When Appearances Deceive
I was 15 years old when my mom and I drove from Chicago, Illinois to Winnipeg, Canada to look at a 6 year-old Connemara/Thoroughbred large pony hunter. I considered myself to be an upper intermediate/lower experienced rider and was looking for a project for Pony Club. I wanted the satisfaction of finishing a young horse and this pony would be a huge step up for me. I was grateful to my parents for their willingness to look at a more competitive animal.
We stayed overnight in Duluth and arrived in Winnipeg the following afternoon. The agent who had the pony, Ms. Paulsell, was asking $3,200 for him, a lot of money back then. “Liam” was a good size for me at 14.1 hands, and very pretty. His rich bay coat gleamed and he didn’t have a speck of white. I loved that Liam had the look of a full-sized horse even though he would still qualify as a large pony.
Ms. Paulsell’s farm, called Devonshire, was clean and picturesque, with an airy barn and several riding rings complete with jumps and a small cross country course. It was bustling on that Friday afternoon with lots of teens riding, grooming or observing horses being worked. Many of the teenagers stopped to talk to Ms. Paulsell as we were getting Liam ready to ride and it was clear they enjoyed interacting with her. She explained to us that they were students in her Pony Club or 4-H programs; Ms. Paulsell kept busy, that’s for sure.
Liam was a well-put-together animal, with plenty of bone, straight, clean legs and a beautiful head and neck. He seemed very athletic and Ms. Paulsell told us she hadn’t had him long but loved him. I rode him in the arena for 45 minutes and popped him over some small jumps toward the end. He was calm and wowed my mom and I with a few tricks like a smooth side pass and a turn on the haunches. I look back now and realize they weren’t tricks at all but only skills any well-schooled horse should know, and certainly expected for the price she was asking. I also rode another of Ms. Paulsell’s sale horses but liked Liam much more. Since we planned to stay in Winnipeg overnight, we asked for one more trial ride first thing the following morning, before we made a decision. With the long drive ahead of us, we planned to get an early start but Ms. Paulsell wanted to allow Liam “plenty of time eat” and set the ride for late morning. She joined us that evening for dinner and we had loads of fun talking horses, Pony Club, and how much she was enjoying her recently acquired position as Devonshire's barn manager. My mom and I felt like we had a new friend and were impressed with both her credentials and her obvious knowledge of horses.
The next morning, Liam was the same easy-going boy he’d been the day before. Ms. Paulsell offered to haul the pony to a location only four hours from our home, so the decision to buy seemed like a no-brainer. Since I was beginning my first year of high school in a few short days, delivery (even part of the way) was a bonus.
When the day arrived, the man we hired to haul Liam home drove us the 200 miles and met Ms. Paulsell at the designated spot; an exit ramp just off the highway. Liam couldn’t have been calmer; not even the roaring tractor-trailers flying by 20 feet away provoked so much as an ear twitch as he backed out of Paulsell’s trailer and stepped up into ours. The return journey went without a hitch and Liam was home!
For the first week I was so busy with school I had little time to ride Liam or my finished show horse. I only rode him in a small paddock a few times and was surprised by how jumpy he was. Once I had settled into a routine at school, though, I felt I could return to my more vigorous riding habits. What I couldn’t understand was my sweet new pony’s reaction to riding outside the paddock. Suddenly, every whisper of wind, chirping bird and distant sound of an engine seemed to cause him extreme anxiety. His meltdowns were dangerous; he would crow-hop, buck and bolt for no explicable reason. The fantasy was over.
My mom had the brilliant idea to invite Ms. Paulsell to hold a clinic in our city. I hadn’t had Liam more than a few weeks and was happy to know she would be available to help. The clinic was well attended but I was hurt and dismayed by her treatment of me. When Liam spooked (at a shadow, anything that looked remotely like a plastic bag, or any of the many other boogiemen that plagued him), when he bucked or bolted, she publicly announced at the clinic that she blamed his ill behavior on my lack of experience and the fact that I wouldn’t handle Liam “her way.” Even as an adult, I can still feel the pain and humiliation of her words that day.
