I’ve always looked at the calendar from more of an agricultural perspective than a chronological one. To me, the year truly begins in the Spring, hits its highs during the Summer (both in activity level and with the mercury), and then begins to gather in during the Fall. Winter is a waiting period, waiting for those daylight hours to begin to stretch past 5 PM. Waiting for the days when we can open the windows. Waiting for the sun’s return to herald a hiatus in feeding the always-hungry wood stove.

As the days grow shorter, and the horses’s coats grow longer, I like to look back over my year, see what I learned, what I’m grateful for, and what I can change for the better for next year. This autumn is no different.

One of the challenges I faced this year was losing my beloved horse, Atlas. It is a gut-wrenching experience to lose a horse. When you lose a horse that is only 14, the pain seems to go even deeper – you’ve not only lost the past, you’re losing the future.

When I lost Atlas, I not only mourned his short lifetime; I also mourned the loss of a lot of hopes and dreams he carried way up on his 18.2 hand back. You see, Atlas was my first “real” dressage horse; a registered, branded Belgian Warmblood who had done extremely well in his keurings (breed inspections) as a young horse, achieving the highest score in the country as a weanling, and second highest as a yearling.

He was elegant, despite his massive size; and had the demeanor of a Great Dane puppy — all cuddles, but much bigger than he realized. He would have been a lap dog if he’d been given the option. I only had the privilege of owning him for a few years, and although he struggled with soundness issues on and off for much of that time; he was always my dream horse.

When I first got him, I knew I’d finally be able to get those Second Level dressage scores I needed to qualify for the United States Dressage Federation “L” Judging program. I knew that we’d go to shows, and I’d be riding a “real” dressage horse of my own. Not a client’s horse, not one of my typical waifs or strays, not a somewhat athletic second (or third) career horse who would never be truly competitive at dressage shows; but a “real” dressage horse.

This was proven to me the first time I saw my trainer Harriet Peterson ride him. I cried. He looked so lovely, so talented, and he was mine. I began seeing qualifying for the USDF Regional Championships and the Bengt Ljungquist Memorial Championships as a real possibility instead of just a wish on a star. I allowed myself to dream, and to see the possibilities stretching out before me.

Sadly, none of those dreams came true.

A pasture injury requiring a lengthy lay-up created problems with an older issue, and the lamenesses became such that we were unable to keep him comfortable, even as a pasture pet. It was time to say good bye.

As I said good-bye not only to this gentle giant, but seemingly to so many of my life-long dreams, I did what I always try to do in difficult times — I looked for the lesson.

The lessons that began to make themselves known to me were simple.

  • Don’t get caught up in the wrappings and trappings, sometimes the best gifts aren’t what you’re expecting. Yes, Atlas was a well-bred horse, a lovely mover, but the gifts he shared with me were his love for life, his thorough enjoyment of being around people, and giving me the chance to enjoy vacuuming – not my house; but this giant horse. He loved being vacuumed as much as I love chocolate ice cream – and that’s a LOT.
  • Sometimes the answer to a prayer is no. We may never know the reason, and it may be hard to accept, but I prefer to believe that there IS a reason, and that better days are down the road.
  • Hold on tight to your dreams.

I didn’t lose my lifelong dream of competing successfully at FEI, I’ve just had to accept that it isn’t going to happen the way I thought – when I finally got a “real” dressage horse. It likely won’t happen with my current horse, Accolades, either. Although I am planning on showing him next Spring, it will probably be at First and Second Level, and at schooling shows.

Accolades is a lovely 25 year old Dutch Warmblood, and will not likely be physically able to perform at FEI by the time we manage to train to that level. (Although he WAS physically able enough to jump me off at a hunter pace over the summer by leaving out a stride coming into a 2’9” coop!)

Who knows, perhaps Accolades will excel and I’ll do Second and Third next year, (when he’s 26) and 4th and PSG in 2016… or perhaps not. Perhaps it will be the next horse, possibly an OTTB, or the mare we have out in a field that we believe was an Amish driving horse. Perhaps something completely different will drop into my lap.

Whatever is to happen, I’ll spend this winter enjoying Accolades riding, hopefully taking lessons, and becoming ready to receive the next gift that comes my way.

What lessons have you learned from your horses this year? What plans are you re-thinking, what opportunities opened up for you? I’d love to hear from you.