Essay: Not What I Wanted

Essay by Lainey Piland

You were not what I wanted. I was on the hunt for a new horse to take me to the upper levels of eventing: a dark bay around five years old, 16.1 hands, and a Thoroughbred, of course. And then I got the call about you: a chestnut gelding around eight years old, possibly a quarter horse, or possibly an Appendix. No one really knew or cared to find out. You had recently been rescued from someone who intended to ride you into the mountains to go hunting, until they figured out (I can only imagine how) that you didn’t like having a gun fired from your back.

You were not what I wanted. And that’s why I’ll never know why Mom and I hitched up the trailer and made the slow, winding drive through the backwoods to a tiny fenced acreage where you were being fostered. I walked up to the small pasture where you lived with a pony who, I came to find out, you enjoyed chasing around the pasture. A blind pony. Looking you over, it was clear that even standing on your tiptoes, it would be generous to say you were about 15.1 hands tall. Standing ankle deep in mud, your coppery red coat was matted with the same; your mane was thin and long and wound into tangled ropes. You looked like someone had given up on you.

You looked like someone had given up on you.

You were not what I wanted. But we’d driven all this way, and I might as well see you move. I led you to the largest available open space in the sloping graveled driveway and prepared to send you trotting around on the longe line, but first noticed that you were violently shaking from head to toe. Clearly terrified. Eyes wild. I hoped you wouldn’t panic and bolt. I sent you off at a trot and stood blinking in awe at the transformed horse in front of me. You had the floatiest, lightest trot I’d ever seen, with long, graceful steps and beautifully elevated knees. The terrified, muddy, forgotten horse was stunning in motion. Could you be my next eventing horse after all?

You might be what I wanted. Holding onto that brief spark of brilliance you’d shown, I immediately loaded you onto the trailer and whisked you off to my trainer’s barn for a week-long trial. You came with the name “Joe,” but I didn’t like it. However, I didn’t want to give you a new name until I knew whether I would keep you. So for that week—as I curried mud from your neglected coat and spent too many hours, a few bottles of Show-Sheen, and a handful of broken combs untangling your mane—you were known as Mudball. You stood patiently in the grooming area, wearing the ugly red hope halter with an attached ugly red, too-short lead rope; your only worldly possession. I brought one of my old retired mare’s rain sheets for you to wear. Slowly, you began to look more presentable.

You might be what I wanted. But there was more I needed to learn about you. I quickly found out that you only understood how to longe to the left. We went for our first ride—in tack pilfered from aforementioned old retired mare—and it went very well. Surprisingly so. Under saddle, you calmly walked, trotted, and cantered in both directions and willingly hopped over little crossrails. I wanted to know more about you. Despite much protesting on your part, and with the help of two others, I managed to wrestle your upper lip into view and discovered a still-decipherable tattoo smudged there in blue ink. A few minutes’ research revealed that you were in fact a Thoroughbred; nearly 11 years old, foaled here in Washington State, and had unsuccessfully raced four times. Your name was Jo Bushmill. Now I knew who you were.

I wanted to know more about you.

You were what I wanted. On my twentieth birthday, after you passed a thorough veterinary exam with flying colors, I paid for you and signed the paperwork. You were my birthday gift to myself. I wasted no time in cutting off your long mane, filling your tack locker with carrots and treats, new brushes and tack. New blankets were hung from the front of your stall, and the ugly red halter was discarded and replaced by a luscious leather one with brass fittings. To pay homage to your Irish bloodlines, we named you Aidan. Saint Aidan. Your sweet and sensitive personality began to shine through as you settled in to your new home, and your hard, terrified eyes softened.

You were what I wanted. Over the next several months, we took lessons together. You learned the basics of dressage, and harnessed the power of your gaits into something truly beautiful. You learned to jump crossrails, oxers, verticals, and eventually those scary blue plastic barrels. You learned to longe to the right. You frequently had anxiety attacks for no apparent reason; blowing up and running sideways or backwards across the arena, quickly clearing it of any other riders. You hated to be alone, and needed other people or horses around to keep you company. You thrived on attention. You hated being in the rain. You loved steaming hot baths. You still liked to chase ponies. You played with the zipper pulls on my jacket. You ripped one off and ate it.

You thrived on attention.

