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What Is A Heart Horse Anyway?

Updated on August 15, 2018
Ellison Hartley profile image

Ellison is a professional horse trainer and riding instructor. She runs a summer camp program and offers kids a safe introduction to horses.

My baby girl Zelda, my first heart horse. We went to hell and back again quite a few times together, but she made a lasting impression on me,
My baby girl Zelda, my first heart horse. We went to hell and back again quite a few times together, but she made a lasting impression on me, | Source

What Makes A Heart Horse

I have interacted with hundreds of horses in my life. Only a few of them fall into this category. Not that I don't have fond memories of the others, or that I don't remember them. I most certainly do, but a heart horse is a horse that you connect with and learn from on a deeper level. A level that effects not just who you are as a rider, but who you are as a person.

For me, the few horses that fall into this category were not the horses that were easy to ride or the horses that I won the most ribbons on. They were special to me for other reasons, which is why I formed that deep connection with them. On some level, they changed me, not just as a rider, but as a human being.

My first heart horse,Zelda.
My first heart horse,Zelda. | Source

A Heart Horse Has Lasting Effects On You

Here are a couple examples to help clarify what I'm getting at. I have made mention multiple times in my writing of my red mare Zelda. She was my dream horse when I was a teenager, I had my highest highs and lowest lows in horsemanship with her. At times I felt like I was on top of the world with her. Other times we clashed and didn't get along at all. There were a lot of scary rides and drama with Zelda and me over the years. We had a connection that kept me from ever giving up on her.

She taught me a lot about myself. She taught me not to give up, and that hard work pays off. She taught me to be a better rider by thinking more like a horse and about how I could make her understand what I want a lot easier than I could force her into something that she didn't understand.

Zelda taught me one of the hardest lessons of all. That sometimes for reasons we can't explain things change and you won't be able to fix them. That once a horse loses it's needed for self-preservation and is willing to hurt its self to get rid of you, that it's not worth it anymore. She taught me that no horse is worth risking your life over.

Even though Zelda is now in horse heaven, she is still teaching me not to beat myself up for having to give up. She is teaching me to focus on all the good things about her and all the lessons that she has taught me that I can use in my life with horses and life in general.

Zelda is a heart horse for me because she changed me not only as a rider, but as a human being, and though we had a lot of bad times together, she has taught me to try and focus on the good times. Zelda is a heart horse for me because not a day goes by that I don't think of her and our years together. The things I learned from her effect everything I do with horses today from how I teach lessons, to how I work my students through their hard rides.

To this day, despite the tears, broken bones and self-doubt, that I went through with her. I miss her every day and wish she was still out in her stall in the barn. Zelda is the first horse I let into my heart to stay forever.

Debutantes Dude a.k.a Danny

My second heart horse Danny.
My second heart horse Danny. | Source

Danny's Story

Then there was Danny. "Debutantes Dude" was his racing name. I got him off the track right before he turned 3. He had a bowed tendon at the time and so I had the winter to spend with him in hopes that by spring he'd be ready to restart under saddle.

Danny was big, flashy, beautiful and sweet. He oozed personality. Like a little kid that was always enthusiastic and happy about everything. Like the first time I laid eyes on Zelda, it was the same thing with Danny, I knew as soon as I saw him that he was going to be a special horse to me.

It turned out though, he was special for a lot of different reasons than Zelda. I never got to ride Danny because one morning in November he didn't come in for breakfast and when we went out to find him, he had a massive puncture wound in his hock. He was completely non-weight bearing on that leg, I knew it was bad.

Our vet came, of course, cleaned the wound gave us antibiotics and instructed me to keep him in the stall, keep the wound clean and re-wrap it daily. So that is what I did, unfortunately, the wound got infected, back out came the vet, he prescribed a more broad-spectrum antibiotic and said keep up the good work with the wrapping. To make a long story short the vet ended up x-raying his hock to look for a fracture, which he didn't find.

A few weeks later after no improvement, he did an ultrasound to look at his soft tissue around the joint, it came back as inconclusive and my vet tried his best to calm me down, saying these puncture wounds can take a really long time to heal.

He was in pain, had been standing on three legs for over a month and I was beginning to fear that he would founder. He wasn't eating well at all, he looked like he was withering away right in front of me.

The vet kept telling me to be patient and give it time, but I just couldn't. It had been almost two months at this point. My horse was hurting. I felt like I was hurting him every time I cleaned that wound or changed the bandage. He was miserable.

In my heart, I knew that this was worse than my vet thought it was, and so I decided it was time to get another opinion. I wanted to take him to New Bolton Center but wasn't sure that he would be able to get into the trailer. The only way to know was to try, and he followed me, on three legs up onto the trailer without complaint.

They took Danny's history when we got there and decided to x-ray again as well as ultrasound and look at soft tissue. They also ran blood work while we waited.

As I suspected the news was not good. Not only was his wound infected, his hock joint was infected, and do to the infection getting out of control for so long, he was septic and had a temperature of 107.

They told me there were options to try and save him. They would cost upwards of $15,000 and the likelihood of success was very low. I made the hardest decision which was to let Danny go. He was euthanized so he would not be in any more pain.

For all I put him through, he never ever complained. I know those bandage changes and wound cleanings had to hurt. He always was so stoic and trusted in me to take care of him, he never protested. He handled stall rest calmly which we had been concerned about for such a young big horse.

Danny's Hoof Prints On My Heart

Danny is my second heart horse. He taught me that even though vets know the medical facts and have gone to school and everything, that I know my horses better than anyone. I knew it was worse than he thought with Danny, and I didn't listen to my gut was telling me, and because of that Danny suffered needlessly.

I learned from Danny to trust my instincts, don't second-guess them. All the time I spent with Danny in that stall, I had a deep connection with him. Though of course, our vet had the best intentions, he didn't know Danny the way I did, I should have spoken up and not let it go on for so long when he was only getting worse and not improving.

Danny taught me the importance of trying to stay in a peaceful and calm state, even when you are in pain or upset. He was stoic, gentle and sweet, no matter what I had to do to him. I knew he was in pain, and he let me do whatever I needed to do without complaint.

Loading him on that trailer to go to the vet, he literally was walking on three legs, you could see the pain he was in, but he did it. He did it for me, followed me on and let me tie him up like it was no big deal. He trusted me.

I wrestled for a long time with the fact that he was so good and cooperative and trusted me so much, but yet I let him down by not going with my gut reaction and what my heart was telling me.

Danny is my second heart horse because he taught me that it is possible to be stoic and calm even in the worst of situations. He taught me that your gut instinct is usually the right one. Danny taught me that even in hard situations it is okay to trust. He put his trust in me, I should have put my trust in what my heart was telling me at the time, that he was suffering needlessly.

I have to say with Danny, it is the only time I have really felt love from a horse. I was right there with him every step of the way and we had a deep connection because of it. A connection that wasn't built on training or riding, but just on being together, and taking care of each other.

Every day in that stall wrapping his hock up I would practically be in tears because I knew I must be hurting him and he amazed me because he never once tried to kick or pull away from me. He was the perfect patient.

Danny was the perfect patient.
Danny was the perfect patient. | Source

Different Horses and Lessons That Will Last A Lifetime

The connection I had with Danny was different than the one I had with Zelda but just as strong. They taught me horsemanship lessons, life lessons, they impacted me profoundly in the time we had together.

So to all of you who had been wondering, that is what I mean when I say heart horse! I hope that everyone in their horsemanship journey will be able to experience the way it feels to love and connect with a horse that much.


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