By Karen Nelson
Last Updated: January 30, 2009
This is the story of Quillo. I know that chronologically Niki should have been my next chapter, but somehow I felt Quillo
I had sold Ross that spring, and we had decided to breed Niki rather than sell her, so by late that summer I was without
a horse of my own to ride and train. I had lots of other people's horse's to ride, and I enjoyed the variety, but it was very
frustrating to work through a horse's problems and then have the owner take it over again, or have the horse given to a
paying customer to ride and take lessons on. Niki was still at Sunrise at this point, but she grew a pregnant mare's belly
within weeks of conception, and our vet felt that anything more than walking on trails could potentially damage her back.
Without the continuity of a horse of my own, it was harder to have goals and to feel I was going somewhere, but at the
same time, money was tight; breeding Niki had been more of a process than we expected, and had cost a fair bit in the
end, and I was trying to save up for a new car and for a down payment on a condo. Being an adult was shifting my
priorities, but I was still determined to have horses as the main focus in my life.
Keep in mind this was back in the day before the Internet, so horse shopping was mostly word of mouth, ads at the tack
store, or in the Newspaper. It was an add in the Edmonton Journal that caught my eye: A thoroughbred owner was
retiring from the business and was having a private auction of all his horses. I think there were about 8 for sale, ages
2-5 years old. The sale was a few weeks away, which allowed for people to come and see the horses prior to the sale
The farm was out by Kavanagh, so not a long drive, and I went to look at the horses by myself. Nowadays I would never
go to a strangers farm by myself, but apparently back then I was more trusting and independent.
I pulled up to what was likely at one time a decent, albeit not fancy, property and went to the run down trailer house to
talk to the owner. I was greeted by a small boy of about 10 years old, who then called for his grandpa. Apparently
Grandpa was really selling his horses because he was now legally blind and was relying on this young boy to help look
after all his horses. This explained a lot.
First off, some of the horse corrals did not have gates. To get to some of the horses you would literally have to take a
hammer and pull the boards off of the rails. I cannot even begin to comprehend this, as building a gate did not seem
like that hard a task, but apparently removing and replacing rails was deemed to be the easier option. Apparently these
horses didn't get out much. The pens themselves were for the most part in decent shape. One was a high chain link
fence attached to his barn, the rest were board fence. The one large pasture had falling down wire at the back, but nice
wood fence at the front. The barn was nice looking, and had about 12 stalls if I remember correctly. It all looked as if at
one point it had been well taken care off, but that time was starting to take its toll.
We looked at the colts and stallions first. The owner didn't believe in gelding a colt just in case he proved to be worthy
of breeding later on in life. Or so he said...maybe he was just cheap. Most of the colts were in little wood pens near the
barn. The pens had boards put really close together, and the pens themselves weren't that big, so it was hard to see
much of the horses inside. What I could see of these colts didn't impress me that much though; they were all short in
height, as well as really cresty and FAT. I would not have guessed to look at them that they were thoroughbreds. One
was a little cute chestnut, but didn't look to be any bigger than 15.1 hands and as he was already 5 years old, I doubted
he would grow much more.
I only wanted to look at horses 3 or older, but the man wanted to show me his 2 year old colt as well. He was in the nice
chain link pen at the end of the barn. This one was a chestnut with a gorgeous star and stripe down his face. He was
one heck of a nice looking horse, and likely close to 16 hands at only 2 years of age. I knew this one wouldn't be an
appropriate horse for me given his age, but I think it pleased the man that I was impressed by this colt.
Finally we went to look at the 2 fillies, a 3 year old and a 4 year old. They were the only horses in a very large grass
field. The 3 year old was the first one we saw in the field, she was dark bay with a big round star on her forehead. She
was CUTE, so I was interested...until I saw her walk. Big paddle with her left front leg. I remember thinking that she
would be difficult to lead as you would be worried about her tripping you with that much of a paddle. Super cute face
though, and very friendly.
Then the 4 year old wandered closer. At first I wasn't sure what I was seeing, but as she got closer it became apparent
that something was not quite right with her nose; she had a dozen or so porcupine quills in her muzzle. Based on the
swelling of her muzzle and thinness compared to the other mare, it looked like they had been there a few days. Of
course the old man had no idea as he couldn't see very well, and either the young boy hadn't paid enough attention, or
didn't know that it mattered.
The mare was dark bay with no white. She wasn't very tall, maybe 15.3 hands, but she was stocky compared to Ross.
