Updated: Dec 18, 2020
I should have got the water buffalo.
That thought would cross my mind on several more occasions as the journey unfolded with the lanky bay mustang mare I had recently acquired. I had been shopping for a new horse for a few months and had stumbled across an ad for a water buffalo. I was shopping specifically for a project horse and the temptation to saddle train a water buffalo piqued my interest. Before I could commit to my unorthodox aspiration, however, I went to go look at what was advertised as a bay mustang mare, approximately 3 years old, and free to a good home. What I found was what looked to be the product of an illicit tryst between a giraffe and an Arabian with a clubbed right front foot and a big attitude. I haltered the little beast and took her to the round pen where she transformed before my eyes into a raging tiger hellbent on destroying everything in her path. So, I did what any sane, logical person would do – I loaded her up in our little 2 horse trailer and brought her home.
They told me her name was Natalie and I just could not get used to it. I decided she needed a fancy show name as I had lofty dreams of showing her someday despite our less than promising introduction and eventually settled on “Cherished Stargazer” as an homage to my first horse named Cher. I decided to call her “Lily” for short. As Lily and I got to know each other, I researched her background and history through the rescue that was responsible for placing her with me, Least Resistance Training Concepts or LRTC. She was a Nevada range estray, a wild horse roaming the public lands belonging to the state of Nevada, not the federal lands of the BLM. This technicality meant she and her kin were not (and are not) afforded any protection from the federal Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act of 1971. She was living in the Virginia City Highlands and had become a nuisance getting into resident’s yards and garages, so Lily was removed from the range at roughly 1 or 2 years old. The volunteers at LRTC worked with her and gentled her to wearing a halter, leading and other basic skills. Lily was eventually adopted out to someone with a contract stating they would not receive title until a year had passed. This individual cut off contact with LRTC and they were unable to locate Lily. Flash forward a year and one of their volunteers recognized Lily in an ad and immediately picked her up. The horse she brought back was not the horse that left…. physically Lily was the same, but she now bore the mental and emotional scars of the fear and abuse that had been her previous year. The volunteer did some research and tried to reconstruct what the last year had been for the little mustang. She found that Lily had been passed around to at least 3 different “trainers” each worse than the last. When she asked about Lily, she was told “that horse is crazy”, “she’s untrainable”, “you are better off turning her into dog food”, “she useless and worthless”, and more.
This information proved to be valuable because it motivated me to prove them all wrong and softened my heart to the anger this little horse held onto. Why should she believe that I could be any different than them? And boy was she angry! I boarded her with my mom and Lily was so defensive you had to bring a stick with you when in the pen to keep her back when she came charging with her ears flat and teeth bared (about that water buffalo….). My mom says to this day she was afraid of her the whole first year.
The breakthrough in our initial training and bonding came about three weeks after I brought her home when my older mare, Kiowa, made a breakthrough of her own…breaking through Lily’s face with a well-placed kick! I had taken all three horses (Lily, Kiowa, and my mom’s horse Dakota) to the local public arena to stretch their legs. As they tore off to the far side of the huge arena, Lily came up behind Kiowa just as she bucked and I could hear the smack of hoof connecting with bone from 200 feet away. Lily stopped short and yawned repeatedly as I screamed in horror and tried to figure out catching all of them and getting her to the vet. After what felt like an eternity, we were home, and our vet was on the way. Lily’s face was x-rayed and after a thorough exam, we discovered she had an indentation in the perfect shape of Kiowa’s hoof on the left side of her face. Her beautiful face was broken, but our vet assured us she would heal from this and would not need surgery. There was a small wound where the impact occurred that was bleeding profusely so we got that under control and spent the next three months cleaning it and tending to her healing.
Due to the location of the fracture and wound, Lily could not wear a halter, so we resorted to using a rope looped around her neck like a dog collar to work with her. This tragic accident became a huge blessing as it forced me to slow down and really get to know Lily. She learned to trust me to take care of her and I could not force anything with her because I only had so much control with the neck rope. By the time we got the all-clear to resume normal training, she had become so soft to lead and we were learning to work at liberty utilizing skills and techniques of the Parelli program.
We continued for the next year, preparing her for the saddle and eventually riding. Lily was the first horse I ever started under saddle and it was such a natural transition, you would think she had been ridden her whole life! We had done most of our riding bareback and only in a halter for the first 3-4 years. I was so proud of how far we had come!
We outgrew the parameters of the Parelli program and began to develop our own unique style, influenced by talented equestrians whose principles and beliefs reflected my own. We continued to develop our relationship and went to clinics over the next several years with different trainers, learning softness, responsiveness, confidence, and balance. Lily helped me become the best rider I had ever been and offered more and more gymnastic and athletic maneuvers well beyond my expertise. Playing with her at liberty always felt like dancing, moving in sync and allowing Lily to display the full range of her agility and talent.
We achieved my dreams of riding her bareback and bridleless 10 years after I first brought her home. I trusted her completely and sitting on her back felt like coming home. I was invincible when Lily was my legs. She had the heart of a lion and more spirit and fire than her beautiful bay coat could contain.
Lily injured her tendons in her fetlocks after being charged by an aggressive cow while trying to go through a gate and was mostly retired in 2018.
In 2019, we discussed it with our vet and were told we could ease her back into light riding and just let Lily tell us how much she could handle. It was a dream come true to have my super horse back! We stuck to the arena and only did as much as she felt comfortable doing. It did not matter to me if it was 5 minutes or an hour… having Lily back was everything to me.
In early 2020, we began noticing some behavioral changes in Lily. She was becoming aggressive with other horses, particularly geldings, and acting “studly” and possessive around certain mares. We monitored them closely and noticed it increasing ever so slowly.
It bears mentioning that she had a terrible experience with an abusive veterinarian many years ago that resulted in a severe mistrust of needles and anyone that remotely resembled or smelled like a vet. This meant blood work and many standard tests were out of the question. Our current vet has the patience of a saint and truly understood Lily and her history, so she gave us signs to watch for. Lily started showing more and more aggression and when she started showing signs of pain when ridden we knew the time was near.
April 23rd, 2020 we made the heartbreaking decision to say goodbye and my angel gain her wings. My heart shattered and my skies gained another star that afternoon. After she was gone, our incredible veterinarian, volunteered to palpate and examine Lily to see if we could get a diagnosis to confirm what we believed was ovarian tumors causing pain and dangerously dramatic hormone swings. Upon palpation, she discovered the severity of Lily’s ovarian abnormalities. Her right ovary was approximately half the size of a healthy equine ovary, while her left was double the size of normal. Additionally, her left ovary was covered in large, hard tumors on the outside of the organ, something not seen in the commonly diagnosed disorders. As a reproductive specialist with years of experience, she stated she had never felt any ovary like it. I was heartbroken that my girl had been so stoic that we did not realize how bad it was and grateful that we could alleviate her suffering.
Lily taught me so much in the decade and a half that we shared. Bringing her home was the greatest decision I could have ever made and I’m so glad I decided to pass on the water buffalo.