Wednesday, September 30, 2015


By Tom Gumbrecht

Originally published in Horse Directory, October 2015

The human heart protects itself from pain sometimes. It works with the mind to tell it that the thing we have become separated from and miss so badly, was perhaps not as good as we remembered.

DannyBoy was not my first horse, but he was the first horse I rode in competition. He was the first horse of my own that I rode in a regular program of lessons and daily practice. He was the horse that made an older rider's crazy dreams of competing over fences a reality. We learned together; he had courage enough for both of us, and I learned to be secure enough to channel his energy and stay out of his way.

We had a few good seasons in the lower
levels of eventing.
We had had a couple of good seasons in lower level eventing and jumpers at local venues when Danny took a bad step. It was serious enough to require surgery, and his rehabilitation had a setback or two. I learned to know him on a whole different level throughout that experience. I was, through daily therapy, laser treatments and handwalking, taking care of the of the legs that had taken such good care of me. He seemed to appreciate my efforts, and was a remarkably good patient, given his gregarious personality that placed little value on quiet rest. It was eighteen months before he had healed enough to be considered sound.

During that time period, I had begun working with my OTTB mare, Lola, and she required all of the time that I could afford to spend on riding and still maintain my other duties. At the same time, young Samantha had come back from college and her horse Bella had been sidelined with a soundness issue also. A solution was needed, and into the mix went my personal time constraints, a now-sound horse that required a good rider, and a good rider in need of a horse. From those ingredients came the team of DannyBoy and Samantha who enjoyed a great season in jumpers and a refreshed perspective toward competition for both team members.  I was proud of both of them but distanced myself from DannyBoy somewhat, at least from a riding perspective, as I thought their experience would be best served by limiting the team to Sam, Danny, and our shared trainer.

Life doesn't often follow the orderly course that we lay out for it, and life put many new experiences and responsibilities on Samantha's plate. Danny's show career was once again interrupted; I was still very busy with my Thoroughbred mare, and my riding relationship with Danny was now relegated to the occasional trail. My experience with the mare was so completely different from what Danny and I had, that my mind had begun playing tricks on me.

Danny needed to learn a lot of skills, but once learned he only needed guidance in directing his efforts; emboldening him was not required. Lola, conversely, needed encouragement in every aspect of riding. As a former pilot, I recall the difference between flying an airplane and a helicopter. An airplane can be set up to cruise, and you can kind of sit back and let it fly itself until some change of altitude or direction is needed, and then you apply the appropriate control pressures. A helicopter needs to be flown actively all the time. Lola is a helicopter.

Riding Lola over fences required much more mental and physical focus than I had been used to. She made me a better rider, for sure. But over time, in my mind that experience insidiously began to negate what DannyBoy and I had. I began to think that what we had was all him, without much from me. Was I merely a passenger at all of those shows and Horse Trials? It was beginning to seem so.

One day while reminiscing, we said "Let's do this!"
One day this summer, I looked out at Danny and he looked at me. Normally the class clown, his personality would change when he was tacked up and that day proved no exception: as expected, he went from goon to warrior by the time the girth was tightened. I felt a wave of confidence that day and set up as big a gymnastic as I could fit in my ring, first all ground poles, adding some crossrails as we went along. At last we increased them to all verticals at a height which would require a little bit of a jumping effort. I took a breath. It was a short approach. He turned an ear back; I answered with just the hint of a leg and his ear went forward. I tried to maintain the light contact that Lola required over fences and he reminded me with two cocked ears that he was not Lola. Hands forward, eyes up, heels down, breathe in, breathe out, one fence, two-three-four, beautiful! A slight turn of his head enabled eye contact enough to say, "How was that?" A vigorous pat on the neck was how I answered.

We were a team. Time had interrupted our performance, but the team was still intact. Surely Lola required more of an exacting ride. But Danny required trust. Enough trust to let him do his job and not get in his way and attempt to micro-manage. Riding that line, we were having a conversation. I told him what I wanted and he complied. He told me what he needed and I gave it to him. I used to make him shout his requests at me. Now he merely needs to speak them, and when we're at our best, he need only whisper.

My very dignified partner, DannyBoy
Recently, Danny and I spent a day at a local park. The early fall day was cool and invigorating. We walked leisurely, had a few brisk canters and were heading back when we came upon a gentleman on horseback who was eager for conversation. We stopped and chatted, and Danny was patient for 3-4 minutes and then had enough and wanted to move. I suggested that we walk and talk as my guy had a time limit on his idle setting. To my surprise I received a kind of admonishment for not having a horse that would stand still indefinitely. Not normally a fan of unasked-for advice, I nonetheless was as polite as I could force myself to be: "I admire people who take the time to train for that, and I admire horses that do that. We were eventers, and what was important to me was to build a mutual trust that would have him walk through fire for me when needed."

As my acquaintance continued his insistence that I assign what he considered to be a serious safety issue the same importance he did, we came upon a sizable fallen tree on the trail that presented itself as about a three foot fence. Danny looked, I looked, he cocked an ear and I answered with leg. In an instant we were on the other side, and we waited quietly at the next bend for our acquaintance to find a path around the tree. "Nice jump." "Thanks." We continued on at a brisk trot, Danny taking the lead now. If there any further admonishments, we didn't hear them.

We arrived at my trailer, and I jumped off and loosened his girth. I pulled his saddle and switched bridle for halter and he was grazing within seconds. Continuing our conversation, about five minutes passed when the horse began dancing under my acquaintance and they beat a hasty exit. "Gotta go!" "Ok then. Be safe!” In the warm afternoon sun, Danny and I indulged ourselves a bit; he on the delicious grass and myself on the irony.

God, I love this horse.

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