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Getting your groove back

About a year ago, I rode in a clinic with my young, and very difficult, horse Nixon.

Immediately before the clinic, my friend Brooke reached out to me and asked how I was doing with Nixon.  Was I making any progress?  Any training advice?  Any bit changes?  Exercised, or even gimmicks?

Because she had taken on a quirky thoroughbred herself, and was about at her wits end with him.  We commiserated on those tough horses, and lamented on how they mentally did us in on a daily basis.

And then we both tacked up and headed off to that clinic.

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Nixon.  Photo by JJ Sillman

True to form, neither Kulik nor Nixon behaved.  Both were hot.  Both were strong.  Both were freakishly talented, and both big fancy movers.  But when they decided that they were done, they were done. And both Brooke and I were exhausted. Ready to throw in the towel.  Ready to admit defeat before either of us got hurt, or worse.

And after the clinic, we both hit a wall.  Kulik strained a tendon, and Nixon tore some more brain cells, but Brooke and I stayed in contact.

I watched as she leaned on her other horse for comfort in the dressage arena, as I found my own confidence return with my steadier horse Mak.  And occasionally, we would message each other to ask if it was even worth it to bring our other horses back.  She lamented on the fact that she was, quite simply, scared.  She only felt comfortable in that dressage arena on that safer horse.  But what would she do with Kulik if she never threw a leg over him again? How do you sell that hot of a horse? How do you give away a horse that you fear can hurt someone?

And yet, after months of rehabbing his injury, the springtime found Kulik sound, and in need of a job. But after all of those months only weakening her confidence in him, Brooke wasn’t sure she was the one up for the task.

But, being a true equestrian and horsewoman, she knew she couldn’t just throw away a horse she had committed to.  So she reached out to a friend for help.

Insert, Tay.

For most of the summer, we got to watch as Tay brought Kulik’s body back.  But with each ride, it was evident that she was also rehabbing his brain.  At first it was just some small cavelettis, focusing on adjustability. But then the jumps grew bigger, and it became evident that both body and brain were being healed.

Raised in the equitation and jumper world, Tay truly vibed with this more sensitive ride, and was able to ride without an ounce of doubt or anxiety – which was exactly what Kulik needed in this transition. And with each ride with Tay in the tack, it became evident that he was coming back. That he could come back.  That he would come back.

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Tay and Kulik.  New Vocations Charity Horse Show. Winslow Photography.

And yet, as happens so often, social media blew up.  As we see too often, people felt the need to offer an opinion or give unsolicited advice. Friends began asking Brooke why she wasn’t riding.  Why wasn’t she the one on in the videos?  The one jumping the big oxers or the bending lines?  Why was she scared when he looked like such a simple ride for Tay?  Why wasn’t she showing him?  Why wasn’t she braver? Better? More involved?

And I would wonder…why do they care?

Because each time, Brooke would then reach out to me, and in frustration and sadness, she would ask how I handled these suggestions.  How did I explain to people that my horse was too hard for me?  That I was in over my head?  That I was just, quite simply, scared.

Because I of all people knew what it was like to have my confidence be shot, and the vicious cycle that it ensues when you are riding backwards on an already mentally damaged horse.

A mentally imbalanced horse with a mentally damaged rider never ends in success, and Brooke knew this without me ever having to say a word.

She knew that one part of the equation needed to be remedied for any hope of success.  She knew what the outside didn’t have the tact to realize: that by removing herself from the equation, she could rehabilitate that one half, thanks in huge part to a rider whose frame of mind and bravery were fully intact.  And on the other side, she could still build her skill set on her other horse, all while playing owner with Kulik – something she quickly realized she quite enjoyed.

It wasn’t admitting defeat, or giving in to fear.  It wasn’t tossing in the towel or listing the horse for sale in frustration.  Brooke chose the hard road, removed her ego from the equation, and reached out for help – something so few equestrians readily do.

And as the months went on, we got to watch their relationship grow inward from opposing ends.  Brooke found her confidence renewed in herself while riding other horses, while Kulik became a more confident horse under the tutelage of Tay.

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Gaining confidence on other horses.

We knew it was working when summer began to turn to fall, and I began to get different messages from Brooke.

They were no longer lamenting or full of strife, but instead inquiring into what I thought about her entering a little jumper show, or maybe a combined test.  Would this particular mini trial be appropriate?  And how did I think that recognized event would be designed? Would the jumps be maxed?

I slowly watched the spark come back into my friends eye, where once there was simply fear.  I watched as this fear of eventing turn back towards excitement.  And I watched as she found happiness in her horse again. I watched as she finally swung up onto the saddle and listened to Tay’s advice on the ride she needed to give.  I watched as the reins were handed over, and Brooke took back the ride that had been so carefully repaired.

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Kulik and Brooke

This past weekend, she entered in the culmination of our eventing season in Lexington, KY; Hagyard Midsouth and Team Challenge at the Kentucky Horse Park.

The courses are maxed.  The park exists in a frenzy. And to top it off, the weather is always brisk.

And yet with each phase, we all watched as Brooke got her groove back.

A steady dressage. A flowing stadium.  And finally, after a full of year of trials and tribulations, a double clean cross country.  Where once fear and anxiety existed, there was a cool confidence in both of them.  Where my inbox would have been filled with a meltdown, the messages were replaced with photos and videos and exited updates. But maybe more important was that instead of being obsessed with the scores on Eventing Nation or the ribbons adorning the stalls, I found my friend focused on her reinvigorated spirit.

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Brooke getting her groove back.  Photo by Tay Wienold.

A horse so many thought was done.  A rider who was ready to call it quits.  A friend who could become trainer and help repair the two entities.

And, at the end of the day, a renewed love of the sport.

I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for this duo, but am also wanting to just take a moment and exist happily within the current moment.  Forget the plans for winter trips to Aiken, or move ups to Novice.  Ignore the idea of AECs or clinics with Olympians.

Let us all relish in this one day.

One where we got to watch a horse woman do whats right by her horse, regardless of the outside perceptions.  A horse who was able to be reversed dangerous hothead to capable partner. The ability to remove ego, ignore keyboard warriors, and reach for outside assistance.  Because at the end of the day, all of those things were needed to repair this relationship, and with that repair, Brooke and Kulik have their groove back, and now the future looks oh so bright.

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Brooke and Tay at Team Challenge

 

 

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Luck

Last night, I was invited to speak to a group of young women from the equine programs of Lake Erie College, which is an institution that is near and dear to my heart.

Having existed just a stones throw from my hometown of Meadville, PA, we horse showed there often. Many of my friends attended, and many memories were made there.

Showing at LEC as a child

So when I was asked to share my broad experiences about the equine industry, I willingly accepted the offer.

We started with an overview of my CV. I explained my background and my education, and I expounded on my entry into the land of thoroughbreds. I impressed upon them to gain as much experience doing as diverse of things as possible, because every experience would have an impact on their lives.

I told them to take that marketing class, and make sure to pay attention in their business lectures. To be cognizant of what they post on social media, and to realize that at all moments, someone is watching them. I explained to them that they did not just represent themselves, but their advisor and their entire college.

And at the end of the talk, I was surrounded. By twenty 18 year olds who could care less about that marketing and communications minor, or that class on public speaking.

