Unicorn: found

The search for a new horse can begin to feel as fruitless (and hopeless) and the search for a mythical beast. Will I ever find my horse? Or was I looking for something that didn’t exist?

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Inside me, though, the “still, small voice” that some of us call the voice of God said:

“Your horse is not ready yet. Just wait and be patient. It will come.

One day I went to try a horse only about an hour from my home. He wasn’t exactly what I was looking for (a breeding stallion? really?), but he had some things going for him, so – why not? Well, as it turned out, the trainer wasn’t five minutes into the ride before I told her, “no, thanks.” Way too much STALLION for me, even if I gelded him.

Then she said, “no problem, but I do have this mare…she’s not really on the market, but the owner said maybe if the right person comes along, and I think she might suit you. Do you want to see her?” She described her and the mare sounded PERFECT. Great size, age, color, breeding, experience, temperament.


“Your coat may be bleached by the sun, but you are still beautiful and so sweet and kind eyed. Come live with me and be my girl.”

I rode her and she was FUN! She had a kind eye and pleasant demeanor, and even though she was very forward she felt safe, comfortable, and just plain right for me. I looked at her and could see what she might become some day (future FEI dressage horse, yes!).

My head and heart agreed that this mare made sense for me. While she didn’t have all the training I had been looking for, she has Temperament and Talent in spades. She will be a pleasure to train. And I just plain like her. In fact, I’m falling more in love with her daily.

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Starlight surprising me with a medium trot!

Meet my new unicorn:  Starlight, a black, Pure Raza Espanol (Andalusian) 2010 Mare. No really, she actually WILL be black when she sheds the bleached coat, at least for a little while. I know it’s hard to believe.


Starlight in her new home at Stanford Stables, getting ready for her first ride.


Edie acting very bored with the concrete trashcan: “Ho hum, this trashcan is so boring, Starlight. You don’t care about it all, do you? Want to come closer now?” So many new things to explore at her new barn!


Horse Shopping: proceed at own risk

It’s amazing what you can do via the wonders of the internet! I’m two months into serious horse shopping, and I’ve looked at hundreds of horses. It’s a good thing there isn’t a BUY NOW button or I might have impulse bought one by now in a fit of late night shopping.

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Pictures, videos, emails back and forth! In person, well, since these horses are scattered all over the country, I’ve only actually ridden a few. Sad to report, they often don’t look nearly as nice in person as they did in the pictures.

I’ve become a sophisticated analyzer of video.

AHA! Did you notice they never showed the left lead canter? There’s a reason for that. Did you notice all the cuts in that video? There’s a reason for that: they are taking out all the mistakes and problems. Did you notice they tilted the camera to make the horse look uphill? You think I can’t tell what you’re doing? Do you think I’m stupid? Apparently. Well, I’m not (quite that stupid). Believe me, sellers: uncut video is MUCH more impressive, even if it has a few little mistakes.

I have a Pre Purchase Exam coming up on a wonderful prospect, and yesterday my trainer reminded me, “you ARE going to run blood on her, right?” Well, yes, but I’m not really concerned about this horse having been drugged.

“Oh,” she says, “I always have the vet pull blood on the horse right after I test ride it in case they drugged it. You should have done that.”

Wow, I never thought of that. Too late for that. All these horses I’ve bought over the years, and the only drugging I thought about was someone giving them painkillers to get them through the vet check looking more sound than they actually are. I never thought of drugging to make them more rideable.

But of course people do that! Just, hopefully, not to me. In the past, my vet would always pull blood for the “Tox screen” and hold it for a year “just in case you need it.” The implication was that if the horse went nuts and was not the horse I thought I bought, we could test the blood and see if it had been drugged. Fine. But I never thought of testing it the day I rode it. Mind blown.

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I guess I’m a lamb among wolves. And yet of course not all sellers are like that. Some of them really are like me! Straightforward, wanting the right match for their horse, telling you everything about the horse, having, well, a “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” approach to buying and selling horses. Yes, I would like to buy a horse from me. My horses are always up to date on everything and I’ll tell you everything that has happened to them and any little quirks they have. I want you to be safe and happy and I really, really want my horse to be safe and happy with his or her next owner.

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 12.17.55 PMHere’s hoping this lovely prospect mare is just what I think she is, and that my next article can be about my new horse…

Horse shopping isn’t for cowards (or fools)

Buyer beware. That’s probably the first and most important rule of horse shopping.

I’ve now jumped into the horse shopping market with both feet because it’s raining here in Northern California and there’s not much to do except surf the internet and look at horses, horses, and more horses on the internet.

