Transylvania senior Lily Callahan can’t remember a time when she didn’t love to ride horses.
“I got my first pony when I was five,” Callahan recalled. “I basically learned to ride when I learned to walk,” she said, jokingly adding that she’s been riding since before she was born — her mother, who taught her daughter to ride, also rode throughout her first trimester of pregnancy.
In 2015, Callahan, who hails from Columbia, Missouri, was looking for a new American saddlebred. She learned about Moose — a 13-year-old saddlebred living in Green Bay, Wisconsin — from a Facebook Marketplace ad. Despite the nearly nine-hour drive connecting their homes, “we borrowed a truck and trailer and drove there that weekend,” Callahan said. “We got in at 10 p.m. and went straight to the barn to ride.”
Their initial meeting was not love at first ride. “I had never had a ride quite like that one before or since,” Callahan remembered. “I couldn’t get him to canter. When he did canter, I couldn’t get him on the correct lead. He was knocking the jumps over completely.” She returned to her hotel room in tears, yet still determined to bring Moose home.
Back in Columbia, the pair quickly bonded and began competing together in three-day eventing — an unusual competition choice for a saddlebred, a breed often found competing in saddle seat riding. Saddle seat, which focuses on displaying a horse’s gaits and riding actions, just didn’t appeal to Moose, who preferred riding that returned him to his roots.
Saddlebreds like Moose were originally known as Kentucky saddlers. According to Callahan, during the Civil War, these equines were conscripted to be the main horse used by the cavalry, due in large part to their ability to be comfortable across far distances. Today’s three-day eventing competitions originated as a test used by the cavalry to determine if a particular horse was fit for conscription.
“Three-day eventing is kind of like a triathlon,” Callahan explained. The first day spotlights dressage, which displays a horse’s obedience and excellent training. The second day is a cross-country competition that focuses on a horse’s physical fitness and technical skill. The final day features stadium or show jumping, where the goal is the horse’s precision in making all of their jumps successfully without knocking over any rails.
Eventing is so challenging because it requires excellence in all three disparate categories. The competition asks, “Are you a team that can maneuver all of these different questions within three days?” Callahan said.
And Lily and Moose are — in fact, they have won awards that are rarely given to saddlebreds. “Moose is a Wing Tempo winner and has been titled with a ‘CH-SH’ prefix on his registered name,” Callahan said, making his registered name CH-SH Royal Crest’s Granite Permission. “Both of these awards are through the American Saddlebred Horse Association, and Moose is the first three-day eventing saddlebred to earn these titles.”
Moose is also currently the only living saddlebred to have each title, as well as only the fifth saddlebred ever to earn them.
“Both of these awards are lifetime awards that are gifted to saddlebreds that compete outside of the traditional saddle seat discipline, so they just go to show just how versatile Moose is,” Callahan added.
One reason saddlebreds are rarely seen in three-day eventing? Their unfair reputation precedes them. “Saddlebreds unfortunately get a bad reaction from folks,” Callahan said, comparing them to pit bulls. “They expect them to be hot tempered, but that’s just not the case.”
At their initial eventing competitions, people often remarked on Moose’s temperament, saying how calm he was “for a saddlebred” — and noted his presence in general, as Moose was usually the only saddlebred in the competition.
“You still don’t see lots of saddlebreds in three-day eventing, but they are starting to get involved,” she added. “When I started with Moose 10 years ago, I was the only one doing it. Now, I’m really happy to see that there are 5-10 people riding saddlebreds at each show that I go to.”
Over the years, Moose and Callahan have developed an unbreakable bond. “Moose is like my twin,” Callahan said. “He’s more intuitive than a person. When I’m down about a show, he’s down about a show.” She describes her equine teammate as stoic, independent and competitive, adding, “He’s not just the thing I ride in competition; he is my partner. He probably gets more say in things than I do!”
When competing, Moose particularly enjoys the cross-country component of eventing. “He wants to go as fast as possible and jump as many jumps as possible, which is not always a good thing,” Callahan laughed. “I can tell how much he loves and adores it.”
Callahan prefers dressage. “You can’t be perfect at it,” she said. “You’re always competing with yourself and making yourself better, which I like.”
A member of Transylvania’s eventing team, Callahan initially learned about the university through her love of riding. She added a campus visit to her schedule while in the Commonwealth for a national eventing championship.
“I knew when I graduated high school that I wanted to ride horses in college,” Callahan said. A small-town girl, she appreciated the size of campus and loved the idea of living in horse country. “I applied because of the team,” she said, adding that she particularly appreciated that Transylvania’s eventing team was not a club team (which would mean it was unrecognized as a sport) and did not require her to ride a university-provided horse. “I wanted to ride Moose,” she said.
As she approaches the end of her time at Transy, the writing, rhetoric and communication major is synthesizing the lessons she has learned both at Transylvania and from her connection with Moose.
“I work in the Writing Center, and teaching horses is similar to teaching people,” Callahan said. “Horses have taught me patience. If they don’t understand something, it’s no one’s fault; it’s just a miscommunication, and you have to think of a different way to say it.” She added that the information she’s learned about body language in her communication classes has also been directly applicable to riding.
“Ideally, my career would be my love of riding horses,” she said. As she works toward that goal, Callahan plans on obtaining her master’s degree as her next step. When looking at programs, “we’re picking and choosing so that we can go somewhere where my horses are allowed,” she laughed.