Your Perfect Equestrian Guide to A Safe and Über Steed or rather,
P E G A S U S
Über, you might say—what’s that? What does the word über have to do with horse ownership? The short answer is, less and less the more you get into horse ownership. The word über can be roughly translated from German as “a better version of something,” and was first popularized by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to describe his concept, übermensch—a higher state of human consciousness. In short, it reflects the existence of a higher or better state than the current one. These days, the company Uber (having dropped the annoying-to-type umlaut over the u) effectively transports people in a number of cities around the world by means of part-time citizen drivers.
When you are first looking for a horse of your own, just as when you are seeking a human partner, more often than not you imagine the best possible outcome of your search. You daydream about your perfect equine partner and through this dreaming, you develop a longing, until you find yourself looking everywhere—classified ads, bulletin boards at feed stores and local stables, and international websites—for proof of its existence. You might not even be able to put into words what draws you to this dream animal, but there is no doubt you’ll know it when you see it.
That feeling and quest is what I will address in this book. I’ll help you drill down, nail down, and to the best of your abilities capture the illusive horse of your dreams. By putting your quest into words and examining your own contributions—skill set, experience, drive, etc.—you have a greater chance of finding not only the horse you dream about but also the horse that is safe and right for you.
Some might also ask, why chose an ancient mythical creature to symbolize the modern dream horse. To be sure, the story of Pegasus is a queer one, from his odd lineage to his checkered history with humans and non-humans. After reading several accounts of the Pegasus story, it can be said with impunity that the flying horse was born of violence. He emerged from his mother Medusa’s neck at the pivotal moment when Perseus beheaded her with the help of Athena. He then went on to carry Perseus and another hero—Bellerophon—on a number of adventures with some unexpected consequences. Along the way, he made friends with the Muses. When a drought caused a creative water spring to literally dry up (a catastrophe when you are tasked with inspiring the poets of the world) Pegasus saved the day by merely stamping of his hoof and bringing forth a new spring to nourish the parched artists.
Things went well with Pegasus’ second rider, Bellerophon. The hero got some help catching and taming his charge by petitioning the very helpful Athena, who presented him with a golden bridle that had special calming properties. Not content with his conquests on earth, however, the hero decided to ride Pegasus up to Mount Olympus for an impromptu visit. On the way up there was, er, a bucking incident. One story says that Pegasus put his hoof down (again) and said “Uh-uh, nope” just the way horses are wont to do. Another story claims Zeus saw them coming and sent a gadfly to bite the flying steed. Does it really matter? Both tales are feasible and either way the rider went flying, much to his own detriment. This was possibly the earliest instance of pride going before a fall. At any rate, Pegasus arrived riderless in Olympus and soon became the darling of the gods. He reportedly carried Zeus’ thunderbolts around for him. Eventually, Zeus made his beloved steed a constellation so he could spend eternity galloping across the skies.
Pegasus’ story lends itself to some archetypal scrutiny. First, he was among a host of demigods—god hybrids—that includes Dionysus, Heracles, Helen of Troy, and Orpheus, not to mention our old pals Perseus and Bellerophon. In Pegasus’ case, he was the product of a clandestine tryst between Poisidon and Medusa. His DNA containing both the divine and the beastly, he could have been a hideous monster like Chrysaor, the winged boar who was his fraternal twin and who emerged from Medusa’s neck at the same time he did. Yet, Pegasus was a beautiful exalted being, inspiring to behold and capable of helping his riders perform heroic and superhuman acts of bravery and even hubris. Pegasus was possibly the first über steed.
Another interesting aspect related to the Pegasus story was his serendipitous appearance. Certainly, Perseus wasn’t expecting to gain a horse when he was sent out on the fool’s errand of slaying the daunting Medusa. There he was with mirrored shield in place, focused on his perilous task, when—boom—a winged horse all but falls in his lap. What is a fellow to do but hop on and go for a ride?
