Thursday, June 4, 2015


By Tom Gumbrecht               Originally published in Horse Directory Magazine, June 2015

The list of uncomfortable changes that I've gone through in my life with horses is an extensive one. To the casual observer, it might seem like some really bad luck in copious quantities. Here are a few highlights:

Circus gave the author many firsts,
including his first unintentional dismount.
The first seems so minor now, but it felt like a big deal when it happened. I began riding at a lesson/ show barn. I enjoyed my lessons and free riding on the flat, but I kept exploring the far reaches of the property during cool-down, secretly always wanting to canter the vineyards across the street. I finally talked my trainer into taking me over there, and within the first minute my horse got spooked and after a bad spin I hit the ground and my horse high-tailed it back to the barn, crossing an active roadway in the process. I emerged from my first unintentional dismount ok physically, as was the horse, but I was riddled with guilt for having pushed and pushed to do something that ultimately put a horse in danger. I vowed to never leave the safety of the property again.

The next episode was a tough one. I had slowly become part of the horse culture, if not yet the show culture, of the wonderful barn where I had learned to ride. It was my first exposure to a barn family and I was accepted into it. Life was good. And one day it all changed when the owners made the decision to relocate out of state. The farm was sold as a non-horse property and the horse facilities were dismantled. My comfort zone and new-found barn family just evaporated. My riding life was over.

In another instance I found myself in a rough board situation, sharing a horse with a very experienced owner who no longer rode. I had almost unlimited access to a really good horse, a wealth of knowledge at my fingertips and magnificent trails on an adjoining preserve that no one else used or even knew about, for the price of some hay. All this within 10 minutes of my western Long Island workplace! It seemed to be too good to be true, and I guess it was. There developed some conflict at this little barn that ultimately made the arrangement unworkable. With a heavy heart I had to say goodbye to what seemed like paradise.

The first horse I ever actually owned was perfect for me. He had a great personality, and was older and
Buddy, the first horse owned by the
author, seen with mom Helen..
tolerated my frequent gaffes and miscues with aplomb. Although a senior, he still had plenty of spunk and gave me just enough of a challenge to make our rides interesting without being dangerous. We rode for three years when he got sick and could no longer be ridden. His illness was all-consuming, emotionally and financially. It felt like being on a roller coaster: the highs reached with short-lived improvements and the lows terrifying with more setbacks.

Our second horse was a stalwart. She was, dependable, healthy, honest and fun. Always there, always up for anything and a great baby-sitter. A senior also, she brightened our days for four years, when she had a bad colic and was gone within several days of taking ill. It seemed as if our dreams were star-crossed.

A point came sometime later where I had gained enough experience and confidence to enter the world of horse showing. In the small world of eventing on Long Island, I had acquired a courageous horse with a natural talent that we developed with the help of a trainer and did well in the lower levels over two years or so. Unexplainably he injured his suspensory ligament and had to have surgery which put him, and me, out of the
DannyBoy with the author at an early eventing show.
show ring for 18 months. If it weren't for bad luck, it seemed I wouldn't have any.

My focus was diverted to a side project at one point, and myself and another person planned to try our hand at procuring an OTTB at auction, retraining and showing the horse and selling it before picking up another in a small effort to give some ex-racehorses a new start. A magnificent plan which fell apart 24 hours after we picked up our first one at New Holland. The following day the drugs that had apparently been given to this very recently off the track mare, wore off revealing an injury that would have her incapacitated indefinitely. My project partner was understandably not up for this level of challenge so I found myself in way over my head and alone. It was beginning to look like I should have perhaps taken up a different sport. But things are not always how they initially seem…

So here is, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story:

The incident in the vineyard did not lead to never leaving the supposed safety of the riding ring again. Instead, it enticed me to find a different and safe venue to explore trail riding. While still learning to be a better technical rider on my leased horse at the farm, I would supplement that with weekly (or more) trail rides at a local hack stable. I learned to ride many different horses under many different conditions and met a lot of people who shared my enthusiasm.

The closing of my home barn set into motion a creative quest to stay connected to horses in some way. That
Magic was dependable, brought comic relief and
gave us our first lesson in letting go.
led to the rough board situation where I learned from an expert, how to care for a horse’s needs in addition to riding. This was experience that would become invaluable later. A short time after I was forced to end that situation, I resignedly answered an ad in the newspaper seeking volunteers for a local therapeutic riding program, simply as a way to, again, stay connected. What I got was much more. I experienced another side of the horse world where horses were the teachers, counselors and therapists. I again expanded my network and made what have become lifelong friends. I was reintroduced to formal training through renewed contacts from my first barn who had resurfaced, and joined some of them at a local HJ barn where I proceeded to pursue my dream of becoming a jumper rider.

The difficult loss of relationships with horses, and its effect on me, prompted my wife to suggest that I get my own horse. I expanded on that to include getting our own barn and she went along with it! That's in effect how Dreamcatcher Farm got started.

My first horse’s illness was devastating for him, inconvenient for me. When I finally was able to see things that way, I was able to use the skills I had learned at the rough board barn to keep him comfortable and nurse him back to health. That was a long journey but along the way I became a horseman. I learned how to not give up when situations looked dire.
But I needed another lesson. I needed to learn when and how to let go, and our second horse, the mare, taught me that hard lesson. That there was a difference between giving up and releasing with love. Later, the untimely injury of my event horse allowed me to spend a lot of time just being with him. He was (and is) a take-charge kind of guy, and although we worked very well on course together, he was not an easy horse to bond with. Hour-long leg treatments, wrapping and handwalking every day for many months provided that opportunity and provided valuable experience for what would become my next challenge.

Lola, not long before she landed at the author's stable.
The lofty dreams I had for my beautiful, muscular ex-racehorse were dashed when the veterinarian confirmed our fears of a serious front leg injury. I felt as if I was between a rock and a hard place, and I didn't know if I could willingly take on a situation as grave as this. Yet the alternatives seemed to be to misrepresent and re-sell her as had been done to me, or euthanasia, and I wasn't willing to consider either. As I wasn't able to fathom the level of commitment that I would need to muster, I just took things a day at a time. And a day at a time we worked, and we bonded; we were jubilant with small victories and crushed by setbacks. We asked for help when we were in over our heads, which was frequently. And she got better, and I got better. She didn't know much except the racetrack, and how to be a good horse, but that ended up being enough. We got trained to train her, and we did. And we got to ultimately be the person in the irons when she trotted into the show ring in front of the first crowd since the one at her last racetrack. That remains my most cherished ribbon.

Through her and all of the others I found my little niche in the horse world. It wasn't bad luck forcing situations upon me, it was the universe opening doors that I would not have otherwise known were there. The thing is, I wouldn't have chosen any of these situations had I been given the option. Were they good things or bad things? Neither. They were necessary things. Necessary in order to bring me to the point where I am now, which is prepared for unknown opportunities already on their way.

Even though I seem to not always remember it very well, things work much better for me when I live my life in preparation for something better to come.

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