I sought to rehabilitate Frankie after he was disfigured in an accident, but in the end he was the one who helped me.
Scars and strength: I sought to rehabilitate Frankie after he was disfigured in an accident, but in the end he was the one who helped me.
At the center of the paddock stood the sorrel gelding--tall, lean and muscular--with his head lowered almost to the ground, his handsome face turned away. Although I had visited often, he would not look up. I lingered, leaning on the paddock rails, resting my head on my arms and willing him to lift his head and look at me, but he never did. Eventually, it was time to head home.
When I first started visiting Frankie, I was new to the horse world. I’d never owned a horse nor known anyone who did. But as I entered midlife, I decided it was time. So I sat down at my computer, googled “horse riding lessons,” and located this Quarter Horse ranch about 45 minutes from my home.
I will never forget the day I arrived for my first lesson. A perky young girl got me started grooming the mare I was to ride. Then we tacked her up and followed the instructor to a round pen. Settling proudly into the saddle, I took up the reins. Circling on this big animal, feeling her natural rhythm and the rush of air on my face, was magical.
I was hooked. I returned for weekly lessons and became a dedicated student. And after each lesson, I strolled the ranch, visiting the broodmares, stallions, yearlings, foals---and a large collection of goats, chickens, cows and ranch dogs.
These strolls led me to Frankie, short for Frankenstein. I was drawn to this horse, so tall and handsome, yet also so aloof. I got permission from the owner to bring a bag of carrots with me on my
lesson days, hoping to attract his attention with the lure of a treat.
Each week, I would cautiously approach his paddock, lean quietly against the rails with my hand outstretched, balancing a few carrots in my palm and just wait. But I may as well have been invisible.
Then one day, Frankie finally lifted his head and looked toward me---that’s when I saw the damage. The narrow white blaze that started between his nostrils stopped abruptly at a thick mass of scars that stretched from eye to eye and continued up his forehead. I did not move as he walked toward me, stretched his neck to scoop the carrots into his mouth, and backed away.
I sought out the owner to ask what had happened. I learned Frankie had outstanding breeding and had once been a highly trained reining horse with superior potential. But some aggressive horses had driven him into a pasture fence. His forehead was badly lacerated, and veterinarians tried to mend the injury with skin grafts from his belly. Despite their best efforts, Frankie was left with significant scarring. After the accident, his owner explained, Frankie was effectively unsalable. He proved resistant to training and fought every time someone tried to get near his face. Competitive riders just weren’t interested in him.
I thought we were perfect for each other. At the time, I was a licensed clinical psychotherapist with a successful private practice. Each week, I helped dozens of patients learn to cope with anxiety, depression, trauma, grief, anger and dysfunctional relationships. To me, Frankie was a 16-hand, 1,200-pound patient, and I was drawn to try to heal his spirit. I bought him, found a small boarding facility closer to home, and we began our journey.
Our first year together was challenging and required every bit of patience
HEALERS: “Friends have told me how lucky Frankie is to have me,” says Janet Steinbach. “But I am the grateful one.”
I had. For one full month, I stood motionless, waiting for Frankie to approach so I could slide a halter over his head and attach a lead rope. We circled his paddock over and over at the beginning, getting to know each other while I talked to him, reassuring him with my voice and calm.
Eventually, I swung open the gate and led him out for a walk around the boarding facility. Frankie stayed behind my shoulder as we went. Sometimes we stopped and I let him graze, talking to him the whole time. This was our routine for another month as we bonded and learned to trust one another.
In the meantime, I was busy reading everything I could find about horse care, watching videos on ground training, educating myself about appropriate equipment, supplements, immunizations, equine illnesses and injuries. I secured a farrier and a veterinarian, and I purchased a used saddle and other tack.
After three months, I moved Frankie to a bigger facility, which offered the companionship of other seasoned riders with quiet horses and plenty of woodsy trails to explore. I met new friends I could ride with and who could help guide my training and build my confidence.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. I stoically climbed back into the saddle many times after being bucked off. And Frankie and I had to work out many issues. I loved every minute of it.
All that was 16 years ago. Today, Frankie is known as the “trail boss” among those we ride with, as he gently leads new riders on the trail. He helps keep their horses calm and focused, pausing now and then to look back and make sure everyone is safe with all four feet still on the ground.
He has a special place in his heart for children, and he will pause, drop his head and stand still so that a small toddler can pet him. I am still in awe as I watch little ones cautiously place tiny hands on his scars while Frankie remains calm and affectionate.
Watching Frankie interact with people often reminds me of the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” It would be easy to understand how a horse who’d endured a trauma like this might remain head shy and wary of people. Instead, Frankie stands tall and is easily approachable. At 20, he is healthy, energetic and sleek, galloping around the arena with tail high and nostrils flaring.
Friends have told me how lucky Frankie is to have me. But I am the grateful one. It was I who needed his devotion and steadiness when my own life crumbled, and I needed time to heal and regain the ability to hope.
There were many days I sat on the mounting block in the middle of the arena, tears rolling down my face, while he calmly stood over me, his head on my shoulder and warm breath caressing my cheek. Frankie has remained steadfastly present for me when family members passed away and my dogs fulfilled their time on Earth. His strength and love and quiet loyalty has never faltered. We are unquestionable partners for life.
It would be easy to understand how a horse who had endured trauma as Frankie had would remain head shy and wary of people. Instead he stands tall and is easily approachable.