It was the summer going into my freshmen year of high school. Most other people my age were anxious over all the changes about to happen: new school, new teachers, and new friends. But for me, I was obsessing over the new mare that had recently been brought to the stable I ride at. The stable is a mom-and-pop type business that’s been run by the Huntoon family for generations. The Huntoons had once been huge in the roadster pony world with over a hundred equines, but now it’s a humble, 19-stall barn, on rented property. Currently, Huntoon Stables is run by Carleton and Melinda. Both in their late 70s, Carleton does more managing and Melinda is in charge of the lesson program. They give saddle seat lessons and, on occasion, they are given saddlebreds that need to be turned into a show horse. Sort of like a rescue center; if the Huntoons and their team of riders couldn’t fix a horse, then no one could.
Summer gave me the opportunity to be at the barn every day, so I was. I improved faster than the five years prior. I had ridden all the horses that could be ridden and was kind of a floater. Usually, once a student became advanced, as I was, they would have a horse that was “theirs.” Meaning it was the horse that you mainly rode and would show for the upcoming season. I did alright in the past show season with Victor (the gelding that all students take into their first suit class), but we never really clicked. I could tell that Melinda was trying to match me with some of the other resident show horses, mainly because more girls were starting to show and needed Victor. I was fine with that, but I wanted to ride Cate.
Catalyst Coed, or Cate, was the new mare that had been given to the Huntoons. She was five years old and petrified of everything. There were only two students that Melinda had trusted to ride her: one of them was in her thirties and had been riding there for most her life, the other was my age, but already had her own horse. Cate was a slim, chestnut, rescue with a “C” shaped marking right in the middle of her face. Somewhere in her life, she was traumatized. I don’t know what happen to her but because of it, she was terrified of any unusual sounds, sudden movements, and hats. She would not go around the ring without stopping. It was an accomplishment if you could get her to constantly move in any way, once around the ring. I knew this because I would enviously watch the others ride her. After my lessons, I would visit Cate in her stall while waiting to be picked up by my parents. Melinda noticed this but I could tell she felt I wasn’t capable or experienced enough to ride Cate. So, I figured I’d just ask.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Melinda. She’s probably one of if not the best teacher I’ve ever had. But she was old fashioned and intimidating. Students check the board to see what horse they’re riding and that’s that. No questions. Once I dyed a strip in my hair hot pink when my mom was first diagnosed with cancer, (my mom kicked cancers ass, don’t worry) and when I showed Melinda she sighed “You’re smart for not doing your whole head.” So, when I finally gained the courage to ask Melinda, I was prepared for the answer. She laughed and said “Oh really? No, I don’t think so. I’ve seen you loving on her after your lessons, but still… No.” I was disappointed, but not surprised.
Weeks went by and I continued to remind Melinda about my desire to ride the mare. And I kept getting laughs, not only from her, but also from my friends at the barn. They never thought it would happen either. But eventually, after about a month of begging, my persistence paid off. One Saturday, after the group lesson, two new horses were dropped off and needed to be ridden. And the two that (barely!) rode Cate were put on them, leaving no one to ride her. I was staying after, initially, to clean tack. But when I caught Melinda studying the board. I immediately volunteered to ride Cate and said I was planning on sticking around anyway. Melinda mumbled with one of her, “Ah, I don’t know.” I was ecstatic because that meant more than a maybe! I ran back into the tack room where a couple of other girls were also cleaning and told them the news. They were just as surprised as I was and things were looking up! Moments later Melinda stepped in. Everyone went silent. She scanned the small room and stopped right at me. Then the best thing came out of her mouth, “You CANNOT fall off.”
My face lit up as I replied, “I won’t.”
“No I’m serious, you cannot fall off this horse. It could really mess her up and make it a million times harder to ride her.”
“I will not fall off, I promise.”
Her expression calmed, “Okay, be ready in thirty minutes.” Then she left. Everyone in the room looked at me. They knew how much I wanted to ride her, and how long I had been waiting. I quickly put whatever tack I was working on away to go get Cate ready.
The lesson went well, and after Melinda said it wasn’t as bad as she thought. It actually wasn’t bad at all, but Melinda has her pride. I started riding Cate in all my private lessons. She quickly improved and soon we started going in group lessons as well. Before our first group, Melinda yelled to everyone, “Now watch out for Cate. She’ll stop for no reason, so don’t get stuck behind her.” Some lessons were worse than others. I remember days when Carleton had to come in and holler, chase, throw cones, and even throw his hat to spook Cate into going forward. Cate was unlike any horse I had ridden before. Things that you wouldn’t usually do worked with her, and what you did in the lesson yesterday wouldn’t always work in the lesson today. Times when you felt pull back, pull back, what she needed was reach out, reach out. I even began riding with reins in one hand (which is not proper for saddle seat), my crop in the other, extended all the way out to the side so she would stay on the rail. She taught me to problem solve, to be versatile. Eventually, we put an end to the constant stopping, and Cate was turning out to be a pretty nice horse. The new show season was nearing and talk of me showing Cate was going around. Cate had never been to a show before, but I was all for it. The first couple of show seasons didn’t go great. The classes would always start off pretty well, then something would set Cate off and we would be placed last. But when those incidents didn’t happen, which was rare, the class would go perfectly. And maybe we would be placed first. Those classes over time became more common, and Cate became a wanted show horse for the other barn girls. I remember a girl telling me it was her goal to ride Cate. I was flattered and naturally, I told her “Good luck. It took me five years to make her like this.”
Cate helped me grow as a person. She taught me patience and perseverance. But now it was time for me to move on. I wanted to make sure that she would be taken care of after I left for college. So, for the last show season that I would be around for, I told Melinda that I couldn’t show. I blamed it on my dad and said he was worried about money so they wouldn’t question it. But really, I wanted to be there to help another girl ride her. I wanted Cate to stick around. What happens is that if a horse is too advanced to be in the lesson program, but not being shown, they usually are sold. I could not let that happen. Melinda decided to put my close friend Madison on her. While chatting, Melinda mentioned that she wasn’t sure if she could do it, but she stays calm under pressure which reminded her of me. They paired nicely, Madison lacked self-confidence and I felt that Cate could help her. They went to their first show together and placed well. And again, in their second. I was relieved.
Yet, I still had to say goodbye. The relationship one has with their horse is different than the one they have with their dog. Unless you have a barn in your backyard you don’t get to see them all the time, or take them on vacation with you, or make sure they’re warm enough when the roads are closed from the snow. At least that wasn’t the case for me. I drove myself to the barn every day because I wanted to be there. School friends would tell me to just skip the barn so I could hang out, but I’d refuse because I wanted to be there. The barn was more than just an after-school activity and Cate was more than a pet. If there was a way I could make her understand I was leaving for a long time. That I promise to try and visit. If there was some way I could be sure that she wouldn’t forget me. I just–hope the best for her future without me.