How Much Is That Pony in the Window?
A Look At The Financial And Emotional Costs Of Getting Your Kid A Pony For Christmas
The question is whispered to Dee Fleetwood by her 16-year-old son J.T. during a recent family outing to the chocolate box hamlet of Charlotte Hall, about 90 minutes south of Baltimore in St. Mary’s County.
Dee shoos away her son—a thin, bespectacled boy with Confederate flags emblazoned on his cap, T-shirt and belt buckle—and returns her attention to the horses processing into the barn. She’s been sitting on these dusty bleachers for more than three hours, waiting for the twice-yearly horse auction to move through the tack items and get to the actual equines.
Perched behind a microphone in the bleachers opposite, the auctioneer tries to manufacture some enthusiasm for a twitchy mare: Six-hundred-six-twenty-five-can-I-whudda-six-bitty-bitty-six-six-twenty-five?
This is horse country. In the big city, little girls may go to bed Christmas Eve with visions of ponies prancing in their heads, but out here it’s not unusual for them wake up Dec. 25 and find one munching hay in the backyard.
(Some terminology: Every horse is a horse, of course, but only a pony is a pony. Ponies are small horses standing 14.2 hands or less when fully grown; a hand is a horsy unit of measure equaling about four inches.)
“She was the best gift I ever had,” says Morgan Durst, 12, of Pajamas, the pony she got for Christmas when she was 8. With the auctioneer’s singsong call echoing in the background, the seventh grader nibbles her corn dog and adds, “We just got rid of her two months ago.”
Must have been heartbreaking.
“Nah, she was getting too old and too small for me and stuff,” Morgan shrugs. “I got a new horse so I was over it.”
In addition to the empathy and compassion a horse evidently brings out in today’s youth, Morgan’s mother says that riding teaches children patience and discipline. And not just country kids. According to Lisa Durst, who also grew up riding, the connection between little humans and big hairy beasts is an “inherited fire of love.”
“I’m sure that a lot of Baltimore City kids have the fire,” Lisa says, “but the fire just hasn’t been lit.”
She obviously hasn’t been to a Baltimore public school lately.
Back inside the auction barn, Taylor Fleetwood sits in her father’s lap, mesmerized by the parade of horses. She doesn’t know that this shopping expedition is for her benefit, but she’s 7, after all, and her heart is for sale.
“Are we going to bid on him?” she asks, saucer-eyed, as one of the auction staff rides in on a smoke-colored pony of about 14 hands—the perfect height for Taylor.
Dee frowns. “No, honey, he’s stocked up,” she says, referring to the gelding’s swollen ankles. Dee suspects the pony’s owner of overfeeding him.
Taylor turns to her father. “But, Daddy, I love him.”
John Fleetwood, a state trooper, grunts and dispatches his other daughter, Jessie, 19, to take Taylor on yet another ice-cream run. For the next hour, Dee scrutinizes the horses brought into the ring, but none is good enough.
Taylor needs an extra-gentle ride, Dee explains, because she’s had a rough couple of years. First, her father was deployed to the state Army National Guard at Aberdeen Proving Ground, so he’s away from home most weeknights. Then, she was violently bucked off her first pony—at age 5. After some coaxing, she got back in the saddle of a gentle old Appaloosa named Snowy, with whom she fell deeply in love. Earlier this year, Snowy developed a tumor in his pituitary gland and had to be put down.
“She’s still grieving,” Dee says, which is why this Christmas is all about Taylor, and why Santa may not have room in his sack for another shotgun for brother J.T. to employ in his hobby of shooting deer at close range on the family property.
Though the auction “is a bust,” Dee remains convinced she’ll be able to find a suitable pony by Christmas. After all, there’s no shortage of them in the Free State, which is home to more than 87,000 horses, according to the state’s 2002 equine census.
Is there a very deserving little princess on your shopping list? If so, there’s never been a better time to add yourself to the ranks of 38,000 Marylanders who make room in their daily lives for these large hoofed mammals. Thanks to the miraculous urine of pregnant mares—which is used to alleviate symptoms of menopause in 9 million American women —there’s a glut of female horses on the market, driving down prices. Indeed, many of the horses auctioned off here at Charlotte Hall go for around $600.
Still, while a decent steed may be a pound-for-pound better buy than a purebred dog or fancy cat, the true cost is not in the purchase, but in the keep. Trigger will eat more than $100 dollars of hay and grains a month, and he requires constant veterinary care to keep those teeth filed, hoofs nippered, balls snipped, and other things too disgusting to mention. Add tack (saddle, bridle, lead), lessons (riding for the horse fancier and training for Seabiscuit), a pickup truck and trailer to get around (you didn’t really think a horse was a means of transportation, did you?), and a Charles Owen SJ2000 riding hat (definite must-have this season), and you’re looking at several thousand large yearly. And most horses live into their 30s.
