Back in the Saddle

I sat bareback atop a striking black blanketed appaloosa stallion, looking into the distance, the wind blowing my hair all around me. That moment was in the past, and in the next, we were galloping down the seaside through the surf, water everywhere, the wind in my face, with the most freeing feeling I had ever felt. My soul had come alive.

"Lauren, are you listening?" my 3rd grade teacher called, "We are heading back to the classroom, check out your book and please get in line."

My daydream ended. I was in 3rd grade, and my favorite day of the week was Wednesday, when we got to visit the library. The library was where I could rotate between my favorite horse breed books and study them meticulously. But who was I kidding? I usually didn't even need to check out a new book. The appaloosa book was my favorite. There was nothing I wouldn't have given to had my own blanketed appaloosa to ride the way I did in my daydreams. I hopelessly wished that someday I would be that girl with the beautiful horse, nothing able to come between us, and not a care in the world.

I begged my non-horsey parents to let me ride, and finally, my mom broke down and planned my 10th birthday to be at a local barn about 10 minutes away from our home. My parents had no idea what they were getting into.

On the morning of my 10th birthday party, February 11th, 2006, I was nervous with anticipation. Would I get to meet and ride the horse of my dreams? Probably. (Little girl logic)

I ending up riding a chestnut quarter horse gelding called Jet. Although I didn't get to know him well enough in our 30 minute leadline lesson to determine if he was my dream horse, I think I fell in love with chestnut horses that day and never looked back. I also made a huge life decision the day of my 10th birthday party - I decided I would become an equine veterinarian. I already knew I wanted to become a veterinarian (that had been my "calling" ever since I was capable of a conscious thought), but now I knew my passion was indeed horses, and I needed to be a veterinarian for horses. Nothing else would do.

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I began taking weekly lessons, starting western, and soon transitioning to English. I learned the basics of English riding, and that year at horse camp, I met the first horse of my dreams. I had seen him in the back pasture at the barn, but had stayed quiet, not voicing my secret love for him. I remember sitting in my mom's car, Mom on her Razor cell phone with my trainer Jean, talking about horse camp. I whispered to my mom, "Can you ask her who I am riding?". She repeated my question to Jean.

"Sebastian." My mom said flatly.

"SEBASTIAN!?" I exclaimed, "THE BIG BLACK BLANKETED APPALOOSA IN THE BACK!?

I think my mom was alarmed by my response, and Jean heard me through the phone. My mom nodded. I think my heart nearly stopped. I was out of breath. I was going to get to ride my dream horse at horse camp - What a beautiful life it was. Although Sebastian was what I learned was a gelding, not a stallion like the horse in my daydreams, I still felt I had hit the jackpot and would truly be the luckiest girl at horse camp.

Horse camp came and went that summer and I continued riding Sebastian for most of that year. I rode Sebastian in my very first horse show, and Sebastian got to pilot me over my very first jumps. I loved Sebastian, and as a lesson kid, I really couldn't picture my life without him in it.

Then November rolled around, and my trainer advised my mom that I was progressing quickly and should begin thinking about leasing a horse, and of course, she knew just the one.

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Sunny, "Giant Steps", was a 1985 chestnut thoroughbred gelding put up for a partial lease by his owner. We arranged a time for me to take a lesson on him, and of course, I loved him from the start. I began leasing Sunny 3 days per week, but never forgot my love for Sebastian, often wandering to the back of the property to feed him carrots and give his mottled nose a kiss.

Sunny was a schoolmaster, taking me through my first courses and teaching me the concepts of adjustability and contact. He was incredibly honest, telling me when I caught him in the mouth over a fence and offering a romp afterwards. Sunny also took me to my very first SAHJA (Sacramento Area Hunter/Jumper Association) show, where we won multiple firsts and the judge told me that I was "rocking the casbah". I definitely did not know what that meant - But I was loving this new taste of the sport, and loving my beautiful red partner.

I spent all of 2007 with Sunny, and the beginning of 2008, which was when my 23-year-old friend began slowing down. His owner made the decision to retire him, and I was heartbroken. Imagine a young girl, completely unaware of what retirement meant for a horse, and unaware that it was a good thing for her beloved horse. All I remember was my mom pulling me out of school so that I could say goodbye to Sunny as he stepped onto the trailer and away from my barn, on to his retirement home. I sat in my car watching him drive away and cried - not only because I knew my lease was over, but also because I thought that meant I would never have the opportunity to ride Sunny again. Sunny later came out of full retirement and into semi-retirement to become a short stirrup mount for his owner's son, loving his job, and living to the ripe age of 29. I did get to ride him again multiple times, and I treasured each and every one of those rides.

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In the spring of 2008, my parents decided to take the leap and purchase me my own horse. Although they weren't horsey themselves, they could see I was sticking with it, and for some unknown reason (that I am beyond thankful for), they decided to give me the greatest gift I have ever received. My dad sold his snowmobile to make it happen, and a few short weeks later, Dante stepped off of the trailer and right into my heart.

Dante came from a local sale barn that my trainer had a longtime relationship with. The first moment I saw him - I knew. Love at first sight does exist!

Dante and I started off our partnership in an exciting way - Going to our first local show a month later June, and the month following going to our first rated show. Dante was a bit of a challenge for me as a novice 12-year-old rider, definitely a fancy boy, and a perfect horse for me to move up on. But in late 2008, just months after Dante had come into my life and we had gone to our first shows together, the economy tanked and my dad's business was hit hard; he was a custom home builder. Nobody was in the market for a custom home in 2008.

We lost everything. My parents filed bankruptcy. Our home and cars were repossessed - My dad's remaining snowmobiles were even sold so he could put food on the table for me, my mom, and my 2 siblings. My mom started her own business after being a stay-at-home mom for 20+ years to help my dad, and my dad went to work farming for a friend who owned a cattle ranch and hay farm in a neighboring town.

