What I Learned as a First-Time Horse Owner

This is Part 7 in the Remarkable Series, a story chronicling the fulfillment of a dream and the rescue of Kodiak Jack, the horse I adopted from Omega Horse Rescue in July of 2022.

The human and horses lessons intertwined in our journey feel worthy of sharing . . . for those who simply need hope about second chances, for the want-to-be rescue horse owner who needs a primer on what to expect, for the frustrated equestrian who can’t figure out what is wrong with her horse, for the individual who has hit a relationship wall and desperately needs a new way of looking at life, and for the dreamer who is about to give up yet wonders if there is a still a possibility to see the vision realized.

So here I tell our story — one that is still unfolding. It captures the extravagance of God’s grace, the fruit of perseverance, the beauty of slow growth, and the remarkable gift of hope that comes through second chances. May it encourage you to press on, expecting the remarkable to manifest in your life too.

If you have been following along this long, you know that I’m on an interesting journey as a horse owner that kicked off in July 2022 when I adopted Kodiak Jack.

The one question I’m asked often is that in light of what I’ve learned, would I still have adopted Kody, or any horse for that matter?

It is a fair question, considering how many bumps we’ve hit along the way — and one that both horsey and non-horsey folks seem to take an equal interest in.

Like a human, a horse is more than their personality and looks, both of which swept me off my feet.

I didn’t realize how Kody’s past training as a racehorse combined with seven years of neglect and abandonment would factor into the challenges we would face in his health and performance. We dealt with some sort of lameness, behavior, or performance issue nearly every month for the first nine, which was not only time-consuming and financially stretching but downright wearisome. As much as I love Kody, I often wondered what I got myself — and my family — into with this decision to adopt a horse for my own pleasure as well as business endeavors!

We finally rounded the corner at around 10 months, when we addressed his nutrition and treated him for ulcers. Both were game-changers! Kody is finally doing fabulous, with improved muscle development, a filled-out topline, nice looking coat, and moving through all three gaits much better.

Along with Kody’s improvements, I also managed to overcome some of my own issues both physically and emotionally while writing the curriculum for Finding Calm: Helping Riders Navigate through Fear and Anxiety. I definitely thank Kody for that accomplishment! When I am with him on the ground or in the tack, my blood pressure comes down and my way of being in this world is marked by a new kind of calm and confidence.

Yes, this racehorse who could hardly carry a rider through the canter because of his lack of balance and this rider who was terrified to canter because of two significant falls, both grew alongside each other and now delight the canter together!

Yes, Kody helped me find my calm on the ground and in the tack, in part because he is a stable, rarely spooky, and generally relaxed horse. There is nothing “hot” about this Thoroughbred, which means I don’t have to keep my “guard” up with him or live in a hypervigilant state. It is wonderful! However, that doesn’t mean it is perfect.

Just like a human, when Kody feels anxious or frustrated, he becomes a bit obstinate and pushy.

He throws his shoulder around like a linebacker on a football team. This behavior doesn’t happen all that often, but it is certainly undesirable! The challenge is that in his rather peaceful environment, it doesn’t happen all that often so it is hard to address from a training and education perspective.

Kody’s other “vice” is that he likes to chomp down on objects like an Italian grandmother biting her own hand in frustration. Thankfully, he knows the difference between a fence rail and a human’s arm. However, this little behavior shows me that he is still learning how to release the tension he holds in his body.

Aren’t we all?

Learning what to do with what we feel is the reason why so many of us have health issues and addictions.

Kody’s behavior reminds me that first identifying the source of the problem and then addressing the response pattern is critical for changing behavior — horse and human alike! So together, we both continue to explore the root issues and new ways of being in this world.

Yep, in so many ways, I am experiencing the benefit of equine-assisted coaching and therapy even while helping Kody become the remarkable partner he’ll be in this work with me.

While we’re both growing in tremendous ways, that doesn’t mean there are no lessons to learn from what we’ve been through.

Hindsight is a great teacher.

As Elisa Wallace said on the In Stride podcast quoting her mentor Karen O’Conner, “Experience is what you got right after you need it.” Well, may my experience become what you get before you need it! It is my hope by sharing my journey that you’ll be better position to make the best decision for yourself and your future horse.

The “Must Do” Checklist for First-Time Horse Owners

#1 Study, Study, Study, and Study Some More

The reality is that Kody is both a racehorse and a rescue horse, which has a huge impact on training, performance, health, and work. I thought that his years of let-down after racing would take the racehorse out of him, but it did not. Had I done some more research about the breed, I would have known that when Kody feels pressure on the bit, he wants to run because that is how racehorses are trained. Ahem, when I feel nervous, I create pressure on the bit. You can see how this is a bad combination!

Furthermore, I trusted the vetting to give me the information I needed about Kody’s overall body and health condition, and did not pay enough attention to his natural confirmation, and in particular, his legs, posture, and condition of his feet. These factors provide clues to the health and performance issues you will face and should be considered very seriously when adopting or purchasing.

