Many backyard owners rode throughout their childhood, and kept their horse at home with them. For others, horse ownership was a dream deferred—most had little opportunity to ride when they were children, and didn’t take it up until they were adults. This may be your situation right now. You took some lessons and then bought a horse, and you’ve kept him at a boarding stable ever since. Is moving your horse in behind your house the next step? Or maybe you already have him in your backyard, but you wonder if you’re spending too much time taking care of him, or too little time? Or if you’re spending too much money or not enough money? In other words: is backyard horsekeeping in your future?
I’ve ridden from the time I was five or six, but always at a riding stable, usually Western. (My friends and I rented the horses by the hour, and Western stables were cheaper than English stables—my parents didn’t have much money.) At five, I wanted to be a cowgirl when I grew up, a desire that persisted for an unnaturally long time. Since I grew up in suburbia, I didn’t even know there were such things as horse trainers. When I was twelve, I got—and got to ride—my first backyard horse. The only problem was that he belonged to our new next-door neighbors.
His name was Playboy. Since his owners both worked, they told me I could ride him whenever I wanted to if I fed him in the late afternoon, and—when the weather turned cold—closed him up inside the two-stall wooden barn where he lived. They owned three or four acres—the property had once been a fruit orchard—and that was all I needed. The husband had been in the cavalry, and he was my first teacher, even though he was so tactful I didn’t realize that’s what he was doing. Playboy was an old American Saddlebred, probably a retired show horse, and very tolerant of my mistakes. My neighbors also introduced me to horse shows when they took their niece and me to the National Horse Show in New York City every winter, at the old Madison Square Garden. I loved it. I loved watching it—I had no desire to trade places with any of those madmen in the saddle. I don’t remember a single woman competing in any event—none of the international jumping teams had women on them, nor did the American Saddlebred classes.
In those days our small town was surrounded by woods, and if I wasn’t riding, I was exploring the woods with my best friend or my father. When I was in my mid-20s I moved to Santa Barbara, California, to go to graduate school—this was after I had lived in Belize with my first husband—and realized that I could afford to buy my own horse, and to look at the scenery from his back, and from his point of view.
My first horse was a gray mare I bought out of a rent string in Bakersfield. Her name was Spook, and she lived up to it, but I have always liked spirited horses. I paid $200 for her, saddle included. It’s not a bad idea to buy horses like that—at least you know they’re not outlaws—but for heaven’s sake pay a veterinarian to examine them first. (The procedure is called “a vet check,” or, more formally, “a pre-purchase exam.”) I didn’t keep Spook in my backyard—I lived in Isla Vista, the student community adjoining UCSB. But at the stable where I boarded her—a Spanish land-grant cattle ranch called Rancho Oso—a shoer always had a horse or two in training. The horse he had when I moved in with Spook was a 16.2 hand Quarter/Thoroughbred cross named Bachelor. I fell in love, sold Spook, and bought Bachelor.
What had I learned by this time? That horses had to be fed twice a day. They needed hay and salt and someplace (a pasture or a big fenced arena) to run around in. They needed their feet looked after, and they needed shots once a year from a veterinarian to ward off disease. When I look back on those early days, I cringe. There was so much I didn’t know. To do it right, horse-owning—especially when the horse is on your own property—means that you have to keep learning, and you have to keep an open mind.