Last November, after endless hours of Facebook stalking, we purchased our daughter’s first pony with the help of a trainer. This pony was in Florida, and the owners offered a trial. He was advertised as an easygoing large with a change—nothing fancy, but we couldn’t afford fancy. This isn’t play-money for our family. We just wanted a kind, 2’6” packer. Said pony arrived, and during the trial, I was angsty. My daughter could barely get this guy to walk. I’m no fool (I have ridden since I was a kid), but I trusted our trainer’s opinion. I wasn’t feeling the warm-and-fuzzies over this match and suggested shipping him home. The trainer looked at me like I was certifiable: “She’ll learn to ride him. If you don’t buy him, I will. I like him that much.”
We forked over the money.
My kiddo was elated, regardless of the meh trial. Woohoo! A pony of her own! After riding on and off most of her life, her dream came true. She knew there would be hard work involved, but she was all-in and couldn’t wait to spend time with her main squeeze.
Initially, things headed in an acceptable direction. We paid for two lessons a week plus board. My daughter had some decent rides and spent nearly every day at the barn: grazing, cleaning, tacking and attempting to ride Pony. There were also plenty of crappy rides. These were the rides where she would dismount because Pony would plant his feet mid-ride when she asked for the canter. She would kick, kick, kick, but he would stand, stand, stand. Though he was never a dangerous guy, Pony was kicking out when she put her leg on, and it was worsening.
The trainer was increasingly too busy and distracted to get Pony unstuck. To be fair, I was an overwhelmed mom of five and not involved enough. I put all my eggs in this trainer’s basket rather than showing up to help.
Remarkably, my kid still begged to go to the barn for hours, but there was a shift in her demeanor. I began to find her by herself on a hay bale or nestled in the straw with Pony instead of interacting with friends. Though she still couldn’t unglue Pony from the indoor footing, she was determined to stick with him. I couldn’t understand how she still adored Pony, shined him up every day like a gleaming sports car, even though he was such a jerk. On particularly hard days, I looked at her sitting sullen in the car and asked, “Do you want to quit and sell him? Is this worth it?” With zero hesitation, she said through tears, “No way I’m quitting. I’m keeping this pony.”
Where is the trainer in all of this? Her mantra became: “This is your daughter’s fault. She doesn’t want to take lessons. She should try harder.”
The trainer also shared that Pony was angelic with other riders. She messaged me videos of an adult on him and said, “See how perfect he is. If she would just let go of his mouth.” I regret the most that I drank the Kool-Aid. After all, we were paying for expertise. Trainers are always right! This disaster was all my daughter’s fault!
But my brain niggled, could a kid who begged to be at the barn and showed up for each lesson truly be to blame? And is it effective training to tell a child everyone else can do it better, so you’re the problem?
If I were my daughter, I would have quit in a hot second. I know I would. I would have begged to sell Pony for an upgrade, or more likely, I would have taken up ping-pong. But my kid, she didn’t. She loved Pony.
Finally, the trainer told me she didn’t feel there was anything she could do. We would be better off if we found a different situation. I am grateful for her honesty because I didn’t have the guts to make that leap without a hard shove. Sadly, it was impossible to sugarcoat that my daughter felt given up on.
This trainer suggested we find a “fun” environment. I explored options but wondered if they could teach my daughter how to ride Pony. Finally, I found a trainer recommended for her integrity and skills, whom I poured my heart out to. This woman had empathy. She reaffirmed everything I had been thinking about how we landed face-first in this mud pit. (I should have trusted my gut. This was not my daughter’s fault.) Most importantly, the new trainer would help us try to fix this, and if she couldn’t, she promised to tell us within a month. I finally trusted my gut and opted for this structured program.
Though my daughter was devastated to leave her barn “family,” she was gleeful at the thought of someone willing to train her and Pony. As we navigated the move, I repeatedly explained I was sorry for encouraging her to quit and doubting her passion. She said “It’s OK, mom. I’m excited a trainer wants to help me, and I’m not a terrible rider.”
