden with prestigious trainers; I could sit just about anything a horse could dish out; I could get a horse to do pretty much whatever I wanted; and I was practically fearless. I had trained and sold dozens of horses, had built up a riding program with a bunch of horses I'd schooled for the job myself; and my students did well when we went to shows. I knew what I was doing. At least, I did until it came time for Grimm to teach me that what I really needed to learn was how much I didn't know. Unfortunately for both of us, in the beginning, I was a very slow student. Poor Grimm had to go to some desperate measures to get me to wake up and smell the coffee ... in fact, it took me a year to be ready to learn the first, most basic lesson: Listen.
At first, Grimm's training progressed exactly as I'd hoped. I got his flat work squared away in no time, and soon I had him started over cross-rails. He had a little trouble at first, some stopping, some unwillingness to go forward to his fences, but it didn't seem like anything out of the ordinary for a horse off the track. I knew how to handle it, and it wasn't long before I had him going over low hunter courses and took him to his first schooling show.
Grimm had retired from a pretty impressive racing career.. His papers show a list of wins, lots of money, and I had been told that his jockey rode him to the post every race; he didn't need a pony horse. That same work ethic came to the fore at his first show. He settled in and got to work the minute I mounted up. When I rode him into the covered arena filled with flower boxes and brightly painted fences, he didn't even blink. In fact, I could feel his confidence building as we made our courtesy circle and headed for the first fence. It was like it clicked for him. "Oh. This is what we do now? This is what all of that stuff at home was for? Got it." He hit a confident, forward distance to his first fence, and nailed every single distance after that, too. It was the best round he'd ever jumped, and he ended up in the ribbons, first cracker out of the barrel. I was in heaven. A horse who performed better at a competition than he did at home? Wow! What luck! We finished the day with me nearly giddy with joy, and I drove home on cloud nine.
It wasn't long after that, however, things started going downhill. Although he was a powerhouse over fences, he never seemed to get comfortable with jumping. Then he started refusing. It didn't make sense. He went from calm and compliant, even eager-seeming to outright slamming on the brakes. Then he started resisting his flat work, too.
I didn't find out until a full year later that the cause of all these problems was pain from an injury he'd sustained to his back when he was still racing. By the time I got him, he'd already started developing arthritis in his sacroiliac joint and lower back, and the jumping hurt. The more he did, the worse it got, and the kind of flat work I was doing didn't help, either. Although I didn't know it at the time, the pain he was in was the cause of his bizarre change in behavior ... so, in my ignorance, we battled it out every ride for a while until I finally had to admit that I was in over my head. I'd finally met my match, and I needed help. But getting help was problematic because I didn't want to ride with anyone in my area; they all did it wrong.
I'm not saying that I thought I knew everything. Far from it. I just knew what kind of help I needed, and nobody in Phoenix taught it. I didn't know what to call it then (just one of many things I didn't realize I didn't know), but correct classical instruction is hard to find. I'd been introduced to it first by Chris McKechnie, a trainer from New Zealand who worked in the Phoenix area for a while when I was still an assistant trainer at my first barn. He'd made a huge impression on me in the few lessons I was lucky enough to have with him, but when he returned to New Zealand, there wasn't anyone who could match what he helped me to feel ... until Kim Walnes. In clinics with her, as a young trainer, I was introduced to what correct position feels like, what a happy horse feels like, what connection feels like. I loved it. I thrived on it. But when it just wasn't possible to get her out to Arizona anymore, I was on my own again. NOBODY could help me the way she and Chris had done, and I knew in my heart that if I couldn't find somebody who could, it just wouldn't be worth it.
So Grimm and I kept struggling.
There was one person, Justine Wilson from California, who was able to help for a brief period. When I rode with her, I called it 'marriage counseling' because she could always get me to stop fighting with Grimm, get him to relax and try new things, and get me to quit worrying about 'what he was going to do' and let him work at his own speed. When I rode with Justine, it felt ... right. She was my first real, focused classical dressage instruction, and Grimm was definitely a fan. She didn't make him do anything, but she started with relaxation. With the tension out of his back, he could work with less pain, and since everything we did was low key and low stress, Grimm was always willing. While the issue with his back had not been diagnosed, Grimm and I just knew that something about the way Justine approached things ... worked.
Sadly, as with Kim, it became impossible to get Justine out to Arizona, and again, Grimm and I found ourselves on our own. Our progress stopped when I didn't know how to carry on from where Justine left off, and as months passed, he got more and more reticent about working. He got so horrible over fences that I just stopped jumping and focused on trying to fix his flat work (without success), and I got desperate. As a last resort, I signed up for a clinic at our barn with one of the leading dressage riders in Phoenix. ( I won't mention her name, because ... things didn't go very well.) I figured that while Grimm and I were considerably below the level she usually taught, she had to know what she was doing. She'd schooled horses and riders all the way to Grand Prix, so if she'd have us, I was willing to give it a try. I probably shouldn't have.
Unlike Justine, she seemed to take an immediate dislike to Grimm. It was understandable. Because of his back pain, his trot had become stilted and choppy, and he was tense, unhappy, and arrhythmic. Cantering a 20-meter circle was out of the question. But, she didn't seem to notice his limitations, and we ended up doing work that was way beyond what Grimm was capable of offering.