I miss having a horse. While it’s nice to be clean, I miss being with a horse each day. I want to find my new horse. Hence: horse shopping.

Oooooh, look, pretty horse! Oh wait, that one is $125K. Yeah, maybe not. Hmm, let’s keep looking.

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Five hours later I emerge from my office with bloodshot eyes and a crick in my neck wondering, where did the time go? Visions of horses dance through my brain, but I’m cranky: I will never find my horse. Every horse I admire is in Europe, or across the county in a small town far from a major airport.

Besides, I’ve shopped enough over the years to know how hard it is to assess a horse based on video and a few conversations with the seller. I dread flying a long way only to be disappointed. Inevitably I will have to do it eventually, but I’m putting it off for a bit.Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 6.31.07 PM

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Here follow a few absolutely true cautionary tales horse shopping. Two of these happened to friends or acquaintances, and one happened to me (just the other day).

Cautionary Tale #1: My friend had a long list of questions to ask the seller before getting in the car for a four hour drive to see the horse: Had the horse ever had colic? Lameness? Allergies? History of bolting, rearing, etc., etc. etc.  She went through every possible problem she could imagine, and the horse sounded great.  She drove for four hours to see the horse, arrived there, and was looking at him when she noticed that his eyes did not look quite right. Asked the seller about it, and the seller admitted that the horse was blind in one eye.

“BLIND? Blind???? Why didn’t you tell me this before I drove four hours?”

“Well, you never asked if it could see.”

Cautionary Tale #2: Another friend drove several hours to try a horse, fell in love with it, and spent hours talking to the seller all about it. Only after she had become very emotionally invested in this horse and was ready to make an offer did the seller mention, “Oh, by the way, this horse must be fed soft food only. Pellets that have been soaked. If you feed him hay, he will choke.”

My friend went home and thought hard about it, but realized this was impossible not only in her present boarding situation, but in most barns in our area. She had to pass on the horse and had wasted a day of driving and a lot of emotional energy on a horse she could not buy because she could not care for his special needs. Frustrating.

Cautionary Tale #3: Very recently, I found a beautiful horse on the internet at a prominent Sales Barn. 2010 horse (six years old), 16 hands, Black, gorgeous. Very nice mover, decent training, very fancy. I paid my trainer to watch the video and evaluate the horse’s potential, and she thought he looked great: go see him.  I emailed back and forth with the seller working out details of when I could fly to her city and visit, and I arranged plane tickets but fortunately put a 24 hold on them rather than paying for them, while we finalized whether his price was negotiable since we thought he was overpriced. Then my trainer said, “try to get the back story on this horse if you can.”

I asked the question, and a complicated answer came back about how her friend owned him in Spain when he was two, and then she bought him when he was six, then her student bought him, but sold him when he was eight to a lady in Colorado, but now that lady had a grandbaby so she no longer had time for him, so even though it’s just a couple years later, she wants to resell him so she brought him back to the Sales Barn. Hang on a moment, this is not adding up to Six Years Old. I asked, “Please clarify: what is this horse’s age? You have it as 2010 which equals six years old.”

“Oh, sorry, my assistant made a typing mistake. He is 10 years old, not six.”

Yeah, slight mistake.  Details, details, my friend. I don’t think this seller was actually meaning to be dishonest, I think she just had so many horses coming and going that things got lost in the shuffle. But imagine if I had flown to her city to see this horse, and discovered it was four years older than I had expected ? I would not have been pleased, to say the least.

So, the search continues and I ask more and more and more questions before I get in the car or 0n the airplane…

Someday, my Prince (or Princess) will come….

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Letting Go

MediumJPG_15CS9218_Dwan_TerriMiller-(ZF-3600-62173-2-003)My magic pony, Finn (Far Above Par), has a new owner now, and I am running the gamut of emotions, swooping madly like an out of control roller coaster, both delighted that’s he’s got a great home, and desolate that my special pony is no longer with me. Gone to a new owner! Not mine anymore.

All who have loved and had to sell a horse know that feeling of aching loss.


Last moments with Finn before loading him in the trailer for his new home.

Why then did I sell him? Sometimes you have to. My chronic and worsening lower back and his bouncy trot were not doing well together; it became clear that if I was going to have a long riding career I needed a smoother horse. It took me many months to get there emotionally, but when it began to hurt every day to ride, I was certain it was the right thing to do. I began telling a few people I would put him on the market in the early Spring. Lo and behold,


Finn says, “This vet check is getting boring. I’m tired of flexion tests. Let me taste this chain now…”

the grapevine (no advertising yet) very soon produced the perfect owner. I wasn’t quite ready for that – so soon??? –  but I couldn’t pass up this perfect match. They were right for each other and looked quite happy together.

