Julie Gordon was aged 42 when she decided to get a horse and take up riding. Not everyone thought it was a good idea. She tells of a journey that brought her together with Bert, an older standardbred who found a new best mate – but it wasn’t Julie.
I was 42 years old when I found myself wanting to fulfil a desire to own a horse.
I worked as a veterinary nurse in a small-animal practice. My husband and I owned 23 acres, so we had the space, but not the experience.
My only experience with riding was on well-controlled horse treks. I would go on commercial horse treks as often as I could, but even that was only once every few years.
I had confidence to trot a horse, but was never able to teach myself how to get into a rhythm with the horse, and had never cantered.
I had a few novice riding lessons to gain my confidence after falling off a young green horse I had once tried to ride. I was unhurt, but shaken.
My experience in caring for horses was limited to feeding my neighbour’s horses when they were away. That’s it.
At 42, and with such limited experience, I was perhaps not the best candidate as a first-time horse owner, and falling off the horse should have put me off, but it didn’t.
Unfazed, I hit the library books, and read all I could about caring for a horse.
With my veterinary nurse background, I soon got to the stage that all the books were repeating the same advice and I felt I now had a good understanding of the care required.
I also set about learning “horse talk”. I studied all about horse language, as I had a lack of knowledge on how they communicated with us or with each other.
I had always been told never to walk behind a horse; if it reared up it wase not happy; always drive slowly around horses as they are spooked easily; keep dogs from barking when horses pass your property.
To gain further knowledge, I now had to get “practical”.
All the library books emphasised that owning a horse was a lot of work and cost money.
Friends and workmates advised me not to get a horse … Their messages were hardly encouraging. “You’re too old to start riding”, “older people who ride have done it since they were kids”, “you’re not experienced enough, you will hurt yourself!”.
My husband, who also had no horse-ownership experience, was keeping out of it. I think he was hoping that the whole thing would just go away.
I did have my supporters. “Who says you can’t start riding a horse at 42,” one said. “You might as well do nothing in life, otherwise”.
I started seriously looking for a horse. Of course I had no gear.
I borrowed a riding hat and boots from my neighbour, grabbed some tips on “what to ask when buying a horse” from her and I was off! I was on the market for a “mature horse looking for a novice middle-aged woman owner”.
I knew what I had to look for in a horse and I found him.
Firstly, I met the horse’s owner. I had an instant trust with her and rapport. She had genuine reasons for selling her horse and I liked her right from the start. This was an excellent first step, being happy and getting a good feeling with the current owner of the horse.
I met Bert, a 23-year-old standardbred gelding. He stood at 15.3 hands. He was greying and had sunken dimples above his eyes. These, however, were the only real signs of his age.
The owner rode him around her arena, trotting, then cantering with ease.
At that moment I had a fantasy of me on a young horse, jumping around an arena, galloping along a beach for the next 10 years.
Of course, that was never going to be the reality for him, due to his age, or me, given my age and lack of experience.
Bert was an former riding-school horse. He was very experienced, easy to catch, float, a farrier’s dream, and the owner assured me he was happy with his own company, and would be content with livestock for companionship.
I was up-front with her about my limited riding ability and lack of experience.
She was happy for me to trial Bert over the next few weeks, while still under her care.
We went away riding together. All went well on every ride, and she taught me to tack up.
My veterinarian boss checked Bert. He was in great shape for his age. “You may not have a lot of time with him, however, due to his age,” she warned.
It was time for Bert to come home.
Bert was excited and on high alert when he arrived.
I let him settle in for a couple of weeks before riding him. He was still on trial for another three weeks while at home.
During this time my first challenge came after Bert grazed for a short time next to the neighbour’s stallion.
Once separated, the stallion became upset and Bert paced, bared his teeth, and become agitated in his paddock.
My husband was out of town, and I could not get near Bert. I just had to leave him alone.
I got a fright. Doubt filled my veins. I can’t handle this horse!
I phoned the previous owner. She advised that in time he should settle down, and she was right.
After a few days, he had settled down and was back to his normal self.
This was a vital lesson to me. Respect horses, they will do you damage, they are strong, fast and powerful, and they can be moody, even the “bomb-proof” old ones.
Bert’s first challenge was to get along with our pet kune kune boar, Sir Pigalot. None of my reading literature warned me of a horse’s general lack of desire to share their pasture with a pig. Whoops!
After a couple of initial grumpy moments on Bert’s part, they have become inseparable paddock mates.
Over 18 months later, Bert and I are still going strong.
He has taught me so much more than the library books ever could. We trot, canter, and have done small jumps.
The more time we spend with each other, the more we trust each other.
He especially loves and respects my husband. It must be a guy thing.
Will Bert ever respect me? No. I am far too inexperienced a rider and slightly nervous at times for him, but for the most part he seems to bear this is mind when I ride him.
Does he appreciate our relationship – absolutely!
But who does Bert reserve his true love for? The pig!