Unlike my colleague Erica, author of our "Old Horses: Better with Age" blog, I don't have much experience managing senior horses. Most of my former show horses have either transitioned to breeding careers or gone on to carry other riders around the hunter or jumper ring. If I had the property and the means to ride all my horses into retirement and care for them past their prime, I would. But that's not the case. And, after all, my goal as a horse owner is to also develop as a rider at a certain level, and that requires a fairly youthful horse.
My childhood pony Laura Ashley was one my most cherished mounts.
Photo: courtesy Alexandra Beckstett
Fortunately, thanks to Facebook photos, horse industry connections, and the occasional text message, I've been able to keep tabs on many of my former mounts. There's Sammy, who I watched go on to win many a pony hunter championship and teach countless young girls to ride. There's Chilly, who is now a Baylor University equestrian team horse after a highly decorated hunter career. And Ralando recently traded his successful show career for what's promising to be an equally successful stud career.
Naturally, it's impossible to follow all the horses that have been a part of my life. And many I can only assume are long retired or enjoying horsey heaven. One of those is a very special pony named Laura Ashley. I was about 9 years old when I first met "L.A." The Anderton family, who owns Brownland Farm, in Franklin, Tenn., and breeds highly sought-after pony hunters, had sold the young mare in-foal to my trainer at the time. L.A. had recently recovered from a pretty nasty tangle with some wires, leaving obvious scars up and down her front legs. So the Andertons decided to point the well-bred Welsh pony down the broodmare path rather than toward the hunter ring, which rewards physical perfection.
At my trainer's farm in Texas L.A.'s belly grew, her colt was born and later weaned, and she began getting regular exercise to try to shed the baby weight. Being one of the smaller kids in the barn, I got to help ride her, but you can't ask a little girl to ride an adorable dapple-gray pony without expecting her to fall in love with said pony. So one evening my parents presented me with the best surprise: They told me L.A was mine.
Here L.A. enjoys retirement after her competitive career ended.
Photo: Alexandra Beckstett
I rode that pony until my paddock boots hung well below her sides, at which point we decided to retire her to a family member's farm in North Carolina. In an ideal world she would have lived out her life there, where I could visit her frequently. Circumstances change, however, and the family farm eventually had to go. We agreed to sell L.A. to an aspiring pony breeder, but she soon fell on hard times as well. Last I heard, L.A. had been sent back to her birthplace at Brownland Farm to once again--officially--retire. I was happy to know she was back where she belonged.
Now fast forward a bit: Last weekend I took my homebred Hannah to her first "A"-rated horse show at, of all places, Brownland Farm. It was a great experience, and Hannah was a star, but I had L.A. on the brain. I asked the horse show staff how I could find out about an old pony; I left a note for owner Sissy Anderton to call me; I wandered the fields at the back of the showgrounds looking for old gray ponies with scars on their legs. But no luck.
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That Friday night the Andertons hosted a wonderful hunt-themed exhibitors' party at their house, and I finally found an opportunity to introduce myself to Sissy. Did she remember a pony called Laura Ashley? Why, of course she did.
Sissy told me how special L.A. was, pointed to the field behind the house, and said, "In fact, she's buried right over there."
In my mind I knew L.A. was likely no longer alive, but now I had closure. Sissy was kind enough to abandon the party for a few minutes as she dug through her old files to find all L.A.'s registration and vet records. "Look, here she is," she said, producing a slightly discolored photo from within the stack of papers. It was of me and L.A. at our first Pony Finals championship. Cue the tears.
I consider myself lucky to finally learn of L.A.'s later years, but I know many owners--particularly in the sport horse world where horse turnover can be quite high--aren't so fortunate. Horses' names and owners change, contact information gets lost, and we simply don't keep as close tabs on these animals as perhaps we should. That's why I'm grateful for responsible breeders such as Sissy Anderton, who said she would happily accept back any Brownland-bred pony after its career is over. I'm also appreciative of programs such as the American Quarter Horse Association's Full Circle Program, which offers owners the opportunity to provide for their former horses if the need arises. Other methods out there for tracking horses include properly registered microchips, The Jockey Club Registry's research services, breed and discipline databases (I use the United States Equestrian Federation's horse recording search to keep track of past horses' current owners), Facebook groups, and online forums.
Do you know other ways to try to locate long-lost horses? And have you ever reunited with one?