Uber steeds can materialize just like that. My gelding Samson showed up in an almost magical way a couple of years ago. For years there had been no horse next door, not even a pen to put a horse in, and then one day there was a grey horse in a small pen in the front yard. Not just any grey horse, but one the heavens had put there to draw my attention. You see, in my first glimpse of him as I rode by, I noticed several things at once.
- His head, conformation, and color were disturbingly familiar to me. They belonged to my beloved Andalusian-Arab mare, Nikki, who had died in my pasture not six months previously. Although shorter and stockier, he had the rounded Iberian haunches and sturdy arched neck of her gene pool.
- He was calmly watching us. This is unusual in a horse that is stabled alone right next to a large wilderness. He was unnervingly quiet, never even calling out to my herd, although he could see them clearly from his pen.
- He had the kindest intelligence emanating from his eyes as he watched my horse and me travel along the road.
- His whole stance was friendly, yet noncommittal. Self-contained. There was an absence of the usual social neediness. He wasn’t dull or apathetic, as some horses become once they have slipped through enough callous hands. He was just truly peaceful.
In time, I would learn the secret of his unusual demeanor—significant hearing loss—but at that moment he just seemed awesomely charismatic and self-possessed.
Months went by and then one day I got a phone call from the neighbor. They had no use for the horse, they said. He had been dropped off by a relative and they were tired of feeding him. Did I know of anyone who was in the market for a horse?
With five horses of my own and three board horses, I was not actively looking to increase my herd—except… there was the matter of having just contracted to teach a college class in relational horsemanship. Even gaining permission to use the boarded horses, I would still be short a horse or two. I told the neighbor to bring him by my arena for a tryout.
As soon as I took possession of his lead rope, I knew he would be coming to live with us. Having owned horses on and off over my lifetime, I was familiar with a certain tingle when I connect with the soul of an animal. It is as visceral as the attraction you feel when you sense chemistry with a new person. Just being in their presence lifts your vital signs and makes you see the world more brightly, more hopefully. If it happens with a horse, you want to take a cot down to the stable and just stay in their presence around the clock. That was the feeling I had with Samson, and still do. Even though I’ve come to learn some of his demons, they are mostly man-made and immensely forgivable.
Recently, I contracted out four of my horses for a local horsemanship retreat and sent Samson out with the group for his first time. They would be riding the horses without saddles and with only halters, something I wasn’t entirely sure Sam would be good at doing. I even packed his saddle and a bitted bridle as an option, should he prove unreliable ridden in only his halter. When I came to pick up the herd, the instructor asked me if Sam was for sale. Apparently, he had won all the trainees’ votes as “favorite horse” at the event. I laughed and said, “Sure, I’ll take $5,000 for him.” The instructor leveled her gaze and said, “Don’t say it unless you mean it. He’s worth every penny.” While my horse acquisitions haven’t always worked out so well, I’m gratified that others recognize the considerable gifts Sam possesses.
I’ve long stopped speculating how awesome he would have been had I come to acquire Sam years earlier, before the abuse that lead to his deafness (from countless rifle shots next to his ears to make him “gun safe”) and when I could have developed him into a higher functioning arena horse. Just as we are shaped by the good and bad events of our lives into the people we become, I might not have been as attracted to him without all the experiences that shaped him.
The Genesis of a Dream Horse
“When your horse follows you without being asked, when he rubs his head on yours, and when you look at him and feel a tingle down your spine…you know you are loved.”~ John Lyons
What made my first encounter with Samson so profound was how it echoed the first time I had seen Nikki, some twenty years earlier. I had just arrived in Arizona, bringing along a husband, a son, two horses and a cat. We were moving from a two-bedroom condo in Westlake Village, California to a five-plus acre “hobby ranch” just outside Prescott. My “dream” was to find a third horse that my son could ride and then the three of us could truly enjoy the equestrian lifestyle of rural Arizona. While that didn’t turn out exactly as planned, it did send me on a quest for my third horse to help populate the newly constructed stable on our property.