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I learned so much from Finn, and I’m so grateful.

And so I let go. And continue to let go of the most wonderful pony. Oh, quirky, yes, he has his little quirks (lots of pony personality), but he made me laugh.

Robin Hood and Finn

Dressing up for Halloween: Robin Hood and Finn. “Give me your treasure or Finn will step on your feet.”

He taught me so much about dressage, and we had fun together, too! We went on the trail and over jumps, to clinics, dressed up for Halloween, and  learned a little piaffe and passage. What adventures we had! And through it all, always safe and sensible, and so beautiful. Truly an exceptional pony, a wonderful New Forest Pony.

A woman at my barn said, “Did you tell the buyer that magic sparkles fall from his hooves when he is ridden? Because they do…” Yes, they do, they really do. Always a place in my heart, Finn.Dwan_Far Above Par_15CS9297_TerriMiller-(ZF-3600-62173-2-001)

Does this pony make my butt look big?

People have asked me “how big is too big” to ride a pony? Well…it depends.


The tres amigas: Carol on Teake, a 14.3 hd Haflinger; Edie on Ellie, a 14.1 hd Haflinger, and Amy on Puca, a 14.2 hd Haflinger. Puca has evented very successfully with a 160 lb adult (not the rider in the picture).

There are several questions to consider:

1) Is it safe for the pony? Is the pony strong enough to carry your weight without being stressed or damaged? 

2) How do you look and feel on the pony? 

1) Can the pony carry your weight?


Winterlake Juliet, a Welsh Cob mare, about 14.1 hds. Note the strong, solid legs. You can’t see her feet, but they are excellent, and she has great breadth of loin for good weight bearing capacity. She occasionally carried my 185 lb husband on short trail rides, but would have been too small for an every day horse for someone of his size/weight.

Ponies come in all shapes and sizes, just like us. A pony with sturdy conformation, good solid bone (strong cannon bones and feet), a short strong back and good breadth of loin has good carrying capacity. It should, of course, be well muscled and conditioned for the task you ask it to do. Like any horse, you should monitor its fatigue and not over work it. That said, ponies are pretty strong relative to their size.


Phyllis and Champagne, a Welsh Cob/quarter cross pony. Phyllis is about 5’6″ and Champagne is about 14.1 hds.

Many have postulated  “20% of the horse’s weight” as a reasonable guideline for carrying capacity. That’s 20% of his HEALTHY (ideal, not obese) weight, a good thing to keep in mind especially since so many people allow ponies to be overweight (don’t! it’s bad for them). And the 20% includes the tack, which can weight up to 20 lbs if you have a heavy western saddle and pad. Estimate the weight of your tack, add your own weight, and using the excellent chart below, see what size pony you could ride:

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As you can see, the size depends on your own expertise and the task at hand. If you want to just go on an easy trail ride, well, you can ride a small pony because you’re not asking much. If you want to jump, that pony needs to be comparatively larger because the stress is greater. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Ellie loves to jump!

Ellie loves to jump! And at 14.1 hds with a short strong back and excellent bone, she has easily carried my 5’6″ body over fences 3′ and higher (fence in picture is only 2’6″).

Overloading and/or overworking your pony will cause damage over time and your pony cannot remain sound if you do so. However, if you remain within reasonable guidelines, ponies tend to be very sound and healthy animals who can live long lives and give years of fun!

2) How do you look and feel on the pony?

Many people stay away from ponies because they expect them to have short, choppy gaits, or they think they are not competitive against big horses.

Keeping up with the big horses in the warm up ring

Far Above Par keeping up with the big horses in the warm up ring

Yet today’s sport ponies are bred to move like warmbloods and they win against warmbloods, often winning even at a national level (read https://horsesage.com/2014/12/11/three-famous-ponies-and-small-horses-you-should-know/). There are a number of ponies here in California who are winning Regionally and doing very well. My own pony, Far Above Par (“Finn”), very quickly qualified for the Regionals at Fourth Level this season.