What did they care about?

Selling horses.

They were all dumbfounded that I was successfully able to retrain and sell a number of off track thoroughbreds, and wanted to know what my recipe was for success.

What everyone assumes is success. And luck.

And I laughed at them, shrugged my shoulders, and said I was lucky.

I was lucky to have found myself unemployed in 2008 after graduating from college with a 3.4 in biology. I was lucky that this pushed me to desperation and eventually a job mucking stalls on a thoroughbred breeding farm. A job mucking stalls that eventually turned into a management position. And a position that allowed me to meet so many influential people in this industry who recognized me as a good hand and now offer me their retired stock.

Evaluating young stock

I am lucky that in that position managing farms, I was forced to access conformation. I was forced to learn pedigrees. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by phenomenal eyes on biomechanics of horses, and blessed to have them teach me about which flaws they could live with, and which would lead to soundness issues. I was thrown into the sales where I was asked to appraise those flaws and assess movement, which a ton more money on the line.

Watching horses move

I am lucky that I nearly failed organic chemistry, and that my advisor and father recommended that I up my GPA by taking classes in the arts. Creative writing, public speaking, and communications. Classes that I took to fluff up those grades, but that I now use daily as I write my ads for these horses, understanding just how to present something. Which photos to use and what draws an eye in. How to write a catchy ad and communicate to buyers.

Learning to be brave

I am lucky that my childhood horse decided that he didn’t want to be an event horse. And that in desperation and frustration I moved to Wyoming to take a break. I am lucky that during that break, I learned how to let a horse be a horse and how to force a rider to not impede this process. I was lucky enough to learn bravery outside of the confines of an arena and on the backs of 200 horses of mixed breeds, level of training, and bravery.

Using that bravery

I am lucky that I didn’t get into veterinary school and eventually went back to get my doctorate. I am lucky that that career as a scientist opened up my schedule, while still paying me enough to gamble on these horses. I am lucky in that I have a career to pay the bills and I don’t have to be at constant risk of one of these horses running through a fence and bankrupting me.

And finally, I’m lucky to be lucky. Because I have been within the four walls of this industry long enough to know how much luck plays a role. And I also have personally witnessed when luck runs out. I still own a horse 3 years later who was supposed to bring me $30,000. A horse who has his shoes pulled and who’s only job is to babysit the new projects. A horse who checked every box and ticked every requirement. And yet who’s brain never held up and whose body never vetted.

I know what it’s like to find the most special horse and have them run through a fence. Or to find the diamond in the rough only to have them get into a trailering accident. I’ve witnessed horses hit a fence and never be the same, and I’ve watched horses lose their confidence over something as simple as a bad step.

But you can increase your luck to risk ratio by investing the time, patience, education, and ability into the next project. By working a season for a farm, and learning about conformation assessment. By taking that marketing class and educating yourself on advertisement. By investing in those riding lessons, and learning from the best on how to be your most confident self. By getting out of the arena and finding comfort in various experiences. And by meeting those connections on the racetrack, offering a firm handshake, and then holding yourself to your word.

All of these things seem so opposite to one another and yet I find them to be so crucial to my success. It isn’t simply finding the nice horses. It isn’t simple training the nice horses. It isn’t simply marketing the nice horses. And it isn’t simply luck.

The unicorn glitter. Photo by Taylor Pence

It is all of those things rolled into one with some unicorn glitter thrown into the mix.

And at the end of the day, does any of it truly matter? Because beyond luck, and jealousy, and education, and failure, is the most important thing. And that is providing these horses with a second chance. Because while my resume may have depth and breadth, it is the horses resume that is developed underneath me which sets them up for future success, future fun, and future safety.

And that is exactly what the end game is for me. And why I’ll keep doing it as long as I stay lucky.

A Decade Ago

A decade ago, my mother sat us down and said she had signed a DNI.

A decade ago, I rushed to the hospital to ask my dad if it was true only to find him semi unconscious and untouched by my presence.

A decade ago, I paced the halls of an oncology ward, listen to “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful” by Gary Allen at 2 o’clock in the morning.

A decade ago, I watched as so many friends, family, and loved ones came to say good bye to the greatest man they’ve ever known.

A decade ago, I also said good bye to this legend.

A decade later, I can’t believe it’s been a decade.

There is something so jarring about memories that are permanently engraved in your brain. Like an etch-a-sketch that can’t be shaken away, no amount of sunsets, alcoholic beverages, or therapy can remove that 24 hours from my mind.

I was twenty two and I thought I knew everything. I had just graduated from college. I was moving to Lexington, Kentucky to pursue my dreams. I was moving in with my first boyfriend. I was an adult. I had fully grown.

Only I hadn’t.

Because like all dark days, there is a pre- and a post. They are jarring. They are scarring. And they will forever change you.

The minute I walked out of that hospital, I was a different person than the girl who had walked in.

I was less reactive. I had already seen the worst, so what else was there to see?

I was more protective. I understood what a loss that you could never regain meant. This wasn’t a break up or a move across state lines. I would never see him again. Indefinitely.

I was sedate. I know this sounds strange, but it felt as though quick sand had risen up to my chest. I can remember calmly driving the hour and a half home. I can remember stoically shopping for the dress I would wear to the funeral. I can remember calmly facing my first love at the calling hours and telling him that this wasn’t the place to speak. And I can remember calmly walking to that pew and giving my first eulogy.

I know what my high school friends were wearing. I can remember the grimace on my grandmothers face. I can taste the Twizzler that my brother handed me before the service and the Miller Lite my sister handed me after.

But maybe that’s what brings light to the dark days, and why those memories are so thoroughly etched into my brain; forever nonerasable.

Because the first few dark days were truly dark. The first few September 5th’s were so bleak. But then like cracks in the shield, lightness slowly seeped in.

I stopped thinking of everything as B.D. and A.D.

Before Dad and After Dad.

I stopped envisioning the disease and started remembering the man.

And I stopped allowing myself to be labelled as damaged goods. I wasn’t just the girl who lost her father. I was the farm manager. The equestrian. The scientist. The girlfriend. The fiancé. The friend.

And with those realizations, I started to see the glimmer of hope.

In 10 years, so much as changed. My siblings have both married amazing people and I am engaged to a third – none of which my dad had the privilege to meet, but both of which his best friends thoroughly interrogated.

All three of us have finished our graduate degrees. My sister as an orthopedic surgeon, my brother as an attorney, and me with a doctorate. He didn’t get to go to a single graduation, but my mother and aunt cheered loudly enough for him.

Because B.D. was such an amazing time, it set the bar high for A.D. But we retaliated. We took those cards and played the best hand we possibly could.

But it’s been a decade. Ten years. 3,650 days. 5,256,000 minutes.

I can remember his face but I can’t remember his voice.

I can envision his words of criticism and confidence, but I don’t remember his phone number.

And yet without thinking, I still try to hit send on my contact list, a decade later.

I have now spent almost half of my life without my father in comparison to what i got. I have conquered so many goals, and yet lost so many battles. I have paved paths and wandered aimlessly. I have hit the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows.

With him, we had one hell of a family. A decade later, without him, we still do.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that a decade later, I still love him. There is no past tense to that declaration. But a decade later, I am so much stronger. So much better. So much braver. And none of that would be true if a decade ago I hadn’t faced the worst 24 hours of my life.

