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Letting go of the reins

When Kentucky Living magazine recently ran a feature on what people have learned from their pets, the timing was almost cruel: I was then in the midst of learning my hardest lesson yet from a pet. While not a rescue-specific story, this personal experience taught me a lot about what it means to love an animal.

It’s always been my credo: any animal that comes into my care will remain there for the rest of its life. All my dogs and cats stay with me, and when a horse has become too old or injured to keep riding, well, they’re literally put out to pasture and cared for.

Then Santino came along.

Tino, as I called him, was supposed to be my dream horse. A 15-hand paint gelding, I was so excited when I brought him home. The horses welcomed him into the herd, and every day he was ready to be groomed and saddled. I’d never had a paint before, and everybody who came through the barn commented on how beautiful he was.

All went well for a long time. Tino had a willing attitude toward learning low-level dressage, responding to leg, hand, and seat cues. It was outside the riding ring that took longer: Tino had a bit of that typical “pony mindset” that made him somewhat emotionally distant, something I wasn’t used to. So we spent a lot of bonding time together, and the day he first nickered at me was wonderful. Before long, he was at the gate every day when I came home, and if I didn’t at least take him out to hand graze him, he got his feelings hurt. And when I scratched his withers and he reciprocated by nibbling my hip, I was totally thrilled: I really was part of his “herd” now.

I’m still not sure just when it started going wrong. It was very gradual, and mostly my fault. As I started pushing Tino to do more, he started resisting. Wondering if something was physically wrong, I had three vets check him out from head to toe; they found nothing. Tino and I went back to work.

Anybody who’s had horses knows how ponies can be: they’re very smart and can often out-think their rider, figuring out ways to get out of work. And that’s just what Tino did, by figuring out how to push my “fear” button: I’d had my fair share over the years of being bucked off, tossed, run away with, kicked, and stepped on. Now, in middle age, I’d gone from cross-country jumping to being a timid rider, and Tino took advantage of that. To be fair, he usually warned me first: “Mom, if you don’t quit asking me to come down on the bit, I’m gonna spook at that clump of weeds that’s been there for six months.” And then he’d spook.

I suppose it was inevitable that Tino would finally get me out of the saddle. When he did, I lay there on the ground, the wind knocked out of me, and before I could stop it, the thought burst into my mind: “This might not be working out.” I got back on Tino and finished our ride, but the seed had been planted.

I finally had to face the fact: Tino didn’t like dressage, and I wasn’t having any fun. I despaired over what to do. Tino was too young to retire, he needed a job, but the thought of putting him up for sale made my gorge rise. As an animal rescuer, it went against everything I believed in, I would feel like such a failure.

And then a forgotten conversation popped into my head. Some time before, my friend Nicole Martinez had met Tino and said, “Wow, if you ever decide not to keep Tino, let me know first!” Nicole, an outrider with Churchill Downs, rescued horses and other animals, and loved them as much as I loved my own. Maybe I should…

So I found myself knocking at her door, and before I could lose my nerve, I blurted out, “This is just not working out, I love Tino, but we’re both unhappy and I don’t know what to do, I’m going crazy, are you still interested?” Then I burst into tears.

After hugging me and mopping me up with some Kleenex, Nicole smothered a grin and said, “Yes, I’m still interested.”

Call me melodramatic, but that was the beginning of a horrible time for me. I was giving up, I had let an animal down, I had failed someone I’d vowed to always care for. I agonized over what I was doing, wanting desperately to do what was right for Tino. I realized I was being selfish in wanting to keep Tino: he wasn’t happy with me, and deserved a home and a job where he could be happy. If I could give him that, then it was the right thing to do.

I cried and carried on for weeks, working myself up into a summer case of strep throat. But Nicole kept me from totally breaking down: she understood how hard this was for me, and was extremely kind throughout it all. She never made a move without asking first: Was Tuesday okay for her to come test ride Tino? Was I okay with her bringing Tino to her place to work him some more? Would I mind if she tried a Western bit on him? She said she considered me still Tino’s mother, that I could visit him anytime I wanted, and if at any point I changed my mind, I could bring Tino home.

As for Tino, he made the adjustment to his new home with more aplomb than I expected. When we unloaded him from the trailer, he looked at his new surroundings with great interest and no fear. He was promptly adopted by Popcorn, Nicole’s mini mare, who helped integrate Tino into the herd. Over the next few weeks, I visited him often, keeping a close eye out for any sign of discomfort or unhappiness. I didn’t see any.

And every day, Nicole sent an e-mail to update me on Tino’s progress:

“Tino’s getting groomed and lots of peppermints every day. I just love him!”

“I lunged Tino today, and he was great!”

“Today I rode Tino! Took him across the road, he didn’t spook at the traffic, and we even did some cantering.”

“I’m hoping to take Tino to the track soon and see if he’d like to be an out pony. Are you okay with that?”

“Tino did okay with his first time on the track. Well, until he saw a goose. I take it he’s never seen one before?”

“Oh, boy, Tino just about got me off today—I took him to see the starting gates for the first time and he did not like them at all!”

“Tino did much better today. We jogged the whole way around the track.”

“Tino ponied two horses today—what a good Tino!”

I went to see Tino at the track—it was like visiting a son in college and seeing his new dorm. He looked wonderful: jogging around the track was getting him fit, and he gleamed from his daily baths. I watched Nicole ride him, and was pleased: she was exactly what Tino needed, a calm, authoritative rider. When Tino was unsure about something—leg wraps flapping in the breeze, or an over-exuberant racehorse running past—she soothed him, letting him know everything was okay. He trusted her.

I cried again, but this time out of relief. I asked myself what I could learn from this experience, and it didn’t take long to figure out—you put your loved ones first. It’s what animal rescuers and fosters do all the time: for the sake of the animal, sometimes you’ve got to let go. I could now be glad that Tino was happy, he was very well cared for, and if there was a tiny part of me that had any doubt I’d done the right thing, I only had to think about what Nicole said:

“I’ve always wanted a horse like Tino, and you made that dream come true. I can’t tell you how much I love him, and how much I love you for letting me have him.”

Paula Sparrow Paula Sparrow

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