Vote Now for the World’s Best Lesson Horse! Presented by Absorbine

It’s time to select the World’s Best Lesson Horse! Read the finalist essays and vote for the lesson horse or pony that you think deserves to be named the best.

The inaugural International Lesson Horse Day takes place on April 26, 2016, and we’re celebrating by teaming up with Absorbine to name the World’s Best Lesson Horse!

You wrote mini-essays and sent us your photos of your beloved lesson mounts — we received over 70 entries and read each one. There were countless stories of equines of all ages, shapes and sizes helping riders young and old on their equestrian journeys in every step of the way. Some essays were written in loving memory of lesson horses who have left us. It was so hard to choose just ten finalists that we decided to open up our final round to our favorite 12 essays.

We invite you now to read these top 12 essays and then vote for the horse or pony that you think deserves to be named the World’s Best (the poll is at the bottom of this page). The winner will receive a prize package from Absorbine! Voting will be open until midnight on Monday, April 25, and we will announce our winner on International Lesson Horse Day, Tuesday, April 26!

Without further ado, our twelve finalists:

Casey (Alexandra Manwarren)

Casey. He was the definition of the perfect therapeutic lesson horse: a gentle, giant, white Percheron who was wise, sensitive and patient. After starting out as a NYC carriage horse, he came to Pegasus Therapeutic Riding Academy in Philadelphia to begin a new career as a therapy horse for people with physical, developmental and intellectual disabilities.

He gave strength to those that had none; his capable legs carried a rider whose legs could not support themselves; he provided safety, security and self-confidence to those who had little. He was the guardian of secrets when a troubled rider needed a confidant; a patient horse that knew his frustrated rider needed extra time to tell seizing muscles to relax. At the end of a lesson, he would bow his head to accept the praise from his rider for a job well done. He knew his riders, he knew their hearts and he accepted them unconditionally.

This special member of our equestrian staff was taken from our program too soon.  There is an empty stall in our barn and a chasm in our hearts that can never replace what Casey gave to our program, and especially, our riders.

Photo by Barbara Wertheimer

Photo by Barbara Wertheimer

Brownie (Henri Li)

Brownie is a preeminent lesson horse. Bay may not stand out on other horses, but on Brownie, a super shiny bay glinting in the sun will attract you. His glittering eyes show he is an intelligent boy. The white crest on his head is shaped like a diamond. His four legs are full of muscles and his hooves are very strong. Brownie may be just a pony, but inside I think he is a wonderful stallion filled with lots of energy.

Ever since the first time I rode Brownie, I thought we were connected somehow. Since we are both nine years old, we became delightful buddies. Cantering together brings me to the feeling of flying, at that moment we can communicate through our spirits. Usually Brownie obeys to every order given but sometimes he is stubborn if he is very grouchy. In the summer, after class, we rinse Brownie very well, bring him back to his nice clean stall, and Brownie would get a reward for his hard work as carrots. Enduring our love friendship is one of our many achievements. Blue ribbons represent our terrific teamwork. In my dream, I want to become a jockey but Brownie will be my favorite and my most lovable horse forever!

Photo by Peggi Liu

Photo by Peggi Liu

Choo (Kim Carter)

It’s not easy transforming people’s lives every hour he spends in the ring, but Choo is up to the task. This 21-year-old professor of arts and humanities, the equine sort, once split his time between Montana and North Carolina, but is now a full-time staff member and rider favorite at Bramblewood Stables, Inc. Quite the paramour, Choo’s signature move is a soft breath and effective hug from his huge American Warmblood neck as he enfolds his favorite people.

Choo tries to stay away from labels in his work because he knows all his tasks with humans are therapy. He can be found doing lead-line with tiny charges or amping it up for riders approaching a fence. His commanding, soft presence can be felt through the smallest glance from his brilliant eyes. After an early life of dressage and carriage work, Choo’s breeder was short listed for the US team in combined driving; this beloved gelding was retired to a field when a veterinarian saw him and knew he would be perfect for the Bramblewood program. He might have seen some years, but Choo’s work is just beginning. We seek to honor his knowledge in all ways.

Photo by Kim Carter.

Photo by Kim Carter

Meeko (Katherine Marsano)

The pony that has stolen my heart is anything but a “Wonder Pony.” Meeko is not the easiest pony to ride. She needs boundaries and a bossy rider. She is half angel, half devil. She despises having her right fore foot cleaned, but will do anything for a peppermint.

Meeko has the smoothest gait, loves going fast and racing over any jumps, except planks and barrels. She’ll go over tires fine but not planks or barrels.

