Listening to the horse: The story of Mister Marti Gras

A few weeks ago, I received a text message from the owner of Chesapeake Farm, Drew Nardiello.  The many of you who have followed my stories and this blog have heard this name quite a few times – as he has been a pivotal person in my life and my involvement in this industry.

Drew gave me my first job in the thoroughbred industry.  When so many other farms turned me away due to my lack of resume, small stature, and more importantly, lack of connections, Drew gave me a chance.  I don’t know what he saw in me that others didn’t, but I know what I saw in myself.  I was passionate, driven, obsessed, depressed, and slightly scared.  I had faced so much hardship in the previous year of my life, and had felt so much rejection as I tried to scramble myself back onto my own two feet.

I showed up at Chesapeake dejected and angry.  I didn’t understand why I hadn’t been welcomed into this industry with open arms, or why people weren’t begging me to work with their horses.  I couldn’t tell you a shifney from a lip chain, a Storm Cat from an A.P. Indy, or what dictated being by or out of, but I loved horses and was a hard worker.  And somehow, someway, Drew saw that.  And he gave me a chance.

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Drew gave me a chance probably because we baked him cakes

For years now, even after leaving my position on that farm, we have stayed connected.  First it was through my relationship with Frank the Tank, and then through the fight we aligned on in retrieving Marilyn’s Guy.  And finally, and most recently, it was in his support of me retrieving Z Camelot from the hellhole of the Borell Farm.  I have learned in the past eight years that nothing is more paramount to Drew than the wellbeing of horses he is involved with.

So when I received a text and saw it was from him, I immediately knew that something was up.  He briefly asked me about how Kennedy (Marilyn’s Guy) was doing, and raved about the pictures posted on Facebook, and then asked me if I or myself was looking for another war horse similar to Kennedy.  His largest client, Robert Lothenbach, was retiring one of his most successful runners, Mister Marti Gras.

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March 2010: Mister Marti Gras and Shaun Bridgmohan before the Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, La.

The son of Belong to Me, Mister Marti Gras was quite famous around the track.  He had ran 58 times, won almost $1.2 million dollars, and most notably – was the winner of races like the G3 Ack Ack Handicap and the G3 Washington Park Handicap.  But perhaps more notable than his wins were his 15 grades stakes placings, including the G2 Hawthorne Cup Handicap (twice), the G2 American Derby, amongst others.

Mister Marti Gras ran well, he ran long, and he ran with heart.  At the age of 8, he was still placing in graded stakes races.  At the age of 9, he was still winning allowance races.  But in his last few starts, the amazingly sound and sturdy horse told his trainer Chris Block that his heart was no longer in it.

So Chris did what any good trainer would, and he listened to his horse.  He put his emotional and financial attachment aside, and kept his ears open.  And he called Drew, the racing manager for Lothenbach Stables, and said it was time.

And thats where I got involved.

Because after Drew messaged me, I began to pound the pavement.  I knew nothing about this horse besides the fact that he was sound, he was big, and he was older.  And I knew that he was an athlete.

After owning two graded stakes winners myself, both Marilyn’s Guy and Called to Serve, I knew that this could translate one of two ways.  Graded stakes winners were either powerful and opinionated enough that that could dominate the field, or they were sound of both body and mind enough to be exceptionally trainable – allowing their grooms, jockeys, and trainers to guide them towards the win.  But I didn’t know which Mister Marti Gras was, so my field of options for his potential owner were limited to those that I knew could handle either.

We needed a soft but strong rider.  A skilled trainer, and someone who we knew would transition a horse with both patience and knowledge.

And I found one.

 

I ran into Mandy Alexander at our Area 8 Championships at the Kentucky Horse Park.  We were both volunteering, and struck up a conversation.  She asked after my three OTTB’s, and told me of her current lack of a horse.  She had retired one upper level horse, and had recently sold her other upper level mare, and was for the first time in her life without a horse.  She thought that she was ready for this break, as the sport of eventing had changed so drastically from the sport that she loved.  But deep down, I heard in her voice that she wasn’t really ready for that break.

And she said that the retiree was coming home, and she needed a babysitter. And maybe, just maybe, if she found the perfect one, she could be persuaded to ride and compete again.  And I laughed at her, because all of her friends worldwide knew that this horselessness would never stick.

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MISTER MARDI GRAS winning the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park on 9-3-11 Jockey Up Eddie Perez

So I told her about Mister Marti Gras.  I showed her his race photos and his record, and I sent her Drew’s number, explaining the situation.

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No one can resist foal photos

And two weeks later, Mister Marti Gras became hers.

