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Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth

Julie at the 2012 Morrow County Fair.

By Kim Lemmon

We’ve all heard the saying, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” As it turns out, what it really means is appreciate a gift for what it is and don’t try to figure out its value. In the middle ages, the age and the value of a horse, was determined by looking at its teeth, thus the saying, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

In general, my husband, Mark, and I try to stay away from free horses and livestock. We have turned down many free horses through the years because we figured that there had to be some serious flaws with the horses that caused them to be free, but in horses and life we have learned there are always exceptions.

About two and half years ago, I closed my riding lesson business in order to pursue my dream of owning and showing a draft horse. I sold all of my beloved lesson horses and left my much-loved students because it was either one or the other. I didn’t feel I could do justice to both of them, and I figured nearly a decade of teaching lessons on one level or another was enough and it was time for me to have some fun of my own. It wasn’t a decision I took lightly.

I tearfully made it through the sales of my lesson horses and eagerly bought harness and carts to start driving the two approximately 16 hand draft crosses that I had purchased. It was a doomed feat from the start.

I soon learned that driving is very different from riding and that not all large draft-type horses are “gentle giants.”

This pair of mares drug me up and down the driveway and basically took advantage of me and my lack of skills working with draft horses. I was missing my old horses and my students and I was a mess.

I received some help from friends and sold the mares to more experienced draft horse handlers, but summer had started and the deadline for entering my county fair’s draft horse show was approaching and I didn’t have a horse to show. I was devastated because my main goal had been to show at my county fair with my very own draft horse.

I didn’t know where to turn and was very depressed when a friend of mine suggested I contact Char VanderHoning, an acquaintance I had met while coaching my equestrian team.

I had only had contact with Char a few times years before and then our teams changed regions. As a result, I no longer saw her regularly because she is from Sand Lake, Michigan. I did see her every year though at the Ohio State Fair showing her draft horses and she would always take a few minutes out of her busy schedule to talk to me about draft horses and encourage me to pursue my dream of one day owning some draft horses of my own.

I reluctantly followed my friend’s advice and sent Char an e-mail stating that I was in search of a very safe and very cheap draft horse to show at my county fair. I was certain she wouldn’t know of any because she stands a very nice stallion at her farm and all her Percherons are very nice, quality animals that are shown at the big shows.

As it turned out, Char had two horses in mind. She suggested a gelding in his late teens that a friend of hers owned. She said he was very safe and would cost around $1,000. She also mentioned her adult daughter’s nine-year-old black mare that had been shown a lot and was very accomplished and safe. Her tremendous show record had made her a family favorite so they didn’t want to sell her at a sale or to strangers. They just wanted her to have a good home and she was free. YES FREE!!!Char invited us to come to her home and look at the horses.  Mark and I were very concerned about accepting a free horse, so we asked Char to arrange for us to look at the gelding as well. We were sure that was the direction we would go. The free situation just couldn’t be a good one.

The date was set and Mark and I headed north. It was a five-hour trip and most of the trip was spent discussing how we were going to politely turn down the free horse and that we really under no circumstance could accept the free mare. There just had to be issues and we really needed a horse that was safe and ready to go. I was out of time and patience to work on a project horse before my fair.

We arrived at Char’s home at Dutch Love Farm to be introduced to her husband, Nihil, and her daughter, Brooke. Brooke is just a few years younger than me and we hit it off right away because of our mutual love of horses.

Brooke gave me a line driving lesson and a driving lesson with her mare, Julie. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Though I wasn’t very brave due to my past experiences with the less than beginner suited draft horses I had, it was apparent that not only was Julie exceedingly kind and safe, she was also a mare of significant quality. The fact that she was grade was the only obstacle holding her back from being a permanent member of the Dutch Love Farm breeding program.

I was astounded. I had to have this mare. We didn’t go and look at the gelding. I begged Mark all the way home for Julie and really it didn’t take much begging; even he could see the miracle that Julie was and the quality of the people that had raised her.

A few weeks later, we drove back to Dutch Love Farm with a horse trailer in tow. I was given a harnessing lesson and another driving lesson and I was much braver this time because I had to prove to Mark that I could harness and drive this 17.2 hand mare on my own.

Although I’m certain I’m not showing or driving Julie to her full potential, this past summer, I finished my third county fair with this mare and each year she has taught me something new. I’m finally starting to feel like I’m getting the hang of driving, harnessing and managing a draft horse and I love it. Julie has been a very patient teacher and the VanderHoning family has been extremely kind and supportive.

Each year, Mark and I learn more about draft horses and appreciate Julie more and realize just what a valuable gift she is.

I never look this gift horse in the mouth. If I had evaluated the situation more closely in the beginning, I might have realized just how valuable of a gift she was and I might have been reluctant to accept her. Instead, I just say thank you to the members of Dutch Love Farm often and give Julie a nice and comfortable home and an occasional kiss because sometimes “too good to be true” is so incredible there is nothing else you can do.

So this Christmas remember to be thankful and grateful for whatever gifts you receive. Large or small, cheap or expensive, these gifts and their givers might surprise you in the long run.

Whether we are practicing or attending a show, Julie is a pleasure to harness and drive.

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