Plus, you can’t very well keep Mr. Ed in your third-floor Hamilton walkup, so boarding the old boy will set you back at least a couple more Benjamins each month.
Happily, you don’t actually need to own a horse to catapult your kid into the horsy set. There are more than 600 riding stables in Maryland—many of them in Baltimore County—where for less than the price of violin lessons the little darling can learn to walk, canter, and gallop a pony to her heart’s content.
Louise Hollyday runs “Ponies for Children,” a riding school on her Hampstead farm that she describes as a “preschool or kindergarten” for riders. The sprightly 77-year-old Hollyday—just named 2005 Horsewoman of the Year by the Maryland Horse Council—teaches beginning riders the basics of horsemanship for just $25 dollars a lesson.
Though Hollyday caters to children as young as 3, she wants you to know she’s not in the pony-ride business. Even her youngest students have to saddle up their ponies before the lesson and groom them afterward. “I think they get a lot more discipline and patience here, a lot of them, than they do at home,” she says.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Hollyday puts two veteran pupils, James and Rosemary Gillam, both 4, through their pony paces. She barks out instructions as the towheaded twins try to coerce their docile steeds around construction cones set up in a small riding ring. “Come on, James, get with it!” Hollyday calls out, while his mother looks on, smiling. “Use your heels to get that pony going! Thattaboy!”
Ginny Gillam, proud mom, is also an equine veterinarian. Her husband, Jeremy, is an owner-breeder-trainer of racehorses. Despite having 60 horses on their Upperco property, Gillam takes the twins to Hollyday for the same reason Dee Fleetwood is so cautious about selecting a Christmas gift for Taylor.
“These ponies are the most perfect ponies you can imagine,” Gillam says. “It’d be hard to find ponies like these. They’re so, so safe. They never spook and they never go too fast.”
Which makes the whole experience harmless, as well as adorable, right?
Well, you still have to be careful. Even without their own pony, the tykes could wind up taking the horse thing way too seriously, and before you know it you’re getting letters from the admissions office at St. Timothy’s School, a boarding school in Stevenson that specializes in girls who take the horse thing way too seriously.
“Having a horse at school is challenging,” says Hannah Lake, 17, a member of St. Timothy’s varsity hunt team. “It’s not like field hockey, where you just come for practice. You have to bond with your horse,” the senior says, patting her 11-year-old Holsteiner, Eloquent. “You have to get to know him.”
Every afternoon, under the stern coaching of Libby Southall, the elegant lawns of St. Tim’s play host to gorgeous fillies leaping in tandem over manicured fences. The horses aren’t bad looking, either.
The cost of a horsy finishing school? $32,000 per year for the young lady, $527 per month to board her horse on campus, and $1,070 in riding-team fees.
Bearing those numbers in mind, you might reconsider your strategy and just take the little one to Pony Pals Kids Club Day at Pimlico Race Course on Dec. 12. For the grand price of absolutely nothing, you can treat the kid to several hours of chaperoned holiday activities, including a tour of the racing paddock, jockeys’ quarters, trainers’ barns, and an appearance by St. Nick. With any luck at all, your daughter will witness a high-strung thoroughbred thrashing hysterically against his stall, turning those My Little Pony dreams into wild stallion nightmares. And since you’re already at the track, feel free to sneak off and wager a little something on Griffin’s Cow Girl in the eighth. Phoebe Hayes, Pimlico’s “director of horsemanship,” promises to look after the kids while you’re gone. After all, Maryland is horse country. We all have to do our part.
Just before press time, Dee Fleetwood wrote in to announce she’d finally found a Christmas pony for Taylor. His name is Tonto, a 900-pound Pinto with “spotted saddle” markings. At $1,750, Dee figures this sweet-gaited 3-year-old is a bargain.
“The owner has agreed to keep him there for us until Christmas Eve, and deliver him then,” she writes. “Taylor will go through the roof!”
Merry Christmas, Taylor. Hold on tight.
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide
The Gifts That Count (11/18/2009)
The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts
The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford
Buying in on It (7/12/2006)
Who's On Board With The City's New "Get In On It" Campaign?
Raw Vegan Eats Nachos in Fells Point
Behind the Glass (6/28/2006)
After 72 Years In the Same Spot, a Legendary Hollins Market Tavern Is Still Thriving--Though Its Bar Business Is All But Bellied Up.
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