Personally, I find riding ponies feels like driving a sports car. Easy handling, quick and responsive steering, starting, and stopping, and you don’t have all that weight to move around the ring! Some of the big horses feel like a tank or a super tanker, like you have to plan so far ahead how you’re going to make that turn…

Admittedly, it’s takes a little mental adjustment to get used to seeing yourself on a pony. I rode big horses for a long time and you have a mental picture of yourself on a big horse. Then you see yourself on a pony and you think, “my legs are too far down the side.” But give it time, you can get used to it, just like fashion. Remember, we used to think this looked really good:

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or this:

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In the end, wear what feels comfortable and fits and flatters you NOW. Just as we wouldn’t be caught dead in those fashions any more, we might not want to ride the same kind of horses we rode 20 or 30 years ago. We’ve changed and our needs, riding disciplines, interests, and bodies may have changed.

Ride what feels comfortable and fits you and your lifestyle NOW. Have fun, and hug your horse (or pony).

Finn is trustworthy under saddle. What a good boy!

“Pony Brain”: it ought to be a compliment

Finn the New Forest Pony is curious and intelligent.

Finn the New Forest Pony is curious and intelligent. In this motion shot, he’s offering to do anything I want if I will give him a treat. Ha! Nope, not going to happen.

Ponies are often accused of having “Pony Brain,” which seems to involve being

  • stubborn,
  • obnoxious,
  • obsessed with food,
  • opportunistic,
  • rather tricksy and uncooperative.

While I won’t deny that ponies tend to be intelligent, hardy, and survivors, I tend to think of these as positive and generally endearing characteristics. Not to mention that many of them do have a sense of humor which they don’t always use appropriately.

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We’ve all had horse owning friends who shrug, roll their eyes, and say dismissively, “Pony Brain!”  Ever notice that when their 16 and 17 hand horses do the same behaviors, no one accuses them of having a Pony Brain? Guess what: they’re all just horses. In my opinion, some are smarter than others, and they all have different personalities. Pick one with the personality, size, and type you like.

To loosely paraphrase Inigo Montoyo of The Princess Bride:  “I do not think Pony Brain means what you think it does.”

I suggest that we consider Pony Brain a compliment from this day forward. While I couldn’t uncover any scientific research that ponies are more intelligent than horses, many people seem to think they are. They’ve had to survive on their own in tough and rugged conditions for hundreds (thousands) of years, not to mention surviving the not so tender ministrations of charming little children. That takes a certain intelligence and toughness, not to mention the ability to take care of yourself.

Pony Brain in my experience equals:

  • humor
  • willingness
  • trainability
  • an ability to figure things out
  • plus ponies are usually smart enough not to take you over a cliff or through a fence.
  • They’ll take care of themselves (and you, in the process).

As long as you are smarter than your pony, Pony Brain is terrific!

Ellie and Edie, good friends.

Ellie the haflinger has a good brain and she uses it, almost always for good.

Why my horses keep getting smaller

Ellie loves to jump!

Ellie loves to jump!

In the last some years, each horse I’ve bought has been smaller than the one before. I’ve owned, loved, and enjoyed horses as large as 17 hands, but my current horses are two wonderful and athletic 14.1 hand ponies.

Why would an (average size) adult choose to ride ponies? Because Ponies are the

                                    Sports Cars of the horse world!

They’re agile, athletic, generally sound and healthy, intelligent, trainable, adorable, have Personality Plus, and are fun, fun, fun! At 5’6″ my legs hang a little long on them, but as long as I keep my weight within bounds, they carry me very comfortably and competitively in dressage, over fences, and down the trail. Ponies can WIN against the big horses and will always have a fan club because they have such charm and panache.

Finn showing 3rd level dressage

Finn showing 3rd level dressage

They’re smaller and closer to the ground, which is good in every way.

  • Easier to get the saddle on and off.
  • Easier to mount/dismount.
  • You can see to brush the top of the horse.
  • You can get the halter/bridle on easily. No giraffes!
  • Less far to fall (although I try to avoid falling at all)
  • Spooks and antics tend to be less terrifying. However, be advised that some ponies can be very quick, athletic and catty in their movement, so take them seriously.
  • Usually easier to handle on the ground with some decent training (just smaller, so that makes it easier).
  • Require less feed – much less expensive to feed.
  • Many have great feet and can go barefoot, at least behind

Sometimes, riding my ponies or just being with them makes me feel like a little girl again (and a happy one, too).

So maybe Ponies are the Fountain of Youth? I kind of think so.

My renewed love affair with ponies began at a dude ranch with Ruger, the Quarter Pony. Here we are about to cut some cows!

My renewed love affair with ponies began at a dude ranch with Ruger, the Quarter Pony. Here we are about to cut some cows!