Sunday, May. 26, 2024

From Rescue To Ribbons: Pandemic Gives Auction Pony Time To Trust Again

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It was late December 2019, and Lily Weaver was equal parts excited and nervous to ride her new pony “Bun” properly for the first time. Weaver had only sat on Bun once before, bareback, less than 24 hours after the 14.2-hand palomino had been purchased at the Lebanon Valley Livestock Auction (Pennsylvania) by a rescue in October. After spending a month in quarantine, Bun had arrived at the Weaver family’s farm in Hilltown, Pennsylvania, on a bitterly cold November night.

Bun’s horse-savvy new family had given her a few weeks to settle in. She was sweet on the ground, with a kind eye, and got along well with their existing herd. Christened Princess Butterbuns by the then 11-year-old Weaver, the pony had been described as “bomb-proof,” “experienced” and, most importantly, “kid-safe.”

But the Weavers were about to see a different side of their new pony.

“The second Lily was on her back, [Bun] just started shaking, trembling and breathing super hard,” said Devon Weaver, Lily’s mother. “The pony looked really upset, and then she started getting prancy and then crowhopping. We just thought, ‘What did we do?!’ ”

Despite this inauspicious beginning, Devon knew there were a lot of reasons to not give up on Bun just yet. And although they didn’t know it at the time, the impending pandemic would prove to be the perfect opportunity to turn Bun from a nervous, insecure mount into a future champion.

Bun first meeting

Lily Weaver and her family decided to buy “Bun” based on her calm demeanor and a brief bareback ride. Once the pony got to their farm, they realized she had lots of baggage they’d need to unpack. Photos Courtesy Of Devon Weaver

Lily caught the horse bug young—perhaps from her mother, who was named after the Devon Horse Show, or maybe even from her late grandmother, who had once rescued an auction pony for her own children to ride. In 2013, 4-year-old Lily placed seventh in leadline at Devon, riding a former kill-pen-bound miniature horse named Penelope. The notion that a once unwanted animal could prove to be a valuable riding partner was nothing new to the Weavers.

As Lily gained experience on seasoned mounts owned by her trainer Kelsey Beers at Everything Little Farm in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, Devon began looking for a mount that Lily could ride independently at home.

“I really just wanted a pony here that she could ride between lessons and build her confidence,” Devon said. “We didn’t need a show pony, or even something to ever leave the farm.”

But as she began casually looking for something suitable, Devon was “shell-shocked” by the prices.

“That turned our thoughts to maybe looking at rescues, or auctions,” Devon said. “I just thought, maybe we don’t close our mind to something like that, especially because the prices can be so much more affordable. But it’s a mixed bag—you don’t know what you’re going to get.”

One night in summer 2019, Devon discovered the “Horse Angels” Facebook group, a private page linked to a nonprofit of the same name. Through the page, ringside volunteers livestream at auctions, and handle bidding requests from viewers at home. She was immediately captivated, and spent the next several months as a silent observer, trying to understand how the process worked.

“I hadn’t really seen that side of it all,” she said. “It was as interesting as it was sad, and a whole new landscape for us.”

Then, in October 2019, Horse Angels posted photos of a cute, petite palomino mare they had picked up at the auction who was still in need of a home. The pony was estimated to be around 11 years old—she was the right size, reportedly had hundreds of trail miles and was reasonably priced. Devon found herself reaching out to the rescue, asking if they could bring Lily down to try the pony.

“At that point, they had a lot of interest and needed to find her a home as quickly as possible,” Devon said. “That was at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night. Lily had a horse show the next day, so we went to the horse show, then we got in the car and drove three hours to Maryland to go see the horse.”

What Lily remembers most about the first moment she saw Bun was the bright yellow auction sticker, #062, still attached to her hindquarters.

“It was gut-wrenching, not knowing what she’d been through,” said Lily, 14. “She hadn’t even been there 24 hours, she’s in a strange place, surrounded by horses she’s never seen. She just had her ears pricked, watching and observing everything.”

The Weavers were impressed by the mare’s demeanor in the unfamiliar circumstances.

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“We thought this could be a big mistake,” Devon recalled. “But there was something cute in this horse’s eye. We kind of took a leap of faith and decided to give her a shot.”

Lily paid Bun’s adoption fee herself, with earnings she’d saved from a brief stint as a child actor, and her new adventure began.

***

The veterinarian who examined Bun estimated she was closer to 9 years old than 11, and in good health. The Weavers learned she had probably come from West Virginia, where she’d been ridden extensively in the mountains. She was fully shod, and one front hoof had a significant crack, so when the farrier came for his regular visit in January 2020, Devon asked him to check their new pony’s feet.

“I looked out the window just in time to see Bun rearing up—she nearly flipped herself over,” Devon recalled of the first farrier visit. “She broke the crossties off both walls.”

Their farrier pointed out the mare had significant scars on both hind legs, consistent with the use of hobbles.

“He said that was typical, if she had come from a ranch or trail ride barn,” Devon said. “They are not going to take the time to be gentle with her, or teach her how not to fear the blacksmith. That was really heartbreaking to find out, that maybe those were some things she had trauma about.”

From her reaction to the farrier, combined with Lily’s unsuccessful first ride, it became apparent that understanding Bun’s needs was going to be more complex than first expected. The Weavers worried they had made a mistake.

