On the night of my 33rd birthday I tucked Eli away into his stall with a feeling of pride. He’d just come home from an overnight stay at the veterinarian, and my little ex-racer cryptorchid was now a gelding.
My pride had nothing to do with the surgery. It was the fact that I had a stall in which to house my project pony during his recovery.
Nine years earlier when my husband and I were deciding to settle in Virginia, we were limited in the finances department. I’d just graduated from intern to most junior staff writer at the Chronicle, while he was making a bit more than me as a carpenter’s apprentice. Needless to say, a turnkey horse facility in Loudoun County at the height of the real estate bubble was completely out of our price range.
But we wanted a farm and decided we were better off trying to find a fixer-upper rather than spending our limited cash on equally pricey rentals in the area.
We ended up getting a hot tip about a house, which was really more of a shack, on 20 acres of former cow pasture. There was an equipment/goat shed in the back, which could conceivably be used as a grooming stall after it had been cleared of debris and several feet of composting manure. There was an automatic waterer. No fence or barn or riding arena, but we were convinced we’d make it work.
I arrived at our new Virginia homestead in the heat of August with two horses. My husband had been there for a few months before me trying to make the place habitable for his new wife and her precious steeds. He’d used a classic push mower (no fancy gasoline powered models for us) to clear the waist high grass in order to string up electric wire and T-posts around half an acre of pasture. My horses didn’t even have a shed to protect them from the blazing temperatures and buzzing flies.
He proudly showed off his handiwork, and I’m not sure how I held back tears as I realized how far from prepared we were to do this grown-up thing of keeping horses on our own farm.
That first summer in Virginia, I kept my tack on the porch and groomed my horses while they were tied to the railing. My husband eventually asked me to stop tying horses to the posts that supported the roof of the porch because, well, umm, he’d grown concerned that the next time a horse yanked one of the supports out, we weren’t going to have a porch roof anymore.
My farrier rejoiced when he no longer needed to shoe my horse in the driveway. We got the goat shed cleared out enough for two rubber mats and some crossties. Not fancy by any means, but basically safe and useable in all weather conditions.
The farm had improved rapidly after that depressing move-in day. Because my husband was a carpenter, he had easy access to scrap building materials. After borrowing the neighbor’s bushhog to actually clear a pasture and put up a suitable amount of fencing, we got started on building a run-in shed.
It was another proud day when my horses had a roof to shelter them from the elements. I anxiously waited for them to check out the new structure, test it for relief from the sun. But in typical horse fashion, they never seemed too interested in that shed, preferring to shelter in the trees. I found out why a few months later when a strong wind flattened our first attempt at a run-in. Apparently the horses knew something I didn’t.
Eventually a more experienced carpenter helped us build a run-in shed that the horses would use. We took out a loan and built a riding arena, although I managed to do a one-star without one. I prayed that no horse of mine would need stall rest, as that simply wasn’t an option, although I did have amazing friends and neighbors who would help out in a pinch. Finally, in 2009, five years after we’d moved there, we started working on a barn.
Things had changed for the better, but we were still on a budget. No pre-fab buildings or Amish-made barns for us. My husband scored free steel beams from his new job as a building materials test engineer. It was a minor miracle that no one was killed by those beams as we experimented with the best way to erect them at a barn raising where the only equipment we had was enthusiastic volunteers.
The roof went on that fall, and some siding went up a year later. We watched anxiously to see if the engineering on this structure would hold up better than the doomed run-in shed. The barn progressed steadily but very slowly, growing in fits and spurts as money and time allowed. We were close to making the stalls horse habitable, but it took the impetus of Eli needing lay-up after his surgery to get them completed for January of 2013.
Leading Eli into the new 14' x 14' oak board stall on that cold winter night felt like coming into the modern age of horse keeping. No longer did I need to hang my head in shame over my primitive facilities. We had a real horse farm now.
Of course, the story doesn’t quite end there. The sliding doors were hung, but the latches hadn’t arrived by the time I shepherded Eli into his new accommodations. Later that night we were in the house discussing an ice cream run to celebrate my birthday when my husband went out to the barn to grab something. He returned with a worried look and asked, “Isn’t there supposed to be horse in there?”
We grabbed flashlights and winter coats and went racing out into the darkness. Yes, I had stalls, but it hasn’t occurred to me that one bored and lonely horse could easily slide the door open and let himself out.
Fortunately, Eli hadn’t gone far and hadn’t been stupid. It took us half an hour to find him in a field next door. But he’d only been walking around, not running. I imagined he was just re-assuring himself that he wouldn’t have to live in a stall night and day again as he had at the track.
I placed him back in the stall, bungeed the door shut, and decided it was too late for ice cream. Despite the minor adventure, the satisfaction of having a warm, safe and, now, secure place to store my horse was a good enough birthday present for me.
Read Sara's previous blogs...
Each Thursday, we'll feature a blog from a member of the Chronicle staff. We're just like you—juggling riding and competing with work and family. A graduate "C-3" from Penobscot Pony Club (Maine), Sara Lieser spent a year working for Denny Emerson before attending Amherst College (Mass.) and is now learning the sport from the ground up by training her own horses. She and her husband, Eric, share their 20-acre farm with two dogs, three cats, and an ever-changing number of horses.