“Red Mare Beware!” It’s a saying many in the horse world have heard. I first heard it from a jumping horse trainer when I was horse shopping years ago. “Stay away from a sorrel mare,” he elaborated. “They tend to be high-strung and bitchy.”
As the Summer of 2012 horse show season began here in the Treasure Valley and five-year old Annabelle started her first real season of competition, it very quickly became obvious that she was in this for the long haul. My daughter practiced with a singularity of mind that I had never before witnessed.
If she wasn’t riding at a show she was practicing for one. If I didn’t have the time to saddle her horse, she put a halter on him and coaxed him up the fence to climb on and ride bareback around the place.
If it was too muddy for her to ride, she used gallons of show sheen and packages of rubber bands braiding manes and tails.
If she absolutely couldn’t go outside with her horse, she practiced inside, creating elaborate routines of breaking, training and showing her seemingly endless stable of pretend show horses. These routines involved a great deal of running around the house with a scarf or dog leash tied around her waist as reins, often supplemented by a necklace through her mouth as a bit, complete with well thought-out back stories for each horse, their ages, owner and their show plans.
To put it mildly, my girl was obsessed.
Annabelle was fortunate to have two show mounts to ride all summer, including the fantastic Smart Chic Dot Com, owned by our friend Kris, on which she won the Gem State Little Buckaroo Division year-end award as well as a fancy halter, a plaque and various other prizes over the course of the summer. She also had her own horse, Grumpy, which she started showing late in the summer and immediately won her very first check on.
While we were fortunate to have these horses for her to learn to ride and to show on, I knew I need to be thinking about the “next generation.” Chic was not our horse, and though Grumpy will likely be great for two or three more years, he is getting up there in age, and we would need a replacement mount sooner than later. There aren’t many horses like Chic and Grumpy, and if you can find one that is for sale they are always extremely expensive.
Desperate Hubby and I talked it over, and we decided to pursue a more time-consuming and less-certain route, which would also be less spendy than going out to find a finished kid-safe show horse. We would seek out a young horse that had the kind and gentle mind appropriate for our young daughter, and with the help of a trainer season and finish the training of the horse to have it ready for Annabelle in a year or two. We would likely have the same amount of money in the horse by the time it was finished, but it would be on the pay-as-you-go plan.
I was pretty excited about this. I hadn’t shown for years, since I had been injured in an accident riding a reined cow horse in 2005, and I thought it would be a good chance for me to get back in the pen a few times. Who knew? I might even like going back to showing reiners again, and I could help put the show miles on the new horse so it would be ready for Annabelle. A win-win situation!
We set about looking for a young horse that had the talent to be a good show horse, and the mind to be safe and reliable for our tiny almost-six-year-old blond girl. That in itself was a challenge, but I had further parameters:
- I wanted a mare.
- I wanted the mare to be between three and five years old.
- I wanted the mare to be ready for me to show in the reining derby classes by next year at the latest.
- I wanted the mare to be bay.
OK, I know that last one is kind of ridiculous. I have been riding and showing horses for many years, and another great saying I learned in the jumping horse world is this:
The prettiest color of horse is the one you win on. Period. Color selection has absolutely no place in the choosing of a horse. Nuf said.
But I had waited seven years to have a show horse again, and I wanted to love everything about her, so I kept that last parameter in the back of my mind.
My friends encouraged me to add another requirement:
- The mare should be bred like a cow horse and preferably have some training on cattle.
That parameter I ruled out completely. No way, I said, was I ever going to show in a reined cow horse event again. I had no interest in going back to the boxing class after spending two years going down the fence, and after my accident I was certain I didn’t have the physical capability, let alone the mental fortitude to ever consider another fence run. I was looking for a straight reiner. Period.
With that in mind, I spoke with the trainer who was going to help us with our new project, and we made a plan to start looking for horses. I told him what we wanted, but I did leave the “bay” part out of the equation. I didn’t want to sound like a complete idiot.
Finding a kid-safe young horse is a difficult task. I looked at dozens of horses on-line, and we called about several of them, but they weren’t temperamentally suitable. I rode some in the trainer’s barn, but none of them were quite right.
There was one mare I tried that fit all my criteria. She was cute, well-bred, very far along in her reining training, and even bay. She’d been ridden by kids, and was quiet enough that I knew she’d make a great youth show horse.
I almost bought that horse. I went so far as to go to the bank and get the cashier’s check for the owner, but something made me stop.
I just didn’t “feel it.”
There was no rhyme or reason why, but deep in my gut I didn’t think she was the horse for us. Desperate Hubby knows me pretty well after thirteen years, and he sensed that I wasn’t 100% enthusiastic about my choice. He begged me not to buy the mare.
I decided to take a step back and look around a little more. The trainer was surprised, and the owner was not happy, but I had to be certain. I kept on looking.
My friend Kris found a five-year old mare online. She was in eastern Idaho, in my price range, and obviously talented. The owners said she was quiet and gentle. It took only a glance at the picture Kris sent for me to say no. The mare was red. I did not want a red mare. Period. It really didn’t have anything ‘per se’ to do with “Red Mare Beware,” but sorrels were everywhere. They are the most common horse color in the world, and I wanted something a little different.
