The Olympic horses and the racing stars tend to catch everyone’s eye and earn their respect. We all judge a horse’s value by his looks, athletic ability and bloodlines. However, this tendency causes one group of superstars to frequently get overlooked, despite that virtually all of us are indebted to them: the lesson horses.
I was probably horse crazy in the womb. Despite being a city girl in a non-horse family, I was hooked on horses long before I ever touched one. Except for the old horse that pulled a vegetable wagon down our street a few times when I was a child, I never touched a horse until I was a teenager. That was when one of the Philadelphia Mounted Police horses gave me a pretty hefty bite on the thigh when I was sitting on the top of his paddock fence. But I didn’t care. I loved just being near horses.
Despite my passion, learning to ride wasn’t easy. In fact, I was pretty awful. Although I stuck through the hours of bruising work without stirrups, it wasn’t until many years later, when I was in vet school and took a job at a lesson and show barn, that I really learned to ride well. And I owe it all to a lesson horse named Duke.
Duke was a dark bay, old-type Morgan with the massive neck, round barrel and thick, wavy mane and tail. He was rock-solid dependable, even considered lazy by the barn, but he was just doing his job. I started taking Duke on long trail rides, finding a deep, secure seat in the process, lengthening my leg, working on weight, hand and leg cues until “one with the horse” was no longer just a phrase.
Duke had never jumped, and neither had I, but without telling anyone we started with ground poles, then cavalletti, gradually increasing Xs, finally solid 3’6” obstacles. It was a proud day when I unveiled the new Duke. Everyone at the barn was speechless and had to try him over fences themselves. Duke, of course, complied.
I didn’t teach myself to ride, Duke taught me, and what that one horse did for me flowed easily from that point into galloping racehorses, showing and eventing. Every rider has a least one Duke in their history, a horse or pony that put up with inexperience and mixed messages calmly and with forgiveness, never shying or bolting, patiently waiting for you to get it right. Remember that horse the next time you see a lesson horse, and give that animal a pat, a treat, maybe even a retirement home. He deserves it.
-Eleanor Kellon, VMD