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Girls Just Wanna Have Fun!

A Story of a Morgan Mare named "Panda" and her girl, Leah


By Mary Neal

Barrister Mandolin (aka Panda) & Leah Neal


Leah is only 17 years old, and Panda is 15. They competed in their last Combined Driving Event & last dressage show in October of 1999. If this sounds like quite an early retirement, it does to them too, but at 17 a whole world of experiences will be opening up to Leah that sadly won't be including Panda for awhile.

When I look around Leah's room there's plenty of mementoes of their shared years. In addition to the variety of stuffed Pandas, there are all the pictures: the beautiful head shot that shows the braids it took hours to do before a dressage show, the bumblebee costume, several of them whizzing through hazards at CDE's, & soon to join these will be the ones of her riding sidesaddle in an Elizabethan costume in their last dressage show musical freestyle. There are also award plaques from CDE's, & several from AMHA for high point junior exhibitor in CDE. I can't help but wonder when I look at all this just how much this wonderful horse has contributed to shaping the poised, confident young woman Leah has become.

When Panda came into our lives in early 1993 Leah was not quite 11 years old. I must admit that "poised & confident" wouldn't be the first words to leap to mind if I'd been describing her then! "Over-cautious, a worrier, & fearful" better described Leah's early years. As a baby, she wouldn't even walk until she could do it without falling down. She did deep knee bends in the middle of the room, but wouldn't take a step! As a preschooler, it took her 2 1/2 years to work up the courage to go down the twisty slide at the park! When she first started riding a horse in lessons, letting go of the saddle with her hands while on the lunge line was so traumatic I still haven't forgotten it. We never tried to force her to ride horses. It had to be her choice, and when she did choose to learn to ride at about 9 years old, I'm sure it was sheer determination at first that got her past all her fears. A little quarter/arab cross with a rocking horse canter helped her education along far enough that when she decided she wanted a Morgan like our others, we felt comfortable with making a bigger investment in her riding.


"She also came to us already with the nickname "Panda." Since she's bay, we haven't a clue how she got that name, but decided to call her that "for awhile" since she was familiar with it."


Panda was the Morgan we almost didn't buy! I don't remember anymore why the woman who had the video of her had it - she wasn't even in the market for a horse. Luckily, she offered to share it with us. Our decision to purchase was based on a 10-15 minute video of Panda at a couple hunter/jumper shows. We never even saw her until she stepped off the trailer! Since we couldn't be at the vet check (she was in northern California, we were in Missouri) we had it video taped, & she didn't pass! It had snowed the night before, an apparently rare occurrence, & Panda had slipped & fallen. When she didn't pass the flexion tests, that was the owners' explanation. Now, when I'm older & "wiser," I'd probably tell the owners to forget the whole deal, but we decided to re-test her in 5 days, at which time she seemed all right. Fate continued to work against us, though, when the shippers arrived to pick her up & the owners refused to send her because the check we sent showed our account had insufficient funds. Our bank had made the error, & several phone calls & faxes later, the owners agreed to let Panda go. By all rights, this mare should have been a major disaster!! She also came to us already with the nickname "Panda." Since she's bay, we haven't a clue how she got that name, but decided to call her that "for awhile" since she was familiar with it.

Leah's interest at that time was jumping. Panda was experienced, but has never been the kind of horse to carry someone around & take care of them. She has a lot of ability & training, & is very safe & reliable, but at the same time she won't give her rider anything she doesn't ask for, & ask for properly. Many times I watched her run out of a jump simply because she could tell Leah wasn't concentrating fully on the job at hand. I could almost see her smile & say "gotcha!"

By the time Leah was 12, she and Panda had become quite a team & were frequent winners in the pony hunter division at the local shows. In the spring of 1994, Leah decided that her parents were having altogether too much fun at combined driving events, & she wanted a piece of the action. She & I started Panda in harness, & once I was sure Panda accepted the harness & cart, & was comfortable with driving, Leah took over. Since there are no other drivers in our area, she had to deal with mother as "coach". I firmly believe that our partnership in training & competing has contributed significantly to the generally good mother/teenage daughter relationship that we've enjoyed.


"However, out of almost 70 competitors, several of whom were professionals, the only one faster than Leah & Panda in the first hazard was international competitor & judge Bill Long, so she did kind of go out in a blaze of glory even there."

Driving was the one thing Panda hadn't done when we bought her, & I was initially a little worried that maybe there had been a good reason for that, but I was never more wrong. In driving, Panda really found her niche. The same mare that claimed "submission" & "suppleness" weren't part of her vocabulary in dressage, was responsive, agile, & absolutely awesome in the hazards. Once those two started in CDE's, there's been no looking back!! Working their way up through the training & preliminary levels in a sport that has no junior division, the only event they didn't come home with blue ribbons, best Morgan, best conditioned...... was the one in Kentucky where she overturned in the second hazard. However, out of almost 70 competitors, several of whom were professionals, the only one faster than Leah & Panda in the first hazard was international competitor & judge Bill Long, so she did kind of go out in a blaze of glory even there. Moving up to intermediate level last year was very challenging, but they continued to be very competitive, & very fast in the hazards. Their only weakness was in dressage, but with the help of Leah's riding instructor & the ability to carry over her increasing riding skills to her driving, Leah completed her last CDE with not only the intermediate level champion ribbon, but the best dressage score of the competition.

Each year our area dressage associaton has a rated show right around Halloween. In the spirit of the season, costumes are allowed for the musical freestyles. Two years ago we dressed Leah & Panda as bumblebees & she rode to "The Flight of the Bumblebee." This year, as a last hurrah of sorts, Leah decided to dust off the inexpensive side saddle I bought a year or so ago, & do a musical freestyle side saddle in an Elizabethan costume. She not only got good enough at riding aside to perform a reasonably well-ridden first level test, she made her costume & choreographed her ride. At the end of her test as she came up the center line & halted, the judge stood for the final salute, then remained standing & joined the spectators in their applause!

So, my little girl, frightened of life in general, the one I was afraid was a budding neurotic, now stands tall & straight, poised, self-confident, ready for whatever life brings her way. I tease her that her Panda bear could more justifiably be called Grizzly most of the time, but over the last few years I've put a lot of faith in that little Morgan. You can't imagine how hard it is for a mother to watch her daughter flying through intermediate level hazards or watch her first canter lengthening side saddle! Leah might just have turned out OK without Panda, but I'm very, very glad that she's been part of Leah's growing up.



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