The Christmas Gift- A Holiday Horse Story

The holiday season is a time for giving. Karen Prell shares a story of a friend who helps another keep her horses in a time of need.

by Karen Prell

She had driven this road a thousand times, but this time was going to be different. This time it would be the last time she drove this way, the last time she would travel this road. It all seemed so unreal–– like a bad dream from which she would soon have to wake up. But no, this was real.

She was in her late 50’s and skating quickly towards her 60’s. According to her well meaning sisters, it was “time she thought about doing something different” and “sizing down” her responsibilities as it related to all things “equine.” She’d been a horsewoman for most of those 50 odd years; just what did they think she would do with her time? Go shopping?

horse breeds

The past couple years had not been easy. It started with the loss of her beloved stallion. They had been together for all of his 29 years, one month and one day. When she and her husband moved from the only life they had known to a new home 1200 miles away, she took him with her. They would no more leave him behind than one would leave a child behind. They had won more than their share of ribbons in all that time and together they had grown from an 18 year old girl and yearling colt into a winning partnership that transcended the simple description of just horse and rider.

She held his head in her arms as he took his last breath. On that day, as the tears poured down her face she wished more than anything to just lay down and follow him to share whatever new adventure he was headed to. But this time she could not follow. She had a husband and other animal kids to care for. And so, he went on alone.

He had shared her joys, kept her secrets and comforted her heart when no one else could. He had been her very heart and now he was gone, but, life, she was told, would go on and so she did.

She lost another of them a year later. The ethereal little mare had a toughness to which her soft kind exterior never gave a hint. If the stallion was her heart, then the little grey mare was her very soul. She, too, had made the move with her and her husband when they headed south. When the economy turned sour, the little Arab mare kept the family finances going by teaching countless little ones how to ride. More importantly, she taught them how to be soft, how to be kind.

When once again she had to hold another of her “kids” as they left this earthly plane, she thought she would surely explode with grief. How unfair those 27 years together seemed like a minute. Was she greedy to think they would outlive her? Some people never get that long. Why should a horse? She didn’t care that it seemed selfish and she didn’t really care that some people didn’t get that, at that moment she felt like her soul had left her body and went with the little grey.

The time rolled on and although some new faces joined equine herd, they could not totally erase the hole created by the two that had left. Nor could they ease the pain when she lost the job that was responsible for paying the board bills, the feed, the vet and the blacksmith.

It took over a year to finally get a new job. Not easy being in your 50’s and looking for work in an economy that wants the young, cute and cheap. It was small comfort that there were millions of others in that same boat.

The passing of her beloved Mom was the last straw. Her Mom was a lady ahead of her time. She had imbued all three of her daughters with the idea that there was nothing they couldn’t do or be if they went after it. God help anyone who said they “couldn’t do something.” Her Mom would be the first one to disavow them of that particular fantasy. Gone were the daily phone calls, the encouragement and the simple pleasure of hearing her voice.

As she drove she reminisced about how it seemed that her life was now in the rearview mirror with nothing in particular in front of the truck she was driving, except her destination–– the barn. So many times the source of comfort, it was now something she was dreading. Her horses were waiting there for her as they had a thousand times before, but this time would be different. This would be the last time.

She never dreamed in a million years that her life with horses would end this way. If anyone had said that she would ever give up her “kids” she would have had you committed right on the spot. But the times changed. It was a struggle everyday to keep the lights on, and the kids fed.

And so, at the urging of her family and even her husband she had decided to find homes for all but her oldest ones. One was the son of her mare and she had once upon a time actually sold him to a friend. She even had a buyback contract that stipulated that if the person ever wanted to sell him, they had to tell her first so she could buy him back. Then one day he was gone from the barn. The contact meant less than the paper it was written on. So, she thought that she would never get him back. Unknown to her, her husband had never stopped searching for him and followed every lead no matter how far.

horse running

Then one day, a miracle that gave witness to how incredibly kind people can be. One of her students had found the young gelding in dire circumstances. Terribly thin, body bruised and cut, the student’s parents paid to buy him and once again he was home with his dam, the little grey mare. He had come home, and she whispered to him that as long as she was alive he would never leave her again. She promised.

The other was her gelding’s constant companion, a feisty Paint mare who didn’t even stand 14 hands. Her life had been tough from the beginning. Born six weeks premature, she was not expected to live. But live she did! Her tough beginning made her a tough mare and she was the guardian of the herd. She tolerated no nonsense and predators didn’t stand a chance in her pasture. Long ago when they struggled to keep her alive, the horsewoman had made a deal with the Man Upstairs. She promised that if he would let her live, she would take care of her the rest of her days. The promise is kept.