We ripped off the bandage and made a quick switch. And guess what, “perfect” Pony tried his shenanigans with both our new trainer and her adept rider. This was no child’s doing. Pony needed a come-to-Jesus, and his kid needed boot camp.
After only a few weeks in the new program, the pair was able to walk and trot around the large outdoor ring! Soon, they were cantering! Only weeks after that, they were jumping little jumps! My kid was so proud of herself, but she was even prouder of Pony. Just like before, she soaked up barn time like sun rays: grooming-sweeping-grazing-scrubbing buckets-repeat.
A few months later, she attended her first show with Pony. Though she was nervous in the flat class, she did it! And Pony was a trooper. The next show was a local crossrail derby with ample entries. Though that may not sound daunting, for a kid who could barely steer her pony prior, this was the Maclays. The derby required tighter turns and three intricate rounds to remember. Well, this kid and Pony rocked their division. It was their Beyonce moment.
Here’s the thing: I felt like my child had qualified for the World Cup. It didn’t matter that these were teeny jumps. What mattered was this girl and Pony, with the support of a skilled trainer, had accomplished something wonderful together. If I could jar the smile on my daughter’s face and keep it forever, I would.
With our trainer’s caring and guidance, the partnership flourished, and my child learned to be a sensitive and thinking rider. The bonus: Pony evolved into the choir boy I had seen in his original sale video.
Sadly, just in time for this metamorphosis, my daughter’s darn legs started to dangle below Pony’s belly. Her trainer and I began to talk about selling Pony to buy a horse. At first, my kid was adamant she wouldn’t sell. We gently continued to express that if she wanted to continue to show and progress, she needed something new. Her dad and I explained the financial sacrifices, that we required money from the sale to purchase a horse. Reluctantly and with immense sadness, she agreed. I felt relief and zilch emotion. Time to move on! Let’s sell this sucker!
Our trainer advertised the pony, and because he had been in an excellent program with appropriate training, he was quickly pending sale. Though my daughter knew it was possible, she was overflowing with sorrow. She couldn’t imagine life without the countless hours with Pony every week.
“Can someone love him as much as I love him?” she asked on repeat. Though I half-heard, I was too busy thinking about how we could snatch up and afford a horse in this crazy market.
When my daughter finally digested the fact that Pony would no longer be HER Pony, she drafted a letter to the new owner. Everything came crashing down on me when I read the letter. I sent it to our trainer who texted me back, “I’m not crying, you’re crying.” And yeah, I was blubbering like a baby.
In part, it said:
The thing I learned is that winning didn’t make my daughter love Pony more. She already loved him. She loved him when he was naughty, and she loved him when he was easy. She loved him when she rode double bareback with her bestie and when she dressed him up in a neon Halloween costume. She loved him when he was just munching hay. This was not a pony. This was a year and a half of unconditional love.
We went to the barn together the afternoon before the trailer came, and I gave her the space to graze, hug and say goodbye. She cried a reservoir of tears, which is amazing, because she is not one to show big emotions. I told her, “I wish I could take the hurt away, but it’s going to hurt for a while.” I affirmed it was healthy to feel the sadness instead of pretending it wasn’t a constant ache.
Though I think I’ve done some decent “momming” these last few weeks, I was completely unprepared for my own sadness in witnessing my child give up what she loves most. I’m also shocked by my helplessness, watching my child grieve and being unable to make it poof-disappear with a hug and hot chocolate.
Now Pony is gone, and I know all of this has prepared my daughter for life, because the bravery to love with your whole heart then letting go is the hardest lesson any of us can learn. I know her grit and determination have made her a more resilient human and a better horsewoman. And I know that this is not just a story about selling a pony.
Jamie Sindell has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona and has ridden and owned hunters on and off throughout her life. She is a mom of five kids, ages 2, 3, 6, 10 and 13. She and her family reside at Wish List Farm, where her horse crazy girls play with their small pony, Cupcake, and her son and husband play with the tractor. Jamie and her trainer are still on the hunt for her oldest daughter’s new horse.