Walking into a dimly lit barn at the Atlanta Classic Horse Show in November 2011, I could see only a set of ears and a white star in the distance. As I came closer, a beautiful, big dark bay mare became visible. She pricked her ears, calmly lowered her head to look at me, and our relationship began.
I brought Kind Regards (Sofi) home. She was athletic, quiet and completely forgiving. Within a few weeks, my trainer and I realized she was the perfect horse for me—an older amateur who, after a successful corporate career, had returned to riding after three decades.
We started showing in the Adult Amateur hunter division in 2012. The fences were low and Sofi was simple to ride. But now that I was so well mounted, I felt a sharp responsibility to ride well. My goal for each class was harsh: Don’t be an idiot, don’t miss a distance. We were occasionally winning good ribbons, but beneath the horse-show bravado, I felt miserable.
After yet another challenging round, my friend Carol approached me. “You know,” she said, “it might help if you stop being so hard on yourself. Why don’t you just let your horse take care of you, relax a little and enjoy the ride?”
My friend was right. The problem wasn’t my trainer or my horse or the quality of my riding—it was my perfectionism. So I resolved to stop trying so hard. To help, each time we entered the show ring I paused to pat Sofi’s neck and say to myself, “My beautiful girl.” It was a signal to trust my mare and myself and cherish the experience.
The 2013 spring circuit was more rewarding on every level. I was more present riding and more relaxed and because of that, I got out of Sofi’s way and rode better. The months and shows rolled happily by until the early summer morning when our barn manager discovered Sofi hobbling in her stall. It was a horrible case of laminitis. We brought in the best veterinary care and fought for her for weeks. But one sunny afternoon in mid-August, I patted Sofi’s neck for the last time, told her she was beautiful and brilliant and kind. And we let my lovely mare go.
The months after Sofi died were hard. I showed a few horses, but the memory of my mare followed me on every ride. No other horse looked or felt the way she had. My trainer suggested I lease an older bay gelding who had just arrived at our barn. His name was Maxwell Smart. He wasn’t fancy, but he was experienced and safe so I thought, Why not?
The first few months were disappointing. Max wasn’t as beautiful as Sofi. He didn’t have her balanced trot, he really didn’t like to hack and he felt too small. Then one day I read a post online that asked, “If this were the very last time you ever rode your horse, would you ignore his generosity?” The reality was that Max wasn’t failing me—I was failing him with my comparisons and absence of spirit.
So I decided to spend more time with this unassuming bay gelding. I groomed him and grazed him. We spent hours out on the trails. And in the quiet of that time together, I discovered a whole lot of horse in that plain brown wrapper. Max loved having his own person, and he thrived on the attention. Once I opened my eyes and my heart to him, he bloomed into a clever, opinionated and loveable personality.
The truth was he was there all the time, just waiting for me.
It’s been more than a year since my mare died. Max is mine, and we are rocking around our hunter courses at the shows. As much as I adore this quirky little gelding, he will never fully replace the imprint Sofi made on my heart. But because I learned from Sofi how to let go sometimes and enjoy whatever happens, I trust him. And because I learned from her loss how to honor the gifts of every single day, I treasure him.
Now every time I hear Max’s nicker, every time we enter the show ring together, I pause to pat his neck and say quietly to myself, “My beautiful boy.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.