Mandy went out to Chesapeake to assess the situation, praying and hoping that she wouldn’t fall in love with this creature, only to be dismayed at how quickly she fell.  At almost 17hh, the rich chestnut gelding stood before her with clean legs, a kind eye, and a strong topline.  And quite quickly, and swiftly, her fan base of other horse crazed girls rejoiced as she posted on Facebook that she had bitten the bullet.  The horse was coming home.

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Mandy meeting Mister Marti Gras

I can’t wait to watch this journey begin.  I know that he is in the most capable hands, and with the best person for him.  Mister Marti Gras, or Krewe as he is now known, will be let down for a few months and then begin his transition from graded stakes winning millionaire to sport horse.  Raised by the best, trained by the best, transitioned by the best, he may be just starting fresh at the age of 9, but in the most capable of hands, the sky is truly the limit for this son of Belong to Me.

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A plea for skepticism

I received a text message a few months ago. It was my boyfriend asking me what I knew about a local off track thoroughbred sales barn, and if they had any credibility. I told him that I had heard of people donating horses to them, and had read of unhappy buyers on sites like OTTB Connect. I knew that their reputation wasn’t great, and asked why he was inquiring.

He told me that he had been approached by a friend as a plea for help. She was trying to get the two horses that she had donated to this program back, as she had become desperate to receive updates and notifications of their well being. Danielle was one of the “good guys”. She bred a few, sold a few, and raced the rest herself. And when these horses told her that they were done with the track life, she returned them to her personal farm and let them down.

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MyHeart’sreserved in retirement after some letdown on Danielle’s farm.

The majority of her horses were kept for life.  But with her fields filling up, and these mares being both sound and not of broodmare quality, she knew a different course needed to be found. So after a year of let down, when Valencienne and MyHeart’sreserved told Danielle that they were ready for a new job, she began hunting.

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A good start with Valencienne

She was recommended a local facility called Thoroughbred Sport Horses (TBSH) by a fellow horsewoman. Being told that the woman was a  well-respected horsewoman, who had retrained and sold hundreds of ex-racehorses, she jumped at the chance of placing her horses with them. And on March 15th, 2016 Danielle’s two fillies were delivered to TBSH with the promise of a good start, a great home, and a future as sport horses.

Their pictures were immediately placed on the website the following day, with tropical backgrounds of rain forests and beaches, their bodies photoshopped and superimposed. Danielle had thought nothing of the strange advertising, but waited impatiently for the continued updates and potential sale. She was excited to follow their careers, and looked forward to the photos and videos to come.

But all she received were crickets.

For months she waited patiently, assuming that the horses were just not ready for advertisement. But then she became concerned. She messaged the owner of the operation numerous times, first asking for information, and then demanding.

And then she got desperate. Which is where Luke got involved.

Danielle was so concerned over her horses well being that she reached out to the owner and offered to bring them home. She knew that time was money, and the longer that the horses resided in their facility without even a video being uploaded of their ridability, that they were losing money.  But her offer was ignored, and her pleas denied.  And that’s when the story took a turn.

They asked Luke if maybe he or I would reach out, hopeful that they would be more accepting to an offer from someone unconnected to the owner, and yet even he was turned down.

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Valencienne training at Keeneland

A broodmare manager of a commercial thoroughbred and polo breeding farm, a lifelong horseman, and the owner of 2 retired racehorses – and yet his offer was ignored.

Which is where things got interesting, and the story began to unfold.

Danielle decided to pursue one last approach and asked a friend of hers from Pennsylvania to buy Valencienne in June. The facility refused to show the horse in person, and pre-purchase examinations could only be performed by their own personal veterinarian. But after asking only two questions – (1) “Have you ever ridden a horse” and (2) “Have you ever owned a horse,” the horse was sold.

Under the facade of the horse being sent out of state, we offered to go pick up the horse in order to deliver it and were denied. They claimed that only commercial shippers like Brook Ledge or Sallee were allowed on the property – and the horse was sent to a mutual friends farm.

What were once tiny red flags had quickly become an electronic billboard. This was not normal; this was not OK.

Valencienne arrived at Danielle’s farm on June 30th, 2016 in dire shape. She had dropped over a hundred pounds in only three months, and her feet were severely neglected, long, and chipped. Her mane was untouched, and her coat was dull. It was glaringly obvious that Danielle’s concern had been justified. What had started as a simple wish to provide a safe and fun future career for her horse had turned into a personal hell.

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Valencienne when she arrived home

And it was obvious, MyHeart’sreserved would need to be bought as well. And thankfully, she was.

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Myheart’sreserved before a race at Keeneland

On August 11th, 2016, MyHeart’sreserved was bought by another friend – this time from Iowa, but was instead shipped to the Sallee holding facility, and eventually to Danielle’s farm. Her ribs jutted out from under a layer of skin, her feet were long and chipped, and her mane matted with burrs. But, at the end, she was home.