So on this dark day, that is what I think of. How bad it was. How hard it was. How breathtaking it was. How excruciating it was.

And yet, how much it changed me. How much it molded me. How much it strengthened me. And how much it defined the next ten years.

Twenty two years of preparation with him, and ten years of a gauntlet after. Sink or swim, they say. Do or die.

Well, we did, Dad. We treaded water for a while, but then we swam. It only took a decade. But we’re here. Head above the surf.

And that’s surely something to be proud of. To be amazed by. And for that, we thank you.

I love you Dad. 10 to 2.

The Back 40

A few weeks ago, I pulled my talented horses shoes.

So many of you have followed along with my journey with Nixon, and waited in anticipation for the great things we would do. You wanted to see us go to Rolex, or at least win a 1*.

And I understand why. 


Nixon is extremely athletic. He is talented to a fault. He can prance with the best, spar over 4’ with ease, and make seemingly impossible combinations possible.

When he wants to. 

When he doesn’t want to, he bolts. And then stops. He uses that athleticism for evil instead of good, and it’s bad enough to take my breath away. 


I am not a fearful rider. In fact, I lean towards the opposite. I craved the tough colts when I was a yearling manager. I broke young stock. I rodeod. And I’m the first to swing up on a tough horse.

Before Nixon, I had never truly understood fear. 

I remember riding in a charity steeplechase a few years ago and commiserating with my fellow riders. They were all worried about their horses bolting off with them, and I laughed and said “Just bridge your reins and hold on. The horse will eventually slow down.” I shook my head and walked away, wondering how someone could be scared of a gallop. How you could not trust your horse to come back? Every horse eventually got tired and slowed down.

And then I understood it. I felt it.

Because I have yet to feel Nixon get tired.

What I have felt is the opposite. For he isn’t malicious. I truly believe that he breaks into a gallop when he doesn’t understand something, or when he feels unbalanced. Fight or flight? Nixon does both. He runs, but he runs TOWARDS the thing that scares him in order to attack. And I have almost no control when he does so.


And right when I feel like I have made a break through, something happens to set me back 17 steps. A few years ago, it was a popped splint. Last year it was a shattered hind leg. This spring, I thought I had made a break through, only to find out that I hadn’t. 

We were going solidly at beginner novice, and for the first time ever I had a horse that was rideable on XC, and moreso was fun in stadium. I had just taken him to a local jumper show at 3’ and won every class we entered. He was finally FUN. 


But trying to be a good owner, I had my veterinarian out to check him over. Was anything bothering him? Any last lingering bit of unhappiness caused by pain? And we found out that he still flexed positive on the leg that he had fractured. So without hesitation, I had his ankle and hock injected.

And after a few days off, I swung back up, ready for the rest of the year. Jumper shows, local derbies, and maybe even a recognized event were in our very near future. Only, instead of better, he was worse. It was almost as if he felt so good that he wanted to run. His soreness was what had made him rideable.

 And I just don’t want to ride a horse that I only can when he hurts. I don’t want to push a horse to do something he doesn’t enjoy. And I won’t risk my own safety or sanity to do so.

I ride alone 99% of the time, and on those off days, I see flashes of what could happen if those bad days turned to the worst. I have seen friends and family lose loved ones because of those freak accidents, and I refuse to knowingly put myself in a situation that could end like that. As an eventer, I already perform high risk tasks. I need not add any more risk with a partner that I do not trust.

And I’ve been told by so many that maybe it will just take a few years, or a month or two off. I’ve been told by others to never quit, and even more that he can’t be as bad as I make him out to be. 

I have read the memes telling me that the tough horses make us better riders. I have also read the blogs about finding the right horse for you. One turns my head and soul to the left, the other to the right. I have never felt more bipolar.

But I know myself, my strengths, and my limitations. I also know and love this horse enough to tell when he’s happy. And that is on the buckle, adventuring through anywhere on a leisurely walk. He loves road hacks and trail rides. He loves exploring. And he loves doing so regardless of if he’s wearing shoes or ridden 6 days a week.

And I know that I enjoy going to the barn every day to ride Mak and a few babies. I love the training process with a horse who enjoys to be trained. I like committing myself to a goal and then achieving it. 

I do not project my goals on anyone else, so I apologize for saying that I can’t achieve any goals that the rest of the world has set for me. For Nixon. For us.

Because for now, we are just taking a break. That break might be until next spring, or even just until one of my other horses gets hurt. We might never return to an arena, or we might pick up a new sport like endurance riding-I’m truly not sure.

He’s healthy. He’s sound. He’s fat and happy, and he loves his life. His shoes might be off, and his back not covered in sweat once a day, but he is fine.


For now, he’s metaphorically on the back 40, and that might just be where he stays.  

It’s not giving up, it’s not giving in. I am not admitting defeat or throwing in the towel. I am simply recognizing that not all horses are created equal, and that riding for me is a hobby-and a fun hobby at that. And I’m realizing that not all horses crave the sport like we humans wish they did.

For now, he is happy. For now, I am happy. And for our future? Nobody knows. But at this moment, we are taking a deep breath, a long break, and a reboot. When we reset, only Nixon and I know. 

Perfectionism

I am a perfectionist.

Sure, my house is filthy. And yes, my truck is full of dirty bandages and 17 pairs of shoes.

But, perfectionists aren’t always obsessed with cleanliness.

Instead, I’m obsessed with doing a good job. I hate criticism and I despise being told I messed up. And this carries into so many aspects of my life, and makes me turn into what so many people call the most competitive person they’ve ever met.

And yet I’ve spoken time and time again about how a true competitor isn’t just obsessed with trophies and blue ribbons. Instead, our battles, victories, and losses can be felt on a much smaller scale.

I get annoyed when I’m told I could have given a better presentation at a research conference. I’m frustrated when my fiancé tells me that my truck is disgusting. And when my riding isn’t going well? Well, it drives me to drink.

A couple of months ago I had a bad fall.

I was riding a young horse in a lesson, and aiming for my last line.  The jumps were only 2’6, the footing was good, and the weather didn’t interfere.  But it was as if he never saw the jump, and upon landing, he just went down.  At first to his knees, and then as momentum slid him an additional 15 feet, he fell to his side – trapping me underneath him.

I laid there in the heat, and stared into the sky, not able to get my breath.  I heard screams and the sound of boots hitting the dirt as both my clinician and my friends ran to my side, and I slowly counted to ten, making sure I was fully aware of my surroundings.  I rolled my shoulders, wiggled my toes, and took a few deep breaths as they all demanded I not move.

And then the pain began.

Only, as a true (stupid) equestrian, I ignored it.  I stood up and immediately walked to my horse.  I followed him to the barn and stared at his lacerated legs, while ignoring my own throbbing knee.  I watched as my friends grabbed my tack, grabbed my truck and trailer, and ran around doing exactly what good friends did – they assessed, they treated, and they planned.

And I sat there while icing my leg, and just began to panic.

Because as a perfectionist, I didn’t see the glass half full.  I didn’t sit there and think “well, I at least walked away from that one.” Instead, I freaked.

