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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Chestnut Mare, Beware

This is kind of funny... once again, I'm not posting what I had planned to put up next, but that's okay! I just finished writing a rather lengthy comment over on another blog, and decided it was worthy of continuing over here. I had intended to write about this horse someday anyway. She truly was one of the most interesting equines I have ever run across.

I don't have any photos of the real Polly, so this isn't her, but it looks very much like her:
Same bright and gleaming chestnut coat, rounded butt, nice straight legs, close-coupled body and star on the forehead. She was a beautifully-conformed full TB out of the barn owner's lovely and well-mannered OTTB stallion, who after winning almost $200K on the track had excelled as a jumper in his younger days. She belonged to the BO; he usually bred for one or two foals of his own every year. I think when I met her she was about four years old. I never saw her mother as she didn't live there.

Polly was part of the lesson string at the time and I was given her to ride only my second time at the barn, after the trainer found out I wasn't a beginner rider (just a re-rider). I truly thought I was going to die that day. The darn horse simply did Not. Want. To. Go. I had little stamina and my legs were still hurting from my first lesson six days prior. The only way to get anything more than a slow trot out of the mare was leg, leg and more leg. She acted like HER legs were encased in lead! So much for the "hot TB" stereotype... (since she'd never been at the track I know it doesn't really apply).

I rode Polly a few more times after that and quickly learned that if she finally got rolling, the horse could jump, and well. She took me over the "high side" of a U-shaped gate one day and nearly launched me into outer space. I was not in any shape to be negotiating 3' instead of 2'6," believe me! Unfortunately, I also found out in a hurry that she was a total b*tch when it came to grooming. God forbid you touched her heavenly body with anything other than a jelly curry or an extremely soft brush. It's a good thing she was one of those horses that naturally maintained a super-slick and shiny coat pretty much by herself, because normal grooming caused snaps, strikes and cow kicks. I shudder to think of what would have happened if she'd rolled in mud! (Lest you wonder, I didn't feel I could discipline her much since I was just a humble lesson student.)

Two days in particular that I spent with Polly in the lesson program will never be forgotten. The first was when I was already mounted, and the trainer asked for us to begin trotting. Nope. Not happening. No trot today, thankyouverymuch. I mean, NOTHING. Kicking? No. Squeezing? No. Verbal commands? No. Smack on the butt? No. I was dead in the water in the middle of the arena, ready to cry in frustration and embarrassment. I had not experienced anything like this since I was about six years old at Tricorne Farm riding some ancient pony. As luck would have it, the BO happened upon this little scene and told me to get down... and, well, you probably know what happened next. He beat that mare into next week and made her go. I did cry then, partly from mortification and partly because it was becoming more and more clear to me that this horse was a square peg being forced into a round hole.

On the other day that's engraved in my memory, I never even got on Polly's back. I arrived at the barn for my lesson and found her name next to mine. Believe it or not, I didn't mind. She had earned my respect and I was truly interested in trying to figure out what made this horse tick. Futhermore, I had the feeling that Polly actually kind of liked me, as much as she was going to like anyone. I grabbed her halter, went in her stall... and was greeted thusly:
Seriously, if ever a horse gave someone the finger, she did. I'm no animal psychic, but I'm telling you, I could read her mind quite easily! I beat a hasty retreat and went to find my trainer. She said something along the lines of, quit being a baby/being ridiculous, snatched the halter and marched in the stall. Ten seconds later she emerged and said, "You know what, why don't you ride someone else today..."  :-)

About a year and a half after I started taking lessons, Polly was moved to another barn aisle and I found out she'd been sold to one of the boarders. I thought this was quite interesting and hoped that maybe having just one rider fairly skilled rider would lead to attitude improvement on her part. Yes and no: she did okay, but she still drew the line some days and caused no little angst for her owner and the trainer. I would stop and say hello to her, Ms. Ears-Pinned-All-The-Time Snarly Face, just because I wished her well and hoped that somehow, eventually she'd be happy.

Imagine my surprise when out of the blue, Polly's owner asked me if I'd be interested in exercising her once a week. Are you kidding? OF COURSE. I mean, yeah, it was Polly, complete with sulkiness/balkiness/quirks/downright meanness at times, but I still jumped at the chance to get in extra riding time. I was pleased her owner recognized that I cared about her and that we got along pretty well. What followed was truly a blissful period in my riding career. I'd take a lesson one day a week, and then get to go back to the barn to ride again. We just did W/T/C in the arena, or went out on the trails (she seemed to like that a lot), but it's literally the only time in my life so far that I could pretend, just for a couple hours or so, that I had my own horse. *le sigh*

Very sadly for everyone, IMHO, the BO shut down this arrangement after only five or six weeks. Apparently he was irritated or worried from a legal standpoint that no lease had been signed and it was strictly a verbal thing (and that I wasn't spending any money). I guess I understand, but at the time it caused a whole lot of tears on my part. Frankly, I was devastated. I was just starting to feel like I was building a better connection with the chestnut mare and wham, it was all over. (For the record, I never experienced another completely "eff you" day from her, either.)

