I like to tell people that I was “born in the saddle” – but that’s not really true. I may be the first member of my family to be a horse nut, but I didn’t actually sit on a horse until I was eleven years old, and I didn’t start seriously riding (working with a coach and competing) until I was fourteen – which is also the year Ariel came into my life.
I’ve ridden a lot of horses over the years – but Ariel is the one who holds my heart.
Ariel was given to me when she was eight months old, after my first horse, a nineteen-year-old mare named Red (yes, she was chestnut – no, I didn’t name her – we all know I’m much more original than that!) was diagnosed with ringbone. At first, I wasn’t planning to keep Ariel – I wanted a horse I could ride and show then, not three or four years down the road. Ariel was just a baby that I couldn’t do a whole lot with right then – so I planned to work with her for a few months, do some ground training to increase her value – and then sell her and buy the horse I thought I wanted.
But the more time I spent with that crazy little filly, the more I realized that she was the horse I wanted – and by the end of the summer, I knew I could never sell her.
I think the relationship between a girl and her horse is something so special – so sacred – that it’s not something you can understand unless you’re experienced it yourself.
Ariel was my best friend. I spent countless hours lying on her back in the field while she grazed, telling her everything that was in my heart. When life fell apart – as it always does – I buried my face in her mane and wrapped around her neck, while she did what she could to hug me back, wrapping her head around me and nuzzling my back. Ariel was there for me when the high school drama got to be too much. When my mom was sick. When my grandpa died. When the boy I was head over heels in love with fell in love with someone else.
Ariel was my only supporter when I decided to move to Alberta after I graduated from university – even when it meant she didn’t get to come with me. I think she was probably relieved to have a break from my intensity when it came to riding! Little did she know that I would meet and fall in love with Nathan – who insisted on bringing Ariel to Alberta before we got married, because he knew how much she meant to me. I bet she walked off that trailer, after more than two weeks on the road, took one look at me, and thought to herself “CRAP. The good life is over …”
Ariel was smart. Every single coach Ariel and I ever trained with told me – often – that Ariel was “too smart for her own good”.
She was a professional at evading capture. If I went out into the pasture to hang out, with no intention of riding that day, she’d come right over to check my pockets for crunchies. I’d sit in the grass and she’d graze around me, stopping occasionally to give me a nudge or blow in my face. But if I was planning to ride, she somehow knew – and I could spend more than an hour chasing her from one end of the pasture to the other before I got frustrated with her and decided to take another horse in. Then Ariel would follow along until we got to the gate – and she’d do everything in her power to squeeze through before the other horse, like “Seriously, Mom? I thought you were riding me today!”
Ariel was also a conservationist – she knew exactly how little work she could do and get away with it. If we set up trot poles with a cavaletti at the end that she was supposed to jump over, she refused to jump as long as it was low enough for her to step over in her trot stride. She knew just how long I would put up with her trotting along, dragging her feet, hearing the “tick tick tick” of her hitting every single pole before I would demand that she pick up her feet.
But she also knew when it was time to work. For Ariel, “time to work” generally meant when anybody else was watching – be it a coach, a judge, or even just a random person at the barn that day. Nobody believed me when I told them that she always bucked when I asked her to canter – which she did, when I rode alone, for more than three years! – because whenever my coach watched me ride, she would give me the most beautiful, slow, rocking canter.
Man, did that horse frustrate me sometimes ...
Ariel loved to jump. If she saw jumps set up in the arena – even if I was planning a flat ride that day – she perked up. We’d be warming up at the trot and she’d pull on the bit – ever so subtly at first – trying to turn towards the jumps. I would ignore her – and she’d get more and more demanding, turning her entire head towards the fences and trying to pull me over to them. Eventually I learned to tear the fences down before I brought her in if I wanted her to concentrate on flatwork at all!
During our last few years together, Ariel and I were learning dressage. I injured my knee and was told to stop riding – but I compromised and gave up jumping. For the most part. Ariel wasn’t a huge fan of dressage, but she was a good sport about it. (When I could catch her, I mean ...) She had so much talent! She was small – when fully grown, she was only about 15.1 hands – but she carried herself like a much bigger horse. Judges would come to talk to me after a class and be surprised at how small she actually was.
Ariel was rare, in that she was a show horse – but she was also a family horse. She loved Nathan from the very beginning. She would be a total brat to me when I was riding her, but she knew Nathan had no idea what he was doing so she babied him. If his balance was off in the slightest when he was learning how to trot, she would stop for him, let him get situated, and then away they’d go for another try! If I was riding and my balance was off, she’d use it as an excuse to bolt.
I took some time away from riding while I was pregnant with Topher – and recovering afterwards – and I was just starting to ride regularly again when the accident happened.
We’re still not sure exactly what happened – if a moose scared the horses and Ariel put her leg through the fence trying to get away, if the two geldings she lived with were fighting over her and she got in the way, or what – but on September 8, 2010 I got a call from one of the girls at the barn telling me Ariel was hurt. The vet came out to have a look – and loaded her into the trailer to take her to the emergency clinic. After cleaning the wound as best as she could and taking numerous x-rays, she gave us her diagnosis: a wound deep enough to allow her to see the cannon bone, cutting through the tendon sheath into the suspensory ligament.
On September 9, 2010, I made the hardest decision of my life and said good-bye to my best friend.
I haven’t been riding much since then. Nathan and I have talked about buying another horse – but when it comes right down to it, I just don’t think my heart is ready yet …