I was sure my summer was over.  I was sure my knee was surgical.  And maybe even worse, I was sure that my mistake, my bad distance, my failed attempt at a jump, left my young horse damaged.  Mentally or physically, I assumed that it was entirely my fault.  I had ruined a good horse, and I could never take that one bad jump back.

And then the downward spiral began.  Only, my riding didn’t.

I continued to tack up and ride off, ignoring my sisters pleas to take a break and my doctors advice that I shouldn’t ride until I could run. So ride on I did, and ride well I did not.

Because the perfectionist in me wanted the year of 2018 to go well, without realizing that without my perfectly sound and fit body, I couldn’t force that to happen.  I refused to let the other riders get ahead, I refused to let my year of preparation get left behind.  I didn’t want to say that I accomplished nothing in this year, and so instead of taking the time to heal, I kicked on.

A few weeks ago, I came off again. For someone who doesn’t fall off very often, this time felt worse. Because this time it wasn’t because of a bad spot or a quick stop.  It was simply a shift in weight and an unprepared rider.

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Due to my damaged knee, I didn’t have the same scrappiness I had become so well known for.  I couldn’t stick the simplest misstep, and without the grip of my knee, my ass landed firmly on the ground. Was I ok?  Physically, yes. But emotionally? No.  Because yet again, I was ending that event on a letter instead of a number, and to my perfectionists mind, that was hell. And even worse, it was my fault.

I knew in my mind that I wasn’t riding at 100%, and yet I kicked on.  I wanted to be perfect, but was running myself into imperfection by not riding when I was perfectly sound.

And I see this a lot, around me, even amongst my inner circle.  I see us as eventers kicking on when we are ill-prepared just because we are so adamant to not be labelled as the quitter. The wimp. The one who falls off. The one who gives up.

We pride ourselves in rehabilitating things – specifically our horses, and the quicker the better.  We ask for the laser, the shockwave, the Theraplate, and the sweat.  My doctor only stared at my with his mouth agape when I asked about Surpass and PEMF.  We are willing to doctor our own horses while ignoring sprains and bruises on our own bodies.

That night, my horse was iced, lasered, sweated, and administered NSAIDs while I myself ignored the doctors orders to stay immobile and rest.  The minute I was released from the hospital, I took those crutches and raced to the barn to inspect the bandages that my friends had put on him.  I ran my hands along his body, assessing for swelling and heat, all the while ignoring my ever-swelling knee.

Not surprisingly, my horse healed almost instantly, while my knee continued to flare.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t care.

Because although I am a perfectionist, it appears to be at the risk of my own perfect body. And isn’t that the trend for our sport? We applaud those who swing back on, just as long as their horses are well tended to.  We argue that the horse doesn’t have a voice while the rider does.  But I have yet to meet a rider to admit pain.  To admit that they don’t feel balanced, or can’t grip, kick, or go into two point.

Instead, we pop some ibuprofen, pull on the Back on Track sleeve, and take a hot epsom salt bath later – usually stolen from the very tack rooms that we have recently left.

We share stories of pins and screws, breaks and tears, and smack each other on the back as we give a leg up. These same pins that would make us run during a PPE in a horse, or tears that would find us screaming to our veterinarian to come running.

We administer our horses the perfect care, while ignoring our own pain.  We think that as long as we can get around that next course, or qualify for that next level, that we are living the perfect life.  While in the meantime, we are failing our own bodies. We are setting ourselves up for an imperfect life.  For if we are not perfectly healed, we are not riding to our best abilities.

Because we as perfectionist don’t treat ourselves perfectly.

And maybe that is something we need to discuss more than any rehab offered to our equine counterparts.  Perfectionism doesn’t just appear on a record or in ribbons.  Perfectionism can come by making the perfect decisions for both our own bodies in addition to our horses, and treating them as the only ones we will ever be offered.  And maybe, just maybe, as we make those hard decisions for our own bodies, they lead to a better outcome for our equine counterparts.  I can only hope so.

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Happy Birthday, JJ.

I met this young girl a few years ago.

 I had seen her at shows previously, but never knew who she was. She was always the one on the rail with a camera strapped around her neck or blocking her face. She was always in breeches although I rarely saw her on a horse. And she was always wearing the same hat…every time.

I didn’t know her, but I knew of her. You see, the horse industry in Lexington, KY is surprisingly small, and the eventing industry even moreso. 100 square miles separate you from an Olympian, and even less stand between you and a sheikh. Very little goes unnoticed, or so I thought.

Because that day, I thought nothing more of the awkward 17 year old standing before me with the goofy hat. 

She tentatively said hello, and I boisterously responded back. She quietly asked me about my horse, and I loudly responded by telling her that our first training was in just a few weeks.

I told her that eventing hadn’t always come easy to me, and that my mental demons were worse than most. I explained how training level had always been a mental block, and how nervous I was for the show ahead. And then I  told her that if I made it to that finish line, I would be the happiest person alive.

And after hearing my story, she looked me dead in the eye and said that if this was that big of a deal to me, than she had to be there.

Weeks later, as sweat mixed with the tears streaming down my face, I saw that same hat at the finish flags, and the young girl wearing it with a camera in front of her eyes and a smile across her face.

The first photo Jj took for me. Photo by JJ Sillman

And that’s how I met JJ.

I don’t write a lot of blogs about people, because I don’t ever want to offend. But I’ve thought a lot about a blog about this treasure that we had amongst us. 

Many of you know JJ for her pictures, and some of you for her snapchats. Some of you might know her for her advocacy for therapeutic riding, and even fewer for her take on politics. It seems to be that these days, you can find JJ just about everywhere.

And yet what I think goes unnoticed beyond the pictures and the publications is the truly amazing human underneath the ridiculous hat. The empath. The educator. The peacemaker. The champion.


Because I have now gotten to watch JJ grow up from that timid and nervous young girl to a fierce and loyal friend.

She is a champion for all things different. Through her own personal struggles with normalcy and the challenges each day brings, she is the fresh face of the anti-bullying campaign that is so needed amongst our young riders.

She speaks often of her own social anxiety and the reasons she wears her headphones and her hat, and has turned something to be bullied about into a staple. A trophy. This hat which has adorned so many 4* horses ears and so many 4* riders heads.

But she is also a cheerleader. While so many beg for JJ’s pictures, those of us who know her well beg for her smiles and screams. On countless occasions, I have received an uplifting message or just a yelp across the arena as her smile dissipates all nerves. She is the first to crack a joke in a tense situation, and the first to offer a high five after a personal best.


And she is a role model. 

I have watched so many young girls begin to look up to the following JJ has obtained, and attempt to follow in her first steps. It amuses me to no end to watch the evolution, but I am so proud to call her friend. She is the fiercest defender of our sport, and the riders in it, and a true champion for all things horses. Moreso, she is a fantastic mentor for so many young girls in such a tough age within such a tough sport.

I don’t know how to end this, except for to simply say—JJ, we love you.

Sure, your photos are epic. And yes, your style is second to none. But moreso, we love you for just being you. For being the best cheerleader, and most fearless voice, and the most fluid friend.


I hope you have an amazing day today, and I hope the countless photos shared that included your talent made you smile. 

Happy birthday JJ. May it be great, just like you. 

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Escaping My Escape

I started having anxiety attacks just a couple of summers ago.

