Wednesday, May. 22, 2024

When Horses Have To Leave

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There’s a small foster-based horse rescue in the Pittsburgh area called Flying Changes Equine Rescue. I’ve been on the board of directors for almost a decade and often foster rescue horses, one at a time, as they await adoption. 

Our farm is also home to a lesson program, and when it’s appropriate and safe, our students will ride the foster horses in lessons, excited to play a role in each horse’s journey.

We’re transparent with our students about these horses. We hang a stall sign with the rescue’s logo on the stall door. We share the horse’s stories, and are our students are invested in their care. We celebrate when fosters leave us for their new families, though those goodbyes are always bittersweet. 

Which brings me to I.Q. and Kenzie. 

I.Q. is a 12-year-old bay Thoroughbred who raced until he was 9, retiring sound with some to-be-expected arthritis in his knees and fetlocks. He’s blind in his left eye from a track injury, but his limited sight doesn’t bother him on the ground or under saddle. When his first and only post-track owner fell on hard times, she surrendered him to keep him safe. 

Even when a foster horse like I.Q. finds the perfect adoptive home, it’s still bittersweet for the lesson students at blogger Sarah Susa’s farm when horses leave, so she keeps everyone in the loop throughout the process. Photos Courtesy Of Sarah Susa

Kenzie is the 10-year-old who, through much of the winter and spring, has been riding I.Q. in her lessons. She’s a solid little rider and a really great kid. 

I.Q., it turns out, is a solid citizen, and many of our students—perhaps Kenzie the most—have fallen in love with his kind eye, steady trot, and the way he twists himself into a pretzel to nuzzle them for a treat. 

Once we started posting information about him online, a woman named Helen reached out to the rescue with interest. She’s retired and has ridden all her life. She has a beautiful, quiet barn and green, grassy pastures and was searching for a new partner to ride over the property’s rolling hills. 

At the rescue, we were excited: Helen could be I.Q.’s perfect person. With his long track career, we didn’t want to place him with a rider who might push him too hard or ask too much. But light, regular hacks, we thought, would help keep him sound and healthy for years to come. 

When Kenzie came for her lesson two weeks ago, I told her about Helen. 

The little girl’s eyes welled, and her lip quivered just a little—and suddenly I was 10 again, in a dusty little barn, sobbing into the mane of a pony that I loved.

A swaybacked bay with four knee-high socks and a fat blaze, P.J. was likely past 30, and he took care of me more than any other equine ever has, or likely ever will.

The lease was $60 a month and granted me limitless access to “my” pony. Had I been allowed, I’d have moved a cot and sleeping bag right into the corner of his stall in the barn that was just less than a half-mile away from my childhood home. The run-down wooden structure housed half a dozen dark, musty stalls and a spider-webbed feed room, but it smelled of hay and sweet feed and horses. I couldn’t get enough. 

My best friend at the time was a girl named Annie. She leased Nezzie, a blood-bay Thoroughbred-cross, P.J.’s equally-ancient best friend. Annie was three years older—13 to my 10, when we met—but age doesn’t matter when horses are the common denominator. 

Despite being the barn’s youngest lessee, I was still expected to fulfill the obligations of leasing.  One night a week, I brought in a half-dozen horses in from the pasture and served them dinner. It was also my job to strip P.J.’s stall once a week, and I’d toss heavy shovelfuls of soiled bedding into a rickety wheelbarrow and wrestle it to the manure pile beside the barn. The ammonia burned the inside of my nose, and the shovel would catch the broken boards of the rotting wood floor, sling-shotting manure across the stall. On cold winter days Annie and I would fling frozen turds over the stall partitions like grenades, doubling over with laughter at the other’s shrieks.

P.J.’s owner, I’ll call her Lisa, was probably around 30; to a 10-year-old, anyone out of middle school was old. Lisa’s parents lived on the same road as the barn in our little Pittsburgh suburb, but she lived and worked a few hours away, across the Ohio border. 

Most weekends, Lisa drove in and stayed with her parents so she could teach her motley crew of students in the flat expanse of dirt behind the barn. I took a lesson every weekend, lapping the arena in two-point or without stirrups, P.J. plodding along, stirring up dust.  

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When author Sarah Susa’s childhood lease pony was moved from the barn without warning, she was devastated. So as an adult who now runs a small lesson program, Susa is extremely sensitive to her students’ feelings if a horse ever has to leave her farm. 

During the summers, Annie and I would bathe P.J. and Nezzie in water we hauled in buckets from the creek in the pasture, tying them to the hitching post in front of the barn to dry in the sunshine. Dressed in “show clothes” (rubber boots, a blazer from the boy’s department, and a white collared shirt that was most definitely NOT a ratcatcher), we’d trail ride the half hour to the local show arena, where the $20 in our pockets would cover our show fees and snacks from the concession stand. We’d spend all day at the show, studying the more advanced riders from the backs of our ponies after our morning walk/trot classes were done.

When we weren’t in rigorous training for the cross-rails division, Annie and I also rode all through the county park across the road from the barn. We’d run our stirrups up, jockey-like, to gallop the fairgrounds’ dirt track or jump the 6-inch balance beams of the park’s fitness trail as if they were cross-country fences. But these are stories for another time. Let’s just say P.J. is the reason I escaped that childhood unharmed.

Blinking, I’m three decades older, back in the barn with Kenzie. I hung up the bridle I was holding and crouched down in front of her, my hands on my knees.

