Bert began the spring of 2014 the same way he spent the long winter: unemployed and restless. When he wasn’t challenging Lori’s horses, he was trying the doors and gates. Anything he could manipulate was fair game. Lori couldn’t put halters on her horses when they were in the pasture with Bert after he discovered that removing a halter from the head of another horse was in his skillset. The little Arabian needed a job, the sooner the better.
At the time, no one could have known that the solution to his problem was just thirty miles away, in the person of one hopelessly horse-crazed girl, 12-year-old Allie Ouendag.
Allie was having her own problems. Fair Week was just two months away and she suddenly found herself without a horse. Goldie, the Palomino Pony she had been hoping to lease and take to Fair, had been sold out from under her.
Allie desperately needed a horse. Bert desperately needed a person who needed a horse. In the immortal words of Ghostbuster Dr. Peter Venkman, “We have to get these two together.” Surely, in a Just & Happy Universe, the meeting would be inevitable.
The fact that these two did indeed get together was not the work of cosmic forces or even pure chance. It took the efforts and attention of a small group of people to make it happen. And that started with Allie herself.
When kids – and it’s mostly girls – get into horses, a culling process takes place. Those who are enamored with the fantasy of horses, but have little sense of the realities and responsibilities of horse care, are prone to drop out quickly. Others will stick with it for a few years and participate at some level, but they eventually drift away as other interests push horses to the margins.
Those who have the true passion, the real IT, are in it for the duration. Being around horses triggers something in these girls. Time at the barn becomes precious and they really don’t care to be anywhere else. Kids that have trouble making the bus by 8, will happily get up at 6 a.m. in the dead of winter for the morning feeding. They are fearless, relentless and eager. Some would say obsessed. They are likely to have IT for the rest of their lives.
When experienced horsepeople see IT in a young horse enthusiast, they become more inclined to offer their time and effort as mentors and advocates. I think veteran horsepeople sometimes see something of themselves in these kids. This support and guidance is an invaluable resource for any young person who is serious about horses.
Allie has IT. She began riding at age 8. After the customary begging and pleading, her mother, Danielle, finally caved and agreed to sign her up for lessons at Byron Downs (now Villa Maria Stables), a local lesson barn. At Byron Downs, Allie joined the 4-H group, Stable Mates and began taking lessons on an ancient Quarter horse named Stick. However, she had no interest in showing. All Allie really wanted was to take care of a horse.
Through Byron Downs and Stable Mates, Allie was introduced to the larger horsepeople community. She became friends with Mara and Alyssa Hehman. Both girls were a few years older than Allie and also had IT. Mara, an ardent student of all things equine and mature beyond her years, took Allie under her wing and served as a peer mentor to the young rider.
Last year, Allie started riding Jake, Alyssa’s Appaloosa. Jake was a veteran show horse and a definite upgrade over the other horses Allie had been riding. She also started taking lessons with Lynn Kamps, an equine dentist and experienced riding instructor whom she had met through Mara. Under Lynn’s tutelage, Allie grew in both riding skill and confidence. She rode Jake in the 2013 Kent County Youth Fair, placed in a few classes and discovered that showing horses might be kind of fun after all.
When 2014 rolled around, Allie was looking forward to going to Fair again. However, since Alyssa had turned 18, it would be her last opportunity to participate at Fair. Naturally, she wanted to take Jake. When the deal with Goldie didn’t happen, Allie was without a horse for Fair – or for the summer.
While Allie didn’t have a horse, she was not without resources. IT had made her a bona fide member of the larger community of equine enthusiasts. The network that she now belonged to would provide.
The key connection was made this spring when Lynn was out at Lori’s doing some dental work on her horses. Lori told Lynn about Bert in her first visit the previous year. This time Lynn had the perfect candidate to offer and a meeting was arranged.
The chemistry was instantaneous: “I loved Bert the moment I saw him,” Allie tells us.
Bert accepted Allie right away. It only took a few minutes before he was following her around, no lead line necessary. This is what he had been waiting for.
It was also what Lori and Jamie had been waiting for. They weren’t going to let Bert go to just anyone. It had to be someone like Allie.
It was clear to Lori and everyone in Allie’s immediate support group that this was a great match. Even Mara, who would have preferred another Appaloosa or a Quarter horse for Allie, was impressed after riding the little Arab.
The Hehman family offered to board Bert at their farm. This was the ideal place for a horse with Bert’s insatiable curiosity. In addition to horses, the Hehman’s had numerous goats, chickens, dogs and ducks on the property. Bert was intent on making friends with every single one of them. He would stand quietly in between the chicken coups for several minutes at a time, just listening.
Allie spent her summer with Bert at the Hehman’s. Danielle dropped her off every morning and Allie stayed for the entire day. For a kid like Allie, this was paradise. It gave her and Bert an opportunity to learn about each other and strengthen their bond.
With Fair looming just weeks away, the two also had a lot of work to do. They took three lessons a week.
“Bert knew English and we had to teach him Western,” Allie explains.
By the time Fair came in early August, Lynn and Mara had the pair as ready as they were going to be.
They started out slow, failing to place in showmanship. Bert was obviously bored with it and Allie couldn’t keep him from fussing.
Then, they nabbed a blue ribbon in English Pleasure.
This was followed by a third in Western Pleasure.
They failed to place in two Dressage tests. Allie didn’t have much experience in Dressage and Bert didn’t help thing by stepping out and getting the pair DQ’d.
Then the big surprise: despite Allie having little experience in Dressage, the pair executed “two beautifully perfect circles” and stunned everyone by earning a first in Dressage Equitation.
Allie says that by the time they started the final class, Grand Reserve, “We were both done.” It had been a long week. But they still managed to get 7th in a field of 17.
Bert and Allie had a great week at Fair together.
With the start of the school year, Allie’s barn time has been curtailed. She still gets out to see Bert at least once a week. As the two continue to learn and grow together, their connection becomes stronger. It is a connection made possible by the active support of a community that welcomes those who share a passion for this noble and deserving animal.