Mikey with Dolly

I started riding when I was 7. It all began when I was invited to a birthday party at a barn where a schoolmate took lessons. A portion of her party entailed being allowed to ride around a well-worn dirt track on an actual horse. I’m sure this was not the first time I was ever on a horse, but it was certainly the start of my addiction.

Gradually, as I rode more and more, I moved to a larger, more competitive show barn. At the time, I didn’t have a horse of my own, but rode many of the lesson horses and ponies and sometimes took them to shows. Dolly was one of those.

It was an unspoken notion that the lesson horses were of lesser value and therefore not as good as those that were privately owned and boarded at Hickory Run Farm where I took lessons. To me, it was quite the opposite. Those horses and ponies worked harder than any other and received less credit for their efforts. They carried first-timers around the ring with careful, placid steps. They stood patiently while novice adults tacked and untacked them repeatedly, taking the saddle and bridle on and off until they fully grasped how everything fit together. They took horseless horse lovers like me to shows and were accused of being push-button ponies because they were so seasoned in the ring that they won every class.

No one praised them for building the confidence of a child. No one complimented them on teaching a skittish adult to love and trust a thousand-pound animal. They were guardian angels and were treated as the hired help, Dolly included.

I started riding Dolly in my freshman year in high school, first in lessons. Gradually, after working so well together at home, we became a team in the show ring. She was considered a large pony but she had the heart of a Clydesdale and could jump like a gazelle, so I often showed her in horse classes anyway. Even though I leased her, my trainer referred to her as my pony, and it didn’t take long for me to think of her in that context as well.

If horses can have attitudes, then Dolly beat them all. She could be as belligerent and stubborn as a mule, but she could jump better than most of the horses and she didn’t take crap from anyone, least of all her rider. She would buck and spin if she wanted to go and you held her back. She would refuse a fence if she thought you weren’t paying attention. She’d tear around the ring like a bat out of hell just to see if you could hold on. But she was also the sweetest, most careful steed there was. If she felt you falling, she’d stop instantly. And although she might prance around the arena just to let you know she’d gotten the better of you, she’d allow herself to be caught and reluctantly give you another try.

She was a good sport about loading into the trailer, getting a bath, and carrying you through a tedious lesson. There were nights when I’d ride for hours and wasn’t allowed to get off until I’d learned a particular maneuver or mastered a certain distance to a fence. Though she huffed and puffed, she carried me through the paces without a mishap. Despite what one might believe, she grew to care about me. She recognized my voice when I called to her in the field or walked down the barn aisle. She’d prick her ears when she saw me get out of the car. She even stopped bucking when I rode her. I like to think that was a habit I helped her break. Never could a child ride her without getting bucked off. She dumped everybody. Even the older, more experienced girls had a hard time handling her when she threw one of her bronco fits. Not me. Oh, she tried, but she couldn’t get me off, and after awhile, she knew I was on her side and she no longer felt the need.

After I left for college out-of-state, I saw Dolly less and less. I’d like to think she’s still around, fat and content, grazing in a lush field somewhere. Even though that may not be the case, in my mind, where memories lay untouched, she is happy. When I graduated, I moved to Colorado where I have been lucky enough to lease some amazing horses, thoroughbreds and warmbloods, massive, beautiful steeds. As with Dolly, and much to their owner’s delight, I treat every one as though they were mine, doting on them, spoiling them, and loving them like my own. I’ve had opportunities to show and have done well, even as an adult. But rarely does much time pass without me thinking about the first pony that I called my own. Maybe I didn’t own her in writing, but in my heart—and I’d like to think in hers too—she was mine.

Now on my drives to the barn, I occasionally picture myself in the show ring, partnered with a powerful steed, perhaps bay in color, circling toward the first fence. I relive the feeling of pride after having had the only clear round on the jump-off. I hop off and encircle my arms around my mount’s sweaty neck, letting my imagination take me back to the time when that neck was a little shorter and those jumps were a little lower and my hero was a dappled bay pony named Dolly.

By Michaelanne “Mikey” Dehner