Photographs by Jim Graham
It’s hardly unusual for families in the Brandywine Valley to own horses, ride to the hounds or participate in equestrian events. And their children are often in the saddle not long after they learn to walk. Such was the case with Lucinda Donaldson.
Now a 12-year-old student at Charles F. Patton Middle School in Kennett Square, Pa., Donaldson had been riding leased ponies and horses for several years when she changed barns in April 2018. “The woman at the new stables was looking to sell this horse, so I took him for a ride during my first time there,” Donaldson recalls. “She said, ‘You two go well together.’ And I said, ‘I agree.’”
For a while, it was a tenuous relationship between Donaldson and Rocket Man, a handsome 12-year-old Welsh thoroughbred. “He had a lot of anxiety and is still a little spooky,” Lucy says. “Sometimes I’m nervous, and he can sense that—so he’s nervous as well.”
The turning point in the relationship came at an early competition that wasn’t going well. “I was thinking of dropping out, but then I thought, ‘No, we’re both better than that.’”
Horse and rider finished the competition. “We’re comfortable with each other now,” says Donaldson.
A horse is a bit more complicated than your typical family pet. “It may be three years in before a young rider gets their first one,” says Stephanie Dowling. “They should go to a riding school first, and they need to start with a ‘kind’ horse.”
With her husband, Ivan, Dowling owns and operates Grey Lake Stables, just north of the “Blow Horn” sign on Route 82 in Doe Run, Pa. They specialize in training (and selling) horses, not riders—and it’s important that a first horse has had some training by the stable or former owners. “The rider learns from the horse who’s been in training,” says Dowling, whose stable accommodates 15 horses.
Dowling was living in Topanga, Calif., when she started riding lessons at age 12. At 15, she got her first horse. “She was an off-the-track thoroughbred who’d done shows—sort of an all-around horse,” Dowling recalls. “Her name was Noelle.”
The first thing potential owners must do is assess their own ability at the time and determine where they want to go with a new horse. Many are content with trail riding, while others want to join a hunt club and ride to the hounds. For the few young riders who plan to do competitive riding and jumping, many start with friends’ ponies and moved on to leased horses or those owned by a training stable. “Some ponies go through three or four kids before they’re retired,” Dowling says.
Determining where the new horse will eat and sleep is also no small matter. “I was a horse-crazy girl of 7 or 8, [but] I grew up in Philadelphia,” says Dr. Regina Turner, who heads an equine reproduction unit at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center. “In spite of incessant begging to have a horse in my backyard—which was all of about a tenth of an acre— my parents irrationally refused.”
But even for people with a larger backyard, putting a new horse out there alone may not be a great idea. “Horses are herd animals by nature,” says Dowling. “They want to be with other horses.”
And the reality checks continue from there. Can the prospective owners afford the purchase price of the horse? Do they have the money to outfit the horse and pay the stable to feed, board, exercise and clean up after the horse? And will they have any leftover cash for riding outfits and paraphernalia? It’s difficult to determine an “average” price for a horse. “A foxhunter may range anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $50,000,” she says.
Depending on a horse’s worth, an insurance policy is also a consideration. And Dowling says full-care boarding can range from $1,300 to $3,000 a month. Second-hand saddles can be found at consignment shops specializing in riding equipment. Other must- haves include bridles, grooming supplies and horse blankets for bad weather.
In most cases, future owners already own riding gear. “Kids are constantly outgrowing theirs,” Dowling notes. “The one thing you should never try to save on is a good helmet, which is a must. No matter how experienced you are or how long you’ve ridden, you will fall off the horse.”
To be sure your horse isn’t a lemon, you’ll want to go on a test spin. “If you’re buying a middle-age horse you’ve not previously worked with, you need to have it checked out with a vet who knows sports horses,” says Turner.
It’s also good to know which vets will care for your horse, even if they’re kept on retainer by the stable. The same goes for a farrier, who will keep your horse in shoes. This completes the trilogy—barn manager or trainer, vet, and farrier—that will care for your horse. And the final question: Do you have time for a horse? Donaldson rides Rocket Man several days after school. “On weekends, I help feed him and clean out the stalls,” she says.
It’s all part of a bonding process the two have gone through over the past year. “It’s also important that you know your horse well enough to know when he needs help,” says Dowling. “You’re skipping like 10 steps if you don’t.”
When the horse isn’t behaving normally, then it’s time to talk with the stables manager or your vet. “Owning a horse is a matter of good days and bad days,” says Dowling.
A good day might involve anything from a serene trail ride to a thrilling competition win. “A bad day generally means falling off the horse,” Dowling says.
Dr. Regina Turner’s love of horses led to her veterinary career, though she didn’t own one until she was an adult. “I’d graduated from college and was doing a residency at New Bolton,” she says. “I had a mentor and friend at New Bolton, Dr. Patricia Sertich, who had several horses. I fell in love with one whose name was Slivovitz—like the brandy—and she sold him to me.”
Slivovitz was worth waiting for. Turner rode the 12-year-old Andalusian thoroughbred in eventing competitions and retired him when he was in his 20s. “For several years, he made me believe I was a great rider,” she says.