Knowing what I know now, I understand that what she asked us to do would have made sense with the average horse. But it couldn't work with Grimm, not with his sore, sore back. He simply didn't have the strength to do what she wanted, and it hurt when he tried. I didn't know the reason, but I knew the lesson wasn't going well. I knew that Grimm was getting less and less confident, more reticent, more ... ANGRY as the session went on. But I didn't speak up in his defense. I didn't question her reasoning. I didn't pull up and ask for a break for him. I didn't excuse myself from the ring. I just kept doing what she told me to do, even though poor Grimm was telling me in every way he knew how that things were going even worse with her help than when we were muddling through on our own. I should have listened, but I didn't, and I will always regret that I learned this lesson too late.
By the end of the session, he'd started bucking, which he had never offered to do before. We both left the lesson frustrated and embarrassed ... and with an even more broken trust between us (not to mention a new repertoire of aires above the ground) that took years to mend. Thank goodness we found Heather.
Heather Wilson-Roller came to Arizona from Wellington, Florida with a wealth of experience and expertise in riding top quality dressage horses. She has an incredible gift for understanding how horses think, how horses move, and what riders need to do and to learn in order to ride correctly, but I was horrifically gun shy after that lesson with the Grand Prix trainer, and my friend Kristen had to basically trick me into trying a ride with Heather. Since there was no way I was going to risk putting Grimm in another lesson with another upper level trainer I didn't know, Kristen offered to let me ride her young mare ... and to pay for the lesson. It was a small thing to Kristen, but for me and Grimm, it was a life changer.
In the beginning though, I didn't make it easy for Heather. I had built a giant mental wall around the precious information that I remembered from riding with Kim and Chris so many years ago, and for the first twenty minutes of that first lesson with Heather, it must have been like teaching a brick. Then, all of a sudden, when I finally listened to what she was saying instead of walling her out, it hit me: she was saying the same things Kim said, just in different words! I felt the first glimmer of hope that I'd had in years, and little by little, I let the wall down until by the end of the lesson, I knew I'd found the help Grimm and I so desperately needed.
Grimm had been trying to talk to me for a year before we started working with Heather, but I hadn't been able to understand. He'd tried to tell me that jumping hurt, but I didn't listen. He told me that the way I was riding him didn't work, but I didn't know how to listen when he tried to tell me what he did need. When he let me know that the Grand Prix trainer's methods were wrong for him, I listened, but I didn't act. Thankfully, I got it right when I listened to Heather, because without her, I never would have solved the mystery of Grimm's behavior, and I never would have been able to build the partnership of trust and love and communication that I share with the best horse -- the best teacher -- in the world. It took me a while, but I did eventually learn Grimsby's first lesson: Listen.
In 2010, I got the horse of my dreams.
Five-year-old OTTB, Bonhomme Richard, a.k.a., "Jones", was everything I could have hoped for, shopping as I was, with a very limited budget. He was young, athletic, tall, talented, and sensible .... A handsome bay, with a classic head and clean legs, he came to me already started over cross-rails. He was a joy to ride in company or alone, in the arena or out on the trail. He was perfect. I was sure we'd be competing in no time.
Then, three months after I bought him, at the peak of the hottest summer on record in Phoenix, he stopped being able to sweat. Temperatures were up over 115 during the day and never dropped below 100 at night. Poor Jonesy was miserable, even inside the barn with fans blowing on him around the clock. I’d tried everything I knew how to do to help him. So did my vet. But there is no guaranteed cure for anhidrosis in horses, in fact we aren't even sure what causes it, and he didn’t respond to anything we tried.
He went downhill fast. He lost weight. His hair started to fall out. He developed sores on his legs. Then he quit eating. As much as I loved him, I knew he’d die if I kept him in Phoenix. I had to do something.
Jones had come from Kass Dewey’s ex-racehorse rescue facility in Tucson. She only dealt in off-track thoroughbreds, and she only sold quality horses. So, the day I finally accepted the truth about Jones and decided to call her, I broke down in tears. Asking if she’d take him back was one of the hardest decisions I’d ever made. To my surprise, not only did she agree to take him back, she said I could trade him in -- pick another horse and trade straight across. It was an incredible offer ... but I didn’t want any of the other horses.
Don’t get me wrong, there were some nice horses at Kass’s place. Really nice horses. She had about a dozen or so attractive, athletic geldings all living a life of ex-racing luxury, hanging out in her rescue paddock. Any of them would make a nice horse for someone ... just not for me. I wanted Jones.
I needed a horse though. Without Jones, I had nothing of my own to ride, and as anyone who knows me can tell you, I NEED to ride. So, after spending all I’d saved to purchase Jones, my options totaled exactly one. If I wanted another horse, I’d have to pick one of the others at Kass’s: a consolation prize for losing the horse of my dreams.
It would be a business decision, I decided. I’d buy a resale prospect, train it for a few months, then sell it. Quick. No attachment. Minimal investment. I’d recoup my money, maybe pull a small profit, and then go buy the horse I really wanted. Something to replace Jones.