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MyHeart’sreserved when she arrived home in August

Danielle contacted me soon after this to vent her frustrations. Throughout her ordeal with them, she had been contacted by numerous other people to alert her to previous situations with this same organization. She heard horror stories. She was informed of deceit and inappropriate behavior.

And she was appalled that this organization got away with this behavior. She was hurt that she had fallen for their lies. But mostly, she was devastated that her horses had to suffer for even a single day due to her decision.

Hers is a unique story because no aspect of it can be questioned as a rarity or slander.  She had owned both horses before donation–one since birth, one since she had claimed her.  She had let them down off of the track herself, and knew their soundness and disposition. 

There is no falsity in this claim or exaggeration – just a breeder and owner who wanted to do right by her horse – tried – and failed.

And she decided that she wanted her story to be heard. She wanted people to learn from her own personal heartbreak and decisions, even if it meant a cease and desist or a lawsuit.  And she asked me to help her; to be the voice.

So please, listen. Be a critical judge of character and a constant skeptic. Not all rehoming organizations are created equal, and not all rescues are in it for the horse. And heed the red flag’s – or the glaring billboards. Go with your gut. Your instincts can protect and preserve the lives of that animals that you love. Learn from Valencienne and MyHeart’sreserveds, and let their story affect your actions.  Do it for the horses – for no one else will.

****EDIT:  The daughter of the owner of this facility currently resides in California, and has no affiliation with the operation.

Making a Life Out of (a hatred for) Showmanship

When I was a small child, I earned the name of Ramrod.

My beloved Uncle Bob would giggle as he watched my evil pony attempt to unmount me time and time again, and holler out from the side of the arena “Ride ’em Ramrod!”  He told me that by the age of 6, my back would stick up ramrod straight, and I would get this look of absolute determination on my face.

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Evil Pony

A little blonde cowgirl on a heathenous 11 hand pony – it was quite the spectacle.

That pony eventually took me through the lower levels of the United States Pony Club, but where we truly excelled was in 4-H. Chocolate was multi-disciplinary.  We racked up the ribbons in western pleasure, driving, hunter hack, and yes….we even won Showmanship.

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Conquering Showmanship

I hated Showmanship.  The perfectionism.  The attention to detail.  The cleanliness.  The hours of standing still only to step one way or the next.  And I made this readily apparent with my faces at the judges and my ridiculous dances when I thought they weren’t looking. And yet because I was in 4-H, we were forced to do it.

A few days ago, I read a Facebook status about a young girl who seemed to share this mentality.  She had qualified for the State 4-H Horse Show, and was wondering if it was even worth it to go for a non-riding class.  The comments ranged from support to utter ignorance, and I couldn’t help but want to chime in.

Because, I am here to say, that 4-H Showmanship was quite possibly the most influential class of my life.

And this status, and the comments underneath it, were written at the most opportune time. Because in two days, I will begin working yet another Keeneland September Yearling Sale.  18 draining days of 14 hour long work periods.  4,000 yearlings paraded around almost 50 barns.  And over $250,000,000 dollars worth of horseflesh accounted for.

Wild One

Those select few people who are considered capable enough to work with these 1,000+ pound uncastrated yearling colts and spirited fillies will rise before the sun, and prepare the horses for the day.  They are bathed and rubbed to a gleam.  Their hooves are polished, and their manes are gelled flat.  Stalls are mucked, clothes are changed, and then the real work begins…it is Showmanship on crack.

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Rubbing to a gleam. Photo by Susan Black.

We begin parading the yearlings at 8am.  One after another, they are walked up a laneway and back.  Their movement and straightness is evaluated, their demeanor and brain assessed.  Only this time, it is not for a rosette or a trophy – it is for hundreds of thousands, of not millions of dollars.

Just like I was taught by a 4-H leader many moons ago, we stop and stand the horses to exaggerate their strengths and hide their weaknesses.  We move from one side to the other with a swift subtleness.  The judges are no longer cowboys clad in suede, and instead are replaced by executives, professional athletes, and Sheikhs alongside their Hall of Fame trainers.

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Highlighting the good.  Masking the bad.

And as we shift from one side to the next, it becomes apparent that it is not just to flaunt our assets, but to also ensure the safety of the onlookers. Horses around us spontaneously combust in acts of athleticism and anxiety, and it is our job to maintain them.  To be their leader, their trainer, their reassurance, and their friend.  To demand that they behave when needed and acknowledge their infancy when required. And to add to that, most of us have only met these horses a few hours beforehand.

It is the yearling sales. And I love it.

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My happy place

I am asked all of the time by students, young adults, and fellow graduate students how I got my start in this crazy world known as the thoroughbred industry, and I never have a one word answer.