Now, as she turned into the barn driveway, there they stood, all looking to her as they had so many times in the past. Waiting for their dinner and the sessions of personal time she gave to each in equal measure. She looked at the young stallion, the one who was to have been her next show horse, and felt a deep ache in her heart. He was so smart. It had been an easy task to ride him and so beautiful as only a young, arrogant stallion can be. His eyes looked into your soul, and she just knew that he knew something was different this day.

Her eyes fell next to the two mares–– Mother and daughter. Both were the beautiful chestnut color that glowed with copper highlights. The younger one would follow her throughout the pasture, walking side by side, stopping when she stopped, moving when she moved. This one was to be her Hunter, with movement smooth as silk and ground covering strides, but that dream was not to be.

But it was the Mother who always stopped her in her tracks. No matter where she was in the pasture, this one would always come running at her call. Many times when describing the beauty of the mare, she remembered telling people that she was so beautiful that tears came to her eyes just to look at her. The tears came now for a different reason.

The horse trailer came up the drive. Too soon, she thought, I haven’t had enough time to say good-bye! As she put halters on everyone and readied to turn her “children” over to strange, new hands, the tears she promised herself she wouldn’t cry came!

The stallion looked at her in confusion. What was going on? We never left for a show at night?! His eyes seemed to say “Please tell me what I did wrong and I’ll never do it again!?”

The chestnut filly, never very trusting of other people anyway, began to run around the pasture in panic mode. But it was the mother of the filly who was the final straw. She stood, just stood quietly looking into the horsewoman’s face.

filly running

She could feel the mare asking one question. Why? And she had no good answer for this mare, the glorious mare who made healed her heart just to look at her. Horses did not understand the economy, or lost jobs or why their human was crying–– they just knew something was not right.

She was just about ready to accept the payment from the new owner and load her kids up one last time, when another vehicle stopped and turned into the barn driveway.

She didn’t recognize the RV as it drove in and pulled up alongside the truck and trailer waiting to take her family away. The horsewoman was at first annoyed at this intrusion into what was a very sad time for her. Her annoyance shortly turned into relief when she recognized the figure getting out of the RV.

It was a trainer friend who she knew and admired. They had been friends for a long time and she had been on the road traveling to different clients so they hadn’t seen each other face to face for awhile, but still kept in touch. The trainer embraced her and together they shared the tears of reunion.

pretty white horse

The new owner was anxious to get the horses loaded and get on the road, but the trainer asked her to hold up a minute.

She had heard that her friend was having a hard time of it and came as quick as she could, having been 1200 mile away when she heard the news of hard times. Trainer remarked that Christmas time was a lousy time to buy or sell horses, especially when those horses are members of the family. The new owner said that he had given a fair price for the horses and was doing the horsewoman a favor and he’d like to be on his way.

The horsewoman was about ready to load her kids when her trainer friend told her she didn’t have to do that. The trainer turned to the new owner and asked what her cost was for her trip. She then handed the new owner cash for her trouble and said “The lady has changed her mind; these horses are not for sale.”

She then turned to her friend the horsewoman and said, “I’ve had a good year and you’ve been there when I needed someone. Christmas has come a little early this year” and handed an envelope to her friend, the horsewoman.

The horsewoman opened the envelope and inside there were certificates to the feed store and gas cards to get her through a couple of months. The tears from the horsewoman came again–– only this time they were for the joy of having a dear friend who understood that sometimes your family is made up of people who aren’t your “blood” and your children may be of a different species, but these friends understand you just have to keep your family together no matter what and that good fortune and miracles should be passed on.

Merry Christmas and pass it on.

About the Author: Karen Prell, aka "Triple Crown Karen," came from a very non-horsey, working class New Jersey family and started riding at age three. With over 30 years experience as a riding instructor, Karen is passionate about developing beginners into confident riders and compassionate horse owners. A favorite expression heard often by her students is "It's ALL about the horse!" A lover of all things "horse," she is especially passionate about promoting the retraining of retired Thoroughbreds and adoption and rehoming of unwanted horses. Her ultimate dream would be to see the US Equestrian Team mounted on these great reclaimed athletes. Her career in media focuses on the everyday equestrian adventure and how a horse lover of modest means CAN make a difference for even ONE horse.