BROOKSVILLE — The first time Kirsty Wright had her new pony, Noelle, taken to the vet, the 8-year-old reared onto her hind legs, pushing Wright into the wall.
It was then that Wright, a 32-year-old St. Petersburg College student, wondered what she had gotten herself into.
When she saw a Facebook posting about a horse for sale in Jacksonville, she thought it was a deal. The horse was listed at only $1,000, and she liked the medium-sized pony’s trot. Her shoulders and front legs moved nicely, and years of training horses had Wright interested.
The owner warned her — Noelle was mean. She didn’t like being in the stalls or the pastures. The woman said she had bought Noelle from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office after they found her wandering in the woods a few months earlier. Nobody claimed her, so she was put up for auction.
By the time Wright first got her in April 2018, Noelle was near feral, she said. The pony couldn’t so much as stand in a stall — at most she could be led around. Now, the 9-year-old Noelle participates in shows and can be ridden by children. She jumps. She put on muscle and her coat, a dark chestnut, gleams.
Only a scar or two on her legs show she had a life before her time at Winding Oaks Equestrian Center, a show horse barn near Brooksville.
“I didn’t even know how much of a project she was going to be when I got her,” Wright said. “There was just something about her I really liked.”
By the time most horses are 4, they are ready to be sat on, or “broke,” and take well to grooming. Noelle wouldn’t even let a hose get near her at age 8. She reared up, falling onto her back, often. The equestrian center kept her in the back because she wouldn’t rest in a stable.
Wright remembers at first, it took her two and a half hours to even catch Noelle from the pasture and bring her in. Every time she would get close, the pony would run away.
When she did rope her in and tried to hose her down, Noelle got so scared she slammed her body into the wall, trying to escape.
Gary Clay, an equine expert based in Arizona, said when a horse is older, training it can be difficult.
“Horses, when they haven’t been domesticated and taught to trust, they look at humans and other stimulus as a threat to their survival,” he said.
Clay said the pony was probably initially owned by someone who neglected it or didn’t know what they were doing. He said the way to help a horse like that is slow, patient reconditioning, like Pavlov.
Little by little, Wright tried to get Noelle to trust that things like spray bottles and hoses wouldn’t hurt her. She started by spraying her legs and slowly moving up her body, day by day. At first Noelle didn’t even know what a treat was. She sniffed carrots and mints with suspicion.
Wright wondered if she had taken on a project too big for her, but knew if she sold Noelle the horse would likely end up “on a meat truck,” she said.
Wright said despite her learning curve, Noelle is smart. Once she understands something won’t hurt her, she sticks to it. She travels better than some of the born-and-bred show horses at the barn, she said.
It took nearly five months for Wright to put a saddle on Noelle, let alone sit on her. The first time she did, Wright was more nervous than she had been in a long time. She had been riding horses since she was 6 and trained many, but had seen how Noelle could rear up when she was scared.
But by the time she sat on her, the horse had bonded with her, she said.
“I think if I put a jump on fire she’d jump over for me,” Wright said.
Mindy Tayor, who owns the barn, said seeing Noelle’s progress changed her perspective on what was possible. Before, if a horse came in too late she would turn them away. Instead she saw Noelle and Wright make progress, each day getting closer to Noelle being a show pony like the others.
“Once she got it it was full speed ahead,” Taylor said.
Even once Noelle got comfortable with Wright riding her, she froze up when some of the children tried. But bit by bit Wright said she relinquished some control and helped Noelle get used to different riders.
Now Noelle participates in shows, recently winning reserve champion at the Fox Lea Farm competition in Venice, Fla. Wright’s goal is to get her to quality for the United States Equestrian Foundation Pony Finals in Lexington, Ky. in December. She says it’s the biggest accomplishment a pony can make, and she believes Noelle can do it.
“I get nervous every time she goes in the ring,” she said. “It’s like seeing your baby in there. It almost brings tears to your eyes.”
Her training has been constant. In the beginning, Wright would come for hours every day of the week just to slowly acclimate Noelle to grooming, walking and riding.
Even now, she still comes nearly every day to see Noelle, pet her mane and feed her a sugar cube or peppermint. She knows one day a child will likely buy Noelle. She’ll be proud of her work, but sad to see a horse so special to her go.
“I don’t think she was ever mean,” Wright said. “I just think she had no idea what to do.”