I learned so much about veterinary medicine from a vet that I worked with during high school.  I learned how to handle difficult and unbroken horses during my stint as a cowgirl in Wyoming.  I learned how to properly bandage a leg and give an IV injection as I prepared for my ratings in USPC.  I learned how to drive a truck and trailer and a tractor from a mother and father who refused to allow their daughter how to go through life without driving a stick.  And, at the end of the day, I learned how to show a yearling on the dusty fairgrounds of Crawford County.

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Showmanship rockstar

Surrounded by rhinestones and quarter horses, I was taught how to stand a horse still.  How to move them forward from a safe location along their shoulder. How to ask for an impulsive walk, and how to move them away from you through a turn.

I learned a skill that was paramount to so many aspects of my life – and not just the commercial auctions.  From conformation shots of sales horses, to flexion tests for a vet, and hopefully even an FEI jog – this ability to show a horse on the ground is paramount.

So I hope that the youth of our country read this and take a step back.  Is showmanship and halter boring?  Heck yes.  But should you listen to your trainers and leaders, learn how to do it to perfection, and then log those skills into the back of your brain for the future?  Please do.

Because we are badly in need for skilled horsemen and horsewomen in this up-and-coming generation, and those horribly boring Showmanship skills might just be exactly what you need to get one foot into the door of a future job.  A future career.  And if you’re anything like me, a future life.

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Fear of falling…or a fear of failing

When I was fifteen years old, my trainer pulled my mother aside and recommended that I see a sports psychologist.  She said that I was a much more capable rider than I gave myself credit for, and that my biggest road block was my own brain.

I was officially diagnosed as my own worst enemy – and fifteen years later, without the therapy that was recommended, I am still there.

I don’t like showing, and this has become even more apparent these past few years than ever before.  And I have started to realize that I am not the norm.  Many others lament over the price, and the time, the effort and the heat, and yet still show up weekend after weekend and commit to this lifestyle of being a competitive horse show-er.

Not me.  I am fairly opposite.  I lament over the same struggles, and the same problems, and yet at the end of the day, I find entering a show the most anxiety-inducing aspect of my life.  Definitely worse than taking an exam in biochemistry, possibly worse than analyzing data on a statistical software.  And I. Just. Don’t. Get. It.

I am a capable rider.  I am fearless at home.  And I am constantly trying to get better.  To be better.  But when it comes to shows, there is an anxiety that emerges from the deep depths of my soul, and lingers for days preceding the show.  I lose sleep.  I have nightmares about trotting down centerline only to realize I am naked.  Or to go into two point only to realize I pooped my pants, or worse – I missed a fence.

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Fearless at home…

I wake up in a sweat, and check my iPhone.  I will realize it is only 3am and that I have two more hours to sleep before even considering waking up, but I wake up instead.  And I pour myself a cup of coffee and sit on my couch, attempting to take a deep breath.  I will pull on my breeches, tack up my horse, and head out to the dressage arena or the in-gate, and I will ride.  And 99% of the time, I will do just fine.  Only for me, fine isn’t good enough.

Because I have realized that there are two types of people in this crazy horse world.  There are those who are afraid to fall, and those who are afraid to fail.  And I am the latter.

Before I moved up to training level on Mak, I sent messages to those people around my that I respect their opinion the most.  My trainer, my best friends, the man who owns my barn, and my mother.  I lamented over my decision and gave them all the reasons why I should not.  And each of them wrote back in exasperation that I was not only ready, I was beyond ready.

And I hemmed and I hawed.  I skipped one event, and then another.  And then I entered.  I dotted my eyes, crossed my tees, and paid the million dollars to gallop around 18 fences.

And then I got so nervous I was nauseous.  Only I realized that my nerves were very different than the nerves that my friends were feeling.

I wasn’t worried about getting hurt.  I knew that the risk of me falling off and being injured were very small.  Mak was amazing.  He would do his best to take care of me, and I had the skills to stick onto him even in the case of a refusal.  But that wasn’t what induced the nausea. That wasn’t what caused the anxiety.  It wasn’t a fear of falling – it was a fear of failing.

And for me, it has always been pass or fail.

When I spend $300 of my own hard earned dollars, which accounts for about a week of working in the lab as I pursue my doctorate, I want them to be spent wisely.  I set goals for myself, and am such a perfectionist that I am unhappy unless I have reached each of those goals successfully.

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You see a pretty dressage horse…I see a rider looking down. 

For Nixon it is about rideability and adjustability, being able to collect his canter to fences, and getting through the finish lines on Sunday.  But for Mak, it is so much more.  I want a softer and more uphill trot.  A stadium round that looks like a hunter round.  A double clean cross country.  And a well behaved and well mannered horse – day-in and day-out.

And because the standards are higher, the risk of failure is greater.  And because the risk of failure is greater, the pressure for perfection is almost palpable.