I would drive to the barn after a good day at work, and swing on my first horse. Shoulder in, canter half pass, rein back, or a caveletti or two, my ride would go well.

I would untack, hose off, sweatscrape him, and place him back in his cool stall. I would undo his halter, swing it over his head, and calmly hang it on the door in front of him.

And then I would walk to the stall of my other horse, reach for his halter, and suddenly feel a pit in my stomach.

It is a feeling like nothing I can explain. Something I can only compare to the homesickness that I felt as a child when my parents would drop me off at my grandparents for a sleepover. 

Something like the walls closing in on you, and extreme danger lying under your very feet-the feet standing on ground which just recently felt sturdy.

Something like an upset stomach and a tension headache rolled into one.

Suddenly, I was in my truck heading home without riding that second horse. Suddenly, I was on my couch an hour earlier than planned, with nothing left to do with my evening but stare at the TV. Suddenly, I was angry at myself for falling victim to this internal demon telling me that I wasn’t safe. That I needed to leave. That I shouldn’t stay.

And the worst part was, the very place that I was escaping from had always previously been my escape.

I didn’t truly understand what I was dealing with until I opened up to a colleague who immediately, and simply, just said “Oh. You had an anxiety attack.”

And with that, I realized I was suffering from a mental illness.

Luckily for me, I came from a family that is understanding of these illnesses and fully supported speaking about them and getting help. I at least didn’t feel alone.

But it isn’t until you are going through it yourself that you truly understand just how your mind can take over.

And just how much damage that can do to your life.

Because I was unhappy in my riding, unhappiness seeped into every other aspect of my life.

I felt unaccomplished. I felt frustrated. I felt disabled. And I felt like a failure.

I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just rationalize with myself. Why couldn’t I just tell my brain that I was perfectly safe swinging onto Mak? Why couldn’t I just tell my body to put his halter on and pull him out? Why couldn’t I just make myself do what I knew would ultimately make me happy.

But I couldn’t.

We’ve heard it a lot in the past few days. Mental health knows no boundaries. Wealth, gender, sexual orientation, status, beauty, or even age. 

And it certainly didn’t discrimate against me. 

It doesn’t restrict itself to your youth, and it doesn’t judge which activity it will inhibit. It doesn’t listen to your passions, and it doesn’t discriminate on time.

And we as a society need to fully appreciate that. Open up to that loved one or that colleague. Listen to the advice on that therapist or seek out that specific medication. Speak of these diseases and disorders as if we have the flu or an infection. And offer no judgement for those who approach us asking for help. For assistance. For an ear or a shoulder. 

All it took for me was someone who I loved telling me that what I was experience was normal. Was experienced by millions of others around the world. She gave me advice on steps to overcome it, and offered assistance when I felt another wave of emotions roll in.

But moreso; she was just there.

A friend who knew the truth. A friend who texted to see how I was. A friend who offered no judgment.


And at the end of the day, that is the first step towards progress with these diseases and disorder. A loss of judgement and an understanding of truth. May we all take a moment today to truly try to do either, or both.

Because the people you think of as the happiest, or the strongest, can ultimately be the ones who are suffering the most. They put on a brave face, post a pretty picture, or even wrote an uplifting blog. But they are suffering too. So many of us are.

To access the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, click here.

To speak to someone about your own concerns of mental health, click here

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Troubleshoot 

I am an equine scientist. 

I know, I know, many of you are currently sitting behind your monitor or laptop and thinking “yes Carleigh, we knew this,” but few of you probably understand what this means.

I spend most of my morning on a research facility. A horse farm that serves as a location where we can house “research animals.” Only instead of lab rats, I have a herd of horses. Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, Morgans, and mutts, they all exist on the North Farm. And I voyage out to this field full of beautiful, well kept, happy ponies and begin my studies.

Currently, this means that I am taking some blood samples on these mares to then isolate their immune cells. And then I take those immune cells to the lab and assess how they function after being exposed to various sex hormones in a Petri dish.


It is fascinating. 

It is beneficial.

It is enlightening.

It is frustrating.

Because at the beginning of each new protocol, the research never works. And when the research doesn’t work, the researcher must troubleshoot.

This is what I have been going through for the past few months. Changing an incubation time, or the way I pipette. Altering the liquid with which we dissolve these hormones, or altering the amount of CO2 they’re exposed to.

And as I undergo this phase of my research, this time of my life full of so much frustration, I tend to lament to my colleague and fellow postdoctoral scholar, Shavahn. 

But recently I explained to her that while this aspect of the learning curve is so stressful at times, it is actually the part I enjoy most.

Sure, it would be great if everything went smoothly and we instantaneously obtained data; thereby finishing the study. But when that happens, what would I learn?

I wouldn’t learn the tiny minute details that make these steroids function. I wouldn’t understand the biochemistry of just how these antagonists bind. I wouldn’t know the nuts and bolts of cell culture, and just what every tiny detail of my protocol does or means.

And I wouldn’t leave the lab at 6pm and head to the barn ready for a long ride on a green horse.

For I have realized that my riding is almost identical to my scientific exploration. 

I do not crave the perfect ride on the packer, because then I would never improve. I do not crave the immediate means to the end, nor do I relish in the final endpoint and rest on my laurels.

I enjoy sitting astride that difficult young horse and unlocking the tiny details that make him tick. I enjoy the bad days as much as the good, for just like my science, it is the exploration of those bad days that improves not only my riding, but my understanding of the horse underneath me.


I have learned that I do not grow during the easy days. I do not learn during the perfect rounds.

I learn during the stops. The unplanned dismounts. The tense flats, and the rushed strides.

I learn during the shows which end on a letter instead of a number, and the days where I never even get to swing a leg on.

And I learn during the phases of the training scale where I feel my ears pop from the rapid decent instead of the linear climb.


It isn’t during the good times that we truly understand what exactly is entailed when one aspires to be the best. This includes everything: the best rider, the best partner, the best colleague, the best scientist.

It is during the opposite of this that you find out what you are made of. Do you have the skill set? The ambition? The passion? The drive?

Can you make the controlled changes to assess if you’re fixing the problem? Can you be confident enough to do so, and yet willing enough to understand that it might take a day or ten to get any data? 

This is what I believe sets some apart from others. I know that I crave the learning process of those failed experiments; those failed rides. What about you? 

Photo by Kellie Grimble


If you would like to learn more about my research, click here

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Five Things To Think Of When Selling Your Horse

We have all been there.  You get a horse going well, whether it be intentionally to market, or just because of a change in lifes plans, make an ad, set a price, and think, “Yes, in just a few days a stall will be open, and my bank account full!”

And then you wait. And wait some more.  And begin to panic, and then begin to question.  Did I not advertise him fairly?  Did I set his price too high?  Is he uglier than I thought?  Do I have rose tinted glasses?  What went wrong.

Often I hear the horse is to blame.  His breeding is incorrect, or his height is too small. I hear the chestnut mare myths, and the thoroughbreds can never be hunters/dressage horse untruths.  

A dressaging thoroughbred. Photo by Melissa Bauer-Herzog


But more often than not, its the owner or seller doing the horse the injustice.  I’ve learned that by following a few simple rules, most can sell even the “unsellable” horses, and are quite easy to follow.