She moved straight and I liked the look of her, but there wasn't much chance of getting a halter on her to take a closer
look with all those quills in her nose! When I explained to the old man about the quills, he looked embarrassed and
agreed to get a cowboy friend out to remove the quills. I offered to come out and help with the procedure.
True to his work, the owner did arrange to get a cowboy out to remove the quills, and true to my word I came out to
help. The cowboy already had her caught when I got there, and had given her some Ace to quiet her down. He had
decided to remove them in the paddock due to the lack of a gate to get out, so I was there to take the quills so they
wouldn't end up in the grass.
The cowboy was very gentle with her, but even so, by the time he was done her nose was dripping blood. She was
pretty unsteady on her feet from the drugs, so I was still not able to see her do anything, but I was glad that she would
again be able to eat without the quills poking her muzzle. The cowboy put something on her welts and left her to
By this time I felt somewhat invested in this mare, and had already started calling her Quillo. I had no idea what her real
name was, and this name seemed fitting.
My coach was away at a show, so for visit number three I took another rider from my barn to go look at her. Sherry*
didn't ride with my coach, but had shown in the bigger jumpers, and seemed to have an eye for good horses. She was
also the kind of person that was willing to share her expertise and was genuinely interested in helping for the sake of
helping. With Sherry there we put Quillo on a lunge line...and discovered she did not know how to lunge. We went with
plan B which involved chasing her into a trot to see how she moved. We agreed she moved well enough at the trot, but
we could not get her to canter. Although she wasn't super friendly, she was pretty laid back and didn't really think we
were exciting enough to canter away from. The other filly in her pen thought we were pretty exciting though and was
quite willing to show us her stuff!
The auction day loomed and I decided to bid on her. I set my limit at $1200.00 and vowed to stick to that limit and not
get caught up in the excitement of the auction. To be sure, I took that amount of money with me in cash to the
sale...although I did take my cheque book as well. Yes, taking $1200.00 in cash when you are a 100 pound female on
your own is smart...
The sale was set to take place in the early evening. When I pulled up there were a reasonable number of cars and
trucks parked on the lawn, and they had the pen attached to the barn set up for the sale. All the horses were in stalls,
with their information on their stall. Quillo's registered name turned out to be Dances with Wolves, with the barn name of
Willy, but I always thought of her as Quillo.
I registered with the Sales desk, and then went to check on Quillo. In front of her stall were two gentlemen that
apparently knew about her, so I was finally able to learn a little bit more about her training and life up until this point.
Apparently they had been training the horses for this man for the last few years. Their training operation was based at
Fort Edmonton Park which was interesting as I had no idea they had much of a riding facility there. The year previous,
when Quillo was 3, she arrived at the Fort for training. The owner was already starting to have difficulty with his vision
and keeping up with his horses so it is unclear if he wasn't sure which horse he was sending, or if he just didn't give the
trainers enough information on her. Either way, they thought she was a horse that they had already started the year
before and that she was just in to get restarted in time to go to the track.
As they were working under the misconception that she was already started, they put the saddle on her, bridled her up,
and got on to ride. Apparently she dealt with all this fine, and gave them no reason to question her past experience.
She even willingly followed the other horse out to the training ring...that is until they came to a bridge. Now they
assumed she had seen this bridge before and figured she would follow the other horse over, so when she stopped,
they tapped her forward. Quillo had been happy to comply to this point, but feeling the rider's legs on her side was too
much as she had no idea what it meant, so her quite reasonable response was to buck. And buck. Until her rider was
At this point they started to figure that maybe this WASN'T the horse they had started last year...poor Quillo! The
damage was done though, and even though they went back and restarted her from scratch as should have been done
in the first place, she had already established a bit of a bucking habit and so she was not sent to the track that year,
but instead went back to the farm to sit until I saw her the next summer.
On the one hand this was good news; she was unraced and was started under saddle, but on the other hand I didn't
really want to hear that she had a bucking problem...memories of Radar came flooding back! The sensible thing to do
would have been to walk away at that point, but I felt to invested in her to do that, so I convinced myself that a $1200.00
gamble on a mare with decent breeding and type, wasn't that much of a gamble.