Thus, before you adopt or buy, you should be able to answer these questions or know where to go to find the answers.

  1. What should you look for in a healthy versus unhealthy hoof?
  2. What are the indications that conformation can present performance and health issues later?
  3. What are the symptoms and treatment of metabolic syndrome?
  4. What are the symptoms and treatment options for ulcers?
  5. What are the symptoms and treatment of Lyme?
  6. Can you identify the important biomechanics and body parts, such as hocks and stifles, and what treatment options do you have for common issues?
  7. How do you identify the difference between a grade 2 versus 3 lameness?
  8. Can you accurately assess a body condition score?
  9. Can you identify the Grimmace scale?
  10. Can you properly weigh a horse in order to select the right portion of grain?
  11. Do you have access to an equine nutritionist?
  12. Do you have access to a saddle and bridle fitter?
  13. Do you have access to a reputable farrier?
  14. Do you have access to a trainer, not simply a riding instructor?
  15. What do you know about pasture management?
  16. What are your options when it comes to managing herd dynamics?

I highly recommend building a library of resources, starting with Horse Brain, Human Brain by Dr. Janet Jones as well as the resources you’ll find a HorseClass.com.

#2, Lease, Any Horse, Before You Buy!

Even if you can’t buy the horse you lease, a leased horse will give you the opportunity to grow in your horsemanship and experience the reality of caring for a horse’s ever-unpredictable health needs. The challenge may arise that you would handle the situation with your lease horse differently than the owner. I challenge you to make that investment and see what the “sting” and results truly feel like.

#3 Triple Your Budget

Whatever you think it is going to cost you in feed, board, training, vet care, and tack, triple it. Horses are very clever at finding ways to cost you money. Not only will they invent ways to harm themselves, the deeper the trust they build with you, the more they will show you what is hurting. As your love and compassion for your horse increases, so will your desire to serve them well. So even if you think you are a simple horse person, create a big margin in your budget for the extra and unexpected needs you’ll want to provide for the horse you come to love as your own.

#4 Know Your Why and What

Before you shop, you need to clearly define your “why” and “what,” taking into consideration every aspect from breed to discipline to budget. Horses are like a drug – the minute you start looking you become delusional. A look in their eye. How they move. Their adorable vices. All of a sudden, emotions take over and all logical thinking goes out the window. So before you start shopping take time to consider why it is important that you own a horse for yourself and what you hope to accomplish through that experience. Then, make your age, breed, and discipline decisions accordingly. If I had taken this step to heart, I would have only looked at 15-hand quarter horse or draft-cross considering my goal was to have a partner for my equine-assisted work. Kody’s size and anxious-driven behavior are too much for most non-horse people. As he settles, the fit will be better, but for now, this is a hard factor to stomach.

I encourage you to take the time to download my First-Time Horse Buyer’s Guide to brainstorm your why and what before you shop for a horse.

#5 Slow Down & Adjust Your Expectations

It takes 12 months for a horse to fully settle into a new home and for an owner to have a full picture of what that horse needs! Yes, that feels like a long time, but it takes that long for a horse to adjust to their environment, assuming their herd and living arrangements are relatively stable during that time period. Plus, it takes that long for you to uncover how the seasons will impact your horse’s overall mental and physical health. In addition, building a trusting and meaningful connection doesn’t happen overnight. So once you’re ready to adopt or purchase a horse, shift your expectations to give your horse and yourself a chance to develop and grow at a reasonable pace. Plan on at least a month of no riding, or longer depending upon the situation, and then make a training plan that takes into consideration their previous discipline and overall fitness. In the meantime, build collateral in the relationship bank by spending quality time together on the ground, letting go of expectations as you become curious about your horse’s learning and relational style.

Being Present & Cultivating Gratefulness

Oh yes, there is a lot to learn in anticipation of adopting or purchasing a horse. My hope, and prayer, is that you’ll take to heart what I’ve shared so that your bank account can stay a bit fuller and heart a bit lighter through learning from my experience.

There are mostly certainly times I’ve wished I had an already trained horse to plod around with or a 15-hand horse to partner up with client work. While we might not be the best match for each other in terms of riding, and that has cost me plenty in training and lessons, I’m not sure that outweighs what we’ve gained.

At the end of the day, Kody is priceless to me! I am so grateful for the remarkable gift of calm, confidence, and courage he has given me.

I’m pretty sure we’ve needed each other to grow into who we’re meant to become.

Kind of powerful thought to apply to our human relationships, don’t you think?

We need each other to grow into who we’re meant to become.

How many times do we say to ourselves “If I could do it again,” especially when life together is hard, and hard, and hard? But what if instead we recognized that we did the best with what we knew at the time?

There will always be the wonder of what could have been if we made a different choice.

But it seems to be a much better use of time to find the good in the present. And in that looking for good, cultivate gratefulness for growth in the process of learning from all the bumps and detours life inevitably brings our way.

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