This week we had to say goodbye to one of the sweetest and most kind little horses that I have ever had the privilege of meeting. Misty came into our lives just under a year ago, but in that short time she touched so many hearts that she will never be forgotten. During her tenure in our barn she also taught me a lesson I will never forget.
This little black horse came into our lives with the help of a dressage trainer Annabelle was taking lessons from. My spunky 12-year-old daughter was at the time riding a naughty little bay pony who challenged her at every turn and was so hard to ride that she struggled to make any sort of progress in her lessons. The kind trainer said she knew of a pony that might be just perfect for Annabelle; a little black mare that had been formerly used as a lesson horse in a local hunter barn, and whose current owner wasn’t really riding her. One thing led to another, and before we knew it we were the proud owners of a skinny, hairy, doe-eyed little black mare. We had a cursory vet-check on the shaggy little horse, just to check her age and confirm what we suspected about her long coat. The age was exactly what we had been told, about 16, and as suspected the curly hair our new girl was sporting was a sign of Cushings Disease, a fairly common syndrome that often is recognized by the horse’s inability to shed winter hair. The vet thought Misty, despite her poor body condition, was a great little pony, sound, sweet and obviously well-trained. We decided together that we would add Misty to our family and start her on medication to try to mitigate the effects of her disease. Many Cushings horses, they told us, could be managed successfully for years with proper care and medication.
Misty quickly proved to be Annabelle’s favorite mount. My horse crazy daughter had recently made the switch to riding exclusively English, and Misty was just the horse to teach her the ropes. Even though the mare was on the thin side, she was spunky and game, and Annabelle loved taking her around small jump courses that she set up in our sandy arena. We had Misty about a month when Annabelle learned of a horse show to be held at the Idaho Center Horse Park, a gorgeous facility not far from our house and our very favorite place to show in the whole world. The horse show was an open show, meaning any equine/rider team was qualified to ride, and it featured a wide array of classes. The class that Annabelle picked out for her and Misty was the only class in the show that featured jumping. It was a much more formal class than the small winter jumping series Annabelle had attended a couple of times with her naughty pony, and we had to make a visit to the show office the day before she showed to find out the requirement for dress. I was somewhat chagrined to find that my daughter would be required to wear hunt attire, meaning not only tan breeches (which she did not have) but a show jacket (which she also did not have). A trip to D&B netted us a pair of tan riding pants from the closeout rack, but not a jacket was to be seen. I thought maybe a boy’s blazer would work, but a couple of stops later we had not found that either. With time running out I told Annabelle we’d just have to go home and see what we could find.
As I am sometimes fond of mentioning, I *used* to have a real job, one that often required me to wear suits with skirts and jackets. I was also, fortunately, *quite a bit* smaller back in the day, but we don’t need to go into that. Anyhow, a deep rummage through my closet turned up a black waist-length (on me) jacket, that despite the slimness of my relative youth when I wore it, drowned my tiny daughter in material. I tucked and pinned and tucked some more, and half a pack of safety pins later, from a reasonable distance, the jacket didn’t look half bad. We were in business!
Annabelle left the fashion show to go out to the barn and prepare Misty for her show debut. Despite the careful administration of Misty’s medication the little mare had not yet gained any weight while with us, but Annabelle clipped and brushed and Show Sheened her long hair until she thought Misty was the fanciest looking pony she’d ever seen. She covered the little black horse in a sleezy and sheet and ensconced her in a deeply bedded stall for the night. I don’t think Annabelle slept at all until the next morning, she was so excited to take her new horse to her first “real” English show. When we got to the show the next day Annabelle eagerly unloaded Misty and tied her to the trailer while we went inside to pick up her number. She wanted everyone to see how fancy her new pony was.
As we walked through the familiar roll up doors on the north side of the Idaho Center I looked with interest at the many horses and riders walking, trotting, loping and just standing around. I was horrified. Tied to our trailer was a skinny, hairy, big-headed pony with ribs clearly visible under her faded winter coat. She clearly had no place at this horse show. Every horse I saw was fat, sleek, perfectly clipped and obviously recently washed. Misty was going to stand out like a sore thumb. Annabelle’s enthusiasm was not daunted, however, and she seemed blissfully unaware of the huge disparity between her shaggy black pony and the glistening perfectly turned out horses that milled around the warm-up pen. I got a feeling of dread in my stomach as I saw the English riders, resplendent in tailored wool jackets and shiny black field boots. Every English horse was huge, in my mind’s eye standing at least a foot taller than the ragtag little mare tied to our trailer. Annabelle was super excited to get Misty saddled and ride her around, but honestly I was dreading the moment she made the comparison between her mount for the day and the fancy, shiny show horses that she would be riding against.