I stayed in the barn with Quillo while they auctioned off some of the other horses and I didn't really pay much attention
to the prices. Finally Quillo's turn came so I found myself a good spot along the rail; I was nervous! I am sure anyone
who was paying any attention knew I was interested in Quillo, I hadn't really been subtle. There were a few others
bidding on her too. It came down to me and a man in a cowboy hat. The price climbed and I made my final bid of
$1200.00. My top limit. I am sure the man in a cowboy hat was prepared to go higher, and I think I even let him know
that was my top bid as I implored him to let me take her. I remember his friend (man in cowboy hat number 2) telling him
to "let the kid have her"...and with that the bidding stopped and she was mine!
The feeling was a combination of relief and anxiety as I paid the cash to the sales manager and collected her papers.I
arranged to leave Quillo there until the next day when I had tentatively arranged hauling, so she went back to her
All the horses sold, except for the gorgeous chestnut 2 year old that he "no saled". I think that colt was his last grasp at
the racing game. It can't be easy to give up on a lifetime dream and to accept that age and infirmities made keeping
horses unrealistic. Over the years I heard that the colt never reached his potential, and broke down a few times at the
track without winning much in the way of races. He was a nice horse that deserved better, so I hope he found it
I returned the next day to pick up Quillo with a Quarter Horse trainer who was also at Sunrise. He had a 3 horse stock
trailer that we thought would be inviting to for her to load into. At the farm she was at, they had a hill we could back right
up to so that she wouldn't have to step up into the trailer much at all. Despite this, and the fact that the trailer was light
and airy, she had no intention of going in.
Up until this point, my experience with loading difficult horses consisted of my coach putting a lip chain on a horse and
yanking it along while some one whacked it from behind with a broom. I did NOT want that to be Quillo's introduction to
life with me. Fortunately there was a man there who was dropping of his cattle trailer who offered to help. At first I was
sceptical about having a cow guy help load a horse, but I was eager for an alternative to the lip chain, and I figured cow
people likely did not use lip chains on cows.
The man went to his trailer, and returned with a plastic paddle filled with pebbles. His wise words were that you did not
want to cause the animal pain as that would trigger their defenses, rather you wanted to encourage and perhaps startle
them forward towards the trailer. While we kept Quillo's nose pointed at the trailer, he shook the paddle to encourage
forward motion, and stopped shaking it when she complied. He gave her time to look at the trailer and to process the
sound it made when she stepped into it. He gave her time to accept the pellets we had to encourage her in. This was a
new way of doing things and I liked it. She was fine to haul thereafter.
Once in the trailer we let her stand loose, and took her back to Sunrise. I introduced her to her box stall and put her out
into her paddock to settle in. She settled in very quickly for a horse with as little life experience as she did.
My coach was still away at shows, so I wanted her to look her best for her introduction. I trimmed her mane, gave her a
bridle path, and started her lunge line training. Fortunately Quillo seemed to enjoy the attention, as well as the treats I
|Quillo as a 4 year old at Sunrise Riding Academy
My coach seemed reasonably impressed with the look of Quillo,
so we decided to free jump her to see if she had potential, as if
she did not it made sense to find out sooner rather than later.
We made a very simple jumping chute, vertical to an oxer with a
single rail resting on the standard to act as a wing. We started
with poles, and worked up to 3'3" at the oxer. Now keep in mind,
that as far as we knew she had never even seen a jump at this
point, yet she never once stopped, and she ALWAYS found
herself a perfect distance to both jumps. Somehow this little mare
knew to keep a steady rhythm and to balance herself to the jumps
perfectly. I have NEVER seen a horse free jump with such
balance and control as this mare.
She didn't crack her knees to her chin like a perfect hunter, but she was reasonable and folded evenly below the knees.
It looked like I had found a keeper, so now I had the task of restarting her under saddle.
Quillo wasn't conformationally perfect: she had a slightly thicker than ideal throatlatch, and her back was a little long, but
other than that, she was a nice, solidly built mare with good movement, a pleasant attitude, a decent size and a pretty
face. These attributes caught the attention of the Quarter Horse trainer that had picked her up for me, and he
mentioned that he had a client that might be interested in buying Quillo as a broodmare to breed Appendix Quarter
Horses. It would be a quick profit for me, and I wouldn't have to worry about starting a horse with a bucking problem.
Seeing as I am a wimp, this offer was attractive, but there was something about Quillo that made me want to give her a
I spent some time lunging her in side reins, taught her to walk, trot, and canter on the lunge, and got her used to the
activity at the barn. The first time I got on her, I was alone in the ring. For some reason I didn't want anyone to see if it
went badly. Very logical and safety minded, I know. She was fine though. For our first few rides she went well. She
halted, she steered, and she carried a nice steady trot. She was soft in her neck/jaw and I rode her in a rubber D-Ring
as she had a relatively spacious mouth.
