April 25th,  2022

By Karine Vandenborre

She was a "big deal"

Big Deal was a horse at the stable in Portugal where I worked 20 years ago when I was 23-24 years old.  

I moved to Portugal in 2001 to work for a riding stable to teach riding classes, and train horses in dressage and trail riding.

The day I arrived at the stables the owner said to me that there had been only one girl in the past, who was capable of riding Big Deal. With every other rider, she ran off from the moment they left the stables to go for a trail ride. So nobody dared to ride her anymore, not even the head rider of the stables, Rodrigo, a Portuguese man.

She would just run until you fell off, or she would at one point manage to turn around and run full speed to the stables again. People would just jump off her themselves, in panic.

So it was a big big problem and in a way, it was funny because her name was Big Deal and she truly was “a big deal”!

She was very impressive and from the very first moment I saw her - she had a strong muscled body, with a big chest and strong hindquarters - I could see she also had a very strong character.

Anyway, the owner - my boss - said I could try riding her.  If it worked, I could have this horse as “my horse” for the time I lived there.

This meant I could ride her when I went for trail rides with customers and also when I wanted to ride her just for fun.

If it didn't work out they would sell her to the gypsies. Because if I couldn't ride her then she would only cost money and the owner didn't want that anymore.

Of course, I wanted to try it. I said: “I'm not going to ride her in the arena, I'm going to take her into the hills and hopefully, if I can't hold her and she runs off, I will be able to gallop uphill with her.”
So then came the moment to ride her for the first time. It was a week or two after I arrived, so I already got to know the hills around the property a bit.
Because of my experience in my youth and previous jobs with horses that were difficult to ride, I believed I had a good chance of doing well.

Because I already knew that there was one thing I couldn't do and that was putting too much pressure on the reins because then she would surely run off.

And that was also what I noticed about her. If we were walking or trotting and there was tension on the reins, she would start running.

Also, when I would squeeze my legs just a tiny little bit, she would start running as well. And if I would tense a little bit here, or tense a little bit there, she would also start running.

So there were a lot of little things that caused her to want to run off. Therefore, I can imagine that a rider with not enough body awareness just didn't know what caused her to want to run off like that.

Only a slight shift in how my body was feeling could make her tense herself and want to run off.
But it also worked the other way around, sometimes she would be the first to tense because of something in the environment for example, and when I tensed with her, she would start speeding up as well.

But if I reacted to her tensing by breathing out and truly feeling towards her and giving her the message that I was staying relaxed and breathing relaxed, she would not speed up.

So the first times I rode her she ran off a few times, but not to the extent that I fell off. Luckily, I managed to slow her down every time before she was really out of control.

I learned that when she started running off, it mostly had to do with my own body, how I was using my body, and how I reacted to her with my own body and energy.

In a few weeks, she had taught me to find more softness and feel in the saddle.  

After a few weeks of riding her every day, she was a wonderful trail riding horse. She was my dream horse! She stayed a teacher to me the whole time I was there.

I rode her for one year and the more I rode her the better and better we became as a team.

She taught me that if you ride with feel and with love, and if you put love into your aids, then it's ok.

Until this day I can still recall the feeling of riding her.

She was also an extremely powerful horse.

She would run up a steep hill with ease. She would just plant her hind hoofs in the ground and push herself with me on her back forward and up with all her power.

We sometimes did this for fun with the customers that booked a trail ride.  Then I always rode in front, and the other riders had to follow me.

There was a certain hill that was extremely steep, very long and high, and all the other horses, when they were in the middle of the hill, had to continue in walk because they couldn't continue such a steep hill upwards in gallop. It was just too tiring.

But Big Deal, she just galloped all the way up without even slowing down. How she did that was amazing!

Sadly, when I left I couldn't take her home, and a few months later I got a phone call from my boss in Portugal. He asked me if I wanted to take her because after I left they tried other riders again.  They thought that after a year of no problems with her, she would hopefully be ok with other riders.  However, again she was uncontrollable…  They didn't want to keep her any longer.

Unfortunately, I was unable to pay for her transportation to Belgium at that time.  I still regret I didn’t ask someone to help me out…

Big Deal was probably sold or even given to the gypsies, and who knows what happened then…

Portugal isn’t always the most horse-friendly country. I even found that out on my trip now. I was shocked, and this was the reason.