California Riding Magazine • November, 2012

Fond Farewell: Vivian Leigh
San Diego starlet taught riding
and life lessons.

by Mina Sharpe

Early on the morning of September 11 of this year, I lost someone very special to me. She was someone who taught me about life, acceptance, strength, dignity, character and unconditional love. Vivian Leigh was 30 years old. She was the longest relationship I've ever had with anyone outside of my immediate family. She changed the course of my life. She was my first horse.

Everything about our history together is a little incongruous with how things are supposed to work. My family is not terribly religious, and we mostly celebrate the holidays for what they are now (celebrations of Santa Claus and chicks and ducks and candles) instead of what they are supposed to be about. But when I was 8 years old, I received for Chanukah the epitome of every child's dream: I got a pony.

Except she wasn't really a pony. She was a little too big, a little bit odd looking, and didn't want to go around the ring nicely and win all the ribbons at Ride America and Show Park just because that was her job. I loved her, of course, in the way that a child would adore their very own horse, but I also resented her, because all of my friends had their perfect ponies, and I had Vivian, who was busy being difficult, always challenging me, always making me work harder than all the other kids had to.

By the time I realized the gift she was giving me, making me understand the value of friendship and a partnership, making me learn and work and refine my own skills before she would do for me the things we all knew she could do easily if she simply wanted to, I had outgrown her.

I got an offer on her, one that was far greater than what my parents had paid years before, an offer that would have bought me a nice fancy new horse, made a good dent in a future college fund, and helped offset some of the costs my parents had put forth for years to support my horse habit, even with their own limited finances. But they left the decision up to me, and in the end I failed that major tenet of every up-and-coming equestrienne's early career: I turned down the money and the opportunity for a fancy, move-up horse, and kept Viv instead.

I regret a lot of things from my childhood, but I will never regret that decision.

Two Personalities

Vivian had a very specific skill set. She could be wild and willful when leading her around. She was never the calm, plodding, mild-mannered horse you expect to learn to ride on. She hated to be brushed and groomed, and would pace and fidget incessantly the whole time; by all accounts, she looked extraordinarily unsafe to be around. If a person over a certain age or riding skill set got on her, you would never know that she was anything but a wild steed straight out of the Poway Rodeo.

But, put a child on her back and suddenly another Vivian emerged. She was endlessly patient with her young charges. When they were first learning to ride she was as gentle and mild as could be, and would take her cues from the instructor instead of the confused child pulling and pushing and kicking. Once a kid knew how to make her go and whoa and turn and all that jazz, she'd listen to them, but only if they were making good decisions. Point her at a jump, and she'd jump it, so long as she was convinced the kid would make it as well. And if she misjudged, or the kid got off balance, well, she knew that too, and would duck her shoulder and shimmy herself back under their falling butts, then look extraordinarily proud of herself for making the save.

She taught little kids how to ride for 25 years of her life, in several of the biggest riding schools in the County: the North Country Riding Center, Newmarket and North Coast Equestrian Park, just to name a few. There is a running joke between those who know that if you ask any girl in the Greater San Diego County area that learned to ride in the last 20 years if they ever rode a horse named Vivian, more often than not, the answer would be on their face in a wide, happy grin. She touched countless lives.

I didn't visit her as much in the last few years as I probably should have. That's because she didn't live with me and my other horses, but stayed instead with a riding school that loved her dearly, Rancho El Camino. As she got older, she slowed down. She went from teaching jumping lessons, to lessons over poles to beginner lessons where she taught kids how to canter on her one good lead. She started losing weight about three years ago when she outlived her teeth, but instead happily gummed a wet pellet mush. I hated to see her getting old, looking so skinny and small. I tried twice to retire her, to bring her to my place, in hopes she could live the life of Riley without having to give lessons or deal with little kids. I wanted to see her relax and enjoy herself, and feed her all the Equine Senior she could possibly eat and just let her be retired.

No Retirement, Thank You!

She wouldn't have any part of it. Both times I brought her home, she threw such a hissy fit that within a few days she was back at the riding school, looking very pleased at herself for getting her way once more. She loved giving those lessons, she loved being useful, and she loved her job. And, oh, was she good at it!

She had a good, grand life. And in the end, if it can be said, she had a good death. She didn't suffer unnecessarily, and when it was clear that nothing more could be done for her, she was able to go to sleep next to her little house, down the street from the place where she and I first met, with a soft ocean breeze in the night air. 

I'm thankful I could be there with her, and that she was also surrounded by several other people who cared for her the same way I did. There is no doubt in my mind that Vivian knew she was loved. She also knew she was fabulous, and never missed an opportunity to let you know this. She's doing it right now, as a matter of fact. Everyone always underestimated the funny-shaped, little brown horse with the crooked face. But she always had the last laugh.

Rest well, dear Vivian. I truly hope there is a big, beautiful pasture in the sky, and that you are up there bucking off little kids to your heart's content, just because you can. You've earned it!