We lost everything but Dante. My parents struggled financially for years to come, but they never once missed a board payment and made sure I had my horse. Even though Dad often joked, much to my chagrin, about selling Dante for the cash!

So although I was never again able to show more than schooling shows throughout my childhood, I still had a horse lover's childhood fulfilled. I may have never lived up to whatever potential I had as a young rider, but I had Dante, and that's all I needed. I had finally become the little girl with the beautiful horse, and nothing could come between us.

When Dante retired from jumping in 2012, I moved him to a boarding facility down the road from the hunter/jumper barn I had grown up at. He became a bareback and brideless horse, cruising around the property in nothing but a halter on most days. We began doing more groundwork than ever before too, and our friendship flourished more than I knew was possible. Dante had become the black blanketed appaloosa of my childhood daydreams.

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I began college at UC Davis in September 2014, and of course, Dante came with me. I was so excited to have my best friend at college with me, and only a 7-minute bike ride from my dorms. Since I had worked all summer prior to starting college, I was able to afford to join the UC Davis Hunter/Jumper Team. As soon as I moved away from home, I also became financially responsible for all of Dante's care.

Two weeks into college starting, I arrived to the barn to find Dante non-weight bearing on his right hind leg. It was broken. After extensive diagnostics and having to have the euthanasia conversation with my veterinarian, I opted to treat Dante medically and see what would happen, knowing that I would most likely not be riding my horse ever again. Dante was deemed pasture sound after months of rehabilitation. I was relieved. My best friend wasn't going to be leaving me anytime soon if I had anything to say (or do) about it.

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I was able to continue riding with the UC Davis Hunter/Jumper Team for my entire first year of college and part of my second year. Then finances became tight. I was working 3 different part-time jobs and going to school full-time, but the level of care I needed to give Dante to keep him comfortable - in addition to feeding myself - was taking a toll on my wallet. I was again taking a hiatus from riding for an indefinite amount of time, but I had Dante, and again, that was all that mattered to me. I willingly gave up riding for Dante then, and I would do it again today if it meant I could have Dante back.

Many would say to me, "You're a good enough rider, why don't you just exercise ride for somebody if you really want to ride?". The problem ended up not just being that I didn't have the money, but then that I didn't have the time. Between working multiple jobs, caring for Dante typically multiple times per day, and trying to excel academically to get into veterinary school, I just didn't have the time. I remember feeling like I would never get back to riding like I used to with Dante.

In October 2017, finally finding myself with a little lighter of a schedule in my final year of college, I began volunteering for CANTER California with hopes that I would finally be able to ride. A week after I began volunteering, Gallon, a broken 12-year-old OTTB walked into my life and I just couldn't let him go. Despite my desire to be able to ride again, there was something about Gallon that captivated me, and I knew he would become Dante's brother whenever the time was right.

In December 2017, before I could adopt Gallon, I said my final goodbye to Dante. It was one of the most trying and emotional days of my life, but setting him free from all that he had endured in his final years of life was bittersweet. I still miss him every single day.

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In April 2018, on Dante's birthday, Gallon was cleared for adoption and I adopted him for $1. Some might say it was foolish, but I do not regret it at all. I planned to attend veterinary school and continue my hiatus from riding, so having a retired OTTB who needed me wasn't such a bad idea in my mind.

When fall rolled around last year, I knew I was going to be taking a gap year before veterinary school and I was itching to ride before the next chapter of my life began. I began searching for a barn to start taking lessons at, and stumbled upon SunFire Equestrian. I was hooked on riding again after my first lesson back - And the best part was, my new trainer loved me! She asked me if I could start exercise riding the chestnut gelding I had ridden in my lesson, Quinn. He reminded me of Dante. I told her I would love nothing more.

I rode Quinn until he sold in January, and then I began taking lessons on a talented Holsteiner mare named Zegna. Zegna sold in the spring, and then I was introduced to my current lease horse, Owen. I began leasing Owen 3 days per week and decided to move Gallon out to SunFire as well.

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I was to be starting veterinary school in Arizona this month, actually - this week. I withdrew for a reason that is all too familiar to me - Finances. I couldn't afford my lifelong dream of becoming a veterinarian, and the debt I would have been in if I would have accepted the loans I was offered would have drowned me. I hope someday I can reapply and return to my lifelong dream - I came so close to it I could envision the "DVM" at the end of my name.

But when my veterinary school door officially closed and I let my trainer know I would be continuing my lease on Owen, she texted me that night saying, "Just putting this in your ear... I am looking for an assistant trainer..."

... Me? An assistant trainer? My imposter syndrome thoughts kicked in. But I had no real show experience? Was I really that decent of a rider? I didn't ride very much all through college? Did I know what I was doing? What did she see in me? Could my life really be taking this turn? How is this possible? Am I even qualified for this?

Although I was clouded in a world of doubt, I met with her the following week and told her I would accept the job offer. I won't be doing anything out of my wheelhouse - I will be teaching beginner/novice/intermediate English riding lessons. I taught riding lessons at UC Davis all through college, and this past year have been teaching riding lessons at a local non-profit. I love to teach. I just never thought it was a possibility for me.

These past couple months I have been riding to my heart's content and soaking up all of the new knowledge I possibly can. I am back to jumping - where my heart belongs - And I have even been doing a bit of dressage.

So I suppose as trite as this sounds, I think sometimes life takes us down roads that we never knew were possible. Every hurdle I encountered was to prove to me that I was good enough, that having a dream horse meant more than just riding, and that someday I would get to where I was meant to be. I feel like I am finally back in the saddle for good this time, and I am all the better for the path I took to get here.

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