When John De Nault (L89, U93) was in ninth grade, one of his greatest teachers was a horse named Tiny Tim, who he rode for two of the six years he attended Ojai Valley School. But Tiny Tim was much more than a horse to be ridden – he was a horse to learn from and love.
De Nault started riding Tiny Tim, a giant bay thoroughbred gelding, in eighth grade, and when he made the transition from Lower to Upper Campus he asked then-Equestrian Director Terry Wilson if the big horse with the little name could come with him.
Between the change in age, campuses, and student body, Tiny Tim was an important constant in De Nault’s life, accompanying him through the transition from boy to young man.
But in ninth grade, Tiny Tim became very sick, and had to be euthanized. So, on a cold winter’s night, De Nault snuck out of the dorms to say goodbye to one of his best friends on his last night on Earth.
And when he crept into the barn, covered by the darkness of night, he brought a book along with him. De Nault read to Tiny Tim for a few hours, and said goodbye to the horse that taught him lessons that, as described by De Nault, could not be taught in books.
“I go back to how patient school horses are and how patience is not a single virtue, but three, and Tiny Tim taught me those,” explained De Nault, who graduated from Upper in 1993 and went on to become a professional equestrian instructor. “He was very compassionate, he knew I was scared and did his best to comfort me. He knew I was a beginner rider and would make mistakes…he understood that and forgave me for my mistakes.”
In the equestrian world at Ojai Valley School, this is not an uncommon occurrence. In fact, there are numerous examples of the type of bond that can motivate a student to sneak out at night to see his or her horse in times of need.
That is what is special about the OVS horses. They are not just learning tools, but animals to trust, love, and care for. Many OVS graduates make powerful connections with their horses, and remember them throughout their adulthood.
Those same alums often have heart-touching reactions to the deaths of their beloved four-legged friends, and look back on the memories of their horses with great fondness.
“The student riders care for and love their horses,” said Equestrian Director Stephanie Gustafson. “They have an emotional attachment to them that one simply can’t have with a basketball or tennis racket. That’s what makes this sport so special.”
Take Belle Cook (L04, U08), for example. Belle rode Lexi, a gray quarter horse mare, for six years.
For most of Cook’s high school career she begged riding instructor Terry Wilson to retire Lexi, when the time came, at Wilson’s calming, spacious citrus ranch in Ojai. When Cook graduated from high school, Wilson fulfilled that promise and brought Lexi to her ranch.
Cook visited Lexi every day, rain or shine, to ride and clean her stall. But over time, navicular disease, which caused Lexi’s immense leg pain and necessitated two surgeries, became so severe that the only choice left was for her to be put down.
“That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to go through,” said Cook, who was working as a trail guide in Oregon at the time. “She died two days before I came home and I cried more and was more upset at her death than any human.”
Cook, who recently joined the equestrian staff at OVS, still thinks about Lexi every day, and the characteristics she loved in Lexi she continues to recognize in other horses.
Stephanie Teazis (U13) feels the same way about the horse she rode at Upper, a thoroughbred named Bailey.
One day, when Teazis was in 12th grade, Bailey laid down and could not get back up. He then had to be euthanized while she was away on an OVS camping trip. When she returned to campus and heard the news, she immediately sprinted down the hill from the dorms to the barn. Bailey was lying dead his turnout when Teazis got to the barn, as the person to take him away was delayed. She stayed with him until she had to go to dinner. This was her goodbye.
But her memory of Bailey goes much further than that awful day. She remembers how Bailey helped her through the hard times she had at school, and that he cured her fear of horses.
“Being a student in the dorms was brutal,” said Teazis, who transferred from an Orange County public high school before her junior year, “When I would have difficult days I would go down and talk to Bailey or spend a couple extra hours down there.”
Indeed, horses and students create the type of bonds so strong that De Nault teared up at the sight of an email mentioning Tiny Tim. These horses can impact the students’ live so intensely that their horses remain part of their extended family the rest of their lives.
De Nault credits Tiny Tim with teaching him the virtues of patience, compassion, forgiveness, and understanding.
“Tiny Tim taught me all these,” he said, “and I still use them on a daily basis.”