I decided I was ready to canter her, but wasn't sure how to go about it. In the past, I had helped retrain thoroughbreds
off the track, and asking them to canter over a jump had been a successful way of getting them to canter. Based on this,
I decided that trotting Quillo over a single trot pole would be a good start to teaching her to canter. I am sure that I had
previously led her over a pole, and we had free jumped her by this point, but in hind site I should have lunged her over
this particular pole before riding her over it. I trotted her to the pole, heading away from the out gate. She got up to it,
dropped her head, and launched straight in the air with a buck that made we worried I was going to stay airborne. When
I came down she was no longer under me and I hit the ground hard, back first. Until that point I thought that having the
wind knocked out of you was just a saying...not so.
My friend Cathy was in the barn, and came to see what was up when she heard Quillo running around the arena. For
some reason I felt it was urgent that I let her know I was OK, so I got to my feet as soon as possible, but as I literally
could not breath in, I was unable to do so. Now to a thinking person, being unable to breath meant I was NOT OK, but
this apparently did not register in my brain as a concern. I was able to get my breath back eventually and caught Quillo. I
must have got back on her, but I don't remember the details. I do know that our next attempt over the pole was fine, and
that when I finally did ask her to canter there was no excitement.
The other time I came off of Quillo happened soon after. It was early fall, and I decided to try to ride her outside before
winter came. It was a cool breezy day, so not ideal for a first ride outside, but Quillo was pretty sensible. The ride started
out fine, but she kept spooking at a pile of jumps that was in the middle of the arena. I thought the sensible thing to do
was to let her walk up to it, and see that it was OK. I let her have a loose rein so she could have a sniff at the jump. What
I didn't know, and didn't expect, was that there was a bunny under that jump that got nervous with us so close, and so
decided it should make its escape right about then. Another big leap in the air that got me off, but this time I landed on
my feet. I decided then that maybe lunging her out there, or riding with another horse in the ring would have been a
better introduction to the outdoor arena.
By mid fall she was ready to start jumping. She was simple. Pick a speed, point at the jump, and sit there. She would get
there straight and on stride every time. Quillo could find her own distance thank you very much. The problem came
when things got more complicated and I needed to offer her direction or alter her length of stride. She did not take kindly
to my interference and would toss her head and argue to the last moment. Doing lines like a forward three to a holding
four stride where near impossible...she would carry her forward stride and want to do both in 3 strides. Practicing jumper
courses or tricky lines on Quillo was frustrating and really did not accomplish much, but single jumps, even the dreaded
long canters to a jump on the diagonal were dead simple. Hunter type courses with all lines set for the same stride
length were easy. She was a horse that wanted to be left alone and was unwilling to consider you might be able to help
As well as the issue with adjusting stride while on course, Quillo also had trouble with a consistent left to right flying lead
change. My coach was pretty good at understanding different ways to get flying changes, and was quite good at it, but
one thing she lacked, and that I never learned while riding with her, was why a horse had trouble with them in the first
place. Trouble with flying changes comes from being out of balance, from one sidedness, or from weakness in a back
leg. I know now, that these things can be improved through lateral work and proper flat work, but back then lateral work
was just something we did without knowing why, or how it could help other things.
For some reason, even though my coach was very good at convincing a horse to do a flying change, she did not school
Quillo for me. In fact I am not sure she ever rode Quillo. Instead she asked the resident Quarter Horse trainer work with
Quillo. First thing he did was scoff at my rubber D-Rind and put a full cheek corkscrew bit on her. He then told me how
stiff and strong she was and he worked to lighten her up. He then tried a flying change. She answered by trying her best
to dump him off the side. She was a strong willed mare, who was very willing to cooperate until she felt your request was
unreasonable, at which point she did whatever she could to let you know you were wrong.
I think he managed to get a couple lead changes on her, but not with any more consistency than I had. Still, I took a
lesson with him on her the next day. As per his instructions I rode her in his bridle. Sure enough, he was right, she was
stiff and strong in that bit. She didn't even feel like Quillo anymore. Rather than my little partner of a mare, she felt alien
and distant, and I felt like we were in a constant argument.
