Originally published in Horse Directory, August 2012
By Tom Gumbrecht
I have, it seems, been blessed with a love for all horses. Some, however, have at times been difficult to get along with. For me, Bella had fallen into that category. Like many strained relationships, it was born of a lack of communication. Although in my barn, on and off, for quite a few years, I really didn’t know her.
Bella was Samantha’s second horse, purchased after her first horse, Magic, passed away as a senior. She came from a farm in northern Connecticut, the fruit of Samantha’s exhaustive internet searches. She was as beautiful as she was young, only three years old when we met her. Sam was 15 then, but we had both put in seven years with packers and schoolmasters, so with the help of a trainer, I believed her to be up to the challenge.
Bella, a buckskin pinto half-Arabian, half-Saddlebred mare, turned heads wherever she went. She proved a bit difficult to handle, but her speed and Sam’s keen eye and unshakable demeanor allowed her to do quite well in the local jumper shows. At college, however, the instructors there were not as amused by Bella’s antics as we were, resulting in switching disciplines, and ultimately ending up in her not being used as much as we had hoped. At one point, she sustained an unexplained lower forelimb injury and she ultimately came back home to recuperate.
She was given time off to heal, and during that time Sam had begun training with my Paint gelding, DannyBoy, who had just come off of a two year layup from his own injury. During that time, I had been working with my recently rehabbed OTTB mare Lola, and our horse calendars were pretty much full. Where Bella was concerned, the picture I had in my mind when I thought of her was with her ears perpetually pinned flat back, and teeth frequently bared. She was a cranky mare. I had a soft spot for her, but I never felt that my feelings were reciprocated.
Out of necessity, I had gained some experience in the years previous, rehabilitating orthopedic injuries in my horses. The time had come to begin that with Bella. In my back yard for seven years, save the four semesters at college in Ohio, I had nonetheless never ridden her. I got on her in our ring and she seemed fine and offered no surprises. So, I loaded her on the trailer and we drove to Blydenburgh Park in Smithtown for some light walk-therapy.
With a tiny bit of trepidation, I mounted up and we hit the trail. She was a natural, blazing through overgrowth with ears forward and alert, cupping backward in acknowledgement of the slightest of aids. She was reluctant to get her feet wet or muddy, so at first the puddles proved a challenge. But she was otherwise brave, willing and interested. Not wanting to overdo things on the first day, we headed back to the trailer after about a half hour of walking. And then a crazy thing happened…
I untacked her and gave her a cool bath with a sponge and a bucket, scraping the excess water off so the remaining moisture could evaporate. I noticed that unlike most horses, she seemed to want her face washed and actively encouraged it. As is my routine, I brought out my little picnic lunch and let her graze peacefully as I enjoyed it. She came over to investigate and gave me a look with such love in her eyes that was so intense and so unexpected that it gave me shivers. She licked the side of my face and went back to grazing. I didn’t see her ears pinned once during our excursion. In subsequent days, the increased attention she paid me was at first curious, then disarming. I was used to her being one way, and now she was acting another.
In one afternoon, a new friendship was formed. We had only needed some one-on-one time to forge it. The love had always been there; it was the “like” that we needed to work on. That can be hard when someone seems to not like you.
Sometimes, a little adversity forces us to work together. And we discover something brand new, that has been there all along..