My Pandemic Purchase Was A Horse

Pursuing my most ridiculous dream made this year bearable.

Artwork created with Canva.

People have been buying some weird things during the pandemic, but I might just have them beat. In July of 2020, I bought my first horse.

COVID-19 has caused a significant increase in pet adoptions, but most people have been focused on kittens and puppies. For most, it’s about having a pet to soothe stress. Even though my pet is hundreds of pounds larger than a puppy, I was motivated for the same reason.

As someone who struggles with anxiety even when my country isn’t coping with an unprecedented virus, I always turned to animals for refuge. Growing up, I worked and rode at local horse stables. But after graduating high school, I just couldn’t afford the time or money horses require.

When COVID-19 shut down my state and forced me to work and study from home, I saw an opportunity. The walls of my little apartment were closing in, and as I struggled to focus on school, I considered taking a break from it to work. When summer arrived, I found a job and began my hunt for a horse to ride.

I’m no wealthy celebrity. I was annoyed when Kim Kardashian and Logan Paul posted photos of the fancy horses they bought during COVID. It was a flagrant display of wealth when so many of us were struggling just to make ends meet. Meanwhile Kim couldn’t even spell the name of her horses’ breed (it’s Friesian, Kim, not “Freesian”).

The plan was not to get a horse. But then I came across a Craigslist ad for a Thoroughbred mare for sale, a rescue who had been pulled from a kill pen. It’s a place where unwanted horses wait in purgatory before being shipped out to Canada or Mexico, where their slaughter is legal.

Despite her circumstances, the mare — “Dharma” — was gorgeous. She’d survived something many horses don’t and was already putting weight on her bones. She needed more physical rehabilitation and training, and I wanted to help her through it.

That’s what she was supposed to be; just a project. Something to get me outside of the little apartment where I’d been confined all spring. Something to help me relearn the skills I’d forgotten after being out of the horse world for so long.

I didn’t realize I would fall deeply in love with caring for an animal that would cause me so much trouble.

“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.” ― John Wayne

The first time Dharma reared, I froze in fear. The mare had only been living at the little pasture I rented for a few weeks. In that time, she’d been fighting with other horses, breaking fences, and scraping herself up.

I wanted to go for a short ride. But there we stood, her up on her hind legs as she pawed the air and tossed her head like a stallion in a Hollywood movie. She came down lightly, her hooves meeting the arena dirt with a soft thud. She looked at me and snorted with disdain.

I was scared. I couldn’t remember any of the things you were supposed to do if a horse reared. All I knew was to get the hell out of the way in case their hooves came down on your head. Frustrated and worried, I ended our training session there.

As I put her away, another boarder at the barn shook her head at us. “You’re going to get yourself killed,” she said to me.

Not if COVID gets me first, I thought. Maybe I’d gotten more than I bargained for, but I would still rather be at the barn than stuck inside on another Zoom call, drowning in online work.

Artwork created with Canva.

Horses are notoriously expensive. Although I knew I could handle Dharma’s monthly expenses as long as I had a job, acquiring all the gear necessary for her was tough. I needed a saddle and bridle, brushes and boots, and all kinds of supplements and gear for her care.

I had just started a new job, and money was tight. I tried to get everything secondhand — I scoured Craigslist and wandered through thrift stores. Hoping someone would sympathize, I shared an Amazon wishlist with my Twitter followers. Suddenly, packages started showing up at my door : brushes, treats, supplements for her muscles and joints, even a leather bridle. Every single item on Dharma’s wishlist arrived. I was overwhelmed with surprise and gratitude.

The mare’s plight had captured many hearts. Her narrow escape from being sold to slaughter, our efforts to help her gain weight and muscle, and my dedication to overcoming her abusive past had inspired people. They began offering to cover her purchase price of a thousand dollars so I could focus on paying her many vet bills.

