Stories About The Past // Five
After Napoleon, Letterman, Smash, TigerLily, Tails, No-Name and a couple other horses entered and exited my life.... there entered the sweet, crazy, sensitive, high energy thoroughbred Babe. 16hh of glistening golden red chestnut, Babe was a sway backed, skin and bones, classic off the track thoroughbred. He raced a total of four times before being sold to be retrained as a hunter/jumper, and at some point he made it to being my trainer's horse.
Even though Babe lived at the barn I took lessons at and boarded other horses at for a long time, he was always the "trainer's horse". That special horse in the barn that was never an option for anyone else to ride, possibly too inexperienced to be safe for anyone else to ride, and usually much nicer than any other horse in the barn. I never paid much attention to him for this reason, but one day my trainer told me to go get Babe out to ride! I was honestly shocked, and really very nervous. At the time I couldn't think of a reason why she would have me ride her young training project, but looking back now I know she was playing match maker. Since not even a couple weeks later I would be the proud new owner of a tall shiny new thoroughbred.
I remember those first couple rides like they were just yesterday... and I also remember the shock I felt when my trainer informed me I was taking Babe to a show that very next weekend. Babe was sensitive, hot, and oh so sweet. He tried his heart out but definitely needed a calm rider, thankfully that was my riding style exactly. I loved unpredictable, energetic, sensitive horses... and I was a steady patient rider. Still.... even with our complimentary personalities it seemed ludicrous to me that my trainer wanted me to show Babe with only a couple rides on him. Somehow we pulled it off though, and my trainer was oh so clever in her matchmaking, since we brought home two champions that day and purchased him from her directly following.
I feel like the next few years just flew by.. we showed in the local circuit many times and regularly placed in the ribbons (when I could keep my lanky out of control body together long enough to make it seem like I had something even remotely close to acceptable equitation lol), but things started falling apart long before I realized it unfortunately. To start with, Babe would grind his teeth. Oh, he would grind them so loud it would echo through the show facility and make everyone cringe. At the time I was informed it was just nervousness (so I needed to lunge him before I rode), and then we thought maybe it was ulcers, but the vet cleared him, so eventually we just gave up trying to solve his grinding issues and wrote it off as "bad habit". Nobody ever thought to mention his saddle or his back!
Oh, that poor back, and that awful saddle. I still have that saddle actually, you want to know the horse it fits? It fits my roundest, stockiest, widest back, no withers, cloud-to-sit-on of a stock horse. Not a slab sided, sway backed thoroughbred! Not only did nobody ever mention my saddle may not fit my horse (vet, trainer, barn owner, judges, massage therapists, other trainers, other more experienced horse owners) they even sold me my saddle! Even with open sores on his poor withers they best advice I ever managed to get was "get a riser half pad". Are you kidding me?!
Now, you might be thinking, why didn't you recognize something was wrong? Well, at the time there was not nearly as much information on the internet about saddle fit. I also had all the professionals I trusted telling me everything was okay! As a young inexperienced rider how was I supposed to know that my trainers (who I worshiped) could actually be wrong? I didn't have social media "equestrians gone wrong" pages to enlighten me (I probably would have been featured on there to be honest), useful blog articles and youtube saddle fitting videos, or a way to contact other more educated professionals outside of my day to day interactions. I was surrounded by hundreds of equestrians that seemed to think my horse was just "being bad", so I believed them!
Even when Babe started bolting and bucking after jumps, and refusing to do lead changes, my ill fitting saddle and his extreme sway back was never a thought. It was always his fault that he was acting up. I suppose the idea was that since he had been successfully competing for years without these problems that they couldn't possibly be pain related, it had to all be about him being disobedient. The problem is.. that saddle pain (and all pain) can compound over time. Eventually the horse can no longer mentally and physically handle what it could handle even just a few days, weeks, months, or years ago. Some horses are so stoic that you wont see signs of pain until they are nearly crippled. Some horses are so afraid of being punished for displaying discomfort that they keep it to themselves for as long as possible... it doesn't mean it's not there!
At some point I came to the notion that Babe just wasn't happy with his job anymore, and I had wanted to try dressage anyways. Plus, the barn I had spent my whole childhood riding at was closing down, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to make a fresh start. We found a local dressage trainer, moved our horses, and gave something new a try! Little did I know how hooked I would become on this new discipline.
Thankfully, this new trainer had a MUCH better understanding of saddle fit. Finally, someone to educate me! We quickly worked to find a suitable saddle for me to borrow until I could find a saddle to buy and have modified to fit Babe exactly. The poor guy was so much happier. The grinding disappeared for the most part, his saddle sores vanished, and overall he was much more content. No more bucking, no more bolting. He would still get nervous from time to time, and the dressage training we did was very modern style (push/pull and false collection) so it wasn't helpful for his already weak back, but it was better. There were still a million things I would do differently now, but it was a step.
After a year or two of training and competing at training and first level with Babe I was really hooked on dressage. It wasn't long before my trainer convinced me babe was likely maxed on his potential in the show ring (she was probably right), so if I wanted to keep progressing it was time to move on to a fancy warmblood. Thankfully (I'm thanking my younger self here) I had no intention of selling Babe, deep down knowing he really was so limited on his abilities and needed such a patient handler, so when I bought my new horse I partially retired Babe at our family ranch (the ranch I now work out of), intending to continue to show him at the lower levels when I could.
Unfortunately not long after my new horse joined us Babe caught his leg in between two fence boards and practically skinned his leg from hock to hoof. He damaged some bones and ligaments, but recovered enough to be happy, healthy, and sound in the pasture. He later became the companion of a young colt I bred for many years before being humanely euthanized due to old age and injury. It was heart breaking to say goodbye, but I was happy knowing he spent the last many years of his life living the life of a true horse.