But the greatest thing about Meeko is her ability to make me happy. One of my most recent experiences of this ability was a few weeks ago when school and life were taking their toll. I was on the verge of tears as my mom picked me up from school. I said I didn’t want to go to lessons; my mom was shocked. I hadn’t said anything like that for 7 years. She made me go anyway. By the time my mom picked me up from the barn I was saying, “Wow, Meeko really helps my stress level. She’s a miracle worker.” So, Meeko is no wonder pony but she’s more than a lesson pony. She’s more than a devil. She is my savior.

Photo by Margaret Marsano

Photo by Margaret Marsano

Dolly (Hannah Yoder)

When I think lesson horse, a lot of great horses come to mind. Many horses have worked hard to make me a better person, and I couldn’t thank them enough. But the greatest lesson horse I know is one I never even rode. She was an old white pony named Dolly.

When I started volunteering at the local therapeutic riding center, something I noted about the therapy horses was how some of them seemed to see therapy as just another job: plodding along, their heads hanging. Then there were the ones who understood the importance of their work. Dolly was one who knew.

When I remember Dolly now, I see those fuzzy white ears pricked in the direction of her little charge. I see a beaming little girl, holding up her first trophy for her beloved pony to see. I see a boy waking from his autistic world to say, “Walk, Dolly.” I see little hands stroking the white muzzle. I see her stepping carefully around the arena, unfrazzled by sudden movements or noises her children made. I see her working alongside us, week after week, without complaint, giving herself for those children.

Dolly never stopped giving, up to the day her caretakers found her colicking in her stall, and the therapy program lost their angel.

Rest in peace, Dolly.

Photo by Hannah Yoder

Photo by Hannah Yoder

Honey (Debbie Larson)

At the end of my lesson my trainer asks “do you want to cool her down bare back?” Before I can really even think what that entails the word “yes” escapes my mouth. Every lesson is a struggle for me. A fight with the part of me that is terrified and the bigger part of me that knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that this sweet lady proudly carrying me as I bumble through my trot poles will never let me down. That’s why I don’t even have the chance to think, I already know that no matter what, I can trust my sweet Honey to be there.

We’ve been through a lot, she and I, from a pretty nasty spill on a trail ride to me trying to let go and canter without a death grip on the reins. You see, I started to learn to ride when many are “passing the torch” to their own young riders to take up the reins and carry on. I’m well into my late 30s and have always had a desire to feel that connection of horse and rider. As I learn to communicate with this sweet, sassy lady, her moods and mine shift but one thing never changes … her undying devotion and love for her rider.

She is full of love. I feel it every time she lowers her head for a little squirt of a rider to slide the bit in her mouth and place the reins over her head. I see it as she gently carries a person with special needs so they can not only benefit from the therapeutic aspect of riding but also benefit from her sweet, giving soul. I felt it as I cooled her down with the barrier of a saddle removed. I felt it as I slid off her back, wrapped my arms around her neck and she nuzzled me with her head. I fell in love with her almost from the moment we met and my life is better for knowing her.

Photo by Jen Rudnor

Photo by Jen Rudnor

Count (Chloe Kocian)

Honestly, I could go on for hours talking about my favorite lesson horse. I guess I’ll start off with his name, Count Shazam (Count). He’s a flea­bitten grey Quarab with an unknown past. When I met Count, I had a hard time trusting people into my life because I had been bullied and harassed by people I cared about. He helped me through this. I began to trust this horse, and this horse that didn’t trust began to trust me.

As I got to know Count, I could feel this incredible two-­way friendship blooming. I began feeling like my bubbly, happy self again. Together we have grown in many ways. Our bond is something I can’t even begin to explain. He’s helped me learn how to ride through that moment where your horse decides everything in this world is out to get him.

Count has become a huge part of my life and made me the person I am today. I cannot thank him enough for continuously keeping my secrets, teaching me, and guiding me through these obstacles that were thrown at me and I love him for that. I thank God everyday for leading me to my best friend!

Photo by Emily Remillard

Photo by Emily Remillard

Zotti (Alanna Flax-Clark)

I am a Grade 1b para dressage rider. I didn’t grow up around horses, and knew nothing about them until I started hippotherapy for rehab. It took years working with my PT to be an independent rider. As a Grade 1b rider, I am paralyzed and have no use of my legs or hands. I rely solely on my core and voice to ride.

I started training with Lehua Custer Dressage this past year where I ride Lehua’s lesson horse, Ramazotti 75. He has truly built up my confidence as an equestrian. Zotti is like a grandfather to me — full of lessons you don’t even realize he’s teaching you.

