The first time I saw Brandon, I honestly thought I would sooner ride any horse in the world besides him. He was hot, sensitive, and a whole lot of horse to manage. Not too long after that, I was chatting with a group of riders in the barn, we were gathered around the wash rack where Brandon was getting a shower. His owner was toying with the idea of selling or leasing him at some point and joked that he’d be the perfect prospect for me. As if on cue, Brandon stepped out of the wash rack and buried his head right in my chest. I don’t think I knew it yet, but I was done for from that point on.
More time would pass before I’d actually take over the ride on Brandon. He and his owner competed at the same shows where I’d compete with my horses, occasionally I’d work him while his owner was out of town for work, and eventually he moved to a different part of the state when his owner relocated for work. We’d spoken casually about me riding and potentially competing him, but hadn’t worked anything out and when they moved away, it seemed like the end of it.
Then one afternoon, I got a message from his owner, he was busier than he’d anticipated with his new position, Brandon was getting as much work as was ideal for him and he wondered if I was still interested in him. I was at work when I saw the message, I walked into the next office to tell Bailey about it and when I asked her what she thought I should do, she gave the classic best friend/co-conspirator/bad-horse-influence response, “it’s easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.”
Brandon was unlike any horse I’d ever ridden before. Houdini and Baldur were not easy, but simple. You know how you have to ride them, and they are consistent in their expectations of you. Maria is not easy or simple, but is honest. The same thing doesn’t always work in the same way on her, she might one day decide that she doesn’t want to go in that bit anymore, but as long as your lines of communication are open, she’s quite sensible. Brandon was not easy, simple, straightforward, any synonym that brings to mind predictability. He was an OTTB (JC name – L’Bruiser – surprisingly appropriate) with 6 starts, who had then moved on to a hunter/jumper barn in my area, before finding his career in eventing. At some point after he came off the track, his name was changed to Rubix Cube – also startlingly appropriate. The style of training in the jumper program he was in (and I do speak from firsthand knowledge here) was highly stressful and repetitive. They were able to produce horses in this manner without issues, but the program was intense to a level that, when horses did develop training/behavioral issues, they were major.
I mentioned that Brandon was hot and sensitive, and I really believe that a lot of his reactivity was due to the style of training he’d been under before he made it into an eventing program. I can certainly see what they saw in him. He was immensely talented and had a huge amount of potential. I always compared him to a cavalry horse, when he galloped he literally sounded like the whole cavalry, but he was big and bold and brave. Any trainer who got their hands on a horse like that would want to develop them to their full potential, but his brain and his body were two very different animals. The owner who I got him from worked very hard for a long time to undo the damage that had been done, but at some point, Brandon was who he was, which, as it turns out, was a (big) ball of anxiety. He didn’t like to repeat exercises unnecessarily and you had a pretty finite amount of time on his back to get your work done before he would slip from productive energy to complete frustration. I can say without thinking twice that he made me a better rider. He taught me how to be tactful, efficient and patient, and since my horses were so seasoned at that point, he reminded me that any little (tiny, miniscule) bit of progress was worth celebrating.
I can’t overstate how important Brandon was to me personally and to my development as a rider. He was bold, brave, complicated, sweet, sensitive and smart. He could charge down to any fence on course and get into the air like a cat. He was quite difficult in the dressage ring but was an incredibly nice moving Thoroughbred. He was basically a complete cuddle-bug on the ground and something of a fire breathing dragon under saddle.
As you have probably gathered through my use of the past tense, or if you’ve followed along on my Instagram for a while, Brandon isn’t here to celebrate what should be his 19th birthday. He colicked on April 18, 2015 and was euthanized due to complications after surgery. I did everything I could to keep him here, I prayed and begged the universe or whoever was listening to let him stay with me, even to just be a pasture ornament, but while we all know that our horses are the biggest animals, both physically and emotionally, they are also somehow the most fragile beings we could choose to bond with. At some point, I’ll go into further depth on our journey together, all the way up until the end, but for today, I’m just taking a moment to celebrate him through memories since I can’t spoil him with his favorite treat (white bread – I know).
Now, I’m going outside to hug Houdini and Maria extra tight, and I hope you’ll do the same with the heart horses in your life.