But because I am me, I choke in the worst way possible.  Instead of tackling my demons, lowering my standards, and getting over this phobia, I just hide. I don’t enter the shows, even when I can afford them.  Or I enter a level lower than I know I should be competing at.  Instead of addressing the issue, I exasperate it by letting the anxiety build, and getting farther and farther away from that road block that becomes competitions.

I wonder if maybe this is why I enjoy riding young horses so much, and why I am so much more willing to compete them instead of Nixon or Mak.  With a young horse, the expectations are lower.  Pick up both leads, stay in the dressage ring, and jump all of the jumps in the correct order.  If they accomplish this – it is the perfect day.  But if they don’t – it is not the end of the world.  We can write on social media of “baby moments” and no gossip will be whispered.

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Galloping with slack in the reins on a baby is a win!

But that is not ok.  In order for me to grow, I need to force myself outside of my comfort zone.  So many people comment that I am the bravest person they know, without realizing the internal anxiety with which I am struggle with.

So here is my resolution.  I will put myself out there.  I will enter my horses in the next show.  I will set reasonable goals, and I won’t beat myself up too badly if they are not met.  I won’t worry about what people are saying as they check the online scores, and I will  hug each of my ponies at the end of the event before loading them up and hauling them back to the comfort of their paddocks, acknowledging that we have both tried our hardest and deserve a pat on the back.

And maybe, just maybe, I will finally call that sports psychologist. I’ll let you know in a few years if I have finally been fixed, but until then, I will keep saddling up.  That, I will never give up.

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Couples Therapy Part 2: The Grey Area

I wrote the first installment of my blog entitled Couples Therapy  last week.  It was the end of a long month where my horse and I battled constantly.  He hated to be groomed, he hated to be caught.  He hated to walk hack, to flat, to jump.  And I was over it. I didn’t crave the ride that I had previously.

I went to the barn and tacked up Mak, and then Kennedy, and then stood in front of Nixon’s stall and stared at him.  Contemplating if it was worth tacking up, contemplating if the stress of the ride was worth the risk of reward.

Would he be good?  Would he actually trot and not jig?  Would I be able to canter him without grabbing for the brakes every stride?  Would I be able to stop him without turning him into a fence – and if I did turn him into the fence, would he stop?  Or finally just jump?

And I wrote the blog explaining this exasperation because I wanted people to realize that it isn’t always rainbows and butterflies.  That, just like any relationship with a human, there are good days and bad.  You will have arguments, and disagreements, and sometimes – you will just want a day or two of no contact with the outside world at all.

With the invention of social media, we are immensely exposed to each others lives.  There is a beauty in this, as it allows me to stay connected to friends from afar, and family members have access to my daily  minutiae that they otherwise would not get to experience.

But the problem with social media is that we get to pick and choose what others get access to.  My friends who are mothers post of their children’s dance recitals, but never mention them talking back or breaking that window with a baseball.  My friends in relationships post of their loved ones surprise flowers and immense generosity, but never write of picking up socks or being infuriated by their lack of romance.

And those with horses post relentlessly – which I can’t complain about, because I do as well.  We post of blue ribbons, and automatic changes.  Flawless rounds, and horses galloping to the gate when called.  We talk about finishing on our dressage scores, and how the stadium round was PERFECT with “only one cheap rail”.

My own Facebook page reads no differently.  The majority of my horses are for sale, and even if they’re not, I’m cognizant of how easily social media can be stalked in the future.  Mak was never meant to be a sales horse, but is currently listed – and I know that if prospective buyers scroll through my page, they will just see flawless photo after flawless photo and captions describing the athleticism, ease, and scope that he possesses.  I did that intentionally.  I did that with a purpose.  No one wants to read the bad, they only want to hear the good.

And I tried that with  Nixon. I kept our problems away from social media all of last summer, and instead tried to focus on the positive.  I twisted bad rides into good moments, and never let anyone know that he was so tough. And, at the end of the day, it worked.

He turned into the horse that I had verbally proclaimed him to be.  He ended up being the most ridiculously talented, athletic, winning horse I had ever owned. And win we did.  We won combined tests, we won the dressage portion of the Retired Racehorse Project TB Makeover, we won jumper shows, and he won my heart.

And because of my exaggerations, and my ultimate lack of truth, I began to hear people talk about Nixon.  At shows, fellow competitors would mention the fact that of course Called to Serve won. Or my friends would message me saying that they were happy that I had been placed into a different division.  Heck, my amateur status was questioned by USEF simply because another competitor was concerned about their chances against him. He got the reputation of being good.  Really good.

I began to realize that this was mostly my fault.  I didn’t spend much time talking about the struggles.  The toughness. The arrogance and the cockiness.  The horse salesmen in me had a hard time admitting his flaws, but was good at promoting his strengths. They only saw him win, and didn’t see my lack of sleep the night before the show as I worried if he was even ready.

