They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. To Pennsylvania native Mandy Collier and her horse Charlie Brown, that step is more valuable than most would discern.
After clambering onto the back of a horse at the age of 8, Collier spent the majority of her childhood longing for more time in the saddle. “I rode off and on when I was a kid, but it was tough for me to get lessons,” Collier said. “I didn’t come from a very affluent family, and we didn’t live in the country, so it was an on-and-off struggle to make it happen.”
When she started college, Collier joined the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association team at the University of Pittsburgh, which allowed her to finally consistently pursue her riding goals.
After she graduated in 2009 she found herself at a dressage barn with trainer Lisa Hall. Although her saddle time continued to increase, Collier didn’t think a horse of her own was in the cards so soon after finishing college.
“I knew that I wanted it to happen someday but not right out of the gate,” she said. Instead she became the girl who would ride anything that came her way.
But a year later, she couldn’t resist the temptation.
“The horse I ended up buying was one that was handed to me to ride, a 9-year-old that had been standing around in the field getting fat,” she said. “The first time I worked him he bucked me off because I had the audacity to ask him to canter, which, looking back, I’m sure no one had done in years. I don’t know if it was love at first sight, but I did ride him for a few months before his owners put him up for sale. It crushed me, thinking about not being able to ride him anymore.”
Even though her budget was tight, Collier made an offer on Charlie Brown, or “Beau.” “I told them what I had, and I promised that I would give him a loving home,” she said.
Despite purchasing the draft cross for the hunter ring, Collier’s ambitions shifted quickly after she realized that dressage was more the now-17-year-old horse’s speed. “I didn’t have access to a hunter trainer, and it’s not really a discipline you can go at alone,” she said. “That’s another reason why we fell into dressage. I could read a lot; I could really have a plan and train him myself.”
The pair went to work, eventually earning a spot in the training level division at the 2014 U.S. Dressage Finals (Kentucky). “I remember looking through the program, and there was all of this info about each horse and rider competing,” she said. “It had all of their breeding and information, and my horse was the only one who didn’t have anything listed. He’s a Percheron-Thoroughbred; there was no warmblood to trace his lineage back to. He was the oldest horse in the training level class, but we went out there and had a great time, and he made me very proud.”
When the finals concluded, the two continued to successfully climb the dressage ladder. They eventually worked their way to third level and clinched a USDF bronze medal together. Not long after their crowning achievement, Collier sustained a serious leg injury while jogging on a snowy day. She slipped on a metal plaque under the snow and fell, suffering a trimalleolar fracture, which is a three-part break of the ankle. The injury derailed her long-distance running career and left the future of her riding goals up in the air.
Collier had a long road ahead filled with surgeries, therapy and recovery. As her strength began to return, she leaned into her horse more than ever to help with the healing process.
“My horse was a saint,” she said. “He completely helped me through rehab; I used to ride him in my boot cast. Somewhere along the way, throughout my own healing, as I was thinking so much about recovery and rehab and using the horses to help me with it all, I decided to get my equine massage therapy certificate.”
Collier’s equine sport massage company, Optimum Equine, was born. “It’s been really rewarding and fulfilling,” said Collier. “Connecting with people and getting another perspective on how to help horses, that’s been a different facet of my horse life.”
Collier also juggles a full-time job working as a lab manager in a neuroscience and psychopathology lab. “We do neuroimaging of older adults with depression or who are at risk for suicide. It can get pretty heavy,” she said. “The stuff that I see at work, you can’t make it up. It can really be draining at times. The thing that the horses remind me of is to stay in the present moment. When I’m around them, I truly feel that the only thing that matters is what’s happening right now.
“I leave work; I leave that all behind me, and they remind me of what is important, and that’s so healing in itself,” she continued. “I can be at work and 100 percent give my focus to that, and then when it’s done, turn it off and go focus on the horses. It can be really hard hearing the stories that I do, and the horses remind me how lucky I am to live this life and what a blessing that is.”
Her upward trek back to the competition ring after her injury hit an unexpected roadblock when Charlie Brown was injured in December of 2018. After he was diagnosed with a suspensory tear, Collier switched her focus from her own rehabilitation to that of her four-legged partner.
“We are just over four months into his rehab now, and I recently started trotting him under saddle again,” she said. “I don’t know what’s next for him, but we’re taking it one day at a time and will see where it ends up. When the rehab first started, I was just beside myself. It was devastating. I would hate talking about it, having to tell people if it wasn’t going well. But every day I would go to the barn, and I would see his face, and nothing else would matter. It would just be another opportunity to hang out with my goofy buddy. That made everything kind of OK.”
Collier acknowledged the beginning of the gelding’s recovery was quite rocky. “Sometimes I’d open the stall, and I’d have a fire-breathing dragon,” she said. “Half the time I’d refer to him as an ‘equine kite.’ At one point, I had to board up the window in his stall because he tried to climb out of it. It was not easy. At about two months in, he was finally able to start walking under saddle, and that was a big game-changer for us because that was a routine that he had been familiar with. For his mental well-being, having a little bit of a job made a huge difference.”
But Collier has found a silver lining to all those hours spent rehabbing with her partner of 10 years.
“When you have a competition goal, you’re training; you ride, and you take a day off here and there,” she said. “You don’t necessarily spend hours hand grazing, brushing, just hanging out and not doing a whole lot on a daily or weekly basis. Having that training piece removed from our relationship, where the only thing I’m doing is spending time with him and enjoying his company is huge. You take away that athletic partnership, and it’s become even more of a friendship and created a kinship of being together. It’s become really special.”
Beau’s athletic future is uncertain, but the bond and enjoyment they’re currently sharing are enough for now. “Someway, somehow, I hope that I can find a horse that will fill Charlie Brown’s shoes,” Collier said. “I don’t know if such a horse exists, but someday if that happens, I would love a partnership like this one once more.”