Since beginning Pik and Louie Saddlery in 2017, I’ve been wanting to share my experiences as a horse person and how I believe those horse lessons translate into the rest of my life. Horses teach me so much about being human and processing the non-horse side of living. As most horse people know and could agree, without horses I’d be lost. Horses calm my soul by giving me a place to escape and communicate in a nonverbal world where I feel more in touch with me, through them.
Today is Thanksgiving and living the proper cliché, I woke up feeling thankful for my little family and the sweet and challenging life we’ve built together – not our Facebook life, where everyone is smiling in the pictures, I never yell at my children, Brian and I don’t fight and I always jump a fence in perfect form. I’m talking about our real life where my kids have meltdowns, but recover – where I yell sometimes and they forgive me (…or roll their eyes and ignore me) – where Brian and I get annoyed and snappy with each other, but at the end of the day (or the end of the next day…or the next week), we realize love is a journey and we stay in it – where I often miss my spot, but stay on and ride to the next jump and find it.
This morning I started reflecting once more on all the gifts and “leg-ups” I’ve been given throughout my journey. These thoughts brought me back to my real beginning in horses and two women who not only influenced me, but set me on my path in this horse filled life.
As many of you know from our “About Us” section, I grew up of modest means. My parents were always struggling to make ends meet and often missing the goal. The threat of our utilities being interrupted was always looming or rent not being made; there was always a feeling the bottom could fall out at any moment. Struggling with anything teaches so many immeasurable lessons and for those I am grateful - however, the other side of this reality is, our childhood often felt incredibly chaotic and unsettled.
Living in Maryland, horses are everywhere and from the first moment I saw one as a toddler, I was obsessed. I talked about them incessantly and dreamed about them nonstop. I pretended to know more about them than anyone around me (a trait I learned later in life, is not lost on many horse “professionals”). And, on the rare occasion I came in contact with one, it was like my heart melded into some unknown safe place where I was whole.
But, little girls from struggling families don’t usually get horses or ponies and so my dream of horses remained just that, a dream.
Until, someone helped me make it real.
I met Anne when I was in sixth grade. Her daughter Jeni and I were in the same class and were becoming fast friends; it didn’t hurt our friendship when I learned Jeni’s Mom kept horses in their backyard.
Jeni lived in a different world than me. Her Dad was a prominent doctor and her mother stayed at home and managed their lives. They lived in walking distance to our school in a big beautiful colonial, with a barn in the back. They had a chalet in the mountains and fancy cars in the driveway. Jeni seemingly had everything I could ever want.
The first time I went to Jeni’s house for we would now call a “play date,” Anne put me on her huge Percheron cross “Moose” and gave me my first lesson. Moose was a 17.2hh, table top of a husband horse that one would have to work to fall off. He was so much fun to ride and I felt like, for the first time, I was flying. It was in this moment, the fabric of my life seemed to start being sewn together. After a lifetime (albeit a short 11 years) of dreaming about horses, my soul was finally being filled.
From that day forward, Anne became my horse mom. Jeni, like many kids of horse obsessed parents, wasn’t really that into horses. I spent the better part of the weekends at Jeni’s house. We’d play during the day, but the mornings were for horses. I’d wake up when it was still dark out and wait for what seemed like (and probably was) hours to hear Anne’s bedroom door open. Then she’d come open Jeni’s door and say it was time to feed. We’d go to the kitchen, she’d make her coffee and then we’d head down the barn. We’d feed the horses, muck the stalls, hang out and talk. I wanted so badly to escape my family and be adopted into theirs and even more than that, I wanted to be Anne – to me she was perfect. She was kind and beautiful. At 5’2” she was an amazing little rider, both scrappy and elegant all at once. She mucked her own stalls, fed and watered, hauled to shows and provided all their care - she was 100% devoted to the horses.
It was Anne that somehow convinced my parents to put me in an “affordable” riding program with Jeni. That year for Christmas I got a lesson package at Waredoca. I think back then a lesson cost about $20 and my being able to do it was a very big deal (and sometimes a struggle) for our family.
Anne eventually decided to start boarding her horses with her trainer. I’d still wake up at the crack of dawn when I slept over at their house, she’d come get me and I’d tag along to the barn with her and help her tack up, watch her lessons in awe and almost every time, at the end, she’d hop off a little earlier than she normally would and convince the trainer to give me a little “mini” lesson on her incredibly talented, expensive horses. I’d go to horse shows with her on the weekends and my life was filled with what I loved.
Anne would often “accidentally” buy the wrong size breeches or boots for herself, which just happened to be my size. Unable to return them having removed the tags, she would give them to me. She wouldn’t need her new set brushes anymore, so I’d magically have my very own grooming set. She knew I was proud and embarrassed of my situation, so she would find the most gentle and kind ways she could think of to give me what she thought I needed.
Anne was wealthy – but, she was, to this day, one of the hardest working horsewomen I’ve known and she taught me to work hard. She taught me to be scrappy when I rode and when I wanted something, to go after it.