“It was not going well,” Devon said. “It was a whole learning process of determining how she wanted and needed to be handled. We decided to take a break from all riding, and just focused on Lily and Bun taking time to bond.”

Not long after, COVID-19 lockdowns started, which meant Lily suddenly had much more time available to spend with her pony.

“People say there are certain things that came out of the lockdown they are grateful for, things that wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have that time,” Devon said. “For us, that was Lily and Bun.

“That year became ‘the year of Bun’, because we had so much time,” Devon continued. “Lily would just be out there with this pony on the crossties, petting her and grooming her. From Day One, the thing that kept me as Lily’s parent going was that [Bun] has always been the sweetest pony on the ground. She just wants to be loved. You can see in her eyes she appreciates it. That sounds kind of silly, but not all horses are like that.”

Bun pony chat

Lily spent lots of time on the ground with Bun, talking to her and bonding over long grazing sessions.

At first, Lily was a bit nervous and one of her parents was always with her while she handled Bun. As time went by and their mutual trust grew, Lily worked with Bun independently. She spent hours grooming, playing music and singing to the mare. She took Bun for walks in the field, or hand-grazed her on the “good grass” of the lawn, talking to her constantly about whatever was on Lily’s mind.

“I gave her so many treats during that first beginning stage,” Lily said. “She knew I was the treat lady.”

They also worked to help Bun overcome her fear of the farrier. Either Devon or Lily held Bun, feeding her a constant stream of carrots, while he worked to trim and shoe her front feet. Slowly, she became more accepting of this routine care.

By spring 2020, Bun had built a solid relationship with her new family on the ground–but it remained to be seen how she would act under saddle. To get started, the Weavers hired several older teens from Everything Little Farm to come ride Bun a few times per week.

“They had a little more height, and a little more confidence,” Devon said with a laugh. “They wouldn’t let the pony boss them around.”

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Initially, the teens would ride Bun, and then Lily would work with her in hand, but over time Lily took on more and more of the riding herself. Bun would still test her—but Lily had begun to learn she had the confidence to tell Bun “no”.

“If I had confidence, and didn’t let her get the best of me, I had seen what she could actually do [under saddle],” Lily said. “I learned how to sit her little bucks, and out ride her silly behavior, and how to control her.”

By June, Lily and Bun’s partnership had grown to the point that the family decided to send them together to ELF’s horsemanship camp.

Bun smile

Over time, Lily’s confidence in her pony—and in herself as a rider—grew.

“During that time, we found out that Bun knew how to jump,” Devon said. “She started by doing this tiny crossrail, and by that night, one of the older girls was jumping her over a 2’ fence in the field.”

Lily continued to take lessons on the experienced horses at ELF, and rode Bun independently at home. By 2022, Lily had a new goal: She wanted to take Bun to ride around at the Bucks County Horse Park, an active equestrian show facility located about 30 minutes from their farm.

“We brought her into the ring, and she got a little quick and was just looking around like, ‘This place is neat’, ” Lily said. “We were with my barn, and they were going to go up to the cross-country jumps. I was hesitant, because I didn’t want to risk anything.”

But with encouragement, Lily and Bun joined their friends on the cross-country course, and ultimately jumped several of the solid fences placed out there.

“It was like she was born to jump the cross-country fences,” Devon said. “I was watching and thought, ‘I cannot believe this is the same pony.’ ”

Bun XC

The Weavers discovered that Lily enjoyed cross-country jumping during a field trip to Bucks County Horse Park (Pa.).

After that confidence-boosting experience, the Weavers returned the following week for the facility’s Thursday Morning Horse Show Series, where Lily competed in both beginner hunter and long stirrup equitation classes. Before mounting up that day, Lily had butterflies and said she felt the most nervous she had ever been.

“We did the show, and we didn’t do the best, but I really didn’t care,” she said. “I was crying because I was so proud of her and how far she’d come. The very next week, we took her back and did more classes. The first flat, she got a second place, and I was almost sobbing, and then she got a first place after that.”

The pair ended their second show as a division champion—an emotional victory for the entire Weaver family.

Bun ribbon

Bun and Lily earned a championship ribbon during their second trip to the Thursday Morning Horse Show Series at Bucks County Horse Park (Pa.).

“It was amazing, because we knew how much had gone into that moment,” Devon said. “It was such a journey. We always say nothing is linear, and it’s really true. There were so many ups and downs.”

“I was crying, because Bun is so great, and I was so proud of myself and the pony,” Lily said.

“They are besties for sure,” Devon said. “The pony makes that easy. You just wanted to give her a chance to work her kinks out, because ultimately, you knew she had been through something. It made it even easier to find some patience and compassion.”

With a 2023 goal of qualifying Bun for a year-end award in the Thursday Morning Horse Show Series, Lily is looking forward to more adventures with her special pony.

“Before, she was more of a timid rider,” Devon said. “Now, she will get on anything and ride. Bun took Lily’s confidence and cranked it. Bun is the best thing that ever happened to her.”


Do you know a horse or pony who has been rescued from a dangerous situation to become a healthy, trusted competition partner today? If you think you have a good candidate for “From Rescue To Ribbons,” let us know by emailing mwright@coth.com.

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