I was starting to get a little discouraged, but one day I got an email from another friend at the barn, Jacki. She sent me a link to a four-year old mare for sale in Utah. She herself was horse shopping, but not for a four-year old, and she’d gotten the video link in a round-about way from the horse’s owner. I opened up the link on my phone one afternoon, and was completely immersed in the video before I even noticed the color of the horse.
She was red. And at eight hours away, somewhat geographically undesirable.
And I loved her.
I hounded our trainer to call the owner. He was busy getting ready to go out-of-town for a show, and he didn’t have the immediate time to pursue it. So I called the owner myself. He sent me a link to another video. I called him again. I asked a million questions. He sent pictures and answered more questions. I just had a feeling about this mare.
As strange as it sounds, I could only liken my emotion to how I felt when I met Desperate Hubby all those years ago. I thought about the little red mare all the time. I watched her videos over and over again. I couldn’t wait to see her in person.
I wanted this horse. Though it made no sense. And I didn’t want to drive eight hours to try a horse without the guidance of a trainer. And I definitely hadn’t been riding enough lately to fairly evaluate the performance, talent or training of a show horse. But I wanted her.
So the day after Annabelle’s sixth birthday party, she and I climbed in the truck with Aunt Susie and headed to Utah. It was a beautiful October weekend, and Annabelle had the whole next week off of school for fall break. I was battling bronchitis and had no voice. As we got closer to where the horse was, Aunt Susie had to call to make all the arrangements for the visit because I could barely whisper.
We spent the night in Salt Lake where we had dinner with my nephew who is in college there, and Annabelle made good use of the hotel swimming pool. The next morning we made a leisurely drive south to where the mare lived. We couldn’t see her until after her owner got off of work, so we spent more time in the pool at our new hotel.
Finally it was time to go see the horse. We drove down a long gravel road to a picturesque little acreage that sat right at the base of the mountains. The leaves were turning colors all around and it was just beautiful.
From the moment the mare’s owner, Aaron, swung his leg over the horse, I knew I was going to buy her. She was quiet, willing, and obviously athletic. He rode her and showed me how to cue her on the maneuvers and then I got on. I rode around the arena with a big smile on my face. At one point I shouted “I love this horse!”
Then Annabelle got on. Aaron was very gracious about letting us change to her little saddle so she was safe and comfortable. She had a smile a mile wide the whole time she was riding.
Aaron helped her with the turnarounds. The mare spun so fast with her that I was worried my little cowgirl would fall off. She giggled and giggled.
Of course, we bought the mare. The next morning when we went to pick her up to head back to Idaho I could tell Aaron was sad. He had owned the mare since she was a yearling, done all of her training, and he truly loved that horse. He called her Freckles. But Freckles was meant to be mine. Sorry Aaron.
I took Freckles back to the stable in Idaho and waited anxiously for the trainer to ride her. I knew in my heart that she was a good horse, but I wanted him to agree. I needn’t have worried. He rode her for about half an hour and then got off and handed me the reins. “She’ll be alright,” he said.
I rode the mare every day for that first week. Every time I rode her I loved her more. I felt safe on her. I felt like she’d take care of me. Then I got a wild idea. Very wild.
By the way, did I mention that Freckles was a cow horse as well as a reiner? And did I say I would never show a cow horse again?
Although I had not shown for over seven years, and had not worked a cow for the same amount of time, I decided to enter up in the Idaho Reined Cow Horse Futurity and Derby. The show started three weeks to the day after I brought Freckles home. I went into a flurry of preparation. We went and worked cows at a local feedlot, and our old friend and trainer Jake even took time out to give me a couple of lessons on cattle. I tried on my show chaps and found some shirts that still fit.
I was excited to be at a horse show again, actually getting ready to compete. I saw friends that I had not seen for years, and they graciously welcomed me back. I felt right at home, like I still belonged. One of the highlights of the show was Annie Reynolds singing “Back in the saddle again…” to me in the warm up arena the first day of the show.
We started that first morning with the reining portion of the derby. Freckles was pretty good, but I was rusty. We made it through the pattern, and although I made lots of mistakes I was unbelievably happy to be back in the show pen.
The next day was our herd work day. Although we had only worked cows a few times, the little mare had so much natural ability and talent that she made some great moves.
She loves to work those cows!
The last day of our show was the boxing portion, where we worked a single cow in the arena. This was similar to what I had been doing seven years ago when I fell and got seriously injured, and I was nervous about it. I hadn’t practiced this on Freckles at all, and all I could think about was falling off.
Which I came really, really close to doing, by the way.
What you think about happens.
I did manage to stay on board, though, barely. It was a good thing Freckles had a mane on her.
When it was all said and done, we weren’t close to winning any awards. But the little red mare had given me an even bigger prize: the desire and confidence to go back to a sport that I loved and missed, and that I had thought I would never participate in again. That was a gift I had never expected to receive.
I have owned some very fancy horses in my life. I have owned some extremely expensive horses in my life. But the treasure Freckles has given me is something that cannot be bought with money.
My little red mare is still in reining training, and I go out to ride her as often as I can. She is getting more and more solid in her maneuvers, and I am wildly excited to show her next spring.
Red Mare Beware, indeed.