So I began to post more honest statuses, but always dubbed them “Conversation’s with Nixon” which my friends and followers rather enjoyed. I would explain some aspect of his poor behavior from his point of view, explaining why he had done exactly what he had.  If he had bolted during his walk/canter transitions that day, I explained from his point of view that he just “wanted to win the gallop” in Tokyo.  If he attempted to bite me while grooming, I told my followers that he had just been letting me know that his salt lick was finished and my sweaty arm would suffice.  And my friends and followers ate it up.  They laughed and commented of their own struggles with their horses.

But then three months ago, Nixon popped a splint.  He spent 4 weeks on stall rest and 4 more weeks with no riding and controlled turn out.  And then we began legging him up again. In these eight weeks, he gained about 200 pounds, and his ego inflated alongside his belly.

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Stall rest was tough.  We drank a lot.

I got the go ahead to start legging him up about 6 weeks ago, and went about it hesitantly.  At first he was great.  Out of shape and without much steam, he began his trot sets like an angel.  And then as his fitness increased, combined with his newfound size and strength, he got hot.  And we began to brawl.

I wanted to know where my 2nd level dressage horse had gone.  I wanted to know why we were suddenly charging cross rails again.  I changed bits, I changed martingales.  I tried to hack before, or hack after.  We tried less riding, or possibly more.  And nothing worked.  I would come home upset and defeated, wondering what it was that I was doing wrong, or what lack of communication was going on between the two of us.  Was it the heat?  Was he in pain?  Ulcers? Kissing Spine? EPM?  A brain tumor?

I wrote the last blog during this time, and the response was pretty intense.

Because everyone who responded saw the situation in black and white.  If he was misbehaving, it was either 100% my fault because I sucked at riding.  Or it was 100% his fault, but solely because he was in pain, or telling me something was wrong.  Many people messaged me and told me that they feared for my safety and that I needed to get rid of him before I got hurt.  And others told me that I needed to find a horse better suited to my skill level, and let him go to a real professional. That it was obviously black and white – and he was black, and I was white.

And I’m here to tell you that horses are not just black and white.  Well, they are, but they are also bay. And chestnut.  And spotted, and dappled.  And sometimes, they’re a beautiful grey.

There is so much grey in this sport. In these relationships with these animals.  Because they are exactly that – living, breathing creatures with a brain, a heart, and four extremely strong legs.

Not all people are made for every horse, and I support that statement strongly.  I have written blogs about finding the right horse for you, and I truly believe this to be true.

But, if you ride long enough, at a high enough level, you are bound to find both good times and bad.  The horses underneath you have opinions, and emotions, and sometimes they just wake up on the wrong side of the stall.

And we as riders have stress from our jobs, our boyfriends, our income and our families. Sometimes we go to the barn as a stress release, with a clear mind and a clear heart, and sometimes we walk into the aisleway begging for a fight. Or as I like to say, cruising for a bruising.

I believe that you should be matched with a horse who is well suited to you, but we all must also understand that horses are not robots.  And we are not dictators.  This sport is a conversation, a partnership, and a relationship that continuously ebbs and flows, growing and regressing daily.

Last month was tough. I’m not going to lie and write a fluff status saying that it was a great time in my relationship with Nixon.  Both Nixon and I were not in a good head space, and we battled because of it.

Because I have met a horse just as stubborn, tough, intelligent, and cocky as myself, and because of that – we can, and will, brawl.

But after writing the initial blog, I went back to the barn and regrouped.  I tacked up, swung on, and reached down and scratched his neck.  I draped my legs loosely around his barrel, and gathered my reins.  I sat up straight and I asked him to bend, to soften, and to relax his poll.

And for the first time in many weeks, we had a fantastic ride.  He remembered how to half pass, and how to do haunches in.  The next day I set fences, and he calmly and softly cantered towards them and over them.

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Happiness is back.

We are happily in the middle of Couples Therapy.  Where there isn’t yes or no, life or death, black or white.  Just a lot of conversations, negotiations, happy mediums, and grey area.

 

 

Couples Therapy

“He hit me again.”

“Can you see this bruise?”

“It wasn’t his fault, I was in his way.”

These were the messages my girlfriends received most of the last two weeks. And if it was anybody else, any other woman – in this entire world, their responses would have been different.

I would have been told to go to the nearest shelter, or call 911. I would have been told that he would never change, and that he didn’t love me.  Or that he had mental issues, and needed to be left – running, and screaming.

Instead, I was told the opposite.

Because the man I’m in an abusive relationship with, isn’t a man at all. He’s 1400 pounds of solid muscle, shod hooves, and raging adrenaline.

It’s not my boyfriend — it’s my horse.

And the responses back are the opposite of what I would expect to read.

