Breaking up is hard to do, be it with a husband or a horse. Trust me on this; I’ve done both. The former took 18 long, difficult years for both of us to realize the situation wasn’t good for anyone. It was a painful transition, but the end resulted in six happier people: our two sons, my ex-husband, his second wife, my second husband—dubbed here as The Saint—and me.
The latter situation—my horse—took a little more than a year and was arguably almost as difficult for me as divorcing my first husband. I’m pleased to report that the end result appears to be similar: Two happier people and two happier horses.
As evidenced by the duration of my unhappy marriage, I am not a quitter. I will work and work and then work some more to try to fix what is broken. But some things are “too broke to fix.”
It takes a lot for me to give in to that notion. It’s no accident that I am a mosaic artist. Taking broken pieces and making them whole soothes my soul. It keeps me optimistic that even during the worst times—and there have been some very, very bad times in my life—I can come out the other end, perhaps a bit patched together, but eventually whole and happy. With mosaics, it’s all a matter of the right adhesive. It’s the same for life’s challenges: Finding the right glue is key.
My first husband and I spent years in marital therapy, thinking that would be the right glue. We were wrong. We were an unlikely match from the get-go, and there just wasn’t any adhesive that could stick these two odd pieces together.
The same could be said for my horse, Pete. We were an unlikely match, but with the right kismet, it could have worked. He, like my first husband, appeared to be everything I wanted. But what a person wants and what a person needs are usually two very different things.
Pete was going to be the last horse I bought. Or that was my hope. I’m 66; who knows how many riding years I have left. Yes, I hope to Denny Emerson myself into the sunset, but you never know what’s around the corner. So this purchase was going to be my grand-finale-big-blowout splurge, fully sanctioned by The Saint, even though he choked when I told him Pete’s price. Equinely speaking, Pete ticked all the boxes: beautiful (check), piece-of-the-hack mover (check), good enough jumper for 2’6″ (double check) and extremely comfortable canter (triple check). I bought him off the video from Europe, with complete trust in my friend, a trainer in another area who knows how I ride and selected him for me.
Pete arrived, and for the first month he was all of the above plus a gallon of New York Super Fudge ice cream. He stayed at my trainer’s barn in the Shenandoah Valley for a couple months, and I rode him there. Things were great. He cleaned up at our local shows; I cantered my first course in years on him: cross-rails—you have to start somewhere on the climb back to Special Adults.
But here is why we were an unlikely match: I can’t afford to keep a horse long-term at a trainer’s barn. Pete had to become a backyard pony and leave the trainer’s program as a 7-year-old greenie. And that is where the kismet failed. I’m a timid rider, and he developed a spook that scared me.
For the next six months I tried to find the right glue to stick us together, but the spook remained and so did my fear. In April, I admitted Pete and I were “just too broke to fix.” I sent him back to my friend who imported him, where she put him in her training program, and he was soon back to being Perfect Pete, with a line of prospective buyers. It made me sad every time I watched his sale video, and I cried when I saw her post Pete’s picture on Facebook, congratulating his new owner.
There went my dream horse and my dream to get back into the Special Adult ring. From April till June, I horse shopped relentlessly, constantly annoying the two trainers I work with here (it takes a village to get me to a horse show) and all my horsey friends I kept forwarding videos to. It would be embarrassing to admit the number of hours I spent sifting through “Just Hunters and Jumpers” on Facebook.
A few weeks back, I thought I’d found my next dream horse. I dragged The Saint up to West Virginia. The horse was perfect, again ticking all the boxes. I bought him—asking price—or thought I did. On the way back home, I got a text from his owner saying the people who’d tried him the day before left a message on her phone saying they wanted him, and she felt obligated to sell him to those people, not me.
Another dream dashed. My good friend, the trainer Chuck Keller, texted me and said, “It wasn’t meant to be.” Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought, still mighty angry about the whole situation and not feeling that whole, “It wasn’t meant to be” thing.
I continued to shop, continued to annoy my friends, continued to get discouraged by what was available in what I thought was a healthy budget. But it was becoming clearer and clearer that I couldn’t afford anything even half as nice as Pete.
And then “It wasn’t meant to be” came into focus. When I’d shipped Pete back to be sold, I started riding my Thoroughbred mare, Unbridled Cass, again. I’d gotten her from New Vocations eight years ago, also sight unseen, because I liked the way she moved. Over the years, she has proven to be a challenge for me to ride. I’ve worked with at least three trainers trying to get her more malleable, but her canter isn’t great (“Like a washing machine,” was one trainer’s description), she hangs on my hands, and she had a tendency to leap at the fence from unsafe distances (once she took off so far away, she landed in the middle of the jump). But she has always had that gloriously generous Thoroughbred heart and rigorous work ethic.
Plus there is NOTHING she spooks at. I mean NOTHING. Once I was walking her in our field, and The Saint turned the corner from the shed flapping a large tarp right in “Cassie’s” face. She didn’t even flinch. Later John told me that if she’d dumped me and killed me as a result of his tarp flapping error, he was going to tell my sons he just found me in the field dead.
I started bringing Cassie to Mane Gait Equestrian Center where Billie Rae Croll trains. She is racing royalty—her grandfather, Jimmy Croll, trained Mr. Prospector and Holy Bull and is in the Racing Hall of Fame. She almost exclusively rides and trains Thoroughbreds. In fact, I think she is part Thoroughbred, that’s how well she knows their minds. The first few lessons, all we did were transitions. “Do a million of them and then a million more,” she said.
Cassie was getting better at the trot, and the washing machine canter was approaching the delicate cycle. But she was still bearing down on my hands at the canter. “Let’s try a new bit,” Billie Rae said and brought out a corkscrew. Normally I’m not one to bit up—I take it as a personal failure if any of my horses need more than a French link—but who was I to argue with the woman who speaks Thoroughbred?
And that was all it took (well that and those two million transitions and Billie Rae’s constant: “More Leg! More Leg!”). Cassie became soft at the canter and started jumping from the base, even going for the chip when I got lost (as opposed to her great leaps). The following weekend, I took her to the House Mountain Horse Show at the Virginia Horse Center and, for the first time since I’d ridden Diane Wade’s wonder horse, Woody, we cantered a course with fluffy jumps and little boxes.
I still get misty-eyed about Pete. The truth is I will probably never have as fancy a horse as he was. But some matches just don’t work. Like me and the ex. The ex has made his second wife very happy, and I am confident Pete will make his new owner equally happy.
So it turned out Chuck Keller was right; that horse I bought/didn’t buy in West Virginia just wasn’t meant to be. Because at the end of the day, after what seemed a million hours of horse shopping, I literally found the right horse in my backyard. And she was mine.
The point of my story is to be flexible. Try a different or additional trainer, try a new bit, try a new program, but more importantly, for me at least, adjust your expectations. Cassie will never be competitive against those six-figure warmbloods, but she is a safe, predictable and kind horse who spooks at nothing. And like that great poet, Mick Jagger, once said, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need.”
Jody Jaffe is the author of “Horse of a Different Killer,” “Chestnut Mare, Beware,” and “In Colt Blood,” featured in People Magazine and translated into German, Japanese and Czech. She is also the co-author of the novels, “Thief of Words,” and “Shenandoah Summer.” As a journalist, she was on the Charlotte Observer team that won the Pulitzer Prize, and her articles have been published in many major newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Washingtonian. She is currently working on “The Adventures of Hot Flash and The Invisible Woman,” a novel about female superheroes with wrinkles. She lives on a farm south of Lexington, Virginia, with her husband, John Muncie, and nine horses.