As I led Gem out after dinner the other night it dawned on me that a lot of readers do not know her very well. Most of you joined my story towards the end of our time together and that isn’t very fair to my bestest mare. She is now fully retired, living large and happy outside eating grass and not being asked to jump over anything or perform another 20 m circle in her life.
It was my last year of medical school and I had time on my hands. Having spent my youth with horses and now finding myself as an adult with spare time and change, I was finally getting that itch back in my soul. An internet search (this was pre Facebook so it was websites or bust) led me to an 11 year old 15h bay Arab mare – $800. No picture, no other write up. I have no idea why I went to look at her, but when I saw the scraggly, pot bellied, hair less mare standing in a paddock of knee deep mud I knew she had to come home with me. I didn’t even ride her. I handed my check over to the 16 year old boy who was selling her so he could buy a truck and went home to find a barn and arrange transportation.
Gem proved both difficult and above my pay grade from the start. She would stand perfectly still while I begged, pleaded, kicked, used a crop and uttered many a swear word to try to get her to walk on. Eventually, out of the blue, she would bolt madly forward and careen around the indoor arena at mach speed. That is if I could even catch or bridle her in the first place. She had a nasty habit of walking annoyingly away from me just out of reach in the pasture and then bolting backwards as soon as I tried to get a bridle on her in the barn aisle. For months I had to bridle her crammed and cornered in her stall.
Eventually I figured out I was out of my league and moved her to a “training” facility at $1000 a month to include 5 professional rides and 1 lesson a week. I’m not sure that the trainer ever got beyond lunging her and certainly never sat on her though I know a few unlucky kids took lessons on her. By the time I moved to WI, three months and a lot of money later, I was told Gem would never be able to canter outside of a circle, would never go down a trail and don’t even think about jumping. Ok…so maybe the last proved true though she has proven she can jump when she decides to.
I was determined that my little bay mare could be a normal horse and the next year was spent renting a house at a boarding facility which gave me plenty of access to the mare. I was patient and worked slowly from the ground up to build her trust in me. By the end of that next winter she was cantering like a champ and come spring of 2011 we were hitting the trails with her BFF Pete. Unfortunately, we were evicted from that rental when the landlord was foreclosed on for gambling our rent money away instead of paying the mortgage and I moved Gem to a new boarding facility. This place proved magical for us as it had an indoor, outdoor dressage ring, outdoor jump arena, trails and a cross country course giving us a lot of opportunities for exposure.
Gem and I got exposure to a lot of different things and I even jumped her for the first time. That year was the first time I hooked the trailer up and drove it by myself. Gem gave me wings in a lot of different ways.
While in WI, Gem and I completed our first 25 mile limited distance ride placing 8th followed by our second placing second to last. That first 25 mile ride was the first time I rode without Dusty and thankfully I was taken in by a group of women. With two miles left I let them go ahead figuring Gem would be tired and rode the last miles completely alone for the first time ever. Before heading south, Gem tackled her first ride and tie with Dusty and me, placing first.
When we made it to SC, I was determined to focus on endurance and so I hit the trails all alone. My plan was to go out 30 minutes and turn around. I didn’t care how far we made it or how fast we went. After an hour of ride time, we arrived back at the trailer having covered 0.75 miles. It wasn’t looking good for an endurance career. A month later she stranded me at the trail head for two hours refusing to get on the trailer.
Fast forward and Gem did improve on the trail alone. We have logged thousands of miles together on the trail, covering triple that travelling in the trailer solo, over mountain, sand and flat terrain in TN, SC, NC and GA. We completed our first 50 mile ride, followed by a second and had plans to move up in 2015 until she cut half her foot off needing emergency surgery and 30 days in a fiberglass cast. Honestly, I thought our riding time together was ended that summer.
Gem proved me wrong yet again and bounced back that fall without missing a beat. She went on to complete a difficult 100 mile ride at Biltmore in the spring of 2016 and the long course Ride and Tie East Coast Championship in the fall of 2016. After that ride, I decided to hang up our long distance gear. Gem was in top form, both physically and mentally (she dumped me twice during the R&T championships in pure Gem evilness), but she was nearing 20 and had proven herself enough. I felt like we had nothing left to conquer, having crossed all my goals off the list, and Wyatt was growing more demanding of my time.
The winter of 2017, I purchased new gear and introduced my endurance machine to eventing. She immediately gave me the middle finger and told me where I could stick this new plan. Even with her outright displeasure with this change, she took me to our first CT June 2017 where we placed 4th of 9 and got over the 18″ stadium course without a rail or time fault. She also hauled my butt around a schooling jumper show at 2′ with out killing me or knocking a rail. All told, Gemmie and I went xc schooling five times as well.
Gem and I struggled with the new discipline until this past spring when I finally started listening to what she was trying to tell me. She was unhappy. Sure she has always been a pistol full of opinions, but this was different and it was time to let her rest.
At 20, she is happy, healthy and sassy. She has remained sound for the entire time I have had her, even through her injury and surgery she never took a single bad step. She had one minor colic scare a few years ago, but that is it. She was barefoot for every training and competition mile except the 100. Physically Gem is a beast that I will likely never get the honor of managing again.
Mentally, Gem is still sharp and quick and ready to put me in my place. Over all the years and miles we had reached a solid understanding: I chose the trail and the speed, she chose her footing and how to maintain that in whatever gait was best for the terrain. I didn’t micromanage her and she didn’t try to run off or poke along. It worked great until we changed to working in the arena where I began learning to micromanage her body moving shoulders this way and haunches that. In her mind, I broke our contract. It is a bit of a shame that she is retired so sound and healthy. In another life, she could easily still be working for another 10 years at this rate, but my favorite black tipped ears are starting to get grey around the edges and she more than deserves to spend the next decade being boss mare in the field and looking down on anyone who dares enter her personal space.
The last nine years have been very special in so many ways. Graduating, residency, becoming a mother, starting my own practice, buying our farm. Through it all, by bestest mare has been there to keep me humble, remind me that there are more important things in life than work, give me wings to chase down dreams and be a rock when I melt down. Nothing went according to plan with her and yet every goal was reached, every dream came true. I owe a lot to that little bay mare and I hope to see her pushing boundaries in my pasture for many, many years to come.