Friday, August 29, 2014

Made to Order - My Horse of a Lifetime

How would you describe a Horse of a Lifetime?

Is a Horse of a Lifetime a big, beautiful Hunter with lots of chrome, a powerful show jumper, or a graceful dressage horse?  Is it the horse who won blue ribbon after blue ribbon for you?  Or, is it a more humble mount – the honest horse who gave you your confidence back after a bad fall?  Perhaps it is the kind horse whose gentle spirit got you though a tough time in your life?  Could a Horse of a Lifetime be a difficult pony who dumped you every ride, frustrating you and pushing you till you nearly quit? Could it be that same problematic pony whose challenging antics were actually teaching you more about correct riding, horsemanship, hard work, and patience than any trainer ever could?  

If you spend enough time around horses you may be blessed with knowing a Horse of a Lifetime.  You might not recognize him or her at first, because they come in all shapes, sizes, ages, disciplines, and temperaments, but if you are lucky enough to know one, you will never, ever be the same.

My Horse of a Lifetime was a bright chestnut, Thoroughbred gelding with a big blaze and two diagonal socks.  If you came across a picture of him today, you might mistake him for the starlet race horse, California Chrome (minus a couple socks, of course).  He had an intelligent expression and a wonderful presence, appearing to be taller than his modest 16hh.  I remember the first day I saw him like it was yesterday and not 1996.  He walked quietly off the trailer at Wendover Place in Oviedo, FL where I rode with Owner/Trainer Wendy Trocano.  I was dazzled by him instantly, and I took my first lesson on him the very next day.
Wendy called him Jake, and it suited his quirky, playful personality and eye-catching looks.    Jake was an off the track youngster purchased by Wendy and a friend as a Hunter prospect, but there was one problem.  Jake was spooky and not in the usual way a horse is spooky.  Typically scary things like farm equipment, loud noises, and tight spaces did not bother him.  However, trotting past a chair that had not moved in 5 years was cause for alarm!  He spooked at the mounting block, lawn chairs, jump standards, parked vehicles, shadows, and more.  Anything that a typical horse accepts as part of his/her normal world could cause Jake to give a sideways jump, a dart forward, or a hop into the air.  He’d even spook riding past a jump he’d already jumped over several times!  Some days were spookier than others, in fact, some trips around the ring during the same ride were spookier than others.  You just never knew when it would happen!  And yet, Jake would be the first one leading the trail ride down a new path with suddenly skittish lesson horses glued to his tail.  He would often be the first to bravely negotiate the new and strange looking jump or the first to hop in an unfamiliar horse trailer.  He even accompanied me down the tack room hallway once or twice!  He really was not an unreasonable horse, just.... unique.  Most of the time his fear left him as quickly and mysteriously as it came.  If as a spectator (or a horse show judge) you blinked, you might miss a spook ever happening.

Though Jake had his unpredictable moments, his heart and gentleness trumped his unusual fears.  One day a mom with her baby in a stroller came up to Jake’s stall.  Jake carefully lowered his head just close enough for the baby to reach him.  Delighted the child grabbed onto Jake’s soft nose.  My spooky horse stood perfectly still as the giggling child patted and poked him. Jake's kind spirit knew just how to act around this young, future equestrian. The only time my mom rode Jake provides another example of his careful, caring nature.  My mom, not a horseback rider, sat aboard Jake as I led them around the ring.  My mom kept saying “Don’t let him spook, Mary.  Don’t let him spook.”  But I was not worried.  I saw the expression in Jake’s eyes.  He was being perfectly attentive and cautious with his inexperienced passenger.
Jake’s spooking may seem like a problem to a lot of people reading this, but I assure you it was one of the best things about him.  Not only did it make me a better rider, it was the reason I was able to own such a nice and talented horse.  If it was not for his spooky, unpredictable moments, he would have no doubt been out of my price range.  With Jake as my partner I learned the best methods of preventing and dealing with spooking.  The best solution was a truck-load of patience and lots of stuff for him to do!  And I have to say, as a then teenager prone to impatience, having a spooky horse taught me to “Keep calm and ride on!" 

I spent more than five wonderful years with Jake.  I accepted his quirks, and he accepted mine.  I figured out a routine for him to keep him happy and relaxed, which reduced his spooking.  We worked well as a pair, a finely matched team.  I took weekly lessons where we developed our jumping skills, and I rode as many other days of the week as I could.  I lived and breathed my horse, and he trusted and tried for me like only a Horse of Lifetime can.  Together we jumped bigger and bigger fences and negotiated more technical courses.  During our years together we showed in the First Year Green Hunter, the Equitation for my age group, the Medal, the Second Year Green Hunter, the Junior Hunter, and other divisions.  I got goose bumps every time the show announcer called our names as we entered the ring.  “Now on course, Made to Order, owned and ridden by Mary Shafer” (my maiden name).

To this day, more than fourteen years later, the best moment I have ever had on a horse was a moment I spent showing Jake.  With my show shirt and jacket soaked and plastered to my arms and the pouring rain blurring my vision (and all the pictures), we put in a perfect hunter round and cantered away with a blue ribbon.  I remember one jump of that trip in particular.  It was an oxer in first line on course set five forward strides from the in-jump.  We hit just the right distance and my amazing horse rocked back on his hocks, curled his front legs, lifted his shoulders, stretched out his neck, and launched us into a perfect, round arc.  We were completely free as we climbed higher and higher together over the oxer.  I glanced down as we crested above the center of the wide jump, amazed by the power and skill of my horse.  We landed lightly and balanced on the other side.  As we cantered into the corner, Jake swapped his lead and playfully shook his head.  He was clearly proud of his effort over the oxer and was enjoying the added fun of showing in the afternoon rain.

I will never forget this moment with Jake, that one jump of our perfect trip shared with my Horse of a Lifetime.  As the show name I gave him suggests, Jake seemed perfectly Made to Order just for me.  He was my best friend, a teacher, a dedicated partner, and a kind soul.  We shared countless great moments together over the years.  There will never be another horse like him.  And in the end, as he fought a losing battle against a neurologic disease, I knew he bravely held on to life just for me.  He never disappointed me before, and he was not going to do so then.  I made a difficult decision in September 2002 to release Jake from his illness.  But even though my Horse of a Lifetime is no longer with me in body, he will never leave my heart.  I count myself incredibly blessed to have known Jake, and even more so that he found me worthy of his trust and heart.  In August 2009 I named my new equestrian business after Jake.  The name not only embodies my philosophy of customizing lessons and training to suit each individual horse and rider, but more importantly is a tribute to and a daily reminder of the horse who shaped my riding career, my character, my love for horses, my life, and who gave me a piece of his soul.  My Horse of a Lifetime…  
Made to Order, a.k.a. Jake
My Horse of a Lifetime
Mary Berlauk is the owner and trainer at Made to Order Equestrian.  Please visit, or email to learn more and schedule a riding lesson.

Copyright Mary Berlauk and Made to Order Equestrian 2014.  All rights reserved.


  1. Great Story. Thanks for sharing. Loved it. Now we know where MTOE got its name :)

  2. Thank you for sharing this, Mary - an absolutely wonderful and expertly written story. (I have tears welling up in my eyes.) You have such talent for imparting the sensitivity and physical connectiveness needed to improve one's equestrian talents. I know I am thankful to have been able to have you as a coach! I look forward to visiting next trip north! Best wishes with everything there at Made To Order Equestrian! Mary Liz