I’ve never been much of a tire kicker. I don’t try horses unless I’m seriously interested in owning them. I hate wasting other people’s time and my own. That said, I did something completely insane last week. I tried a horse I can’t afford. I mean, really can’t afford. Like say, even if you dropped a zero from the price tag, it would still be a bit of a stretch for me.
After several years of not owning the right horse and watching young horses get sold to good homes while I continue to pitter patter around in the peewee jumper ring, I’ve started to get frustrated, sad and maybe even a little bitter.
I’ve considered buying several of the greenies that I ride for Tebogo. I’ve cried real tears when they sold. I’ve realized that they’ve all gone on to wonderful owners who love and appreciate them. I’ve done Google searches, called race horse trainers to ask about 2-year-old fillies in California, visited “farms” that resembled scenes from Deliverance (I swear I heard banjo music in the distance), to find their siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. I’ve thought that by not buying these horses I’d made some monumental career-altering mistake.
What I realized this week is that the last couple years of my life with horses have been like the years before I met my husband. I went on a lot of first dates, kissed a lot of frogs, and had my heart broken more than a few times. But when I found him I knew he was the one—the silly Australian who’d never met a horse in person but was open to the idea and wanted to know if I’d go to dinner with him.
Horses are like husbands. It’s a chemistry; the really good ones get you and you get them. There’s an unspoken understanding between the two of you that can’t be explained to someone who has never felt it themselves. Until last week, I’d only met two horses (and one person) in my life that I really felt that bond with.
First was a somewhat uncontrollable pony that I rode as a child, who I credit with making me a professional at age 12. Second was the wonder mare, Legs, who I bought, in part, because she reminded me so much of that pony. Legs was green and uh, expressive, when I met her. She made a valiant effort to buck me off during our first ride. Ironically named, Legs was 16 hands tall if you scared her, and she didn’t have tons of scope. But when I rode her, I felt like I could conquer the world. No jump was too big, no distance too difficult. The little mare felt like she was galloping a grand prix track every time she stepped into the ring. I called it her game face; she’d walk into the ring and morph into Gem Twist for the next minute and a half. It’s this strange synergy that somehow makes a certain combination of horse and rider more than just the sum of its parts.
When you haven’t felt that synergy in a long while, it’s easy to forget what it feels like to think you could conquer the world. It’s easy to forget that this “it” factor even exists. So you find yourself chasing red herrings, trailing after some semblance of the big “it.” And just like chasing love, you get disillusioned. You might just buy the wrong horse or date the wrong guy. But in the end, if you’re lucky, you find the one. And the beauty of horses is that over a lifetime there might be several that are "the one" at some point.
So in my never-ending search for the one, I sat on a horse last week that I can’t afford. The owner (who, thankfully, is a friend of mine) told me how she was hard in her mouth, hot-natured, green, but super scopey and probably would make a 1.40-meter horse in a year or so. So I got on what I expected to be some over-priced, iron-jawed warhorse and prepared myself to be disappointed. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the big “it.”
I try a lot of horses in my line of work. For every one horse that Tebogo buys, I’ve probably tried 10. Yes, they are all green, but so was Legs when I first met her. And underneath her fluffy, out-of-control forelock she had these golden brown eyes that looked through the bridle just the right way, the way you knew that if she put her mind to it, the rest of the horse would follow. I know what “it” feels like, even if they’re green-broke babies.
I cantered four jumps, and I started to tear up. It had been three years since I felt the big “it.” In these years without an “it” horse I’d started to loosen my grip on my dreams. I’d started to make peace with the fact that maybe I should be content to pitter patter around in the puddle jumpers, that maybe I shouldn’t have hoped to move past the 1.15-meter mark.
When I bought Legs, who at that time I definitely couldn’t afford, a friend of mine gave me some advice. She said, “Buy the best horse you can. And then make the next one better. That’s how you end up with the really great ones.” That’s why I bought her. She was the best horse I could find. And so in this state of horse-induced madness, I revisit that advice and realize what I’ve known all along—that those “it” horses are worth fighting for, worth sacrificing for, worth making questionable financial life choices for—because they make you into the great rider who was hiding somewhere inside you, behind your self-doubt and fear of failure.
Those “it” horses seem to make anything possible, and it’s not because they’re easy to ride. Usually, they aren’t. But they kindle your dreams in a way nothing else can, and in doing so, give you the courage to transform those dreams into goals. And to me, that spark, that intangible magic of the “it” horse, is priceless. So here I go, bordering on financial ruin, to chase a dream that a few “it” horses in my life have given me the courage to hang on to.
Hunter/jumper trainer Paige Cade works at Tebogo Sport Horses, a facility in Delaplane, Va., devoted to the re-training and sales of off-the-track Thoroughbreds.