I remember seeing a lot of broken-down ropers and lame barrel racers that first summer, as it seemed to be the only kind of horse for sale locally. I also ventured into the gaited horse market, which sent me on a tour of the northern parts of the state. I quickly realized, however, that having one gaited animal and two “trotting” horses would constitute a mismatch is strides and speed every time we went on the trail.
Then I saw an ad in the local horse papers that caught my interest.
“8-yr-old Andalusian mare for sale. Good home a must. $2800.”
My knowledge of Andalusians at that point was sketchy but I did know that a purebred Iberian of riding age was not to be had for less than twice that price, probably more. I figured she wasn’t purebred but made the call anyway. It turned out she was an Arabian cross, often called a Hispano-Arabe, and was located not far from me in the same county. Having acquired my first Arabian gelding a few years earlier and brought him with me to Arizona, I was even more excited by this potential breed cross.
I took along my eight-year-old son, John as a “test rider,” which turned out to an inspired idea. When we finally arrived at the stable where the mare was boarded, we had travelled the equivalent of a trip to Phoenix, most of it on bumpy dirt roads. It was evening feeding time and the mare’s owner had been hanging out in the hope that I was still coming. I got out my saddle out of the truck bed as the man went down to catch up the mare.
She was a good-looking, if slightly overweight, dappled grey mare with a long and luxurious black mane and tail, who stood nicely for saddling and her owner’s somewhat rough bridling. I noticed the severe-looking curb bit and asked about the need for that. The owner said he had bought the bridle at a yard sale just after he got the mare—as a three-year-old—and he’d just saddled and bridled her with it and rode off into the desert. My inner horse critic rolled her eyes but I said nothing and took the reins of the mare he called “Pickpocket.”
What first impressed me was how she willingly headed away from a stable full of munching horses and set off at an energetic pace across the terrain. This is when I fell in love. Really, she could have been any breed and as ugly as a tree stump. It was the “feel” she had that was so compelling, a combination of calm, forward energy and responsiveness that was like a homecoming. This lightness in a horse contributes to that sense of being “at one” with the horse. The reins are no longer used for mere guidance but more as a lifeline from one heart to another.
I put my son up on the mare and when I saw her move out with the same willingness—away from dinner, away from herd calls, away from the security of home just as the sun was setting—I turned to her owner and made an offer. During the next twenty years, the mare I would come to name Nikki remained true to her dream horse beginnings. I respected her weaknesses (she was extremely hard to keep weight off—and “’easy keeper”—and she never cared much for snaffle bits, preferring her familiar shanked curb) and treated her like the unicorn with special powers that she was. She had her own fan following and when she passed from this life in 2012, a crowd of her favorite humans were at her gravesite to pay their respects. If I could wish one thing for you, it’s that you find your dream horse and give them a forever home. That was my gift to Nikki, as well as to a few others I have loved.
What’s In this Book For You?
Some people always tend to pick good horses, good dogs and good friends…. Others seem to always pick their poison. And still others, who lack the power of discrimination, just let things happen.
~Pat Parelli “How to Buy a Horse”
I’m aware that many people venture into horse ownership and never get a chance to realize their dream. This may be because it never occurred to them they could live their dream or it may be because a disastrous choice of horse led them down a quite different road. What I’m going to give you are some guidelines, not just for what to look for in a horse but also how to choose the horse that will be safe and BEST for you. (By the way, in a few chapters, you’ll come to learn that the BEST I’m talking about is, you guessed it, another acronym.)
First, we’re going to spend some time bringing your dream horse into focus. This activity has made up a quantity of leisure time (and some school time) for many a young child. I personally wish I had held onto some of the volume of doodling and drawings I made as my subconscious mind struggled to assemble the perfect equine dream partner, my Pegasus.
As I illustrated in the story of Nikki, finding your dream horse isn’t just responding to a pretty coat pattern or exterior. There is a chemistry that happens when you get near that horse. In the next two chapters, I’ll describe some of the ways a potential good match might resonate with you, based on your skill, experience, and temperament level.