On a recent Saturday morning, a white horse named Noble gently carried children around an outdoor ring as family members waved from a fence and snapped photos. The old draft-mix, now a permanent addition to the herd at Misty Meadows Equine Learning Center, seemed right at home, although it had been a long and winding journey that brought him there.
Noble’s large and reassuring personality has made him something of a celebrity in the Vineyard’s therapeutic riding community. Years ago he served as a jumping horse for a young woman on the Island, later moving with her to California. He returned around 2008 to serve at the Rising Tide Therapeutic Equestrian Center in West Tisbury, where he remained until recently, when a knee injury put him out of commission.
“That’s the only horse I ever wanted to ride,” said Sean O’Malley, who grew up with Noble and volunteers at Misty Meadows. Sean was 3 when Noble first stepped off the trailer at Rising Tide, which merged with Misty Meadows this winter. More than Noble’s silvery white coat and kind, thoughtful eyes, Sean felt a connection that remains hard to explain. “At that point, every single time I rode, I rode Noble,” he said. “And he just showed up.”
“Even though he’s big, he’s so kind,” said Maggie Bernard, another Misty Meadows volunteer who grew up with Noble at Rising Tide. “When he was teaching kids how to ride, no matter what disability they had, or whatever their problem was, he could deal with it. So he’s very adaptive to what you need.”
Shortly after the merger this year, Noble was moved from Rising Tide to Misty Meadows while the center tried to find him a permanent home. His recent leg injuries had healed, but he was no longer able to safely carry the larger riders in the therapeutic program. After a number of failed attempts, Misty Meadows finally matched him with a farm in North Tisbury to live out his days as a pasture mate. But even at the age of 27 (around 78 in human years), it became clear that Noble wasn’t ready to call it quits.
Six days after his arrival at the new farm, at the break of dawn, Susan Fieldsmith heard a knock at her door. It was a West Tisbury police officer, asking if Susan could identify a horse that was spotted walking down her road. She thought it might be one of the ponies from nearby Red Pony Farm, but the officer said it was a very large, white horse. Susan had helped start Rising Tide at her farm nearly 12 years ago, and later served as president of the board, so she wasn’t entirely surprised by the visitor: “I said, ‘It must be Noble.’”
West Tisbury Police Chief Matt Mincone, who also keeps horses, had seen Noble starting down the road around 5 am, and he and his girlfriend corralled him into their barnyard. With help from her friends at Red Pony Farm, Susan cleaned out a stall in her own barn and called veterinarian Constance Breese to look Noble over. He appeared lame, and smelled like a skunk. Perhaps more telling, some bite marks suggested that he hadn’t gotten along with his pasture mate.
“He was getting beat up, and he just left in the middle of the night,” Susan said. He was skittish when he returned, but calmed down in the safety of his stall. He didn’t have much to do with anyone — horse or human — while he recovered from his six-mile journey back to Rising Tide, which among other things left him with a bruised foot and a large wound across his chest, possibly from where he broke through a fence. Susan kept him in the stall where he could heal, later allowing him to roam free on her property for a couple of hours each day.
Over the years, Noble had been ridden as far as the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, about three miles down the road from Rising Tide, which might help explain his sense of direction the night he returned home. But Maggie, for one, wasn’t too surprised by his ability to navigate the landscape. She remembered a game she used to play at Rising Tide where she would drop the reins and let Noble find his own way home on the trails — something he did with ease. “All horses are smart, so I think they know where their home is if they are there long enough,” she said.
Noble is now settling in at Misty Meadows, where he will remain in service, although carrying only small children and taking part in low-stress activities like herd observation and horse painting, where the horse becomes a canvas on which kids can express themselves. He may never lose his tendency to go wherever he wants, including the occasional nighttime escape from his paddock. But when he does slip through a fence (quite a feat for a horse his size), it’s just to be with the other horses at the center. “He just wants to socialize with everybody,” Maggie said.
Misty Meadows executive director Sarah McKay said Noble has already bonded with humans and horses alike at the center. “He’s very agreeable with everyone,” she said. In the future, she sees him playing an integral role, especially for the young kids who visit the center throughout the year. “He’s a solid rock for them,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how little they are, or what they are doing up there, he’s just this big, calm, comfortable, grounding force, I think, for any kid.”
Susan agreed, adding that the goal now is to let him know that he doesn’t have to worry about moving again. “He’s being given a lot of attention in a way that would show him, You’re part of us now,” she said, unable to hold back a smile. “We’re not going to try to move you. You can stay here.”
See Noble at Misty Meadows in our new video.