When I was twelve, the main way my family supported itself was by delivering the Washington Post newspaper. My parents and brothers literally delivered thousands and thousands of newspapers each week. On Sundays, I would lay on my bedroom floor and browse the Classified ads for free horses, horses for lease, working positions, etc. - dreaming that I could somehow find a way to get my very own horse. I’d often call people and say things like “I’m a very good rider, can I work to ride?” I wasn’t a very good rider, I was ok – but, I was determined.
After being told “no” what seemed like a million times - one day, I called a lady with a horse for lease and asked if I could work to lease it. She asked how old I was and I told her 12. She asked if my parents knew I was calling, I said, “Yes” – they didn’t. She told me she had 13 horses and was caring for them all herself and needed some help. So, she invited me to come ride for her and see the place. This was my big break!
I didn’t dare tell my parents what I was up to – they were already fairly fed up with the lesson expense, my nonstop talk of horses and the growing obsession that they knew was well beyond our financial means. I begged and pleaded with my older brother to take me; he was 16 and his girlfriend had a car (I still owe him a kidney should he ever need it).
Rosemary was an eccentric woman, who was single and clearly a collector of horses. She lived alone in a small 1800’s farmhouse, had a rustic indoor and barn with about 14 stalls. Her barn was dingy and an absolute mess – everything had several of inches of dust, the stalls were a couple feet deep in manure and the horses were caked in mud. It was nothing like the standard I had been exposed to with Anne.
I rode for Rosemary that first day and she said while my riding didn’t blow her away, I did well enough to work for her – IF, I promised to work around the barn first and ride second. I couldn’t believe it! My dreams were coming true, now I didn’t have one horse to ride, but thirteen! And, it was free!!!! That night I went home, told my parents and they, a little shocked and impressed by the initiative and what I had done, talked to Rosemary on the phone and agreed to let me work for her.
The truth is, Rosemary needed me as much as I needed her and we were about to set off on a beautiful friendship.
As I said, Rosemary was a bit eccentric. In 1990 she dressed in authentic 60’s garb from when she was in college. While this may sound “cool” now, I assure you it was not viewed as such back then – butterfly collars and corduroy bellbottoms hadn’t quite made a comeback. Rosemary drove a little Geo Metro car with no radio. She was a devout Catholic and had the radio removed so she could spend her commutes praying over her rosary without being tempted by music. At 12, she was so different than anyone I had ever met. She lived alone. Her house was covered in a layer of dust so thick you could barely discern the color of the furniture. Rosemary said exactly what she was thinking at every given moment. She had no filter and was blissfully unaware of any spoken offenses or abnormalities. This endeared her to me immediately as I never had to guess what she was thinking. I instantly became both entertained by and protective of her.
As a chemistry teacher at a nearby high school, her driving route passed my house each day. She agreed to pick me up on her way home from school and take me to the barn – my parents would only need to pick me up in the evenings; this greatly improved my ability to actually make it to my new job. Since there was no radio, we spent a lot of time talking about life and horses and dreaming about how we would fix up her place.
My routine became, come home, quickly start my homework, then Rosemary would pick me up, I’d go to her barn and start the overwhelming task of cleaning stalls, feeding and riding. It probably took me months to dig out the stalls. There were no shavings, the stalls were just filled with feces from years of never being cleaned. The horses spent most their time out, but had free access to the stalls should they want it. They were so compacted with shit and urine that after the first layer, everything came out in flat sheets of poop. It was very hard to dig out. You couldn’t use a fork, only shovels and many times I’d have to ask my brothers to help me with the bottom layers because I simply wasn’t strong enough to penetrate them. I can say with all honesty, my days working on that farm were some of the most fulfilling days of my childhood. I still remember the day all the stalls were cleaned out, we leveled them with a sand base and got the load of shavings. Finally, properly bedded the stalls for the horses! I’m not sure who was more excited – me or them.
I spent the next two years this way. Spending the bulk of my free time working for Rosemary, caring for the horses, riding – escaping. I still went with Anne whenever I could and got proper riding instruction from a local pony club trainer and Jeni remained my best friend.
Then, after two years, my parents announced they would be divorcing and my mother, brother and I would be moving across country. Once again, my world crumbled. I was distraught at the thought of loosing my horse family and Rosemary was distraught at the thought of loosing me.
After two weeks of living in complete and utter denial, my uncles showed up with a cattle trailer from the Midwest and started loading the shards of our lives into it. And, behind the last divider, Rosemary loaded Flash aka “Dancing in the Dark” my favorite of her horses and her final gift to me.
And, that is how I came to have my very own first horse.
I never saw Rosemary again. Years later, I made an incredible effort to find her, we reconnected and I thanked her for all she had done for me and tried to convey to her the impact she had on my life.
Often times we say things like, “I’m thankful” or “I’m grateful” without a real intensity behind it. I can say with the full breath and depth of meaning – I am so immensely and intensely grateful for these two women who helped me make my dreams come true. Women who gave me a leg up when I needed it the most and wanted nothing in return. And, who, perhaps unknowingly, helped me find my way along a path that would shape the rest of my life.
So, on this Thanksgiving, I give thanks to my human angels that helped a poor little girl find her wealth.