Life lessons from the horse of my dreams

Life lessons from the horse of my dreams

Saved from the slaughterhouse, Denny was the horse our collaborator had always longed for. Can life live up to our childhood dreams?

August 23, 2020

It had been a rough day for me. I’d just sent a horse of mine off to live with someone else because they seemed meant for each other. Grieving and lonely, I wandered into my empty barn and flopped onto the hay. “I just haven’t found my Denny yet,” I said aloud to myself, a feeble attempt at comfort. 

My phone pinged with a text. A friend was at a livestock auction notorious for selling horses to meat dealers who shipped them on to the slaughterhouse. Referred to as “the meat market”, it was the worst place a horse could end up. The text was the photo of a buckskin gelding. 

Denny, all saddled up and ready to go.

“Denny!” I texted back.

“How do you know his name?” came the reply.

My friend is younger than me—too young to know the Australian movie The Man from Snowy River, which came out in 1982. Denny—a buckskin gelding—was the main character’s faithful companion, and from the age of 10, Denny became my ideal horse. By the time the sequel came out I was en route to Australia, where I promptly went to the shop in Sydney which had outfitted the actors in the movie and bought myself an oilskin coat to ride in. 

Despite longing for a horse throughout childhood —begging Santa and my parents at every occasion, the wish was never fulfilled. When I was 34 I finally bought myself a horse, but the glorious Denny remained elusive.

I was 44 when I received that fateful text. The horse was put in the sale with no history, only the name “Denny”. In fact, he’d been at auction twice, within the space of a year, living with a meat dealer in between. It was a miracle he’d escaped the slaughterhouse. Denny was my miracle.

My friend rescued him and Denny soon arrived at my farm. He had the soft brown eyes and trustworthiness of the horse in the movie. Hunks of muscle were missing under his horse hair—we could only guess what he’d lived through, causing the physical and emotional scars. But he loved children and gently took treats from their open hands. Denny also loved to be brushed, by anyone who had a minute to spare. 

The beautiful buckskin-coloured gelding being led through the riding ring.

His one bad trait was how he blasted through doorways, as if terrified doors would close on him. Routine training didn’t stop the rushing, but a magnesium supplement quelled the anxiety and, while we practiced doorways, he learned to trust us. In time, even a child could lead him outside. 

The riding? The horse in the movie ran down the steep Snowy Mountains in a poetic sprint. My Denny tended to take hills in reverse! A senior horse, we soon realized he had medical issues, and after a few short strolls around the yard, he found himself in retirement.

In the end, Denny was his own unique self, not a character in a movie to be replicated. He never became a horse for me to ride while wearing my oilskin coat. But I realized that his value lay in friendship, not service, that the time spent together communing was far more wonderful than time in the saddle. 

Christen Shepherd and Denny share a happy, sunny moment.

We were together for two years before a neurological problem left Denny unable to walk, and although I lamented not finding him decades earlier, I was filled with gratitude for the time we had shared. 

Every day with Denny was a reminder that what we long for in childhood—with time, with twists, with turns—can indeed come true.

All photos: Personal collection.

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