Monday, August 15, 2011

Memoirs: A Girl's Horse Learns the Horse Language, Part 1

This memoir is mostly about the horse.  As the horse girl in question, I watched it, I was confused and amazed by it, but the journey was Harley's.  I was the helpless owner responsible for the scrapes and bruises that needed mending.  I pleaded.  I reasoned.  I wondered if there would be an end.  But I could not speed up the process.  This is Harley's story about being a horse.


Much of Harley's past is a mystery.  I purchased him when he was eight years old, not four months before his ninth birthday.  I was given AQHA registration papers before the prepurchase exam and the vet confirmed that he was indeed the 1998 buckskin quarter horse described in the paperwork.  The paperwork states that he was foaled in Minot, North Dakota, and sold to a farm in Brandon, Wisconsin as a yearling.  By 2000 he was shipped with two mares and another gelding to Cannon Falls, Minnesota.  The records end there.

I do not know how he got to New Jersey or when exactly his previous owner purchased him, but it might have been as a two-year-old.  I remember learning that his owner specifically wanted a buckskin and that he bought Harley purely for this reason.  I cannot imagine buying a horse with color as the first priority.  As the saying goes, pretty is as pretty does.

When I bought Harley, he was not really pretty.  I bought him in December of 2006 in his shaggy winter coat.  The winter coat at least added some pounds to his frame, as he was very bony, ewe-necked, and generally scruffy.  We first tried him in a huge western saddle, which further dwarfed his slight frame and I remember thinking,

"Oh no, this is not going to work.  I want him for a dressage horse.  He looks like a half-starved cow pony."

I was determined not to fall for the "looking into the horse's eye" nonsense and studied him with a skeptic's attitude.  I did not want to look like the newbie horse owner that I was soon to become.  As another rider took him around a lunge circle in the gigantic western saddle and Tom Thumb bridle, I sneered at his choppy trot and tense head carriage.  From time to time he tossed his head to the heavens, evading all rein contact.  I winced.  His lack of training was evident from head to tail, but maybe that also meant a clean slate?  My long time dressage instructor had had very good luck with well-put-together backyard horses who needed a job, but her expertise was miles away.  In whatever I decided to do with this horse, I was on my own.

The horse had been specifically hauled to the property for me to look at and, despite his less than stellar appearance, apparently his color was enough to elicit a short list of interested buyers.  I decided to chalk it up to experience and ride him, even when the owner commented that he would ride him for me, but his shoulder had been repaired surgically and he could not risk a fall.  A red flag started to go up in my mind.  However, the horse looked genuinely harmless.  I broke my own rule and rode him, without having his owner ride him first, even after the man revealed that he had been out to pasture for a couple years.  How many was a couple?  Two?  Four?  More than four?  I guess, deep down, I was already smitten.

My ancient Stubben fit his thin frame well enough and a friend lent me her snaffle bridle.  The tack change instantly transformed his appearance.  He started to look proud and the thought creeped into my brain that he might be a nice horse.  He moved very differently in the lighter tack.  Although his trot was still rough, he bounded forward with a cheerfulness that I had not felt in a trained horse in a long time. He felt fresh and I found myself laughing as he quickly learned my request for an upward transition and gamely trotted a circle, even though his careful legs told me that it may have been the first school figure in his ridden life.  I opted to canter, using the corner to help him in the transition.  He obediently lifted himself up in a strange slow motion gait which I had not felt before or since.  The look on his owner's face said it all, then he freely admitted that he had never cantered him anywhere except on the trail.  Since then, Harley has told me that the only kind of cantering they did together was hell bent for leather, but I suspected as much when I felt his awkward attempt at a lope in the small ring.  He was an intelligent, sane eight-year-old who only knew "Whoa" and "Go", but he was willing to try.  I still might not have bought him, except that as we trotted around one of the last corners of our first ride together, he gingerly dropped his nose and reached down into the bridle.

Can horses read minds?

I wanted a dressage horse so badly and, despite his lack of training or ridden experience, he literally accepted the job.

"I can be your dressage horse."

December 3, 2006: The first photos of Harley.

Six days later, he would officially be my first horse, after a lifetime of riding other people's horses.

His weight was worse in my memory than in these photos, but the lack of muscle is evident.   He was a nice-looking pasture ornament. 

Curious, but a little unsure, we both pondered the same question.
Could I be yours?  

After that he became Val's Harley and I became his girl.  I began carefully planning his conditioning, switching his feed over to something that might add some pounds, and looking for a new snaffle bridle to begin his dressage training.  There was room in the turnout with the two ponies, so he went out with them.  It was not until I started seeing scrapes and missing fur that his former owner's words resounded in my mind,

"He has been my only horse for so long.  Just him.  For years."

Within a few short weeks, it became glaringly clear.  The running patches of bare, black skin.  The regular bites and scuffs.  My horse was socially inept.  Harley did not know how to speak horse.

To be continued...

Part 2


  1. Drift doesn't seem to know how to speak horse, either, at least with other geldings - but he's on the giving rather than the receiving end of aggression, which means he's stuck for now in solo turnout.

  2. Kate- I feel for Drift. That is very difficult. I hope that he can learn in a way that does not do too much damage.

  3. Oh what a lucky boy Harley is. I don't think you could've picked a better match. I look foward to more.

  4. How sweet! I am a sucker for a "tryer", too! Can't wait to hear the rest.

  5. Harley and Jackson are so alike! Jackson had no clue about the aids and had never been cantered before. He wasn't quite sure what to do when I tried him out but his attitude was so good and his try so funny, I had to have him.

  6. I thought the same thing when I read about Jackson on your blog. :)

  7. Harley is a very handsome guy. Sometimes they come to us not knowing how to speak horse. I've seen them learn quickly enough if there is a horse who is higher up on the totem pole than they are and who will teach them manners.

    I think during your ride Harley decided you were his girl and he would be your guy.

  8. Thanks Grey Horse Matters! Harley sure knows how to make a girl feel special. ;)


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