When we first met our mare, Belle, she was 19 years old and my daughter, Megan was 7. We were just getting Megan started with horses and after a few successful riding lessons had decided to try to lease a horse as a next step. Belle was a black Quarter Horse mare with a mellow, easy going temperament and a nice smooth gait, who was in semi-retirement due to an old injury. Apparently she’d been kicked in the gaskin a few years earlier (that’s an area toward the top of the rear leg) and though the injury itself had healed, it had left tight scar tissue in that part of her leg that restricted her range of motion, causing her to move with a bit of a gimp. The injury had ended her career as a show horse and she had been sold for $1 to a family in Boulder as a kid's pleasure horse. Their young daughters only rode occasionally, so the family had decided to lease her out as a way to pay for her keep.
We leased Belle for about a year and eventually she was given to us by the family when they no longer had the time or interest to care for her. Since then, Belle has gone on to have a meaningful second career as a kid’s lesson and camp horse at our family farm. While Megan has lost much of her interest in horses (for the time being, at least) Belle has taught many other new riders how to overcome some initial fears as they begin learning how to ride. From the littlest 6 year old to several of my adult students, Belle has been the perfect beginner’s horse, in part because of her slow, smooth gaits but also because her favorite speed of all is a stand still.
Whenever a new student is a little uneasy or apprehensive about climbing up on the back of one of the horses (a fear I think is rooted in some pretty good common sense), the first thing I do is teach them how to make the horse stop. Knowing that they can control the speed and movement of their large mount is the quickest way to instill confidence and with Belle, it couldn’t be easier. She is voice trained (as all my horses are) to some basic commands such as walk, trot, canter and Belle’s personal favorite, whoa. Once students learn that a simple, firmly spoken “whoa” is all it takes to stop her in her tracks, they immediately relax.
In the wild horse world, where horses have to fend for themselves and be prepared to flee at the first sign of danger, the older horses eventually figure out that they should move as little as possible when no danger is present to conserve energy. You never know when a mountain lion or other threat might show up and you want to have enough energy in reserve to be able to run for all you’re worth if needed. While Belle certainly doesn’t have to worry too much about predators in her current living arrangement, she has definitely perfected the art of conserving energy. She never takes more steps than necessary, stays out of the fray when the younger horses are goofing off, and takes a nap every afternoon out in the back pasture.
I actually think I could learn a lot from old Belle. I myself, tend to rush from activity to activity, eat too fast, do too much, and don’t take nearly enough naps. I’m always running from one thing to the next and seem to have forgotten all about the word "whoa".
Each spring, I wonder if this will be the year that Belle retires for good. But when I leave her in the paddock and bring the other horses out to work in the arena, she just stands at the fence watching alertly with an expression that seems to say, “hey, what about me?” So each year, I bring her back into the arena for light work and she continues to be a camp and lesson favorite. Maybe conserving all that energy is the real secret to longevity.
Life Lesson: Take it easy if you want to go the distance