The bay pony eyed me curiously over the stall door. Pastel ribbons were braided into her mane, and as I reached up to stroke her dappled neck, I gasped when I saw the nameplate on her leather halter: Oaktree Greystone Colleen, Owner: Emily Daily.
“Happy birthday … she’s yours,” my mother told me, grinning as she thrust a brightly colored lead rope into my hand. Giddy with excitement, I laughed as Colleen nimbly plucked a carrot from atop my birthday cake—carrot cake, of course.
The year was 1996 and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, though we made an unlikely pair. Colleen was a sleek middle-aged Connemara pony—an athlete with a no-nonsense attitude. I was 12, awkward and gangly with thick glasses and a mouth full of braces. But soon enough, we got to know each other. I discovered all her funny little habits and quirks, like how she would cross her front legs to scratch an itch or how I had to be on high alert when hacking because she was always ready to flee the trail to save us from impending danger. At least that’s what I told myself she was doing—in my eyes she could do no wrong. Jim Wofford always speaks highly of horses who have “the look of eagles.” Colleen was one of those.
Over the next few years, we were busy. One weekend we’d compete in a Pony Club rally and the next we’d gallop across the Virginia countryside at a hunter pace or three-day event or even compete against other ponies at a local hunter show. With her knees-to-chin jumping style, daisy-cutter trot and sassy attitude, she turned heads wherever we went.
More important than winning ribbons, I learned what horsemanship was. The responsibility that came with owning Colleen was enriching, and I took pride in currying her coat until it gleamed and making sure her every need was met. I spent hours at the barn scrubbing and polishing my tack, reading the latest Saddle Club book huddled by her stall and enjoying her companionship.
The years passed and I moved on to other horses and Colleen retired from show life to become our broodmare, eventually producing several foals from our Connemara stallion. She was a fantastic dam, but most importantly, she was “Boss Mare” and happily kept the cheeky little colts from getting too big for their britches.
A few years ago, in her early 30s, Colleen went to live at a friend’s farm down the road from us. She buddied up with another elderly mare and the two became inseparable. Colleen, nearly deaf, and her friend Dixie, who was practically blind, would leisurely toddle around the rolling green pastures, hip to hip. Colleen’s knees were gnarled with arthritis, her back swayed and gray hairs speckled her face, but she always greeted you with a spark in her eye, snuffling in your pocket for carrots.
One morning last summer, I got the call that all owners dread. Colleen hadn’t wandered up from her field for breakfast at her bucket on the fence line. After a quick search, she was found in a grove of trees a few hundred yards from the barn, resting calmly but in obvious distress. I sped to the barn, relaying a message to our vet to meet me there.
I arrived at the farm and jogged toward her field, my heart racing. Colleen was lying quietly on the mossy ground. I knelt beside her, resting my hand softly on her neck, tears dripping off my face onto her mahogany coat. The look of eagles had faded from her eyes and I knew it was time to let her go. I reflected on two decades of memories. Twenty years ago, it all began with a carrot cake, a ribbon-braided mane and a chance for a kid to understand what it meant to care for a pony and earn her trust and partnership. As the vet quietly allowed Colleen to slip peacefully into darkness, I couldn’t help but be relieved that my pony was able to have the respectful passing that she deserved.
We buried Colleen on my friend’s farm, on a knoll overlooking her beloved Dixie’s field. It seemed fitting that such a curious pony would keep an eagle eye on the farm, even if it was only in spirit. Thirty-six glorious years on Earth and a tranquil end—what more could a pony—or I—ask for?
This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of Practical Horseman.