She took her time and carefully groomed Misty’s shaggy coat. She applied boots to her legs and brushed her mane until it gleamed. Finally, she added her saddle, and Misty stood patiently while we went through the gymnastic of getting Annabelle pinned into her oversized suit jacket. Annabelle climbed on board, all smiles as we made our way to the outside warm-up pen. She rode around for a bit, and it is a testament to her excitement of the day that she graciously agreed to stand for a photo.
Riding around in the outside warm-up pen went just fine, but when we entered the indoor arena to see where they were in the show line-up things started to go south. As soon as Annabelle walked in on Misty, people stared. I saw a couple of teenage girls laughing, probably about something totally different, but I was horrified nonetheless. There were a few people we knew at the show, and they appeared to go studiously out of their way to avoid talking to us. The longer we stood in that pen the worse I felt. I hoped it was only my imagination, and kept a smile on my face for Annabelle, but soon my biggest fear came true. My daughter walked Misty over to me, blinking furiously. “Mom, come over here!” She trotted Misty to a relatively quiet corner of the pen, and as I got closer I could see tears on her face. “Mom! They are making fun of Misty! They are talking about her and saying mean things!”.
I’m not proud of the thoughts that came into my mind next, but I truthfully have to say that if Annabelle had said she wanted to leave right then I might have let her. I have shown horses for a lot of years, and I know first-hand that it was a whole lot more fun to show a nice horse than just an OK horse, and I really felt that Misty didn’t belong at this event. Instead I told Annabelle to take a deep breath. I said that people were most likely not making fun of Misty, exactly, but that we had to admit Misty looked a whole lot different from the other horses in that arena, who were taller, fat, sleek, and sporting long, thick, fake tails. They just noticed she was different, that’s all.
Annabelle took in my words and sat up straight in the saddle. “You’re right mom. They don’t know how good of a horse Misty is. When they see her jump they will know. Just wait until I win my class!” Inwardly, I grimaced. Oh no, I thought. This is probably not going to go well.
When they called Annabelle’s class she rode anxiously to the in-gate to enter the arena. She had already learned the simple pattern of jumps that she would ride inside, but she was still relieved she wouldn’t have to go first. As she rode through the panels into the pen I felt a surge of respect for her composure. She smiled at everyone gathered around and kept on her happy face as she rode to the center of the arena. Thank goodness she was far enough away to not hear the comments that started almost immediately.
I was a little shocked that the people who were standing right beside me, clearly the mom of the girl on the pony, spoke without reservation. “Oh look at that pony! Isn’t she brave?” “Well, she isn’t much to look at that’s for sure. We’ll see if she can jump.” “Oh, bless her heart….”. It was a tight-knit group of exhibitors there that day, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt like more of an outsider. The only good thing I could think of at that moment was at least we were almost done, and we could load up our embarrassing pony soon and get out of that unwanted spotlight.
The first horse went through the course with a few bobbles and then it was Annabelle’s turn. Misty trotted beautifully around the corner and loped a straight line to the first jump. As soon as she left the ground the talk around me changed. “Oh my gosh, look at that pony jump!” “That was the most beautiful little hunter jump I’ve ever seen!” and, with just a touch of derision, “Watch this, she’ll probably win this class!” My chagrin turned to a fierce pride, not just because Misty was shocking everybody with her stellar performance, but because Annabelle had been right. She believed in Misty and had been right to do so. I was embarrassed at myself for letting outside appearances and the judgment of people I didn’t even know influence my faith in the little mare.
After the horses jumped they were instructed to go to the rail to be judged on the flat. As Annabelle rode by me her smile faltered just a little. We hadn’t known about this portion of the class but I knew she would get through it. As the riders started to go around, first at a walk, then a trot and finally a canter, the talk around me kept up. “That IS a fancy pony isn’t it?” “She is such a cute mover isn’t she?” Suddenly our Ugly Duckling was the darling of the show. When the horses had completed the flat work they lined up for their placings. I wiped happy tears from my eyes when they called first place. Annabelle and Misty were the winners under both judges.
