Equestrians never forget their first ponies. Woolly or sleek, magnificent or mischievous, they are the teachers who reveal the most fundamental and enduring wisdom about life with horses: that it is joyous, that it is hard work, that it is a partnership which demands compromise but also makes us stronger.
These special animals arrive from a remarkable variety of sources—sometimes handed down from siblings, sometimes expensively acquired, often bought cheaply from an auction or an ad or leased from the local riding establishment. They’re not always vetted. Sometimes they’re bought in haste by a non-horsey parent finally worn down by years of their child’s requests for a pony. Sometimes they arrive in an equestrian’s adulthood, a gift from spouse or to self, a dynamic and potentially life-changing force in a package no bigger than 14.2 hands.
The outsized effect they can have is extraordinary. They test our resolve and teach us to try again. And they reward us not just with ribbons and trophies, but with less tangible victories, too, like the whinny when they see us, the quick response to our signal through the reins, the shared language and confidence they inspire. Those are gifts equestrians never forget, whether they go on to a lifetime of happy trail-riding, competition at local shows, or Olympic glory.
Kerry Millikin, Liz Millikin, Peter Wylde
Three of her charges went on to become internationally competitive equestrians: Kerry Millikin, individual bronze medalist in three-day eventing at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta; her sister Liz, who was long-listed for the U.S. Eventing Team for the 1996 Games; and show jumper Peter Wylde, who won team gold at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
Kismet’s story is something of a fairytale—complete with a happy ending.
Kerry Millikin, then about eight, first got to know “Kizzy” over the paddock fence in a neighbor’s yard.
“I was horse-crazy, and I was really shy,” Millikin said. “I used to go down the street and sit on the fence and watch the horses. Kismet was just the sweetest pony. She was brown with black legs, and she had a beautiful big eye and a little bit of a star on her face. Her forelock was always so thick you could barely ever see it. And she had this white spot on her left forearm.
“And then she came up for sale. I pulled on mom’s shirttail and said, ‘Kizzy’s for sale! Kizzy’s for sale!’”
It took a little while to convince her non-horsey father, but Kizzy met her mother’s criteria: she didn’t kick or bite, and she could be caught. Eventually, the Millikins gave in—and when she arrived, Kizzy had a foal by her side. “Kizzy got led off, and then the foal came cantering out. Here I am, my first pony, and we get Kizzy and her foal! Isn’t that a riot?” she laughed. “We got her for 150 bucks: Kizzy, the foal, and a plastic Western saddle and bridle.”
“The deal was that I had to take care of her, and that was fine with me,” Millikin said. “That’s all I wanted, was to be with her. I didn’t know how to tack her up. I didn’t know anything.”
Millikin soon learned, thanks to lessons with Windrush Farm owner Marj Kittredge and to the kids’ own adventures with Kizzy.
“She’d do what we called ‘Kizzy turns,’” Millikin said. “We’d be riding her bareback, and all of a sudden she’d put her head down and turn, and we’d go flying off. The bareback riding was the best for teaching us to ride! We learned so much.
“We used to go riding out in the forest and pretend we were frontiersmen. There was a state park, and we’d pack a knapsack with lunch and take the ponies out. Kizzy was great for that.”
“Isn’t that amazing?” Kerry Millikin said. “Kismet means fate in Arabic, and it was fate that we ended up with her. From her I learned the love of the horse. She was tolerant and she was kind, so a kid could love her. You get a lot of confidence from a pony like that.”
Kismet came to Peter Wylde for a short time, but her effect on him was profound.
“I was seven and had just started riding, and my very close friend lived across the street from me and had some horses,” Wylde said. “They were friends of Kerry Millikin, and Kerry had Kismet. They were looking for someone to take Kismet for the wintertime, and my friend’s family said if I could pay $50 a month, she could live at their place for the wintertime.”
Wylde convinced his parents to pay the board, and for the next five months or so, Kizzy was his to care for, love, and ride. “I really, really wanted this pony, and she sort of became my best friend,” he said.
Galloping Kismet through the nearby Norfolk Hunt steeplechase course and its variety of small logs, stone walls, ditches, and drops, Wylde says, taught him to jump.
“The other thing I’ll never forget is cleaning her stall,” he said. “I would sit cross-legged in her stall with a little wicker basket and little brown cloth cotton gloves and pick the poos out of her stall with my hands, because they were too small for a pitchfork, and a pitchfork was too big for me!
“It was my first experience with an equine, and, you know, that goes a long way,” Wylde said of his months with Kizzy. “It’s very formative. To start off with your first relationship with an equine being almost your best friend, to develop the appreciation as a kid that these animals are characters in themselves and have personality—there’s a real value to that.
“She was every day of my life that wintertime, and that created what I have done for the rest of my life.”
Wylde and the Millikins eventually lost track of Kizzy, until an odd twist of fate brought them together again.
In 1987, Wylde was visiting a student at Beaver Brook Farm in Holliston, Massachusetts, when a fuzzy brown pony came past with a young girl in tow on the leadline. “It was just this typical pony-and-kid moment,” Wylde remembered. “The pony was dragging her across the driveway, and then the little girl, who was also about six years old, said, ‘Kizzy, stop it! Kizzy, stop it!’ I had been talking to her grandmother, and I said, ‘What did she just call that pony?’ She said: ‘She calls her Kizzy. The pony’s name is Kismet.’
“Here I was, 22 years old. I hadn’t seen Kismet since I was seven. And I must say I welled up a little bit. There was the big moment with me being reunited with this pony, my first pony, and seeing her teaching another little kid how to be a horse person.”
In November 2003, Kerry Millikin—unaware of Wylde’s earlier Kismet moment—visited Beaver Brook to watch a young cousin’s riding lesson. “After she rode, her mom said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to come see this old pony!’” Millikin recalled. “She said it had been Peter Wylde’s old pony, and my eyes lit up. I thought she was long-dead, because I’d kind of lost touch with her.
“It was getting dark, and you could hardly see. But I could see that white spot on her forearm. And then I could see her eyes. And, this is funny, but I could smell her smell. As a kid, I used to lie down and sleep with her with my arms around her, and she always had this thick mane, and, you know, you’re always hugging your pony. I said, ‘Oh, my God, it’s Kizzy’s smell!’ I got choked up when I realized that I’d found Kismet. I couldn’t believe it.”
Kismet died in 2008, Wylde said. She was older than 40 and had spent only a fraction of her life with him and the Millikin sisters, but Kismet left a deep and lasting mark on them.
“For some people, horses are machines that you just get on and ride,” Wylde said. “But some people really develop this understanding of the character and the personality. I think that’s what makes someone a really good horse person, that ability to bond and connect with animals. I credit her with a lot of that.”