I was newly married, for the first time, at age 40. Just prior to the wedding, the psychiatry group practice I was working for closed. My boss, the psychiatrist who started the practice, was under indictment for Medicare fraud. I was out of a job for the first time since I was 16 years old, and my husband suggested I take a break. Instead of rushing to find employment, why not find something fun to do, he said. We weren’t hurting financially. I took his advice and looked into doing what I had thought about for so many years. I started riding horses, a dream I had since I was a child.
The private school down the street had horses and nice facilities. I didn’t know much about the horse accommodations, but it had the amenities I was looking for: a bathroom and covered arena so I wouldn’t get wet when it rained. Anne, the director of the riding program, paired me with Judy, a sweet bay geriatric mare who specialized in taking care of novice riders. After many weeks of lessons, mostly walking, I learned to go, stop and turn. Just when we were ready to move on to trotting, Judy was retired.
The next horse Anne chose for me was Chloe, a beautiful chestnut mare with flowing flaxen mane and tail, and four white socks and stockings. Chloe had been privately owned by one of the students at the school, and when the young co-ed graduated, she donated Chloe to the school program, where the mare was ridden in lessons six to seven days a week. I was one of many beginners that Chloe patiently transported around the arena.
By the end of the summer, I had fallen in love with Chloe, and I purchased her. My first horse. At age 41 my dream had come true—or so I thought. It turned out that when Chloe was not trotting around in countless circles most days of the week, her true personality emerged. Every stereotype about chestnut mares seemed to apply to Chloe. She was argumentative and strong-willed, the proverbial fiery redhead. She was claustrophobic in the indoor arena and agoraphobic in the field. She reared and kicked, thus losing the privilege of having back shoes.
Looking for a possible physical cause of her behavior, I had her thoroughly vetted, and her moderate to severe arthritis was treated with hock injections and supplements. Her behavior improved a bit, and I was able to ride her in lessons and on my own. By that time I was cantering hills in the field and having the time of my life.
Chloe’s recalcitrance did not deter me. More experienced horse people thought I was nuts to put up with her antics, but when she was good she was very good. She had an easy canter and not much spook. One day we were riding out in the field, and the barn staff did not notice me when they turned out the herd. Several dozen horses came charging up the hill toward us. I didn’t know what to do. I literally froze in place. Chloe stood calmly watching the galloping mares and geldings. As they rapidly approached, they split into two groups and raced by us on either side. I was petrified. Chloe was not. After they passed by she quietly walked down the hill as if nothing had happened.
In November, just a few months after I bought Chloe, I became pregnant. Being 41, I was classified as “elderly gravitas” (a designation I found just a tad insulting) and in a high-risk pregnancy. Horseback riding would be out of the question for at least a year. The phrase “mixed feelings” does not do justice to the swarm of intense emotion swirling in me. I had to give up my dream of being an equestrian and absorb the reality of being a mother.
I loved Chloe dearly, even with her quirks. I moved her to a small private barn and visited her every day that I could during my pregnancy. I groomed her and hung out with her in the pasture. She was a delight to me. I don’t deny that she had a screw loose, but we had a relationship and a tight bond. She never did anything too stupid around me, and I learned a lot about how to ground handle a strong-willed horse. I remember one time when I led her from the barn to her turnout pasture, and she pranced along energetically, eager to get to the grass. My efforts to slow her down resulted in her trotting circles around me. Her forward impulsion was so great that I figured if she stopped circling, she would bolt. There we went, down the path, Chloe literally running circles around me as I slowly edged her ahead. When we finally got to the gate, we received a round of applause from the girls in the arena, who had been watching. Chloe probably thought they were applauding her cleverness in making me look silly.
I often wonder if my interest in imperfect animals reflected my choice of profession. As a psychotherapist I worked with people whose flaws and weaknesses were exposed so that their strengths could be developed. I guess I am drawn to helping guide and nurture beings, regardless of their species.
After I had the baby, I tried to resume riding Chloe, but her arthritis was worse. She was clearly uncomfortable under saddle. At age 15, Chloe retired.
A few years and a few leased horses later, my husband, daughter and I relocated to Colorado from Maryland. Chloe made the long journey with us in style: an air ride climate-controlled van. She arrived exhausted from the trip, but in true Chloe style, she raced out of the van down the ramp nearly knocking the handler off his feet.
Chloe’s first retirement home in Colorado was at a farm on the eastern plains, more than an hour from my home. She was in charge of the weanlings. Being a no-nonsense kind of gal, she was a strict but fair disciplinarian. She seemed to like that job, but she was so far away that I rarely got to see her, and I missed her. After the first winter, I moved her closer to home where I could stop to see her every day on my way to the barn where my other horse lived. She was turning 28 that year, and I wanted to spend time with her like we used to.
I found the perfect retirement home for her. She had cover from the rain and snow, private outdoor space, and acres of land to explore with her friends on her big turnout days.
Chloe lived there for some years, and one day I got the call we all dread. “Chloe’s down.” I raced to the farm and found her lying down in great discomfort. I called the veterinary hospital and told them to expect a colicking horse to arrive as soon as we could get her there. The hospital was close to the farm, so we arrived in under an hour. The veterinarian examined her; IVs were started, but I knew she was at the end of her life. I took her for a walk around the property and brought her back to her stall in the ICU. I gave her a hug, and she turned her head and wrapped me up in her neck. We said goodbye, and I went home. At 6 p.m. the vet called to say Chloe was not doing well. “Please put her down,” I sobbed.
Chloe was 32 when she died. I always say to people, she had 32 great years and one really bad day.
There are times when a horse owner must come to terms with whether the horse in their life is providing the best experience for all involved. Chloe was special to me because she was the first horse I ever owned. But there was more to it. Despite her particular brand of craziness, I wanted to see her life through with her. I accepted her neuroses, and, always keeping safety in mind, we had a fabulous time together for many years.
She was far from perfect; so am I. She taught me a lot about patience, acceptance, loyalty and how horses think. She was a difficult horse. I believe she was born like that. I also believe that the life of a school horse took its toll on her. I lived with the behaviors I did not think could be changed and learned to work with her on the ones that could. I spent as much time as it took to get her to stand quietly when I mounted and dismounted without anyone holding her face. I did not let her rush through the gate. I like to think that she enjoyed the life I gave her. I can still hear her nicker when I step out of my car with a bag of carrots.
I’ve had several horses in the last 29 years, some of whom took me, quite literally, to great heights. Chloe took me to a place I never thought I’d go: the wish fulfilled of a little girl to someday have her own horse.
Andrea London is a retired psychotherapist and competitive equestrian. She currently resides in Florida and Manhattan, New York, with her husband and two standard poodles. She enjoys spending time with her 25-year-old hunter/jumper gelding, who is also retired.