by Laura Crum
When my son was seven years old and still reeling from the recent death of his pony, I bought an older rope horse that I knew well to be my boy’s new mount, hoping to both alleviate the pain of the loss and to make sure that my child could continue riding, which he was enjoying very much. And so, six years ago this October, Henry came into our lives.
I paid five thousand dollars for Henry, which was considered a lot for a nineteen year old retired rope horse. But I knew Henry was sound and a reliable kid’s horse. One year after I bought him, Henry colicked, and I had to send him to colic surgery to save his life. So there went another ten thousand. At this point, I had a fifteen thousand dollar kid’s horse.
Now I am not a rich woman. My husband is not interested in horses. Neither one of us really expected that horses would become my son’s passion—my kid liked to ride in a mild way, mostly because he grew up with/on horses, and hey, riding is fun. Still, my son was in no way driven to ride and compete on horses, the way many young people are—the way I was when I was young. So there really wasn’t any obvious justification for spending fifteen thousand dollars on a horse for him.
But I did it. And my husband approved it wholeheartedly. And it was one of the best choices I ever made.
My son grew up riding Henry. For six straight years we rode together two or three times a week. Mostly on the trails near our home, in our riding ring, and at my uncle’s roping arena. But also on the beach and in the redwood forest and up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. My little boy crossed busy roads (hundreds of times), rode steep, technical trails on multi hour loops through the hills, waded in the surf and crossed creeks, loped endless circles and galloped after recalcitrant cattle. Almost all of my riding time during these last six years has been spent escorting my son on his various horseback adventures.
Many people assume that I did all this because I wanted my son to become a horse person like me. But this isn’t true. I wouldn’t have minded if horses had become his passion, but I didn’t expect this to happen. I didn’t even exactly WANT it. I just believe that growing up on a horse is a healthy way to learn to feel kind, empowered, and connected in a real way to the natural world. Riding horses is the number one therapy for impaired children. So how much good can riding do for any child? Also I wanted to share the joy I have always had in horses with my little boy.
The downside of this equation is that horses are inherently dangerous. Since the era of the internet, I am able to hear about horseback disasters all over the world. It scares the shit out of me, to be honest. So many people, not always doing anything wrong, are injured and/or killed in a wreck with their horse. I tried to make good decisions, my son always wore a helmet, Henry was and is a VERY reliable horse. But I’m not dumb. Any horse can fall, there is no predicting the day you will meet an erratic driver when crossing the road, wasps can cause even the best horse to flip out, helmets do not protect you against every kind of bodily damage, including head trauma…etc. The risk is real, even when you are doing everything “right.” And I was taking this risk with my beloved only son.
Still, I persevered. Somewhere in my heart there was trust that I was doing the right thing. And there was trust in Henry, and trust in my son. We rode together for six years straight. We did not have one wreck. We did not even come close to a wreck, in all the miles we covered during those six years. We had a LOT of fun. We saw some beautiful things.
And now my son is a teenager. He is more interested in riding his bike and surfing on his boogie board and (sigh) video games than he is in riding. He’s also much more busy with schoolwork now that he is in a junior high homeschool program. He is still willing to ride with me, and we ride once a week or so, mostly fairly sedate (walk/trot) short rides.
Because Henry is twenty-five this year, this reduced program seems to fit him, too. He doesn’t have a lot of enthusiasm for loping circles any more. But he is still sound, and is always eager to be caught, meeting us at the gate every time. I have no idea how much longer he’ll be able to be a riding horse, but we will keep riding him lightly as long as it seems to suit him, and as long as my son is willing to climb aboard his horse. And when Henry doesn’t want to be ridden any more, his home with us is secure for the rest of his life.
Even if my son never rides much in his adult life, I consider this to be an incredibly successful horse story. We have shared so much joy together, and my son’s experiences of horses, and the lovely places we have ridden, have been virtually entirely positive. What price could you ever put on that?
My take home message is this: Buy that older solid horse for your child, or for yourself, if you are a beginner. There is no way you can over-value the peace of mind that comes with riding a steady trooper. And the price of that horse is a good deal less than the bill for emergency medical treatment is likely to be. Let alone the emotional trauma. Horses like Henry are worth their weight in gold.
Henry and my thirteen-year-old son last weekend—a real success story.
Does anybody else have a “Henry?” If so, I’ll bet you can attest to how valuable these solid equine citizens truly are. And please, please, from the bottom of my heart-- when these great older horses are past their useful working life, don’t just pass them on, hoping they’ll get a good home. Take care of them, and give back to them for all the good things they’ve given you. I honestly think it is truly evil to sell/rehome a good older not-quite-sound horse, never knowing what becomes of him. Because they so often end up in terrible situations. (I do agree that finding a suitable home can be OK—if you keep track of the horse and are willing to take him back if the home doesn’t work out.) If any horses are deserving of a peaceful, happy retirement, it is the “Henries” of this world. My gratitude to our own Henry is boundless, and it is my pleasure to give him a happy home until he is ready to let go of life.