Today I had to say goodbye to Beauty, my first “real” event horse and my partner of nearly 20 years.
Back in the year 2000, when it came time for me to upgrade from my 14-hand quarter-pony, my dad helped me pick up a gangly chestnut mare from the race barn in Western Massachusetts. Beauty was too slow to race and apparently had refused to leave the start box. We took her back to Coursebook Farm (Sherborn, MA) and although her vetting was less than stellar, we decided to keep her anyway. As soon as we loaded her in the trailer, I was so attached and thrilled at the prospect of finally owning my own Thoroughbred, there is nothing anyone could have said that would have dissuaded me.
Beauty tolerated me, and I had no idea how lucky I was to get an off-the-track Thoroughbred who would even do that. At age 13, I truly had no business owning a green horse of any kind. She fell on me at our first event in stadium (between fences 4 and 5), and I was hauled off in an ambulance with a concussion and broken collar bone. I returned to the barn the next day, donning a figure-8 brace and arm sling, and sat on her bareback in her stall, just to make sure I hadn’t lost my “nerve.” Over the next few years, with the help of many, especially Carol Mayo and Douglas Grindle, I was able to compete Beauty successfully through the USEA Training level.
She was a frustrating horse — so afraid to touch a rail that I was as likely to go clean as I was to be eliminated in show jumping. She taught me everything about riding, caring for injuries (there were many), and persevering in the face of disappointment. Most importantly, she was my rock through some of the most tumultuous years of my youth.
Caring for her gave me a much more productive after school activity than most teenagers had. Her name became an unconscious mantra that settled and centered me in any situation. When I got ready to graduate high school in Dover, Massachusetts, and my family moved to Arkansas, I had to sell her. She had multiple owners during the next few years, and did a variety of jobs, from the hunters to dressage to trails, until she was physically unable to.
During college, I worked for Sandy Hamm Horses, helping off-the-track tThoroughbreds transition to new careers. When I graduated, one of Beauty’s old owners told me she was in need of a new home and I was given the option to get her back. Although she was now aged and had a variety of physical issues that limited her career options, Sandy Hamm Martini supported me. She loaned me her truck and trailer, and we drove from Arkansas to Massachusetts to pick her up. With a snow-storm blowing in, we loaded her up and turned around to head straight home. The weather conditions were so terrible that the trailer nearly passed us on an icy New Jersey Highway. We didn’t sleep for over three-days trying to get home, and it is a miracle all of us survived that trip.
In 2009, with no jobs to be had in the decimated Northwest Arkansas economy, I got a job as the horseback riding program director for the Girl Scouts of the Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys. I couldn’t imagine leaving Beauty behind, so we made the 13-hour trek north together. We rode for hours in the wilderness at Camp Whispering Hills, and led hundreds of trail rides at Camp Northwoods. Beauty loved her western trail
saddle, was an expert at neck-reining and ponying camp horses, and dutifully followed the trail while I sat almost backwards in the saddle keeping my eye on the campers behind us. Although I felt miserable at times: homesick, lovesick, eventually sick with Giardia, it was the best summer of my life.
Beauty and I came back to Arkansas, and I fox hunted with her at Misty River Hounds. She enjoyed all of her careers, but always was an eventer at heart. While walking hounds one day, I stopped and dropped my reins to let her drink from a pond. She took this action as an invitation to jump down the “drop fence” and gallop through the deep water, looking for the red and white flags on the other side.
As an adult, I bought my own farm and was able to keep her with me at my home. Her face is the one that appears on my farm logo. She taught countless people how to ride, made a comeback in the jumpers with another young teenager, and never truly settled down enough to be a calm and reliable kid’s horse. She maintained the chestnut mare stereotype until her last days, nickering at me with pinned ears.
Beauty was here for me during every pivotal moment of my life so far; I think that’s a rare and unusual gift, something that few people have. I am happy thinking of her on her best days, doing what she loved: leading and bossing somewhere outside with endless trails, cold nights, and sunny days.
Christy Zweig Niehues is Massachusetts-transplant who for the past decade has been figuring out how to make it as an eventer in Arkansas. She runs a small boarding barn and has a soft spot for off-the-track Thoroughbreds. In 2019, Christy plans to event her two OTTBs, one of which is another feisty red one, in Area IV and V.