Price Accordingly:

This can go both ways.  I always recommend to my owners, fellow sellers, and equestrians to look at the market, have a good hard come to Jesus with yourself, and then set your price.  Because price too high, and a horse will sit for an endless amount of time. But price too low, and a horse can be overlooked.

It is definitely more dangerous to get greedy than to sell cheap, but either side of this grey line can leave your horse overlooked.  And I see it quite often.

Do not say that your horse schooling beginner novice is worth $20,000 unless you have one hell of a grand mover on video.  Vice versa, do not say that your 8yo horse is a preliminary packer and price it at $7,500.  I see those ads and immediately assume something is wrong with the horse – whether it be brains or vetting. And I always shoot a slight bit higher so leave some haggle room on my bottom dollar, but try not to get cocky. 

Because the only thing you’re hurting by overpricing your horse is yourself. 
So educate yourself on what your horse is actually worth. And if you’re not sure, ask some respected industry insiders for their opinion. 

Advertise What You Say:

If your ad says that the horse is schooling novice, then your photos better damned well show a horse schooling novice.  If your ad says that the horse is solidly showing 1st level and schooling second, than I better see some lateral work and shoulder in in that video.

If you say he’s schooling training level, he better be schooling training level. Photo by JJ Sillman


It is hard to show that a horse can take a joke or loves hacks in a video, but those things should still be conveyed in some way through photos or videos.

More importantly, never oversell a horse.  Do not say that the horse is doing 3′ courses if it once jumped one 3′ fence at the end of a grid.  Do not say that it has confirmed auto changes just because you once felt it swap at a gallop.  And don’t say that it’s amateur friendly if you wouldn’t put your dear friends on it for a road hack.

All that will happen is that a potential buyer will travel from afar to try a horse that they would have known all along wasn’t suitable for them. You are wasting their time. You are wasting your time. And you are potentially having someone come ride your horse who could interfere with his training. It never wins.

Be Honest:

This goes alongside the advertise what you claim, but incorporates the little things that a video or a photo can’t always say. And moreso, highlights the one thing I try to avoid.

Because…I. Hate. Tire kickers.

And because I hate these tire kickers, I try to avoid them.  

Tire Kicker (n): Someone who asks 72 questions about your horse, possibly even tries your horse, and takes up hours of our time without ever intending to buy said horse.

And I do so by being brutally honest about each and every horse that I sell. If I say this horse is amateur friendly, I mean it.  If I say this horse has had no soundness issues, I mean it.  If I tell you that he is on no supplements, no injections, and is low maintenance, I mean it. 

So, in a nurshell, don’t lie.

If your horse doesn’t hack out well alone, and a fox hunter calls you to inquire – TELL THEM this.  If your horse doesn’t do well in new environments, and a 12 year old pony clubber shows up to try him – TELL HER MOTHER.  It’s these little “white lies” that make horse buyers wary of what they will encounter.

Not amateur friendly. Photo by Kendra Penn

And you can twist the positives to outshine the negatives, but our job as horse sellers is a) make a good match, b) waste no ones time, and c) have everyone be safe.  

So don’t let that kid come try your professional ride.  Don’t tell that adult amateur that you *think* your horse will haul well alone when you’ve never tried it.  Be careful with saying that your horse is confirmed as something you’ve never tried.  It will make everyone’s life easier. And more importantly, safer.

In addition to this, having the basic information in a readable format on every ad is so key.  Age, sex, height, discipline, location, and current level competing.  Oh, and price.  Nothing annoys me or most others more than not even having an idea of a price range.  All it does is add 75 comments of people who could never afford your horse asking for a PM.

Photos and Video’s Make or Break A Sale:

I can’t say this enough.  Have a conformation shot.  Have a head shot.  Have a shot of a horse flatting, and have a shot of him jumping.  If you have stated that he has schooled XC and does water/ditches/banks – have a photo or video of him doing these.  If you have said that he has competed at a recognized event, then it sure does pay off to have a photo of a horse braided and in formal tack doing dressage or stadium.

A conformation shot is so crucial. Photo by Jackie Barr


We live in a digital era.  One where iPhone videos are good enough quality for a sales ad if edited correctly.  But does it pay off to have a good friend with a good camera come out and shoot some shots?  Get some video?  Heck ya. And if you don’t, be prepared to pay a photographer to do so (shout out JJ Sillman).

But good screen shots can be grabbed, and plenty of video footage can be edited together.  

Just promise me ONE thing: LANDSCAPE.  Tell any of your friends, fiances, or fellow boarders to hold your phone in the correct direction, and say it with me: ZOOM is your friend!

And finally….

Present Yourself and Your Horse In the Best Light:

This sounds strange to say after saying to be brutally honest, but I mean this in a different way.  Your sales photos and videos should be done in what I consider “Pony Club Attire.”  I almost immediately ignore sales ads if either horse or rider look sloppy.  Hair tied back.  Helmet on.  Breeches and tall boots with a clean polo tucked in, or if you ride western – clean jeans, clean boots, and button down also tucked in.  Horse should be groomed to a shine, and mane/tail/forelock brushed out and neatly pulled/trimmed/done.

A nicely turned out failed polo pony. Photo by JJ Sillman


Clean boots on the horse, clean pad under the saddle.  If you are doing a conformation shot, a clean bridle/halter on the horse, and no manure piles or broken boards behind it.

I could write an entire blog on what makes a good photo or a good video, but the most important is that if you wouldn’t show up to a local show in the attire, its not good enough for the video.  And I hate to say “matchy” – but bold and crazy clashing colors only distract from the horse, and should be avoided.

Matching is important to me. Photo by Xpress Photos.

The market is not down, and one breed is no harder to sell than another (eh hem, thoroughbreds).  But we are quick to judge each other, and just as quick to judge a horse in front of us.  

There are so many horses on the market currently, and not as many buyers, so do yourself and your horse a service by having him be marketable, presentable, correctly advertised, and buyable. Those are the keys to a successful sale.

It will help you.  It will help your prospective buyers.  But most importantly, it will help the safety and security of your horse and his future.

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Growing Pains

I text messaged my fiancé as I drove out of the Kentucky Horse Park, knowing he would want an update.

“Just finished with Nixon, heading home.”

And his response was a standard: “Everyone do ok?”

And I didn’t really know how to respond.

They were both GOOD, but both had had stops. Both had had some issues. But both had finished the day better for it instead of worse. 

But that one stop, or that one bad distance, weighs heavily on someone like me. I have written before of just how Type A I am when it comes to my horses and their rides, and so one stop can feel like twenty. And one fall can feel like the end of the world.

But then I thought more about it as I drove home.

Schooling days mean friends. Photo by Brooke Schafer


These are schooling days, and meant for exactly these situations to happen. At a schooling day and not a competition. Sort out your issues before they arise on your record, and more importantly before you’re running at speed trying to make time. 

And for someone like me, my issues and the growing pains attached seem to be seen at schooling days.

For I am not complacent in my riding. And with the desire to rise, so comes the pain of the journey. 

I have no shame placed on those who are complacent. When I started eventing again in 2012, I had one goal: Beginner Novice.

2012 goals. Photo by XPress Phot


And then I got Mak, and that turned to Novice. And then two years later, it was Training. And now, in 2018, it is Prelim—at least for that horse.