“OK, whoa, whoa,” I said. “Nothing is official. Helen only met him once. It just might be a good fit for him, and I wanted to keep you in the loop, since you’ve been so awesome at helping to get him back in shape.”

She stared at the floor.  

“Remember how I showed you his joints, especially that one fetlock?” I asked. She nodded, eyes still downcast.

“Remember how the vet said that’s arthritis, from the track? It wouldn’t be fair to ask him to be a full-time lesson horse, or to learn to jump with only one good eye,” I continued. “He worked so hard when he raced. The right thing to do is to find him someone who will love him and ride him lightly but often, so he stays in good shape and feels good.”

She nodded again.

“You riding him is so important,” I told her. “You’re helping him get back into shape. You’re helping us to figure out what he likes to do. You’re preparing him for his next home!”

She looked up at me. Opened her mouth, then closed it, like a little fish. 

“Go ahead,” I prompted. “Ask anything.”

Her voice wobbled. “Will he still be here next week?”

I’d been leasing P.J. for almost two years when Annie told me he was leaving.

“Lisa bought a farm in Ohio,” Annie said nonchalantly one Saturday morning as we shoveled stalls. “Her dad told my mom. She’s taking P.J. and Nezzie back when she leaves tomorrow. My parents said I can start looking for my own horse!”

My stomach churned, and I felt sick. Annie had to be mistaken. Lisa hadn’t said anything at our last lesson the week prior. I didn’t even know she was looking for a farm!

She wouldn’t just take P.J. away … Right?

Wrong. The following morning, the news confirmed, my mother drove me to the barn to say goodbye. In his dark stall, I sobbed quietly into P.J.’s neck. When Lisa began to load the trailer, my mom ushered me into the back seat of our station wagon so I wouldn’t have to watch P.J. drive out of my world for good. 

I never saw that pony again. 

For two weeks, I cried myself to sleep—not little sniffles, but gut-wrenching, body-shaking sobs that left my head pounding and my heart drained. Behind their closed bedroom door, my parents. questioned whether to let me continue with horses, if I even decided I wanted to look for a new place to ride.

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I’m 41 years old as I write this, trying to hold back tears. That pony was this awkward little girl’s best friend. He was my first equine love. That little girl’s heartbreak is as real now as it was back then. Saying goodbye to P.J. was the first big loss of my little life.

In the aisleway of a barn I could never have imagined owning as a child, I put my hands on Kenzie’s shoulders and gave her a little shake. 

“Of course he’ll be here next week! Come on, Kenz! I’d never do that to you!” I said, in mock-exasperation, hiding my own damp eyes. 

I.Q. wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, I promised, and when he was ready to be adopted, she’d be the first to know. I promised her that the horse she was growing to love would never just disappear. 

“We’ll all have plenty of time to say goodbye,” I assured her. “And it’ll be sad. But when he’s adopted, it means that we can help the next horse who needs us. And that’s important, too.”

Kenzie nodded, and the corner of her mouth rose in an almost-smile. 

“You OK?” I asked. 

“Yup,” she said. “But now I have to see what saddle pad he wants to wear today.”

A week later, Helen, on the last few weeks of a month’s-long shoulder injury rehabilitation, came to watch Kenzie’s lesson on I.Q. While the two groomed his dark bay coat together, Kenzie eased out of her shell to chat with Helen about the horse.

“He has a good walk,” Kenzie said. “And he used to try to stop by the door, but he doesn’t do it anymore. And his trot is really nice, but sometimes he’s a little lazy, and you have to ask him like you mean it. And he likes to go over poles, but you have to steer or he’s wiggly.”

I could see Helen try to hide a smile as she asked Kenzie to tell her more. Then she watched the girl’s entire ride, snapping some pictures on her phone after asking Kenzie’s permission. As Kenzie untacked, Helen praised the girl’s riding and thanked Kenzie for allowing her to watch the lesson. 

Two weeks later, cleared by her physical therapist, Helen rode I.Q. for the first time. She loved him and stayed for an hour after her ride, brushing out his tail and feeding him treats. 

After a few more visits and a few weeks of planning, I.Q. moved to his new home, where Helen, waving excitedly, met my trailer at the end of the driveway. 

But well before he left, we told our students. Everyone—especially those who have been riding him—had plenty of time to say goodbye and wish him well. We had celebratory cookies in the barn the week before his move. We posted photos to our social media accounts of him in his new home, with his new “mom” and new Appaloosa buddy and his rolling green fields. We were sad for us but happy for him, and an empty stall awaits its next occupant who needs our care, time and love. 

There are lots of reasons that a horse moves on: stepping up or stepping down, a lease or a sale. Parents take new jobs, or a teen goes to college, or an owner buys some land and fulfills a dream of bringing horses home.

For adults, especially those in barns with a lot of horses coming and going, horses moving on may seem like no big deal. 

But please, if those horses are loved by little girls, be gentle. Remember how much a horse can mean to a child. Give them time to ask questions, and give them time to be sad. And please, give them plenty of time to say goodbye. 


Sarah K. Susa is the owner of Black Dog Stables just north of Pittsburgh, where she resides with her husband and young son. She has a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Allegheny College and an M.Ed. from The University of Pennsylvania. She teaches high school English full-time, teaches riding lessons and facilitates educational programs at Black Dog Stables, and has no idea what you mean by the concept of free time.  

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