I didn't fall in love with Dixie when I bought her. Which is funny, because I don't have a good explanation for why I bought her. I already had three horses, and Dixie cost more than the other three put together. It's not like I'm helpless around horses for sale, but she gave me this Look, just begging me to change her life. So I did.
She was totally brain-fried, kept in a stall, unbelievably awful feet, scared of the world. It took three people to get on her - one to hold her head, one to drop the mounting block near her, and me to scramble up on top real quick. Her mane was about as long as it is now, but it was a pretty tangled cloud of hair, and she was about an inch shorter. You could hardly tell she's a roan.
She didn't want to be touched, ever. She had good manners about it, but she never enjoyed being groomed or scratched or fussed over.
Remember when camera phones were just awful? Well, here's Dixie, the week I got her. This was as close as she'd willingly come to a human. Curious, but very wary.
Look at those awful feet. The entire hoof capsule was tilted.
Her frogs were about an inch wide and rotten with thrush. I guess they hurt, or she was expecting me to hurt them worse like her first owners had done, because she'd fall over on me when I picked them up. I got about 5 seconds per hoof before I had to set the foot down again or leap out of the way of the horse. All I did for months was pick them out and rasp that toe back, a couple swipes at a time.
Still, she didn't limp or shy away from any kind of terrain at all, so I rode her. She was headshy - you'd better not move your hands from the pommel of the saddle or she'd leap out from under you. I can't tell you how many times I almost came off just from scratching my nose. She thought any leg anywhere meant "go forward faster." She hated the curb and braced her whole body against it, but she didn't steer worth a damn. There was no woah. If you wanted to stop you pointed her at something solid. She was utterly terrifying. It was like mountain climbing - pure adrenaline kept me coming back for more.
But you know what? She was never mean. It brought tears to my eyes to think of what she'd been through to make her like she was, and she wasn't mean. Stubborn as a mule, scared, but not mean. Didn't trust me, not one bit, but she was curious about me.
She pulled out vast chunks of her mane sticking her head through the fence, so I (shudder!) had to cut it pretty short to hide the damage.
It was absolutely the blind leading the blind. I didn't wear a helmet back then. As soon as I bought her, I swapped her from her double twisted wire curb to a solid low-port curb, but she didn't like that much better. So I tossed a single jointed snaffle in her mouth and climbed on. She had no idea what was going on so we ended up cantering in circles, in the dark, in the deep mud of the dirt arena, til she got tired. After that first night, she was much better about the snaffle, so I kept using it. I am almost as stubborn as she is - she wins sometimes (straight load trailers) but I can wear her down to a lot of my crazy ideas.
Before we moved to Ohio, I sold the Percheron and put the retired old mare down. In Ohio, my good gelding Champ died and all of a sudden I was stuck with this insane horse that totally needed more help than I could give her. But our finances were precarious, and I couldn't find a trainer I trusted to not screw her up worse, so I just kept on keeping on. Two of my very good friends began a nonstop campaign of yelling at me for referring to her as my "crazy horse," so I changed my language and expectations for her. (And I started wearing a helmet, due to those same friends.)
She started bolting unpredictably, so I couldn't ride her with anyone else in the arena. I rode her anyway - it was an indoor, so there were plenty of walls, and I just knew she had the sense to stop before we pancaked into the wall if I steered her at it. She scared me to death, but she was my only horse and everything else sucked pretty hard and riding my
Nice solid walls:
On days I couldn't convince myself to ride, I worked on clicker training. I got her to line up to a mounting block, either side, and stand still for at least 5 seconds once I got on.
Then we moved to Nevada, and I had no more comforting arena walls. I'd always wanted to try endurance, and I was pretty sure that was the only thing she's really suited for - she wants to go forward now more than anything, so fine, we'll play to her strengths. She still bolted, but we did a lot of one-rein stops. She still felt like she was going to freak out so bad she would just explode most of the time. I kept riding, grimly. Sometimes she'd spazz so badly I'd get off, but it's not like I could get back on without a big boulder, so mainly I stayed on no matter what. Our only companions out there rode the slowest damn WP QH/APHA horses I've ever met - 2.5 mph was a good average for them - so mostly we rode alone, in the terrifying wind and sagebrush and boulders and rabbits. Everything was so scary to her that I quit trying to get gait and settled for forward into the face of danger. We learned to trot. We learned to canter, together, finally. I had a nice long uphill stretch with moderately deep sand, and I'd let her open up. I got one stride of canter then a wild gallop and I'd shut her down. Then a week later I got two strides of nice canter. Then three, then four, then we could canter nicely up that hill til she got tired and asked to slow down.
Some time last year it really started coming together. I was so proud of her when she completed the 30 mile LD at Rides of March - and still came up to me the next day in the pasture. She finally started moving past scary stuff on her own - a little sidepass, a wary eye on that deadly boulder, but forward march instead of spin-and-bolt. She's finally decided it's ok if I scratch her itchy spots. She still yanks her feet away when she's bored with me meddling with them, but she doesn't try to fall over on me. She is braver than other horses, sometimes. I can ride on a loose rein or I can ride with light contact, and she doesn't fuss or take advantage.
Disgusting monster at RoM:
But for some reason, despite all of this, I've been ashamed of us. I've always felt like I wrecked her somehow - she doesn't have that pretty TWH headset, she won't do gaits on command, I let her trot or pace when she wants to - so we're failures as gaited horses. And I let her canter, which is a contentious no-no with young endurance horses. She's too tall and too hairy and won't drink on the trail. I don't know how to properly ride so I'm probably destroying her body flopping around on her. She still doesn't like to be groomed, which clearly proves that she's in agony or she hates me.
You know what? Fuck that. We're fine. We've done ok. We trust each other. If she gets thirsty, she'll drink. We canter, but just a little - our average MPH is pretty low. She can't decide what gait to do, but that just means she's resting certain muscle groups while using others. I stay on one diagonal too much, but I'm not that bad of a rider because I don't fall off when she slams on the brakes or teleports sideways. She's opinionated, which just makes it even more heartbreakingly sweet when she does flop her lip when I scratch her withers. She's my horse, and I wouldn't trade her for any Arab, any endurance-bred TWH, any racking STB anywhere in the world. We have stuck together and become much, much better beings because of it.
I still don't know when I went from scared and determined to madly in love with that horse, but that's why I love her.