Zotti is a patient soul who always watches out for me, and is ready to grow with my needs. Unlike when I’m in my wheelchair  looking up at people, when I’m atop Zotti, people look up at me for a change and I feel empowered. Even though Zotti takes the steps for me, I do experience the sensation of walking when we’re together. I gain a sense of freedom as he lends me his legs. Ramazotti 75 has impacted my life in more ways than I can express.

Photo by Michael Hansel

Photo by Michael Hansel

Star (Hilary DeAngelis)

“Well it’s not like you were very successful with THAT breeding.” Those words stung at first, because the person was referring to the fact that Star was “just a school horse”. She hadn’t gone to Rolex, she didn’t stand in the Oval at Devon with a tricolor sash around her neck, she never got a 10 from a dressage judge. She was “just a school horse.”  Who breeds a school horse?

I did, and she makes me proud every time I see her jogging patiently around the ring with a rider figuring out how to post. Or when she flicks her ears back when her teacup canter brought a squeal of joy to the little girl who had been afraid of that gait because it was “too fast.” Because on Star, it’s not scary: it’s fun.

When you point her at a jump and do nothing, she will jump anyway. When you think you should take off two strides early she says, no, we wait. When you bury her to a half stride? She figures it out for you. And when you ride that canter just right? She gives you a perfect jump.

I didn’t set out to breed a school horse but “can I ride Star again?” is music to my ears.

Photo by Vanessa Wilde

Photo by Vanessa Wilde

Olympia (Mary Jo Stark)

Born during the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics, Twin Peak Olympia (Greentree Brigadier x UVM Noontide) was destined for greatness from the beginning. Sarah Jarvis bought Olympia as a yearling with the intention of showing her in carriage driving and dressage, but her life and business changed and Olympia found her niche as lesson horse extraordinaire.

In 11 years, Olympia has guided students through their first trail rides, over their first jumps, and into their first show rings. Her kind, patient disposition and classic Morgan work ethic make her ideal for teaching. Her students have ranged in age from less than one to more than 80 years. Olympia is especially talented when paired with special needs students, including two young people with autism.

A girl who found riding too physically stimulating learned how to experience horses in a new way, from the seat of a buggy, whereas a young boy, Mark, improved his coordination, balance, and self-confidence and now shows in dressage, combining his new skills with Olympia’s special knowledge. According to Mark’s grandfather, “I trust Olympia has only good intentions for her riders, which is important to parents of special needs students.”

Photo by Mark Davis

Photo by Mark Davis

Dodger (Christina Loukides)

Our favorite lesson horse has changed my son’s life. When my son was six years old, he struggled with SPD and most of all his self-esteem. When you know you’re different, you’re left to wonder if that means you’re less than

We accidentally came upon horseback riding about a year ago. Throughout this year, my son has blossomed. There is no question his confidence has soared because of his relationship with Dodger.

Week after week – in the heat of summer and the cold of winter – Dodger and my son spend a magical half hour together at Apple Tree Farm in Hollis, NH. Whether my son is working on the reins, posting or jumping, Dodger remains steady and gentle.

When I ask my son why Dodger is so special to him he tells me, “Dodger stops trotting when he feels like you’re unbalanced, so you don’t fall off. That’s how much he cares. Besides, mom – we have a bond.”

It is this “bond” and feeling of acceptance from Dodger that has taught my son he is not less than. On the contrary, he is cared for by someone he trusts with all his heart.

Photo by Christina Loukides

Photo by Christina Loukides

Nitro (Megan Kiessling)

I’ve fallen off many times, but in 2012 I had my worst. While I got some excellent pain meds out of the ordeal, it definitely put the scare in me. For the first time in my life I actually thought of quitting, but my trainer didn’t give up on me. She started by reminding me that I was not only good at jumping but I loved it.

Enter Nitro.

Nitro is a grumpy little palomino lesson pony. He is hard to flat, but a saint over fences with a big horse’s jump in a little horse body. In the beginning I felt like my heart was going to pound out of my chest. We would successfully navigate four jumps and I wanted to quit while we were ahead.

But as time passed, the fear dissipated. Instead of being petrified when he jumped four foot over a ditch I had a good laugh. We weren’t perfect but I felt safe and more importantly, I was having fun.

Without him, I would never have found the courage to jump again with a smile on my face. I would not have bought my first OTTB, Runkle.

So thank you Nitro. I owe you one, buddy. Every time Runkle and I leave the ground.

Photo by Brandi Williams of Foxy Photography

Photo by Brandi Williams of Foxy Photography

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Go lesson horses! Go riding!