Instead of being told that I don’t deserve being thrown against a wall, I am asked if his back is sore.  Instead of photographs of bruised arms and battered hips invoking rage or sympathy, I am told to change my bit.  And each time that I write my girlfriends in a rage over being taken off with, or tossed into the air, nose bleeding and hands blistered, I am told that it is my fault – not his.

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My face says it all.  Photo by JJ Silliman

And I wonder – why is there this juxtaposition? Why is it ok for this massive beast of an equus to toss me around, when it is so NOT OK for my 180 lb. manfriend to?  Why am I told every day that it is always my fault, and never his, when the opposite would be said if it was a human? If it is never your fault as a woman to be abused by a man, why is it said to always be your fault as a horsewoman?

I posted a humorous status about exactly this on my Facebook page a few days ago.  Explaining this relationship based on abuse, after a long day at the barn where I ended up sore and exhausted.  I wrote (jokingly) that if nothing changed in a few weeks, I would be admitting defeat and someone else could get the bastard.  And I watched as comment after comment was posted telling me how this entire situation was my fault.  How I was doing SOMETHING wrong to ask for the abuse.  It’s not his fault, it’s just yours.

And I started off agreeing.  Just like a woman who had been cheated on, I had to admit that I was warned.  I had been told by his previous lovers and relationships that he was a jerk.  He had never lied to me and tried to convince me otherwise.  Just like a woman who might google a man before entering in a serious relationship, I had done the same – and had found horror stories of his past indiscretions.

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Mug Shot.

He had mugshots and a jail record, and I had known all of this before signing on the dotted line into this marriage of horse and horse owner.

I entered into the relationship as any woman does – believing that I could train him.  Put the seat down, do the dishes, grill a steak, not kill me on cross country — ya know, the basics.

But as all women in the past 2016 years have found, the man could not be trained.

Sure he mellowed as his six pack turned into a beer gut, and his glistening coat got a little muddy.  He let me believe that the improvements were being made, while secretly plotting his future midlife crisis.

He knew all along that he had me duped by his stunning good looks, his $500,000 salary, and his pristine pedigree.  He lured me in with a few good nights out on the town and a couple of blue ribbons.  He waited, and he plotted, and right when my heart was full and my commitment to him for life secure, he snapped.

He forgot how to half pass, he forgot how to jump.  He couldn’t seem to figure out how to trot, and definitely didn’t remember his lateral work.  But he remembered how to gallop, and he remembered how to bite.  He found a renewed love for spooking at invisible mythical creatures, and a stunning ability to avoid all contact from water while being hosed off.

And I hung my head, feeling like this was entirely my fault.  I had married the beast, making the bed that I would be forced to lie in.  It was my fault that I was being assaulted on a daily basis, and not his.  He was bred and raised to be this way.  His entire life he had gotten away with these bad habits, so who was I to try to change him?

I heard over and over about how the tough ones are the best, and how they make us greater riders and better horsewomen and men  But I’m also here to tell you that sometimes these tough ones just suck.  They’re cocky. They’re arrogant.  They know how ridiculously good looking they are.  And, at the end of the day, they’re just jerks.

But I’m not a quitter.  I’m not yet filing for divorce.

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Couples therapy 

But I did ask him if we could do couples therapy, and he agreed.  So for the next few months, a few times a week, we are going to go to therapy (a lesson), take long walks holding hands (road hacks), and joint bubble baths (bran mashes).  And I hope, and I pray, that we can get this relationship back on route.  We’re going to see if the chemistry that made us fall in love can be reignited, but contained.  We’re going to see if this marriage of horse ownership can be save.  If not, there is going to be one sexy lawn ornament in Lexington, Ky, and one bitter divorcee in me. 

 

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Riding isn’t a sport… or is it?

“Riding isn’t a sport,” the article reads.

“YA?  Well you try to control a 1200 lb horse with your pinkie,” the meme retorts.

“Why doesn’t Valegro get the medal?  He did all of the work?”

“Oh my gosh.  If you think riding is so easy, why don’t you come ride my horse?  He’ll show you how hard it is!”

 

These are the conversations I have been reading on social media these past two weeks.  With every Olympics comes a new wave of anti-equestrianism.  Anti-horse.  And even, from our own corner, anti-sport.

I grew up hearing these same things on a daily basis.  I was that girl.

The girl who never attended the after-prom party because she had a show the next day.  The girl who quit softball because the coach wouldn’t let her miss a game for a clinic.  The girl who left school early on Thursday’s to travel across the state for an event.  The girl no one understood.

I was tormented, I was bullied.  I was told my passion wasn’t a sport.  I was told my horse was stupid and smelly.  I was labelled the rich kid.  Equestrianism was not understood in the small industrial town of Meadville, Pennsylvania. Being an equestrian was not only not understood, it was picked on.

