Dee is an 18 year old Welsh cob, 14.3hh.
I am by no means an expert horse owner - in fact I would describe myself as a beginner. I rode horses a great deal in my teenage years and early 20s, but was never fortunate enough to be able to own one - for this I had to wait until I was 50.
I began riding regularly again about six years ago at a local riding stables. This was in fact the first time I had ever had any formal teaching in horse riding. I had to unlearn a lot of things - in particular gripping with the knees! It was also the first time I had ever ridden in an arena and found this quite frightening to begin with. I found it interesting to later discover that many of the young people who learned to ride at this establishment were nervous of riding out in the open.
It was at this riding school that I met Dee. She was a good all-rounder for a rider of average ability. She was a bit slow sometimes, but rallied if the lesson was interesting or involved jumping. I had never really done any jumping before - other than popping over the occasional log in a wood - and Dee was the horse that gave me confidence to try. She never stopped or swerved before the jump if I failed to show sufficient intention to take it, and she always sailed over with ease. I had a number of tumbles off other horses during jumping lessons - usually those that would nearly stop before the jump and then do a huge leap. It was on Dee that I had the courage to jump without reins, with my arms held out in front of me, and on Dee that I jumped the largest log in the paddock, despite having watched several of my comrades come to grief at it.
Dee is no angel - in fact she had a reputation at this riding stables of being a thoroughly nasty piece of work. She was kept in a field on her own because she had killed or severely maimed (depending on which story I listened to) another horse, and always had to be the horse at the end of the line. I had experienced her dancing backwards in order to get to a horse she didn't like in order to kick it. Indeed, she was a mare with attitude. I felt she was also a pretty unhappy mare - although the staff at the stables said she was fine, and they were much more experienced than me.
One winter I started to hear rumours that the staff were discussing getting rid of Dee because of her continuing aggressive behaviour which always got worse in the spring. Although never aggressive towards people, she could be intimidating in the stable and difficult to tack up. I was not sure what form 'getting rid of' would take in Dee's case, given her history, but I did not feel it was going to be good for her. So after long discussions with my husband, we offered to buy her.
To cut a long story short, we bought Dee in January 2005, continuing to keep her at the riding school on working livery. Gradually this arrangement became less and less satisfactory for me - she never felt as though she was my horse - and we moved her to a new yard. I was warned by the riding school staff, that she would become unmanageable if she was not ridden or lunged every day and that she was probably more horse than I could cope with. I was also told I should never sell her because she was so dangerous.
In trepidation, my husband and I moved her. For the first few weeks I was quite anxious about how Dee was going to behave, but she settled quickly in the new yard and definitely seemed happier. At first I did ride her or lunge her every day in the arena, but gradually started to relax with her as she showed no signs of going crazy without her 3 hours of work, 6 days a week going round and round in circles. She could be rather challenging on the lunge line and she would not hack out alone. Any attempt to take her beyond the end of the lane to the yard on her own resulted in spectacular rears, or being backed into hedges and ditches - although she'd happily hack out with other horses. I read a lot of books about natural horsemanship and did a lot of work with her in the arena, often without any tack at all, and she clearly enjoyed this. It was a joy to play with her and have her follow me around, and to watch her cantering over jumps simply because she was enjoying it.
A year later I had to be away for 3 weeks, which was the longest period of time that Dee had ever been without working for many years as far as I knew. On my return, I started to ride her in the arena again, but she became very difficult. She seemed extremely nervous and I came off a number of times when she suddenly span on the spot and careered off to stand in a corner. I lost my confidence and became extremely nervous about working with her. With the help of the yard owner, we came to the conclusion that she was in pain and so called out the vet. After x-rays - a procedure that usually requires sedation, but Dee was so interested in everything she simply stood and let it all happen - we discovered that she had deformation of several of the vertebrae at the withers which was causing inflammation and pain, probably resulting from an old injury from a fall. The remedy was complete rest, but we were warned that she may have to be retired. I believe Dee had learned to tolerate a level of pain through constantly being in work, but had lost this tolerance during the three week break, so that she could not cope once I started working her again.
We decided to find somewhere less expensive to keep her, where she could spend more time turned out. We felt that we had made a commitment to Dee - and I feel I have a special bond with her - so we ignored all advice to have her put down. Dee was a lot better now after 2 months of rest and all the inflammation had settled down, so I decided to risk it and ride her up to the new yard - about an hour's ride at a walk - rather than put her through the ordeal of being boxed. I was very nervous to begin with, wondering if I was going to be thrown, but she clearly enjoyed the ride and behaved perfectly, following two horses she had never met before. This was in April 2007.
The amazing lady who owned the land and stables of her new home thought it ridiculous that a horse had been kept on its own for years because of a single incident. She felt that her isolation may be contributing to her nervousness as horses are of course herd animals. Through this lady's courage and kindness, within a week Dee was settled in the herd with 7 of the horses - with no unusual signs of aggression. The three foals were kept separate for their safety to begin with, but within a month they were also back in the herd and Dee was taking her turn babysitting them. This clearly demonstrated the herd's acceptance of her. It brought tears to my eyes to see her grazing happily with the other horses. I felt my hopes for her had been realised. When winter arrived, and the herd were fed hay in the field, Dee clearly became herd leader, but as long as she got her pile of hay first she caused no trouble. She'd even let the foals share her hay pile sometimes.
With careful adjustment of her tack, and advice from my vet, I gradually started riding Dee again and she is well and coping with light work. There has been no recurrence of inflammation. However we have never been able to overcome her refusal to hack out alone. In the end I realised that I had to simply accept that this was how it was with Dee and stop battling with her about it. However there was no arena at the new yard, so it was difficult for me or my husband to do any riding unless someone else was going out, so in October 2007 we bought Red, so that we could hack out together - but let's keep the rest of the story for another day.