Thursday, June 2, 2011

Shelly - the horse I owe an apology to. Part 2

From what I remember the first year we had together was great. Shelly was 15.3 when I bought her and only 4 years old. Yes, that means we had started her over small fences at the age of 3. It was our second show season when things started to fall apart. I remember one of the first times she reared up with me. We were coming to a 3’6” fence, I’m sure I must have tensed up as I’ve always been scared of the bigger fences. Shelly came out of the corner stopped all forward motion and stood up straight on her hind legs. She landed and did it again, I remember looking back over my shoulder at the heavy wood fence rail that was just behind me. The trainer screamed at me “Don’t you dare protect yourself, this mare will never go over backwards with you, she is too smart for that. The worst thing that will happen is that you will slide off her back. DO NOT stop riding her!” At that point I wasn’t sure who I was more afraid of, my horse or the trainer. It was just a taste of things to come. Shelly and I did well, as long as the fences stayed under 3 foot which was my comfort zone. As soon as a 3’6” oxer was set in the arena, I would freeze up a few strides out and assume the fetal position. Shelly packed me over the big fences the first few times, but after getting hit in the mouth from me getting left behind, she was done with the freebies. It didn’t just happen at home; more often than not she would perform her airs above the ground at horse shows. What had started as rearing had now turned into a full blown rodeo routine. When Shelly’s front hooves would make contact with the ground she would launch into a series of bucks. To this day I have no idea how I stayed on her back. I supposed fear of death may have had something to do with it. A well-known trainer in the area approached me at a show; he asked me the breeding of my mare. When I told him the name of her sire, he was the one that told me of his reputation for throwing rank babies. He had one at his barn that even his Mexican groom who was a former bronc rider could not stay on.

Shelly had her brilliant moments as well. I will always remember a jumper derby that we rode in one hot July day. There were 40 horses in the class, the first round was rather technical and had some tight distances. On her good days Shelly was incredible to ride to a fence. I could take a 5 stride line and put 4,5,6 or 7 strides in whatever the trainer asked for. She was incredibly agile and could turn off one fence and be ready to jump the next from any spot I put her at. The potential was all there, and on that day I saw what she was capable of. Of the 40 horses only 8 made it clean to the second round. I remember a triple combination that was set up the middle of the arena. I’m pretty sure at one point I grabbed on, closed my eyes and just prayed. Shelly hit the back rail of the last oxer on the combination, it bounced out of the cup and landed back in. The announcer said “she’s clean, but just barely!” In the jump off we were one of only two horses that went clean, Shelly and I were a full second ahead of the other horse. That day I took home a $150 check, a new bridle and whole lot of pride. It would be one of the last good shows on Shelly.

As time went on her tantrums in front of fences got worse and worse. The fences only seemed to get bigger. At one point when I had to go back East for a family emergency the trainer rode Shelly for me. When I came back he continued to ride her, when he handed her back to me he said “If you ever get offered money for this mare, take it!” She was much better after her time in training and the fences were now at 4 foot. Shelly was jumping them with ease and we made plans to join the group on an annual trek to Canada for a show. Shelly and I were only jumping in the 3 foot ring, it should have been a piece of cake, but instead I couldn’t get her past the 3rd fence in every single one of my classes. She was back to her tantrums, I was finally done. At one point I seriously considered untacking her and just walking away right there in the middle of the jumper field. I was heartbroken, clearly I didn’t have what it took to do this.

When it came time to discuss selling Shelly the trainer pointed out that it would be a challenge. She had thrown her tantrums in show rings from Oregon to Canada. We decided to trade her for another horse. Shelly ended up in a sales barn in California, she was now 7 years old and pushing 17 hands. I was still only 5 feet tall and was lucky if I weighed 95 pounds.

It took me a few years and some distance to see my part to and to see what a disservice I had done to that beautiful mare. I’ve learned a few things along the way and am now able to see my past mistakes. Mistakes that I will not repeat with a horse again.

1. Shelly and I had no business jumping anything higher than cross rails. She was not broke and I did not have the foundation for it. I did not have the confidence for the bigger fences and Shelly knew that. I also lacked the confidence and wisdom to speak up for myself to say “I am not ready to do this”.

2. My saddle did not even come close to fitting Shelly. It was a Crosby PreDeNation that was built up in the back. The twist and pommel were very narrow and it must have sat on her withers like a vice. When I look back at pictures I can see where I did try to pad it out for her. I think the only reason I got away with it as long as I did was that I hardly weighed a thing.

3. I constantly put my agenda over my horse’s well-being. I was in a show barn and horses went to shows and jumped big fences. Shelly had a full brother that was showing Grand Prix, it was what she was supposed to do. I never slowed down to fix the situation at hand; I just kept pushing thinking that this next show will be the one where we get it together.

4. My pride got in the way. I wanted to quit, many times. I was sick to my stomach on my lesson days. I even considered selling Shelly a year before we traded her, but I was convinced that someone else would buy her and then beat me in the jumper ring. I wanted to be the one that took her to the top. The idea of someone else doing it was just more than I could take.

5. I should have sought the advice of people outside my circle. When my new gelding arrived and Shelly left, droves of people came up to me and told me how happy they were for me. Again and again people told me that they were afraid for my life when I rode Shelly. I’m talking 30 people in a 3 week time span told me this. Where were they before this? Would I have listened to them?

I believe that there are days that Grace is my apology to Shelly. Everytime I step back from my adgenda and do what is right by her, I carry with me my mistakes of the past. I take full responsiblity for them and I only hope that Shelly was able to find a better life in California.


  1. Beautiful Melissa, just beautiful.

  2. We've all done things like this in our youth - I know I certainly did. Sometimes, although I rode and competed all the time, I think I really didn't know anything about horses or riding, and the concept that a horse with behavior problems wasn't just disobedient didn't enter my mind. Now I know better, and there were/are horses that are owed an apology from me. I also have learned that there are many trainers out there who know very little or who think they know and don't.

  3. Sadly, mistakes are often the best way to learn. This story is why show barns scare me. I'm glad you came to your senses before either one of you got hurt. *hugs*

  4. Shelley sounds like a handful. We all make mistakes with our horses and owe them an apology for using them incorrectly. I do blame a lot of trainers for not knowing what they are doing except for maybe pressuring you into showing. There were many times when either me or my horses were not ready and we went anyway. When you're at a show barn it seems you go with the flow instead of asking questions. I'm older and wiser now and I've learned to speak up for myself and my horses. Luckily, we don't show anymore and have our own place and training agenda with our herd. Good luck at future shows.