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  • Writer's pictureAdele Shaw

Stories About The Past // One

This is going to be the first in a series of posts featuring horses from my past. In these individual posts I want to share with you the journeys I've been on with various horses. I want to share with you the laughs, the smiles, the tears, and the heartache. Maybe some of you will identify with the experiences I've been through, maybe hearing about my past will help you with your present, but mostly I just hope to bring back to life these dear horses of my past.


Napoleon was my first. A 14.2hh flea bitten gray Arabian gelding that did surprisingly well in the hunter/jumper ring. Well, at the local shows anyway. He had a tendency to get really bad fungus in the summer, and was prone to gas colics, but to me he was absolutely perfect. He didn't go around nice and level like the big thoroughbreds and warmbloods did, he had a tendency to get excited, and the very first day he was officially "mine" he spooked and dumped me face first onto the ground. But still, he was perfect.

At just ten years old I hardly knew how to ride a horse, let alone own one, but I begged and begged my parents to buy him for me. My trainer was actually the one who started the whole idea, "This is really a once in a lifetime kind of horse for a beginner, especially at this price. She's selling him to you for way less than he's worth because she knows he will be staying 'in the family' [at the barn with the same trainer] and will be well cared for." And she was right. Looking back I laugh at the price we got him for, he was worth his weight in gold, yet we almost paid less for him than I've bought starved rescues for.

Knowing what I know now I recognize that while I "owned" a horse, I didn't actually care for the horse. I rode him, tacked up for rides, bathed him, and grazed him, but the boarding facility management took care of serious care. They blanketed, de-wormed, shod/trimmed, medicated, supplemented, fed, trailered, provided training rides, vaccinated, floated... the list goes on. Even when he would colic sometimes I wouldn't find out until the next day or later! In another story I'm going to share an event with another mare that happened at this same facility where the horse actually was taken for surgery and we never knew about it! I KNOW, I'm shocked to this day. You can imagine how upset we were to show up at the barn one day having never been told.

Still, having Napoleon in my life was perfect for me. Ideally I would recommend to my past self and parents that we lease Napoleon, just like I would recommend to any new to ownership horse people, especially young ones, but that horse taught me so much. I can't imagine not having had him in my life. Besides, the way this full service facility was set up basically created a "lease like" situation for me. I always had someone that was educated on how to care for horses to cover for my ten year old mistakes so the horse didn't suffer. I was ten, mistakes happened.. and they happened often.

There was this one time where I wanted to go trail riding. Keep in mind, the places my horses lived was in the middle of the city, the closest thing we had to trail riding was riding back behind the parking lot in some overgrown shrubs. It definitely wasn't suitable to "trail riding", but I was determined. I tacked up my little arab and we headed into the great unkown.

Not long into our journey though we found ourselves among some old barbed-wire fencing hidden beneath the brush. Before we knew it Napoleon's poor leg was wrapped up in that evil stuff as he desperately tried to escape. I had no idea what to do, I was absolutely helpless as the wire cut deeper and deeper into his leg. I debated yelling for help, but even at ten years old I knew that was a stupid idea. It would only spook the poor horse more. I was terrified I had killed my horse, terrified of being found out, terrified of everything in the irrational way that ten year olds ten to think. This was it, my life was over.. and so was my horse's.

Thank God the saint of a horse pretty quickly realized he was caught and he needed help. He paused mid struggle and allowed me to pull the wire away from his leg, but a lot of damage was already done unfortunately. I walked him slowly, but quickly, back to the barn where I desperately searched for help. Of course, it was the weekend and nobody was at the barn. (stupid idea number one, if we're being honest here; not having someone else with me in case of an emergency.. like this one.) I did eventually get a hold of the barn owner, who I'm sure was thinking all kinds of thoughts about how stupid I had been, and she called the vet while I cried watching my horse's leg bleed huge pools of blood.

Fast forward a couple hours and we got the poor horse bandaged up and safely tucked away in his stall. The vet gave me the rundown on how to care for him and what to expect during recovery while I stood nervously in a quiet sort of stupor, exhausted from the huge adrenaline rush I had experienced and still not entirely convinced I hadn't killed my horse. The injury had been a bad one, the wire had cut deep just above the heel bulb and his recovery would be a long one.

