By Dani Moritz-Long
Middle school is a notoriously difficult time in most of our lives — and I was certainly no exception. Though I had a wonderful life, too often my blessings were shadowed by feelings of anxiety and the overwhelming thought that I just didn’t quite fit in. I did have the barn to escape to, but it wasn’t quite enough to overcome my worries. That is, until a beautiful pony by the name of September walked into my life. To some, she was a stocky pony who would never amount to a worthy event horse. But to me, she was everything. She was beautiful, she was kind and she’d jump the moon if I asked her to. And while she never did take me to the upper levels of eventing, she did help me blossom into someone with the courage to take on the world and she’s been my very best friend since the day I saw her walk off the trailer.
Since that day, Seppy and I have been on many adventures together. She helped me learn the meaning of hard work, accompanied me when I left for college and showed me the value of determination, loyalty and trust. But as I prepared for our next great adventure as my husband and I planed our move to Florida, I thought about a girl who had fallen in love with Seppy — who I knew would be heartbroken if Seppy suddenly left.
For a time, Seppy had “volunteered” at a therapeutic riding program called Tree House of Greater St. Louis in Missouri and, while she had made many new friends, one young girl stood out. Since moving Seppy back to my barn after her time at the therapeutic riding center, a rider by the name of Karissa had visited her and shown me just how much she adored my pony. I called Karissa’s mom, Lorie Hagl, to tell her that Seppy would be leaving, in case Karissa wanted to say goodbye. Lorie informed me that Karissa would definitely want to say goodbye, and also inquired about Seppy staying behind — at least short-term — to have more time with Karissa while I settled into my new life.
At first, my answer was a selfish no. How could I leave behind my best friend in one of the most exciting times of my life? But then I thought back to the 13-year-old version of myself who so badly loved and needed that little pony. I remembered that her former owner sold her to me, despite the fact that she too had found Seppy to be irreplaceable. With this in mind, I drew up all the courage that Seppy had taught me to have, and accepted Lorie’s offer to let Seppy stay just a little while longer so Karissa could be given the same gift I received so many years ago — the gift of a pony who loves you.
Karissa is 14 years old. She’s delightful, positive and bright. She works hard, is caring and laughs with everything she has. Just seeing her smile can brighten your day.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Karissa was born six weeks early at 4 pounds, 11 ounces. She spent the first three years of her life in occupational, physical and speech therapy to assist with her development and she saw a dietitian to help her gain weight, as she has always been small for her age. Her nervous system wasn’t fully developed at birth, which caused difficulty processing her environment.
Her mother, Lorie, explained that, “She spent the first five years of her life constantly working through challenges and being in a very overwhelmed state.”
By kindergarten, Karissa had learned to work through her difficulties to meet expectations. She made friends, got good grades — but she wasn’t truly happy. “She still had difficulty at times processing through unexpected changes, but with a little help was always able to work through things,” explained Lorie. “And that’s the key word — work. She never seemed to really enjoy, truly enjoy what she was doing.”
That is until a beautiful painted mare named Seppy walked into her life a few years ago.
A Special Connection
Karissa and her mom can’t pinpoint exactly what it is, but something about Seppy changed Karissa’s life. All of a sudden she blossomed. She gained confidence and courage, and found herself laughing — truly laughing — like she never had before.
It brings tears to Lorie’s eyes when she thinks about Karissa’s connection with Seppy — and everything it has done for her daughter. “It was so wonderful to see her get so much enjoyment and be so happy and content,” said Lorie. “She’s just so herself when she’s with a horse, but you really see it when she’s on Seppy. She’s who she is.
“What was so neat with the transition with Seppy is that I saw her relax and be happy in her own skin,” Lorie continued. “Everything up until that point was just hard work for her. She held it together and did awesome, but things stressed her out during the day at school when she was younger. There are so many unpredictable things in our life that our bodies automatically accommodate to and when that processing system isn’t quite intact, it’s hard. She did awesome with all that, but it was nice to see her at the point that she could relax. You see her laugh at her mistakes and before, when she made a mistake, it would make her really upset and it would bother her.”
Karissa can’t quite find the words to explain why, but something about Seppy is special. “She makes me feel safe,” Karissa smiled. “She’s just so sweet and gentle and you can ask her to do anything and she’ll do it because she knows you want her to. Something drew us together. I feel like not only do I love her, but she loves me.”
Over the course of a few years, Seppy had been at the Tree House of Greater St. Louis in the therapeutic riding program in Wentzville, Missouri, a couple of times — and Karissa and Seppy had become the best of friends. When Seppy wasn’t at the riding center, Karissa and her family came to visit her and it was clear that the two were always happy to reunite.
Then, it came time for Karissa to say goodbye as Seppy was moving to Florida. “When they told us that Seppy’s owners were moving to Florida and Seppy was going with them, I was so shocked,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that she was going and I cried and cried. I couldn’t get over the fact that I was going to have to say goodbye to the pony of my dreams!”
But as it turns out, she wouldn’t have to say goodbye just yet. Though Karissa thought Seppy was long gone, the duo would have one last hoorah.
The Best Surprise Ever
One Saturday, Lorie told Karissa they needed some extra help at the riding center. Always happy to be with the horses, Karissa cheerfully obliged. But all of a sudden, things seemed out of the ordinary.
While volunteering as a lead walker in a therapeutic riding class, Karissa was called out of the ring to help unload a new horse — something Karissa didn’t usually help with. But soon it all made sense.
As Karissa approached the trailer, she recognized a woman from the boarding barn Seppy had previously been boarded at and then she peeked into the trailer and noticed the patches on Seppy’s rump. In that instant, she connected the dots and, before Seppy had even walked off the trailer, Karissa was smiling from ear to ear.
“Once they got her out of the trailer and I was holding her next to me, I gave her a great big hug,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe she was right in front of me, not in Florida — but right in front of me! I was so happy. It was the best surprise I could ever imagine.”
The Best of Friends
Since Seppy came back into Karissa’s life, Karissa has found herself riding around the ring with no instruction at all — a big step up from having very little confidence. And whether she’s just brushing her or riding, being with Seppy brings a smile to her face.
“I love it now that Seppy’s there,” she said. “It’s really fun to go more often and just spend time with her. Even if I’m not riding her, even if it’s braiding her mane or walking her back to her pasture after riding — it’s all fun. I love just spending time with her.”
Together, Seppy and Karissa are enjoying the little things in life — like getting a plump little pony into shape, performing mini dressage tests, cooling down bareback and, when Seppy is really good, popping over a cross rail.
Although Karissa has graduated from the Tree House of St. Louis’ able-bodied riding program and she’s currently learning to jump at a different local hunter/jumper facility, she’s happy to be spending more time where her passion for horses — and her love of Seppy — was ignited.
Karissa knows that Seppy will have to leave in the spring, but she’s happy to have a few months with her. “I know I’ll have to say goodbye again, but I’m just thrilled and so very thankful that I get to spend more time with the pony I love so very much!”
As for Lorie, she’s happy to know that — at least in part thanks to Seppy — Karissa has grown into a beautiful young woman with the “confidence, courage and the determination to face whatever comes her way.”
Though Seppy may not always be there in person, Karissa and Seppy have a bond that will last forever. They’ll always share a special connection and the lessons that Seppy has taught Karissa will stay with her forever — much like they have for me.
This article is dedicated to all the people who have been touched by a pony’s love. A special dedication also goes to Jenny Ullrich, who showed me how to give back and to Jenny, Shelley Remensnyder, Lauren Romanelli, my parents and my grandparents (whom I will forever miss) for believing in the love between a pony and a little girl.