Polly's owner soldiered on with her for at least another year and a half. She was shown in some local unrated shows and earned a few decent ribbons, but you could still just tell her heart was never in being a hunter. I believe the final straw came when she simply refused to learn flying changes; I'm sure she had the ability to do them, but absolutely no willingness. This obviously was going to limit her as a hunter show horse. One day she was gone, and I was told that her owner had sold her to a mother/daughter pair in Arkansas who were going to use her strictly as a trail horse. I thought this very good news, indeed.

Having been a lesson student my whole riding career, I'm afraid I hadn't ever really considered whether or not the horses I was on enjoyed their work. Polly was quite the wake-up call. Since she was in my life I have learned and thought a whole lot about horses and the jobs we ask them to do. Despite her practically-perfect conformation and hunter/jumper lineage, Polly most definitely did not want to be one. What would have happened if she'd been allowed time off, say, six months of nothing but hanging out in a pasture, and then been re-started in a totally different way, with someone listening to what she had to say about where her true talents lay? I really have to wonder. The best ride I ever had on her was the day someone was ponying a baby in the arena the same time we were in there. She was absolutely fascinated and whizzed around trying to get a better look, trotting so fast I was out of breath trying to keep up. This from a horse who normally would wear out my legs just getting her to trot! Her ears were up, her legs were churning, her brain was engaged and voila, it was like riding a totally different horse. I've mulled this over many times since.

Dear Pretty Polly, I truly hope this is the view in front of you these days, and that someone is cherishing you. You taught me a lot and I will never forget the times we spent together. Happy trails!


  1. hehehe...Polly definitely suffers from Chestnut Mare syndrome. I knew quite a few of those. Also definitely agree that she did not want to be a lesson horse. Maybe she needed to be broke to drive. lol. :)

    I worked for a vet who bred the occasional race horse. He had a chestnut brood mare, and her foals were always... you guess it, chestnut mares. They were all nasty as could be. I don't know if the could run, but they sure could bite, kick, and squash you in their stalls when you tried to catch them.

    Guess what is one horse I'll never own.

    But I do love my Chestnut Gelding :)

  2. LOL - I had actually never even heard of "Chestnut Mare Syndrome" when Polly was around! I think the first I knew of it was when I read Jody Jaffe's book with the same title as this blog post. Her horse (IRL, too), Brenda Starr, was a chestnut mare. If I recall though, she didn't suffer too badly from the syndrome. If I'd known about it while riding Polly it might have influenced my thinking! What just killed me was how darn beautiful she was. Such a gorgeous wrapper over a nasty personality.

    Here's what I read yesterday, though, about a horse who acted completely differently when her living circumstances were changed:
    I remain convinced that Polly just needed to find something else to do. For all I know she's happily running barrels now, or cutting cattle, or jumping x-country. In hindsight I find it immensely frustrating that people spent years mucking about trying to force her into hunterdom. Thank goodness her owner saw the light and sent her off to another life!

    I'm so glad I knew her (and that I started reading the Fugly Blog) because like I said, I honestly had never thought very much about horses being better-suited for some jobs than others. I mean, I knew you didn't usually take a Belgian and start jumping oxers, but I thought TBs were for hunters, QHs did Western events, etc. What? A horse who doesn't LIKE to jump and enjoys dressage instead? This was a revelation! Another thing that helped was going to the Olympics in Atlanta. I didn't know much about 3-Day, but seeing those horses practically busting out of their skins in eagerness to tackle the x-country course sure made an impact. They LOVED what they were doing. No forcing a horse over a humongous log straddling a ditch!

    When I finally go looking for my own horse, it will have to be an OTTB with a modicum of retraining under his belt (yes, Polly only added to my being convinced I like geldings better). I'd be a bit sad if I got a horse only to find out he didn't like jumping and wanted to be a dressage pony, since I love hunters... and I would never want to force one to do something he hated. Had enough of that!

  3. All of my favorite mares except for one has been chestnut, although most of them have also had huge attitudes!

    I left you an award over at my blog. =-)

  4. Oh, wow, thanks SO much for the award, Jess! I'm very excited because that's my first one. :-) I really appreciate you mentioning that I'm the only blogger you know of who doesn't own her own horse. The more horse blogs I've found, the more I realize that is definitely my niche. There have got to be many, many more people out there like me who do all they can to be a part of the horse world without actually owning one, and I'd like to reach them, along with you lucky owners who enjoy reading about my adventures!

  5. I have a pretty diverse horse background, so I came to this realization a bit earlier. I remember having an argument with a friend once about what exactly constituted a "good horse." I maintained it was a horse that did it's job every day and did it well. By that definition my favorite dude ranch horses were just as good as my favorite show horses. My friend did not see it the same way. He wanted to figure in price tags and pedigrees. Well, that does matter, too, I guess. A good grand prix jumper costs more than the best school horse. I just don't believe he's inherently "better."

    Anyway, the best way to make a horse into a good horse is to match him up to a job that suits him both physically and mentally.


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