• Gillian Keegan

A horse called Madeleine - part one

My first horse! My very own, she's mine!

The tracks left by the removal trucks were still fresh at Lightwood as I turned my mind to buying my very first horse. I had ridden for many years, on and off, but owning a horse was always something that other people did, not my family, and certainly not me. But now, I looked around my land and breathed in the fresh scent of the Australian bush. Sixty-five acres. I had never in my wildest dreams thought that I could own anything like it. We had some work to do to make it horse safe – the property was originally a sheep farm, and more recently, had been used for cattle, but with a bit of fencing and some water troughs, we would be good to go.

I had found an instructor nearby and had a few lessons on her Connemara ponies which were fantastic. So versatile, smart, hardy, and easy keepers. She suggested that I look at buying a Connemara, but I felt that they were a little small. I have completely changed my views on that now (I did buy a one a few years later) but I had an image of ‘my’ horse in my mind at that stage, and a little connie with a thick coat and long mane just wasn’t it.

I had butterflies as I bought a copy of Horse Deals, the main publication in Australia for buying and selling horses. I could spend hours as a child circling horse adverts in magazines, dreaming about going to try them out, and now I could do it for real. There was a small problem of budget, we had cleared out our savings to buy the property, so any horse I did buy couldn’t be expensive.

The Lawyer and I had always had rescue animals. Our dogs, Katie and Poppy, were from shelters, and we had a cat that was from the RSPCA in the UK, and had flown all the way to Australia! I liked the idea of giving a horse a second career, and whilst most off the track thoroughbreds are certainly not rescue cases, having been well cared for, I wanted the challenge of taking a racehorse and making it a riding horse.

There were a number of thoroughbred retrainers in the area, and a horse called ‘Penny Black’ caught my eye. A very sleek black mare, sound and ready to go. She looked breathtaking. I discussed the idea of an OTT TB with my instructor and was given some very good advice, ‘Some thoroughbreds can be fantastic,’ she explained ‘but they can be hot, and you may also inherit a ton of problems that you have to fix. Fixing the problems can be more difficult (not to mention dangerous) than training a green horse from scratch.’

Given this was my first horse, I changed my approach, and started looking for a youngster, but not anything off the track. The Lawyer helped me, and came across a horse that he thought looked suitable for him in the process. This horse was called something like ‘Phoenix’, and the Lawyer, a novice of absolute proportions, was super excited when he showed me the ad. Now, I was slightly surprised when, instead of a chunky cob or clydie cross that I had been expecting, I saw something that would suit one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. It looked like it could breathe fire and was a stallion of all things! ‘Why on earth do you think that’s a good idea for you?’ I asked,

“Are you kidding?’ said the Lawyer ‘look at the price – he’s an absolute bargain’. It was then that I realized he was looking at a stallion standing at stud, and for the price he would be getting a test tube of semen, not a horse! I laughed until I nearly wet myself!

Anyway, I looked through horses in my price range and a young warmblood caught my eye. A 5 year old liver chestnut Hanovarian mare. She was 15.3hh (a good size for me at 5’5”) and described as a blank canvas. She was only around 1.5 hours’ drive away from us and I started to get excited. I called the owners and got some further details, the horse had been homebred and was for sale as the rider was getting more seriously into showjumping, and didn’t have time to bring on a young horse. Madeleine, as she was called, had been professionally started under saddle and also sent to a trainer for a couple of months earlier that year. I arranged a viewing the following weekend and spent the week as giddy as a child.

The morning of the viewing came around, and we had arranged to go for brunch with a friend. I felt so sick, it was ridiculous! We were at a delicious restaurant, but I’m not sure I tasted the food at all. I had a list of questions in mind and felt as prepared as I could. I was going with the Lawyer and the Bear, who was only two, as it seemed too far to get my instructor to go, especially given that this was the first horse I had seen.