We also discovered that Liam wouldn’t stand tied and getting him into or out of a trailer was a two-hour ordeal. I took Liam to a Pony Club schooling show in September. One of the Pony Club leaders tied him up, even though I had specifically warned her about his issues. Liam was wearing my brand new saddle. The second he felt the restraint of the lead rope, he reared. As he came down, his front hoof hit the trailer tire’s air stem, snapping it off. The hissing sound of escaping air caused him to panic. He reared backwards with such force the lead rope clip broke. Liam flipped over and landed squarely on my new saddle. Unhurt, he leapt up and took off hopping, bucking, and groaning through crowds of people, campsites, and trailers. I didn’t show that day and for me, it was the final straw.
I listed him for sale and the agent of an experienced rider came to see him. We were brutally honest about him and described all his problems. I got on first and as soon as I mounted he bolted and started bucking. I lost one stirrup and was teetering over my saddle. He galloped to a fence and swerved suddenly. I somersaulted off headfirst and ended up pretty beaten, broken and bruised.
After that, my mom called Ms. Paulsell, told her we were leaving the next day (horse in tow), and wanted a full refund. Paulsell agreed, because you don’t mess around with an angry mom.
Paulsell didn’t actually refund our money, although she did take Liam back. Months later, Liam was sold to someone else and I recently found all the contracts in my files. I haven’t looked at those contracts in so many years…I think I’ve shoved those memories into the depths because they were so upsetting.
Apparently, when we bought Liam for $3,200 (not including the delivery charge), the Bill of Sale was signed by his actual owner (Paulsell being only the agent) and my mom. When he sold again for $2,500, the Bill of Sale was signed by the new owner, with my mom and Paulsell’s signatures as sellers. I guess Paulsell didn’t refund any of my mom’s money but how did she go from being the agent to being the owner? I was so upset during that trip back to Paulsell’s that I don’t think I really understood what arrangement they made. My mom lost $700 on the purchase price alone, not to mention the expense of shipping Liam back and forth, but I guess I could have been really hurt so she didn’t worry so much about the money.
My mom and I did discuss the probability that Paulsell had drugged Liam during those first two rides and the trailer journey. Because we’d been in contact with her by phone on the trip to Winnipeg, she knew exactly when to expect us. We suspected that her refusal to let us ride him earlier on that second morning was to allow her time to administer another sedative. We found it inconceivable that a horse could be so calm in one setting and so sick with panic in another for no observable reason. Paulsell had seemed like such a straight shooter. She was intelligent and well dressed. Her facility was nice. Could we have been that wrong about her?
That last accident on Liam had really shaken me. I was too scared to even get on my show horse- a spirited but safe and gentle animal, and it took a long time to recover. I found Clinton Anderson well before he was famous, and his instruction helped me regain my confidence in horses, and my abilities.
Looking back on it now, I feel bad that I didn't have the tools to help Liam through his problems. However, I was a fairly accomplished rider and had competed successfully for several years by the time we bought him. I wasn’t heavy handed or excitable and the only logical explanation for Liam’s change in behavior must have been drugs. I wish I knew if other people had endured similar experiences with Paulsell but we lived so far away, I had no way of investigating.
I have the skills now and am running my own riding academy. Part of my job is helping others NOT make the same mistakes I did throughout my horse buying (and selling) life. As a teenager, I never did find that perfect horse to finish, and now I start my own youngsters; it’s much better for me.
Not all "horse traders" look or act like horse traders. I definitely learned some hard lessons, and have learned many more along the way. You can get burned no matter how experienced, but knowing what to look for is a huge step in the right direction. If we’d asked for a two-week trial period or even done a little investigating into Liam’s history, we might never have purchased him.
For the next story, click here- And From Across The Pond
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