Annabelle, of course, was beyond thrilled, and not at all surprised. “I KNEW Misty would win mom! I knew she deserved to be here!” She was right, of course, and that is the lesson Misty and Annabelle taught me that day: believe in yourself, don’t be intimidated because you look a little different from the others. It is what is INSIDE that counts.
Even when the inside is encased in a twenty-year old Ann Taylor jacket that is 4 sizes too big.
After we brought Misty home from the show we kept up her medicine and feed regime. She didn’t seem to be gaining weight, and her energy levels were extremely low. It was hard to get her to eat, and she looked worse every day. I hauled her to the vet with me one morning to weigh her, and was shocked to see that she had lost almost two hundred pounds, a very significant percentage of her body weight. Never a fat horse, now she was downright emaciated. The vet explained that her medication sometimes had the side-effect of a loss of appetite, so we decided to take her off of it for a while. Annabelle did some research and found a natural feed supplement that was supposed to be a big help for horse with metabolic problems, so we ordered it and started Misty on that, pouring high fat feeds to her in an effort to improve her condition.
It worked. Within a couple of months Misty looked shiny and filled out. She still didn’t shed her hair properly, so Annabelle body-clipped her, leaving a small heart of longer hair on her right hip. Misty was gorgeous.
And by the way kids, don’t wear flip-flops around horses.
Anyway, Annabelle continued to enjoy riding Misty and she even took her to a jumping lesson or two at our trainer. Everybody loved Misty.
As Annabelle continued to advance in her skills and started to ask more of her mount, we realized that making our sweet Misty work hard enough to keep up with those demands was taking a toll on her. She would often lie down for hours after a ride, and though she continued to gain weight and looked healthier and happier, we were worried it was too much for her. Since we continually have a bevy of young riders coming to our house who are anxious to ride, we decided in the summer to make Misty exclusively a beginning lesson horse, giving her a much lighter work load while also getting the attention and love she thrived on. Annabelle had a few other horses to ride by now, so we passed Misty off into semi-retirement, much to the delight of our guests who always clamored to ride her.
She was one of our darling friend Ella’s first rides, and Ella continued to learn from the gentle mare throughout the summer and into the winter.
Misty went camping with us in the summer and gamely walked miles of trails in the mountains around Bull Trout Lake.
She went on trail rides at home too, up to the big lot at the end of our road that our awesome neighbors make available for the kids to ride around in.
We didn’t jump Misty much anymore, but she did introduce youngsters to low levels of cross rails so they could get the feel of jumping. Our friend Olivia loved to have lessons on Misty.
Misty seemed to thrive on her once-a-week work routine. The cute little mare even got to go to a couple of winter horse shows. Magaely showed her and even won a ribbon or two, and Olivia rode her when she showed in her very first horse show.
Misty seemed so happy and was doing so well that what happened last Friday caught us by surprise. Annabelle called me from the barn, where she had gone out to do the morning feeding. “Mom, there is something really wrong with Misty,” she said. “She won’t walk!” I ran outside to see the little black mare standing placidly, not moving over toward her food. It was muddy outside, and I was afraid the mud and cold weather had triggered a case of laminitis, which is an inflammation of the hoof capsule that can be life-threatening in horses. It took some effort, but we convinced Misty to walk into the barn, where we put her into a stall bedded deeply with fresh sweet straw. We gave her anti-inflammatory medicine to try to ease her pain, but after a couple of days it was obvious she wasn’t improving. Our friend and vet Kat DeHaan came out and evaluated Misty on Monday. It was clear from Kat’s expression that the situation was grave. We increased Misty’s pain medication three-fold, but she continued to decline. Laminitis is a horrible and frequent side-effect of Misty’s disease, Cushings, and it attacked her with evil force.
On Wednesday our sweet little mare was in so much pain that we decided any further efforts to save her would be for our benefit, not for hers. We had to do what was best for our faithful friend, so in the fading sunlight of a chilly evening, on the soft grass of our front yard, we said goodbye to Misty for the final time. We sat and stroked her head and neck until she was gone, knowing we would miss her terribly.
Rest In Peace sweet Misty. We will see you again someday.
And I promise to always remember, never judge a book by its cover.