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What is a heart horse, exactly? It’s hard to explain. It’s the kind of thing you have to experience for yourself in order to truly understand it. The best way I’ve heard it described is that a heart horse is a horse whose soul compliments your soul. It’s a horse that you have a special connection with – a soulmate in equine form.
I started riding shortly before I turned 6. On January 14th, 2012, my 12th birthday, I received a card explaining that come spring, my mom and I would start the search for a horse of my very own. In April, on Friday the 13th, we met a 12-year-old Paint gelding named Leo Scottish Pride, aka “TJ.” He certainly wasn’t the prettiest horse to look at – a short, hairy, under muscled little Paint with an unevenly cut, choppy mane. It was April in Iowa, far too cold for a good bath, so his white parts looked more yellow-brown than white. The seller’s son tried to lunge him for us, but “TJ” pulled the lunge line out of his hand and ran down the driveway. They caught him, tacked him up, and I rode him around a little. Then we went home.
Two days later, on April 15th, 2012, we went back to see the little Paint again. I rode him some more, this time we went out in the cornfield for a bit. When I loped him, he did a little crow-hop. My mom only saw out of the corner of her eye, and when she asked me if he bucked, I lied and told her he just slipped. And then, we bought that little Paint horse. To this day, I’m not sure why we chose him. He definitely wasn’t a great first horse for a 12-year-old. He bucked when asked to lope, didn’t know his leads (and almost never picked up the left lead), he didn’t neck rein, he didn’t back, it took hours to get him on the trailer. But regardless, he came home with us.
It took me a couple weeks to decide on a name for him. TJ didn’t fit, and I wanted his name to be perfect. I finally settled on the name “Chaco,” after Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, which my family had visited a couple years prior.
I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a few times in those first few years that I wanted to sell him. He was just awful sometimes, and we didn’t have the money for a trainer. But despite the problems and setbacks, I stuck with him. And over time, he became my best friend.
We started going to horse shows, something neither of us had done before. Even though we didn’t do so well at the first few, I decided that showing was the best thing I’d ever done. We improved more and more each year, and our relationship became stronger and stronger. It started to seem like he could hear my thoughts. We competed at the Iowa State Fair and entered cowgirl queen contests. We even won a couple state champion titles in ranch horse. I started giving some local 4-H kids riding lessons in 2016, something I never would’ve been able to do without everything Chaco taught me.
In 2019, we took our biggest leap yet and went to the Pinto World Championship Show in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In all our years together, we had only gone to a couple of breed shows – they were too expensive – but we went anyway. And my little self-trained Paint pony and I came home with not one, not two, but three reserve world champion titles in three different ranch horse classes. We went from two scrawny, inexperienced little ugly duckling 12-year-olds to two 19-year-old reserve world champions, and neither of us could’ve done it without the other.
Our win pic at the 2019 Pinto World Championship
But it’s not the ribbons and accomplishments that make him my heart horse. It’s his personality and heart. It’s him playing “tag” and chasing me around the arena, no halter or bridle, as I laugh and try my best to outrun him even though I know it’s impossible. It’s the way he tolerates anyone I put on his back, but tries to sneak into the middle where I’m standing with every lap around the arena. It’s him standing quietly as I sob into his mane over the death of my dad in 2015, over breakups and lost friendships. It’s him being far too smart for his own good and learning to untie himself, open stall doors, and discovering that “bowing” gets him lots and lots of treats. It’s him having mini temper tantrums when he sees me paying attention to other horses, the way he looks at me when he knows I’m making fun of him, the way he comes when I call him from the gate, the way he nickers when I walk into the barn.
Now, it’s 2021. I can’t imagine life without Chaco. He’s more than just my best friend, he’s my entire world. He’s been with me through so, so much, and he’s been the cause of many tears and even more smiles and laughter. It would take me hours to talk about everything he’s done for me. He turned 21 on April 1st, but he is still going strong. But even when he starts feeling his age, when he’s old and unrideable, he will stay with me. He’s done so much for me, the least I can do is give him a good retirement when he’s ready and a safe place to live out his life. It’s impossible to put into words how much this horse means to me. But I can say, with 100% certainty, that Chaco is my heart horse.
You can follow our journey on Instagram by following @paintofadifferentcolor