Finally, it was time to set off and we wound our way through the picturesque Wombat State Forest, me dreaming about trail rides through the gum trees (wow, I’m realising as I’m writing this that I come over as slightly unhinged…!). The property we were looking for was called Stanley Park, or something equally posh, but when we arrived, it was a completely normal house with land at the back. A huge gooseneck float stood in the driveway, and behind the house was a really nice jumping paddock with a full course of show jumps set up - it looked like they were pretty serious about their horses. As with so many equestrian properties we had looked at when we were trying to find a house, the horse facilities were better than the human facilities!

We were greeted by a lovely young girl with her mum, and they went to fetch Maddie from the paddock. She was very happy to be approached and walked quietly in. She tied up very well, and stood still to be brushed off and tacked up. She hadn’t been ridden for a couple of months, so her owner put her on the lunge in the paddock. She was fresh, but really good for a five year old and I saw her walk, trot and canter. Next, her owner got on her and walked and trotted around – no issues. Then for my turn. I didn’t want to push it, as I knew that she had been out of work for a while and I didn’t want to end up on the ground by asking for too much too soon on a young horse. I walked her and she was straightforward. We had go and stop, turns from the direct and indirect rein aids. So far so good! I asked for a trot and she happily popped up into a beautiful bouncy trot that had so much scope and lots to give. There was no spooking, no nastiness. I didn’t ask for canter as I thought she’d done pretty well for a first ride back. I felt pretty happy, but didn’t make a decision there and then.

When I got home I called the trainer that she’d spent eight weeks with. He wasn’t involved in the sale and had nothing to lose by being perfectly honest about her. “I remember the horse,” he said, “she was nice, a straightforward mare, no dirt, although a little immature – I’d like to see her after a couple of years’ work.” He did mention that she had been sent to him after she had reared and her owner had broken her leg in the fall, but that he had seen no repeat of that behaviour, or any attempt to rear, during the whole time she had been with him. He was shocked at the price they had her up for, and said he would have had her up at more than double that. He also sent me videos of her in all three gaits.

I called the owners straight away to discuss the rearing. They didn’t deny it, and were very open, “we found out after the accident that she had an abscess in her mouth and had reacted to that,” the girl explained, “she must have been in a lot of pain, but when the vet had fixed it, she was fine again.”

Okay, so I was pretty happy with the explanation, and the trainer’s testimony. So next, onto the vetting. Although it’s not standard process, I asked the vet who had treated the horse with regard to her dental issues to complete the full vet check. I wanted to understand exactly what had happened. The vet was fantastic, and very honest. He described her as “more than sound,” and noted that she over-tracked by a mile. I was concerned, however, by his advice that she had been difficult to handle. I hadn’t seen a difficult to handle horse in my viewing, but I must admit, I hadn’t pushed her.

Another call to the owners, “oh, she hates that vet as he treated her when she was in pain, she's always foul with him,” they explained “also, it was so windy that day, and our puppy got out and ran underneath her.” Ok, another plausible explanation – they seemed surprised about his comments and hadn’t thought she was that bad, just a bit jumpy.

So, I added it all up:

1) I didn’t have a huge budget, so I had to look at horses that were pretty green.

2) I had ruled out OTT TBs, as this would be my first horse and I wanted an easier breed.

3) I had the option to buy a warmblood that was sound, had professional training and was already started under saddle.

4) I had checked with the trainer who had ridden her for eight weeks and confirmed that she was a nice horse with no dirt, if a little immature.

5) I had ridden her in a paddock after she’d had two months off.

6) I had been advised that she was worth double the price she was up for, BUT

7) She was the first horse I had seen,

8) She had reared once,

9) The vet had commented that she was difficult to handle.

All in all, I really felt that I had done my homework. I was happy to buy her – my first horse, a warmblood, woo hoooooooo!!!!! I would be well supported by my instructor. And that was it. – the deal was sealed, and we arranged for her to be delivered!

And then......everything changed - part 2 coming up.


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