Because Mak is THAT horse. The one who tries. Who is inherently good. Who aims to please. And so BN, and then N, and now T, began to feel easy. And with it, my goals increased. 

Making it feel easy. Photo by Brooke Schafer


But the road to this place wasn’t linear, not in any way, shape, or form. We had stops at down banks at Novice, and then he had a hiatus in the hunter rings. We ran into water demons at training, and now have decided that skinnies aren’t all that great.

Damn skinnies. Photo by Brooke Schafer


But that’s fine. 

He’s the type of horse that I can actually try to sort those things out, as he doesn’t just shut down. I have to realize that he and I are learning this together, and sometimes I grow while he regresses, and sometimes he grows while I curl into the fetal position. 

Regroup. Retry. Photo by Brooke Schafer


And on the flip side, I can take those growing pains, learn something, and try to impart that knowledge on his younger brother.

Because for where Mak is Honest Abe, Nixon is Rico Suave. Where Mak is cool, calm, and collected, Nixon is Mach 10, 95% of the time. And while my goal for Mak is a T3D and a *possible* move up to Prelim, my goals for Nixon are so much smaller, and maybe so much more unobtainable.

For Nixon, I want rideable. Rateable. And enjoyable. We have had quite the bumpy relationship, full of more growing pains than I could have ever prepared for, but right now? Right now, I have a horse that is a ticking time bomb one minute, but a $500,000 import who has ran around every 4* the next. And we’re trying to blend those two things into just the free thoroughbred that he is.

A rideable Nixon. Photo by Brooke Schafer


Both went out to the schooling with me trying to stay optimistic. Both had stops. Both were a mixture of me not riding at my fullest capabilities, and them being distracted or confused.

But both came home sound, safe, better for it, and ready for the next day.

I will never be the person who is complacent in my riding as long as I own horses who can rise with me, and the money to do so. 

And I currently have two horses who force that growth every day. Every ride. Every time I tack up. 

For that, I am appreciable. Because without growing pains, we won’t have growth. And I’m just not done growing. Rising to the new challenges. Conquering them one by one, or with gaps of years in between.

So I guess you could say my day schooling was great. Because we found some flaws, we found some solutions, we grew up a little bit more, and we kicked onto the next. That’s all I can truly ask these horses to do, and that’s all I can truly ask of myself.

Growth. Photo by Brooke Schafer


Growth.

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Matchmaker

I’ve sold a lot of horses.

Always with the intention to sell, and always with a profit in mind. Because for the last 5 years, I was a broke graduate student. And finding, retraining, and selling thoroughbreds helped me pay the bills for my own horses. 

Maybe more importantly, was the fact that I loved it.

I enjoyed the selection process; assessing the pros and cons of each horse, and knowing what I could and could not live with. I enjoyed scouring the farms and the backsides, meeting so many great people along the way. And I lived for that adrenaline rush of loading a new pony onto my trailer and beginning the journey.

But I also craved that first, second, and third ride on those horses. It’s so thrilling to assess their brains on those initial hacks. To take them on their first field trip, or over their first jump.

For months these firsts continued, and my enamor with the process increased. Their first XC school, their first show. Their first grid, or their first time being braided. I lived for these moments.

And finally, they were offered for sale. And 95% of the time, I even enjoyed this part.

Because (outside of one situation), I truly felt as though I got to play matchmaker. I got to weed through the emails and messages and find the few who felt like a good fit. I got to schedule the first dates at the farm, and make the introductions. And then I got to watch those first dates unfold, and stand on the side lines to see if this coupling was meant to be.


Would she ask the right questions? Would he respond with an answer that was appropriate? Would she laugh when he made a joke? Would he listen when she talked?

It was like being a mother to a son who was finally 16 years old and handing the keys over. Had I taught him well? Had I raised him to open the door and pull out the chair? Would he chew with his mouth closed and walk her to the door?

All of these things were important because they all determined if a second, or third, or fourth date would be scheduled. Or more importantly—a marriage proposal. 

I lived for making these partnerships, because nothing brought me more happiness than watching these relationships unfold. At events, on social media, through texts and emails. I am in contact with every owner of every horse, some even the second or third in the chai of command.


So, I guess it came as no surprise when my friend Kelly reached out to me to help find that partner for her own horse.

She had owned Miko for most of his life-having gotten him as a spry 3 year old. Although 100% thoroughbred, the massive gangly gelding had never raced, and yet took to eventing like a fish out of water.


And although I had known them for most of their partnership together, I didn’t know as much as I did until I moved into the same small boarding barn with her-our horses filling almost half of the stalls there.


A few years ago, I knew she wanted to move up to training level. We went out and XC schooled together. We hacked together, and shared treatment responsibilities. I helped her kick over her first big corner, and she screamed at me to look up down a bank.

And in the spring of 2016, we scheduled to go around the course of Spring Bay after the competition had finished. But in a twist of events, I canceled. I had run my young horse around beginner novice and had a terrible ride. My mind wasn’t in the right place, and I didn’t feel like having a terrible ride on my big boy. 

So Kelly asked her then husband to come with, and she kicked off. They flew over the first few fences, but then in a flash, everything unraveled.

A missed distance, a pick instead of a kick, and a bad spot led to Miko chipping hard to a galloping fence and Kelly getting kicked out of the tack.

I knew only seconds later when her husband called me in desperation to come get her horse while he joined her in the ambulance to the hospital. Within only a few moments, both hers and her horses lives were forever changed.

The doctors told Kelly that she wasn’t to ride again…ever. 

She had suffered one too many severe concussions, and like an NFL player, was risking early onset Alzheimer’s, mental cognitive disability, and her life if she were to have another significant fall. 

And with that, hers and Mikos dreams of eventing at the upper levels were over. But maybe more scarily, was that her one escape and therapy was gone, and with it, she didn’t know what to do with her heart horse.

Kelly and I spent many a night at the barn talking about this. At first, I tried to convince her that it wasn’t the worst thing to sell him. Find him a good home, and watch the journey unfold. But it quickly became obvious to me that she wasn’t ready to relinquish the reins that definitively. 

We would go back and forward. With her saying she wasn’t ready, and then realizing that her horse needed a job. She would decide she wouldn’t live with herself if anything were to happen to him, but then realize that he needed the work. 

And finally, after almost two years of back and forward, we talked about a care lease. Her life had changed significantly, and with it, so had her ability to keep Miko in the level of care he was used to. 

Would she make money? No. But would she be paying the bills for a horse she just groomed? No. And in response to that, Miko could be making some other persons dreams come true.

And at about this time, I saw the worlds best Facebook status.

A friend of mine down south was looking for a been there, done that horse. She was in the process of adopting a teenage son out of foster care, and he wanted to ride. She needed a horse that could take a joke, pack a kid, and still run and jump. She didn’t care about their maintenance or their record, their color or their size, she just wanted them to be safe at 2’6 and fall in love with her family.

And I just knew that I had that horse.

I quickly messaged both of them, and explained each other’s story. I told Molly that Kelly had gone through hell, losing her ability to ride, and that she wanted the perfect home for Miko, because anything less than perfection would give her a heart attack. I told Kelly that I didn’t know if this young boy would be able to event Miko this year, but that both Molly and her husband were great horsemen and at the end of the day, he would be taken amazing care of.

