The Horse That Built Me: Tahoe - Kirstie Marie Photography

The Horse That Built Me: Tahoe

October 22, 2016

When I asked him to lope off, he bucked instead.

Tahoe hadn’t been ridden in two years when my parents drove me three hours to Bend, Oregon to try him out. He also wouldn’t load into a trailer since his last ride ended in stitches.

Miranda Lambert penned a song about the house that built her. The lyrics portray her revisiting her childhood home to collect old memories – hoping that by touching the place she grew up, and reliving milestones in her life, she could stitch the pieces together to find herself.

This summer, I’ve attempted to revisit the horses that built me. The horses that I’ve owned and leased over the course of my life. The horses who shaped my experiences, personality, and childhood. I wanted to take their portraits to immortalize the memories I have with them.

Click here to read about my first horse, Sunny. When I was ready to step up from my second horse, Raz, my parents bought me a palomino paint named Junior.

After we sold Junior, we went horse shopping. Tahoe wasn’t as big as Junior, and he wasn’t as pretty as Junior, but I’d seen my friend show him before and I had high hopes that he would be the ‘right’ horse for me. Looking back, I have no idea how I knew that… but he was the only horse I had my eye on.

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The beginning was rough. He was nervous and high-strung. He wouldn’t stop pacing – his stall, his paddock, his six acre pasture, it didn’t matter. He had to be lunged a lot. My trainer, Desi Holt of Willowbrook Performance Horses, and I kind of hit the “reset” button on him. We spent months ‘un-training’ him so that we could lay a new foundation down.

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Tahoe was average in every sense: he wasn’t a great mover, but he wasn’t bad… he wasn’t tall, but he wasn’t short… he wasn’t well bred, but he showed in a few futurities. Even though my dreams outsized my horsepower, Desi never once brought up selling him to buy a more capable horse. She took what Tahoe was and made him his best. That took a lot of time, a great deal of patience, and many miles. I loved the pattern classes, but he was nervous in the middle of the arena. It took a long time for him to gain confidence and it took a long time for me to gain confidence.

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We didn’t go to many horse shows, but when we did every goal was about establishing building blocks. We were both great at faking confidence at a horse show –we could pull our act together long enough to make it through a pattern. We were a million emotions tied together with a smile, but we worked so well together. We both had the same personality which made for a great team.

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It was like we were the same person. People call it different things:

‘Once-in-a-lifetime’

‘Heart Horse’

‘Equine Soulmate’…

He was that. He was all of that and so much more. We were both nervous and stressed. We both tried hard to be perfect. At the end of my junior year of high school, we went to the Pinto world show in Tulsa, Oklahoma to show in novice youth all-around classes. I had two goals that year – to be a world champion, and to get recruited to ride for an NCEA team. That is a lot to ask out of a horse that cost a few thousand dollars.

I was so nervous traveling to Tulsa that I threw up on the plane ride. I spent about 80% of every day lunging Tahoe in the arenas. It was so hot that I spent the remaining 20% of the time in front of Tahoe’s stall fan. My stress made him stressed. His stress made me stressed. It was a beautiful cycle where we both depended upon each other for everything. The blind leading the blind. Before one of my showmanship classes, I told Desi in the holding pen that she needed to hold Tahoe so I could puke again. She told me no, and that I couldn’t. I walked out to that start cone and – for the first time in my life – didn’t smile. I didn’t open my mouth because I thought I would actually throw up in the arena if I did. After we finished the pattern, I flashed a smile back to the judges and we ended reserve world champions in the class.

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In the prelims of the hunt seat equitation, I rode like I always did: reins tight, legs close, telling Tahoe exactly where he needed to be at every moment. But he felt different that ride. He was already there. He didn’t need me. I decided for the finals I would loosen my reins, take my spurs off his side, and guide him gently with my seat. It was the first time we felt perfectly in sync. Like he simply read my thoughts and executed on his own. It was the first time he felt broke. We won the class and were crowned world champions, but it wasn’t about the buckle or the ribbon. That class was a breakthrough for us in our journey. We weren’t faking confidence anymore. We were confident.

We left the world show with three belt buckles and the reserve all-around high point. That fall, I received several scholarship offers to ride for NCEA schools. But again, achieving the goals wasn’t our greatest reward – it was the immense amount of personal growth we experienced. It was the tears, the miles, the lunging circle, the long drive to the barn, the classes lost, the bucks, the slow but steady road to a broke horse. It was the forging of best friends and the pressure that made diamonds.

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There isn’t a single day that goes by where I’m not reliving those moments and fantasizing about trotting down the centerline of the arena, or what it felt like to lope off from the start cone. In these memories in my head I’ve held onto, Tahoe has stayed the exact same. So when I went back to visit him this summer, it was shocking to see how much he has changed. In the figment of my imagination he was immortal, but standing in front of me he was mature. He was so much more confident. I sold him right when he was getting broke, so getting to ride him again was a completely foreign feeling. He was no longer dependent upon me for everything. He no longer needed the support from my rein or the direction from my spur. He had a wisdom in his eye. It was a good different – he is being very well taken care of. But it was jarring. The horse standing in front of me was nothing like the memories of him I replay in my mind. It is powerful how we can live in an alternate reality like that. How real our imagination is. How we preserve memories tied to moments and feelings and they seem so real.

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Thus, it was bittersweet going back to visit him to take his portrait. I only owned him for four years, but it would take me more than four years to tell you all of my memories of him. For the four years he was in my life, he shaped me so much. Those four years were practically a lifetime. He carried me to some big wins. He carried me through some big heartbreaks. He was there for every major moment. He made all my dreams come true. And the trailer that hauled him away to his new owner took a big piece of my heart with it.

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…also… Tahoe did a great job of recreating this image eight years later 🙂

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