Over the next many days, weeks, and months I begged for Napoleon's forgiveness as I religiously watched over his every movement and cared for his every need. I swore to him that I would never put him in harms way like that again, and I never did. I had learned at least one lesson, don't trail ride in unknown areas without watching the ground carefully and don't ride near fence lines unless the pathway is very visible. I also learned that you always need to have an emergency backup plan, preferably another human that is capable of getting help.

Looking back I also see another lesson to be learned from that terrible moment, always teach your horses to not fight having their legs/hooves restrained. If Napoleon had stopped struggling the moment he felt trapped there wouldn't have been near the damage done. And if he hadn't stopped when he did, who's to know how much worse it could have gotten. Probably a lot.

Napoleon and I had many adventures over the years. We showed together dozens of times in the local hunter/jumper shows, I still have the ribbons to prove it. I sat/walked with him through many colic episodes, that I now realize were likely due to his unnatural living conditions and diet, and I made plenty more mistakes. I wasn't a good rider, but I was a dedicated one and I was determined to become a better rider each day. Napoleon helped me realize this dream, and tolerated my every mistake with such patience.

One day I got too big for my little light boned arabian. Thinking about it now, I wasn't really "too big" in a way that made it hard for him to carry me, I was just "fashionably" too big. What I mean by that was that my legs were too long and hung down pretty far, at one point I could nearly touch my toes together under his belly it seemed (though I highly doubt that). I was super lightweight though, he could easily carry my weight, I just looked really awkward on such a small horse in the show ring, so it was time to "move on".

Thankfully my sister had started riding at this point and was taking lessons on Napoleon, as was my mom, so we were able to keep him for a long time after I stopped riding him regularly. When my mom stopped riding regularly there was another girl that rode at our barn that started leasing him part time. She took such great care of him and I got to keep a very close eye on him.

Unfortunately Napoleon tore a suspensory one day and required a long intense recovery. We made the decision to send him to a rest and recovery facility not far away that specialized in helping injured horses return to work. Sadly though, his injury was too extreme for him ever to return to jumping so at the encouragement of our trainer we allowed the facility to find him a good home.

It pains me that I have no idea where Napoleon is. He would be at least 40 if he's still alive. I was too young to know the reality for most horses, especially ones with injuries, is that they rarely end up in or remain in good homes their whole lives. I do know that his home after his recovery sounded like a good one, but I never found out who they were or where they were. There was no way for me to keep tabs on him.. at least that I could figure out as a kid. As a young adult I tried to track him down, but the facility that had been in charge of re-homing him has long closed down and all the paperwork was gone.

I don't blame my parents or my trainer for the situation, but I do wish we had tried harder to keep tabs on him and that my trainer had been more conscious about how the horses in her care lived.

Suspensory injuries can happen to any horse at any time, but certain factors do increase the risk. I very much believe Napoleon's suspensory injury stemmed from the kind of lifestyle he lived, and had he not been injured I may know more about where he is today. We rode in a very deep footed arena, the horses never had true turnout, and they lived in stalls 12'x12' stalls 90% of their lives. It was a lifestyle just asking for suspensory injuries, for colics, for mental health issues, and all kinds of other problems. But like I said, I don't blame anyone and there's no point in trying I change the past. Without those experiences I wouldn't be where I am today and I wouldn't know what I know now. I deeply regret that I ever said goodbye to Napleon, but I was young and uneducated.

Having experienced that time with Napoleon I have a first hand understanding of what goes on in show barns and training barns, where horses change owners frequently and trainers pressure students to buy and sell every couple of years. I've experienced first hand how even a horse with owners that have the best intentions end up in unknown places. As soon as Napoleon left my ownership I put him at risk. It's not that I wish we would have kept him forever, that's not always practical, but if I had known more we could have done a better job of insuring his well being.

Like I said, I can't change the past, but I can take those lessons learned and use them for good now and in the future. Every horse that has come into my life since Napoleon has benefited from the lessons he taught me, and I'm eternally grateful to him for that.

Wherever you are Napoleon, I hope you know you changed one little girl's life forever and that I'm so sorry I didn't know more about how to care for you properly. I pray that someone is caring for you now like you deserve, or that you are resting peacefully. I love you.

- Adele

#reflection #horse #behavior #traininghorses #horsetraining

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