I mulled over my options until the weekend came and I could make the four-hour round-trip haul down to Tucson. Unless she’d gotten anything new since I’d been there to look at Jones, four stood out in my memory. There was a lanky and flashy four-year-old bay with high white socks and a fantastic trot; a stocky dark brown who was plain as a mud fence but had already started jumping with a girl who lived down the block and rode him bareback in a halter and lead; a two-year-old chestnut that would probably grow up to be a knock-out if I wanted to wait two years for him to be old enough to jump; and a nine-year-old gray who was truly stunning -- and a gorgeous mover -- but way too old for what I needed.
It really was too bad about that white one. He'd caught my eye as soon as I'd walked into the paddock that first time I'd visited Kass. He would have been the one I brought home, in fact, if he were younger. But he was NINE: way too old to resell. Too old to start a competition career, too. As pretty as he was, he would never work for me. And the two-year-old was just too young.
So it was down to two. Would it be the fancy four-year-old bay or the smaller, plainer five-year-old, the dark brown who already had some schooling over cross-rails? In my head, I called them Fancy and Hunter, and by the time I’d pulled into Kass’s driveway, I was pretty sure that I would be going home with Hunter. He’d probably make a kid’s horse, he was ready to start competing now, and he’d sell easily. It was just a matter of taking a quick look at the others to make sure and then loading up Hunter and heading home.
After I unloaded Jones and got him settled into his cool, comfortable indoor stall, I said good-bye, and then holding back the last of my tears, I left my dream horse behind in the barn. Resolutely, I headed out to the pasture, empty halter hanging over my shoulder, determined to put my feelings aside and make a businesslike choice.
Like before, a small herd of geldings -- browns, bays, chestnuts -- gazed at me as I opened the gate and let myself into the paddock. I looked right past the gray who was standing in front of the herd, taller than any of the others by a hand, with his silvery-white coat proclaiming his age like a billboard. Too bad, I thought again. He’d be just what I was looking for -- if he were younger.
I shooed them off, trying to get them moving and spread them out so I could get an idea of which one's gaits I liked best. Having put the gray out of my mind, I focused on the others. It was an exercise in frustration. None were keen to do much besides jog a few steps and then bunch back up and ignore me. So I clucked and waved and clapped my leg, walking in circles, kicking up dust, and not accomplishing much else. That's when I felt the tug on my shoulder.
I turned around, and there was the gray. He'd sneaked up behind me with the other old guys who were even lazier and less interested in trotting around the pen than the younger ones who were mostly ignoring me from the rail. The tug I'd felt was Jones's halter -- the one I'd carried out to the paddock over my shoulder.
The gray looked at me expectantly, so I laughed, pet him, and then shooed him off before turning back to the horses I was going to buy. I chased them, fruitlessly, for another lap or so, and then there was another, harder, tug on the halter.
When I turned around this time, the gray didn't let go. He just held the noseband of Jones's halter and smiled at me. I swear he did. He smiled.
I smiled back. I chuckled and tugged on the halter, expecting him to let go. He didn't. He tugged back. I pulled. He waited ... and then he took a step toward me. His eyes glinted as he watched me. I pulled again and took a step back. He stepped with me, still not letting go of the halter.
"Okay. Seriously," I said, giving the halter a very firm tug, hard enough to get him to drop it. "You're very cute. Go play. I'm busy."
He moved off a step or two and then stubbornly stood there, daring me to waste my energy trying to make him go away.
I didn't play his silly game. I ignored him.
Turning back to the herd, I worked at them for a bit longer -- finding it somewhat more difficult now because of the big white horse standing right in the way -- and not making much progress. Finally I gave up and just put the halter on Hunter.
Kass didn't allow the horses to be ridden at her place. Most had been standing in a pasture for months, and getting on cold like that would be beyond dangerous. She required that you take them home, restart them, and if you still liked them three weeks later, she would cash the check. To make a long story short, I longed both Hunter and Fancy, and after watching them move, I decided to take the younger of the two. His movement was exponentially better, and he was so pretty that his resale value was as close to a guarantee as you can get with a green horse.
I thanked Kass, and headed for the trailer with my new, fancy bay colt.
I got about twelve feet.
Suddenly, it just felt wrong. I couldn't make my feet move. I stood there for a full minute, warring internally with myself, and then finally I turned to Kass. "Can I just look at the gray?"
She grinned. She and that danged white horse had known which one was going home with me from the beginning. It just took me a little longer than everyone else to catch on.
I tacked him up and put him in loose side reins as I had the others. Like any ex-racehorse, he had no idea what to do with a longe line and side reins. Unlike most, however, his solution wasn't to bolt or resist or jitter around when I asked him to move off. His answer was ... passage. Not a ridiculous racehorse jig. Not a nervous, stilted trot. Not a jog. Passage. My chin hit the ground. My eyes bugged out.
And I drove away from Kass's place with a nine-year-old gray gelding in the trailer.
I didn't know it then, but I understand it now; it was just the first of many, many things that I would understand better with the passage of time: I had to lose the horse of my dreams to find the horse of a lifetime. One white horse. The horse who changed everything.