You were what I wanted. We went to our first horse trials, not to compete, but just to hang out, so that you could see what this horse show business was all about. We received a lot of compliments riding around the show grounds. At the end of the show, we schooled the cross country course with our trainer. And this is where our journey all went wrong. Something happened while we were jumping those small beginner novice fences; although I didn’t see it until several days later, back at the trainer’s barn. I got you out to longe you and stretch your legs, and you cantered off three-legged. Vets were called, treatments were tried, rest was prescribed, but many frustrating months later, you were still not quite right and we had no answers. X-rays and bone scans revealed nothing conclusive. Chiropractic treatments, acupuncture treatments, and saddle fittings didn’t resolve your on-and-off lameness. It was a mystery.

You were still what I wanted. With no answers in sight, I pulled you from the trainer’s barn and brought you home, to our small five acre spread nestled in the woods. You got to stretch your legs, relax, and eat grass. You befriended my old mare whose tack you had been borrowing for some time now. As I watched you snooze next to her in your shared paddock, sprawled out and happily languishing in the warm sunlight, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. This is not how things were supposed to happen. Where were the competitions, the ribbons, the accomplishments, and the fun that my promising, athletic horse and I were supposed to be experiencing? You spent the days eating grass, sleeping and—for the first time in your life—getting fat. And you were also loved. Groups of children who visited the farm as part of my mom’s non-profit, Courage Reins Farm, met you and instantly fell in love. You weren’t jumping clean stadium rounds, scoring 20’s in dressage or eating up the cross country course. But you were getting kisses from little girls and pats on the head from tentative teenagers. You were, possibly for the first time in your life, being truly loved by human beings.

You were still what I wanted. After a few years passed, the winds of change carried us from our home to a new barn with even bigger, grassier, greener fields for you to run and snooze in, and where you settled in and made fast friends with the other horses and all of the humans. You quickly learned how to coax treats from everyone who passed your stall. There is also a covered arena at this barn, which carried with it the silent reminder of a buried, but still-present hope. Although you were now in your late teens, I had never lost hope that someday, maybe we could still be able get to a horse trials or two. I pictured in my mind crossing the finish line with my old partner after a clear cross-country round, slapping your neck with joy and feeling hot tears of triumph course down my cheeks.

And you were also loved.

You are still what I want. A few years later, here we are in that arena. We’ve been battling that on-and-off lameness this whole time, and still haven’t made it to a show, or even a lesson. I’m longeing you, and there it is again, the subtle short step behind and the tension in your body that would escape the sight of most people, but which my well-trained eyes quickly notice. I stop you on the longe line, and you turn and walk toward me as you learned to do so many years ago, at another barn, in seemingly another lifetime. Dust lingers in the air around us. I stroke the tiny white star on your forehead as my gaze sweeps over the old-man hollows above your eyes and the tiny gray hairs showing up on your brow. I look into your calm golden eyes and expect to once again relive the sensation of having a long-held dream torn from my grasp and dangled out of reach. But I don’t feel let down at all—in fact, that cold sense of disappointment that has been lingering in the back of my mind for years slowly melts and dries up like an ice cube left on a hot sidewalk. I don’t see a failed dream standing in front of me. I see my beloved treat-begging, pony-chasing, zipper-eating, lock-picking, feisty Aidan. I see a partner of nine years; a steady presence through some of the most turbulent times of my life; a friend wrapped in the glossy red coat of a healthy, quirky, too-short, too-emotional, finally happy, twenty-year old horse.

When I first found you, matted, mud-covered, trembling and terrified, and so far from the stately dark bay for which I’d been looking, I didn’t know if I wanted you. There were times when others offered to take you off my hands for much more than I purchased you for; times when I would drive home from the barn in tears after finding that you were oh-so-slightly lame again; times when I realized that I could easily pursue my dreams of competing in horse trials, were I to find you a new home and get myself a new horse; times when I had to shrug my shoulders at former acquaintances expressing sympathy at our lost competitive career. Those times are long past, and now I revel in the times when I get to the barn and you greet me with your loud, enthusiastic nicker; the times when you buck and rear on the longe line like a three-year old, the times when I’m grooming you and you wrap your head around and press me into your shoulder, as though to give me a hug; times when I have to retrieve you from the pasture in the midst of a deluge because you hate the rain; times like the one right now, where I look into your content eyes and reflect on our journey together that did not go as planned, and feel deeply grateful for it. All of these times, good and bad, I decided to keep you. Because, you see, you weren’t what I wanted.

You were what I needed.

About the Author

Lainey Piland’s journey as a horse owner started two decades ago when she got her first horse—a beloved mini named Twinkie—at the age of ten. Since then she has owned and loved two off-the-track Thoroughbreds, Khaila and Aidan, and competed in lower level eventing. Her favorite activities are riding and writing, and being able to combine the two is a rare treat. Lainey blogs about nature and environmental issues on her personal blog A Day Without Rain.