We talk a lot about ‘time’ here at SAFE, the time it takes for a horse to reach certain milestones (varied), the time we give them to get there (endless, for the most part). But to frame this in a linear style is not always the most accurate. Yes, the paths some horses take are mostly straight, but some horses’ roads are a bit more circuitous, doubling back on themselves. This does not mean, necessarily, that forward progress is not still being made, it just looks a bit different in certain cases.

Ciara is a perfect example of a road that winds a bit. Ciara came in with the Gig Harbor horses, back in May of 2022. She, along with the majority of her cohorts, was not halter broke, and therefore needed things to start at square one. She had a terrible understanding of what it meant to give to pressure, and her earliest sessions on the end of a rope involved a lot of pulling or pushing into that which was asking her to give. But with time and patience, her understanding grew, and she began her transformation into a mare who was beginning to look more ‘domestic.’

We set Ciara on the course to be a riding horse. Given the fact that, despite not being halter broke upon arrival, she had certainly been ‘messed with’ before, we knew that her journey towards this end might not be the easiest of them all. But she was not the first horse of similar background and temperament that we had successfully started under saddle, and nor would she be the last.

We began with the usual preparation — flags and ropes and tarps and pads, combined with loads of hindquarters, changing eyes, bringing the front across, all the blocks that build a successful horse. After a good while of this, we determined Ciara was ready to be cinched up.

Despite her preparedness and the support we gave her through the process, saddling was not easy for Ciara. This can sometimes be the case, where it takes more groundwork and more experiences being cinched up before the horse begins to feel more comfortable. After that initial saddle, we continued to work and saddle her, hoping that repetition would increase her comfort and understanding of the process.

And while it did, Ciara’s rate of change was not as fast as we would have hoped. On a “Monday,” she was troubled by the saddle, and while she was able to be talked out of the majority of her worries by a confident support on the end of the line, they were still there not far below the surface. As the week progressed, she did better and better, and typically by her “Friday,” she was more feeling and understanding of the saddle’s presence.

But the process would begin again come the next ‘Monday.’ Ciara did not vacation well, and while she maybe started a little further than she had the week prior, it was not the trajectory that we would have hoped. While we are accustomed to horses who have trouble, who need extra time and support, we do reach a time of crossroads where we need to determine whether or not it is in the horse’s best interest to continue on their current trajectory — in this case, to be a riding horse.

There is no less value in companion horses, and a horse’s ability to carry a rider does not make them more worthy in our eyes. However, the reality is, horses who have some kind of start under saddle are ‘safer’ in the long run. It tends to be more difficult to re-home a companion horse than a horse who has some experience being ridden, and in our efforts to ensure our charges a lifetime of safety, we try to give them the most amount of tools in their belts.

But there definitely is a time when we decide that the best course of action is to retire a horse from the riding program. We gave Ciara a little while off over the winter months, with the plan to re-evalute where she (and we) are at in this new year. As she gets back into the working swing of things, we will once again work towards saddling with the hope that the positive experiences we were able to give her stayed ingrained during her time off. From there, we will chart a course for Ciara’s future, either as a riding horse like originally planned, or as a companion horse. Regardless of what we decide, the time we have spent thus far has not been in any way wasted, and every moment with this sweet mare has been one helping her prepare for her future, whatever that might look like.