I had her on a temporary lease at that point — a financial safety net in case I couldn’t make it work and had to return her to the person who originally rescued her. But Dharma’s fundraiser was over in one day.

Achieving my lifelong dream of being a horse owner motivated me to work even harder. I was at the barn before and after work— feeding her, grooming her, leading her on long walks as I began slowly conditioning her body.

Every day I practiced exposing her to things that scared her: standing still in the barn, letting me put a rope over her head, picking up her feet so I could check her hooves. Some of it set her off in a panic, indicating she’d been handled roughly in her past. There was so much for her to learn — it was clear she didn’t trust most of it. Nor did she trust me.

If you can get a horse to see you as their leader, you can convince them to put their trust in you. I won’t hurt you, you’re telling them. I will provide for you. You can follow me and I won’t let you get hurt.

Every day that I worked with Dharma I hoped that she would come away with those messages, quietly internalizing them so that one day she might have confidence in me. But in order to do that, I would have to overcome my own fears.

The opportunity to prove my confidence came more quickly than I wanted it to. The owner of the pasture where I boarded Dharma informed me that there were complaints my horse was too dangerous. They suggested replacing her with a different horse.

I was devastated. The barn was just over a mile from my apartment, the ideal distance to bike while I didn’t have a car. I was settling into a routine after months of a chaotic schedule caused by COVID-19. I hadn’t even gotten a paycheck from my new job yet.

Being told to leave was not necessarily a surprise. It was clear that Dharma wasn’t thriving here. She would fight with other horses in the pasture and resist when I cleaned her wounds, angry and defensive toward everything around her.

The other boarder told me flat out what she thought of my horse: that I would be “killed, injured, or sued" if I kept Dharma. The barn owner echoed that sentiment, but hers with a bit more sting — that I was the one unsuited for the mare, unable to handle her, too incompetent and lacking confidence. She’ll never change under your care, they said. She’ll kill you first.

Maybe I was crazy, but something in my gut told me not to believe them. I doubted their horse sense. I called my chilhood trainer who I’ve worked with for over a decade. She knew my horse-handling skills, and she specialized in Thoroughbreds and rescues. She guffawed when I told her what they had said about me, the judgments they’d made about a horse they barely knew.

Her words of encouragement were all I needed to hear. Bravery bubbled up inside my heart. I started searching for a trainer in the area who could handle trouble horses, someone to help me with Dharma’s rehabilitation and my riding skills. Then I found one who owned a barn close by and was willing to help us. I moved Dharma immediately.

Sometimes all it takes is for someone to say you can’t do something for you to realize that you can. It was getting kicked out of that barn after less than two months that made me realize I was committed to this horse, whatever it took — time, energy, money, sacrifice, fundraising. I would figure it out because I was her last hope. There was nowhere else for her to go.

We moved into a stable where difficult horses are welcome. It only took a few lessons with the trainer for me to realize that the assumptions the first barn had made about me and my mare were completely wrong. We’ve been at this new barn five months now and have made considerable progress.

She’s a different horse. I’m a better handler now, too. The trainer regularly tells me to aim for 2 percent better. It might not seem like much, but it adds up over time. Horses like Dharma need time just as much as they need a handler is who is patient and confident.

My veterinarian tells me that if I hadn’t put the work into helping Dharma through her most difficult issues, it’s likely no one would have. She may have an attitude, but it makes her more interesting to work with. Every day she shows me how intelligent she is .

My pandemic project turned out to be the most exciting purchase of my life. Riding and working with her is what drives me to work hard for her expenses. My husband has been supportive of her journey since day one, believing in us even when others had their doubts.

This was the wrong time to buy a horse. To all the world she may have even seemed like the wrong horse. But somehow, it still worked out. When it comes to your dreams, taking risks can pay off. I am so proud of what me and this horse have accomplished this year, and I can’t wait to see where life leads us next.

Science writer wrangling words and horses in the Pacific Northwest. | she/they

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store