As a special Valentine’s edition of A Partnership Like Ours, this week I have the pleasure of introducing a lovely barn friend of mine, Lilah Dobrowolski, and her sweet mare, Ashaya. it just so happens that this Valentine’s Day marks two years since Lilah has officially owned Ashaya, which makes this partnership story all the more special.
Lilah is the type of woman we all would hope to have at our barn. Bubbly, friendly, knowledgeable, kind, and always up for adventure, one would never guess she spent her early years mostly distanced from horses.
Like most of us girls, Lilah went through a horse-crazy phase growing up. She was utterly captivated by these beautiful, powerful animals, and spent much of her spare time drawing horses and running around her backyard, imagining that she was one. She came from a poor family who could not afford horse lessons, but Lilah adored every animal she encountered.
For one fateful season, her mother’s friend gave her free riding lessons. With just this small taste of being around horses, Lilah was hooked. She chuckles when she recalls her mother saying, “that may have been the worst thing for your horse obsession, because after that you wanted to do nothing else.”
Fast forwarding several years, Lilah got married and started her own successful house cleaning business. In this balance, she found that she had some overflow of time. As fate would have it, horses came galloping back into her life in just as they had before. A neighbor mentioned one day to Lilah that she was leasing a horse, and insisted that she come see the stables and meet the horses.
When they got to the property, her neighbor casually mentioned Lilah’s love for horses, and the owner had her on horseback immediately. Lilah rode an old Appaloosa named Doc around the property for the better part of an hour, simply recalling the familiar feeling of hoofbeats beneath her. All the love that she had carried for horses for so many years overflowed without hesitation. Out of such deep gratitude, Lilah offered to clean the stalls. The owner was so impressed with her thoroughness, that she offered rides in exchange for a weekly stall-cleaning rotation.
Just as swiftly as before, horses had made their way back into Lilah’s life. Yet she was still convinced she could never own her own. That was, until she met Gracie. Gracie was an off-track thoroughbred who was fire in an icy grey package. Lilah met her through a trainer, who convinced Lilah that she could purchase her and alleviate her board by allowing her to be a part-time lesson horse.
With intense hesitation about all the uncertainties that horse ownership would bring, Lilah bought Gracie and embraced all the new-found joys of horse ownership. Gracie, however, was all the kinds of difficult that you could encounter with a first horse. She was under-ridden, emaciated, and had attitude. But Lilah had always loved beating the odds, so she tackled every obstacle like a pro.
At week three, her worst fears materialized when she arrived to the barn to find Gracie hobbling around on an extremely swollen leg, barely able to stand. “Her back leg was a giant swollen club, and she looked like death,” Lilah recalls. With no one around to help her, Lilah called her trainer, who dismissed the outcry as new-horse-owner-nerves. But Gracie’s eyes seemed like a cry for Lilah to help her, so she called the local vet.
The vet confirmed that Gracie’s leg was seriously infected from standing in the spring mud, and her immune system was shot. Lilah held Gracie close in her weakest moments. She fought that infection off and made a full recovery, only to colic the week before moving barns shortly following. With two death scares within the first few months of owning Gracie, Lilah had faced and passed through her worst fears of horse ownership.
Within a year, Lilah had rehabbed Gracie’s weight, put good muscle tone on her, and bonded with her through the behavioral struggles. She gave Gracie the life of a happy ranch horse, green pastures and all. As a heartbreaking twist of fate, it became clear all too quickly that Gracie would need to be put down. Her health conditions brought on chronic, increasing pain, with no proof that treatments were making her better.
All of this happened so quickly that it seemed horses had left her life again, as they had before. But Lilah, being the fighter that she is, fought to keep her place in the horse world. She knew that if she let too much time pass without being around horses, she would let that world go completely, and soon convince herself that she couldn’t afford to get back into it.
She saw an ad for Bay Thoroughbred Mare in the area, and happened to know the owner already. The owner, knowing her situation with Gracie, convinced her to come over just to brush her. Lilah didn’t know exactly what to expect, but this mare proved to be full of sass and attitude. Within the matter of an afternoon, Lilah was smitten with this fiery mare, and became obsessed with getting her.
She knew she wanted to purchase her as soon as possible, but struggled to come up with the money right after all of Gracie’s vet bills. Lilah’s husband, Anthony, offered to help her with the purchase, a confirmation that those around her knew she needed to stay in the horse world.
Lilah was able to scrape up the money to purchase this dazzling mare, and she did just that. Her and her husband picked out her name from a game Anthony loved to play: “Magic–The Gathering.” It is a fantasy card game with various types of creatures. Ashaya’s name stems from a group of powerful elemental creatures that literally means, “Tree Imp.” This name became fitting for Lilah’s new mare, because she loves to roll in the dirt, and looks amazing in blue and green tack.
Bonding with her new horse was much different than bonding with Gracie. For starters, Ashaya was only four years old (versus Gracie, who was 18), and perhaps even more dominant of a personality. Nearly everything was a battle to their wits end, from leading to riding to arena work. Ashaya proved quickly to be very intelligent, which has made training both rewarding and more difficult. Along with her intellect, she is also extremely opinionated, and gets hung up on fighting for one particular thing. But Lilah would not have it any other way. Always enthralled by a challenge, these struggles were simply further confirmation that Lilah had made the right decision about Ashaya.
Thanks to Gracie, Lilah already knew how to redirect Ashaya’s fiery spirit in safe ways. Yet she never let her lose the intensity she carries. As they continued to hash out their roles as leader and follower, Ashaya began to transform. And as she did, she bonded with Lilah even more deeply than Gracie ever had.
Ashaya’s fervor is now a deep trust that she places in Lilah, and an understanding that their dynamic is about conversation and connection. Sure, there are still struggles–arguments, scary experiences to walk through, new training challenges–but the nature of their relationship is based on Lilah seeing her talent and pursuing her potential wholeheartedly. When Ashaya first came home, she didn’t like Lilah even touching her. Now, when she hears her voice, Ashaya waits for Lilah to round the final turn in the barn aisle, and lives for her to scratch all of her itchy spots. “The other day, she put her head on my shoulder and pulled me back towards her, because she didn’t want me to stop scratching her.”
Lilah enjoys every moment with Ashaya, from struggle to sweet, because she never thought she would have the opportunity to own her heart-horse: “All my life, I’ve come from a poor, poor background. And I thought horses were for rich people. I mean, I clean toilets for a living.” And yet all of her work building her cleaning business, making ends meet for herself and now her horse, has more than paid off. The woman who as a girl checked out every equine book in the library and drew horses on any bit of paper available is now living her wildest dream.
Gracie had taught Lilah the hard parts of horse ownership in a short amount of time. She walked her through her most intense fears. When she lost her, it didn’t seem right. So many serendipitous moments led up to the purchase of her first horse. But it all made complete sense when Ashaya came along. “She’s just my friend. I’ll ride her, but even if there comes a time when I can’t, I’ll hang out with her.” Knowing what she knows now, she can see Ashaya through all the sweet seasons of her life, exploring the trails of the Pacific Northwest, helping her blossom into the amazing mare that she is meant to be, and enjoying all of the best parts of horse ownership for the years to come.
All photos courtesy of Lilah Dobrowolski.