The next day I put her rubber D-ring back on, and we both breathed a sigh of relief. She was back to being my soft
mouthed willing partner. It makes perfect sense to me, that a horse would be happier, more willing, and more relaxed in
a bit that it found comfortable and didn't fear. Why the trainer felt a corkscrew was needed without ever having ridden
her, I do not know.
By late spring I took Quillo to her first show. It was at Whitemud Equine Centre, in their grass rings. We entered the Baby
Green hunters. She got a little strong in the big field and seemed to think a 14 foot canter stride was better suited to the
conditions than the shorter stride I wanted, but we worked through our differences and managed to do a decent enough
round to get a third in her final class. She dealt with the other horses, the show stalls, and the nearby road very well,
and I remember having a lot of fun showing her.
At some point the barn we were at was sold to a European investor. It remained under the same management, but we
started to hear rumors that the new owner was going to convert the stable to be an ostrich farm. At the same time as we
were faced with this uncertainty, the opportunity presented itself for my coach to join her husband and work out of
Amberlea Meadows. Between the two of them they could pretty much fill up the barn, and Amberlea was offering a very
lucrative arrangement. I was already working a bit at Amberlea for my coach's husband, so although I really liked
Sunrise, the move would mean I could work as a groom full time, and only worry about being at the one location.
I don't remember exactly when we moved, but it was with a mix of sadness and excitement. Sunrise was a lovely place to
ride at, and the main staff there were great. Amberlea was bigger, and hosted shows, but was more expensive, and
Amberlea was/is a nice facility run by knowledgeable people. The stalls were bigger, the turn out safe, the arenas
bigger...yet for some reason I just remember a feeling of darkness when I moved Quillo there. Something had changed; I
was moving on to a different stage in my riding, and the lightness I felt around Quillo just didn't fit in there. It is so hard to
explain, but I can still remember the feeling that Quillo did not belong there. Time wise and financially it was hard to
justify having her, and I still had Niki and her baby to worry about paying for and looking after, so I was starting to
consider selling her as that was the logical thing to do, but emotionally I didn't want to. I had a trainer from Whitemud
come look at her, but I still wasn't 100% set on selling her. I could not imagine anyone else owning her and riding her. I
didn't want to think of someone breaking the spirit of my opinionated little mare.
Part of me wanted to find a way to keep her, and to keep the simple bond I had with her. Quillo was a horse that would
not allow any sort of show ring aspirations convince her to be something she wasn't. She was not a tool to carry me on
to the next level, she was a horse that made me happy as much as I wanted to make her happy. Sadly that sort of
relationship is hard to maintain at a show barn.
While I was debating over what I should do with Quillo, she started to develop a trip. Nothing serious. Just once or twice
in a ride, she would trip. Anyone watching thought she looked fine, but I knew my horse and she was not a tripper.
I had my vet out, and although he too could not see anything wrong on the lunge, he believed in my gut feeling enough
to suggest that we trot her in the barn. Although he still could not see anything, he could hear a slight difference in her
trot, made slightly more obvious when he flexed her ankle. Still a very minor thing, and at this point she would have
passed a soundness exam, but I knew something was not right and so we decided to do x-rays. It took a few shots, with
varying strength to find the issue. She had damaged her xyz ligaments. These are the ligaments that run from the
seasmoid bones along the back of the pastern. Usually a career ending prognosis as these ligaments are slow to heal,
and tend to be prone to re-injury. I had found the issue soon enough that she was not visibly lame, and was likely not in
pain for the most part, but the occasional uneven step would cause some pain, hence her rare trip.
It would have been easy enough to sell her as sound, but that thought never crossed my mind. I was in some ways
relieved that she would not be legitimately able to be sold as a show horse.
The very next day a client at the barn offered $200.00 more than I had paid for her to buy her as a broodmare. They
bred her to the resident hunter stallion for one foal, and then kept her on as a pasture pet and occasional trail horse. I
am so appreciative of the good home they gave Quillo, and also happy that she was never marred by the pursuit of
Quillo was a fantastic horse that I loved more for how she made me think and feel than for how well she listened or
performed. She was the first horse I bought more with my heart than with my head. She was a horse to show me that
there was more to horses than controlling and using them. It doesn't have to be about domination; it can be about
partnership. I wish I had listened to her more then, but maybe I needed to take the next step in my journey to get to
where I am now, all I know is that the next step, the one without Quillo, was full of darkness.
I may not have had you for long Quillo, but I still miss you, and thank you for the lessons you taught me.