And then I rubbed my sparkly fairy dust together, whispered my voodoo, and sent a prayer to the Horse Gods that this all worked out.

And it did.

Molly and Miko


Molly took Miko after talking to Kelly on the phone for hours, but without trying him. They both decided that a trial would be best and worst case scenario, he came back to Lexington in a month. 

Only, I don’t think he will ever return.

Because in a true twist of fate, he has become everything Molly needed and more. 

As her adoption fell apart, her live unraveled, and her other horses became fire breathing dragons, she swung onto this new horse, knowing so little about him. And he just recognized that this was his chance to help, and help he did.

So last weekend they entered an event. It was Miko’s first in over 3 years. It was Molly’s first in a year-having broken her leg on XC last spring. And it more importantly, it was their first together

They danced through dressage, they boldly jumped stadium. And finally, as years of anxiety and nerves washed away, they cantered around XC like two old friends.


Kelly and I immediately got the message afterwards about just how much that ride meant, and just how in love with Miko she was.

He had stepped up to the plate even though it wasn’t the plate he was was originally supposed to be at. He had held her hand during a superbly rough week, and taken care of her when she needed it the most. And he had brought her confidence back right when she needed that boost.

But maybe more importantly, was that Molly had shown Kelly that her horse was still loved. Still ok. And still happy doing that job that he loved.

I am so excited to watch this relationship unfold. Molly is planning on trekking herself and Miko up to Lexington in a month to enter May Daze HT where both Kelly and I will be. 

That weekend will be a big deal for everyone. For Molly as she tackles her redemption ride at BN-her first time back at that level since the day she shattered her ankle. For Kelly as she transitions from rider to cheerleader. And for me, as I get to watch yet another couple that I matched leave that start box and gallop off into the sunset. We will all win that day, and I can’t wait for it to get here. 

Redemption Ride

Two years ago, I walked off of the cross country course with my shoulders sagging and my head hung low.

Photo by Brooke Schafer


I had dropped my reins, determined not to take a single ounce of the disappointment out on the horse underneath me, while flashbacks to my childhood whirled through my mind. 

It was 2016, and I was on the most talented horse I have ever sat on.

And in 2016, I was just cocky enough to crave some of that talent.

Sure I had sold some pretty fantastic horses, and currently owned one who was solidly competing at training level, but I dreamed of more. 

I had never gotten the chance to have those dreams as a child, because I had never owned a solid horse. My one childhood horse Levi had been talented enough on the flat, but he was never brave enough on XC. And my current horse was brave enough over fences, but I truly felt that his ability and scope would be maxed out at training or prelim.

And then Nixon showed up.


At 17.1hh, with a massive glistening black shoulder, and an eye that screamed “let me at it,” I thought I finally had *that* horse, and this was only confirmed by every 4* rider that I rode him in front of. They all told me that Mak was cute, but Nixon was limitless. They told me that Nixon was who took me all of the way.

In a clinic with Doug Payne


But none of them had to ride him every day of that journey.

Because while Mak was cute, he was also safe. The same horse day in and day out. An old soul in a young body. And in contrast to that, Nixon was hard. He was hot. He was scary

He was scary enough that after that elimination in April of 2016, I didn’t feel as though he was rideable enough to enter another until yesterday. Exactly 2 years later.

During those two years, we earned our 1st level scores towards our bronze medal. We clinicked. We schooled. And we sweated. We had some good moments.

And I thought I had him mentally back last spring, and then that was quickly shattered as he kicked his way out of my trailer and left his hind leg in pieces. And after that, I thought he was done.

Nixon didn’t seem mentally the same after that fateful day in March, 2017. Where he was once cocky, he was now anxious. Where he was once bold, he now had a spook. And when he spooked, he ran. And when he ran, he RAN HARD.

Not the easiest ride. Photo by JJ Sillman


In December, he took off with me. In dressage tack, and in the arena. Something he had never done. Unjustified. And I pulled him up, called my fiancé, and dissolved into tears.

I wanted him gone.

I rode alone every day, and this was no longer safe. I started calling the few people I trusted to give him to, and made arrangements to find a back 40 if that didn’t work. I chucked him into the field and kissed my 4* dreams good bye. I was resigned and content to go training for the rest of my life.

4* dreams


But then, something happened.

The minute I gave up, he stepped up. I stopped trying to put him in that 2nd level frame to get more scores, and trotted him around for 10 minutes a day like it was an AQHA show, and he took a deep breath. I didn’t jump him for 3 months, and when I did come back, we did courses of crossrails at the trot. 

I made every ride be simple. Short. End on a good note.

I brought back trail rides, adventures to masterson, and happiness.

And Nixon thanked me by simply behaving.


Now; he’ll never be an easy ride, and I’ll never be able to put a beginner on him, but for me, he is rideable.

And yesterday, we finally showed just how much. Because yesterday, we had our beginner novice redemption ride.

In the pissing rain, and without a warm up, Nixon stepped up to the plate, swung, and hit it out of the park.

We had a workmanlike dressage, a forward and happy stadium, and then the kicker of it all—we lived on XC.

A relaxed dressage. Photo by JJ Sillman


I haven’t even schooled this horse over XC jumps since last August, so my goal was to trot. Trot in, trot out, and treat it like stadium. If we need a halt, we need a halt. If we need to walk a jump, so be it. The goal was to have a conversation, go between the flags, and stay on. And Nixon did all of that and so much more.

No death defying stop. Photo by JJ Sillman


He trotted the first fence relaxed and happy, and then cantered off, excited to be out in the open. I brought him back to a trot and along we went. And then about 8 strides before the next jump, he broke into a gallop, and I thought “this isn’t going to end well.”

Trotting the first jump. Photo by Brooke Schafer


This is how our last XC round had ended. With him bolting, me see-sawing, his head between his knees, and then the inability to even see the jump, and a stop.

So this time, I decided to trust him. 

I lifted my hands, sat up, and rode his 22’ stride with bravery. I added leg instead of going into the fetal position; and I stayed calm.

And for the first time, he just kept his stride, and up and over we went.

Galloping boldly. Photo by Brooke Schafer


For 16 fences, it was the same. We trotted, we galloped, we saw the jump, we got excited, and we went over it.

I was near tears by the end of the course, realizing just how many battles had to be won to get to this place. 

I had to battle his body as he shattered piece by piece in his fits of rage.

I had to battle his inability to get back onto a trailer after that incident.

I had to battle his brain as we rewired it, praying we could bring it back.

And I had to battle my expectations for this horse. I had gone from the highest of highs—believing he was my horse of the future, to the lowest of lows-wondering if he needed put down.

And I had finally settled somewhere in between.

Nixon might never get an FEI passport; hell-he might never go Novice. But for this one day, for this one time, he finally got to call himself an event horse. He finally got to finish something that everyone had said he was built for.

He finally got to have that redemption ride, and I got to be the one in the irons.


I can’t tell you how much a ribbon from an unrecognized event in the rain can mean to someone who has an extensive record in every other world, but it means more than you will ever know. It took a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get to that rosette, and while this isn’t the beginning, it sure is a peak in this winding road we take with these horses. I can’t wait to see what’s ahead.