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I was that girl.  The one who only found solace in the barn. With my barn friends.

But I have lived in blissful ignorance for some time now.  I moved to Lexington, Kentucky – the mecca of all thing horses.

I went from defending the intensity of my hobby to trying to convince my friends that eventing isn’t actually that dangerous.  I am surrounded by friends and loved ones who don’t mock my passion – they relish in it.  And those friends and family members from yesteryear have come to terms with the fact that at the age of thirty, there is minimal chance of me ever changing.

My weeks are spent as a doctoral candidate at the University of Kentucky – in one of the only programs in the nation that has an entire department in place to study everything about The Horse.  My mornings are spent collecting stallions and breeding mares. My evenings are spent riding my numerous thoroughbreds.

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My fellow students are now just as horse-obsessed.  The Gluck Equine Research Center Repro Lab

Friday nights of my younger years were spent missing out on the latest party, but are now replaced by a glass of wine in the stands of the Grand Prix.  Saturday’s are spent at the races, shoulder to shoulder with thousands of others who will have to wake up on Sunday, and hungover or not, put on a bandage, muck a stall, or hack a set. And at the end of the day on Sunday, I am snuggled up on the couch with my Super Significant Manfriend – a Broodmare Manager himself.

My life IS horses. It is the Kentucky way of life.

So in blissful ignorance of the last 8 years of life, existing in My Old Kentucky Home, I thought that the rest of the world had changed.

But 20 years later, I have come to realize just how little it has. I watch through social media as other young girls are tormented.  These young ones, whom I have met through the local events or just through social media, are still posting the statuses about how tough their sport is.  How dangerous horses can be.  How hard we work for our passions.

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My teenage years were also spent doing this…

 

And then the Olympics came.  Immediately my Facebook blew up, with an argument going back and forward between them and us.  They said our sport wasn’t that at all.  That the horse did all of the work.  That the horse deserved the medal.  That this snobby hobby needed to be dismissed from the Olympic Games and replaced with a hobby that requires more skill – like beer pong, or needlepointing.

And this has all occurred in an Olympic year where we have witnessed everything that makes this sport great – skill, ability, horsemanship, finesse, and heart.

I turned on the cross country portion of eventing with the intention to watch Boyd, and then write the Materials and Methods of my latest manuscript, and then turn it back on for Clark, and repeat.

But I couldn’t turn away. It was mesmerizing.

The course ate people for dinner.  I watched on abated breath, but not scared.  I hadn’t witness any extreme falls – a la Burghley.  But I witnessed William Fox Pitt have a run out; something I didn’t think I would see in my lifetime. I saw Michael Jung make a line that made me want to vomit ride like it was a grid in a lesson.  I watched a woman from Zimbabwe execute a smart, brilliant, and skilled ride to complete the toughest technical course I had ever witnessed.

But at the end of the day, no one was seriously hurt.  But there were crashes, and there were dramatic moments.

Just like, maybe, gymnastics.

And then I turned on the stadium, anxious to see if New Zealand would finally clinch a gold medal.  And I watched as eventing seemingly appeared to transform into the combined training’s of yesteryear.  The leader board had already  been mangled by the cross country, and then was further altered by mere 4 pt faults for rails.  Endurance had been tested the previous day, and with that came tired horses.  And again, I watched on abated breath as Mark Todd effectively knocked his team out of contention for a medal.

It was devastating. It was emotional.  Like someone had scripted it for a major movie.

Just like, perhaps, soccer.

And then dressage began.  This horsey dancing that can either entertain, or as my Uncle Bob used to say, be comparable to watching grass grow. But it was BRILLIANT.  Watching Laura Graves and Verdades bring America back to the podium was enthralling.

And I knew that I was abnormal, as most people in the general population would have no clue what a piaffe, or a pirouette was.  This can’t be interesting to them, can it?

But then I realized that no one knew the movements that were being performed on the uneven bars.  No one watching NBC could ride one stride tempis, but hell, I can’t balance on a beam. And while many don’t understand why it is even called dressage, or where it originated, I also have no idea why the hell people needed to learn how to swim like a butterfly.

But, while I had no idea why anyone would swim away from a shark on their back, I still watched.

Because dressage became so similar to, could it be, swimming?

I still cheered for all of them.  So why can’t they cheer for us?

I think the first thing we need to do is to chill for second and think.  Take a moment to reconsider what aspects of the sport that we are utilizing to bring in the fans.  Because all I am seeing on social media is that our sport is both boring, and scary.

And our rebuttal is based on fear.  On the size and strength of the horse.  On the size and spread of the jumps.  But why is it always the thrills and spills?  Why is our rebuttal to those who think our sport isn’t a real sport always concerning danger?

 

I’m pretty sure that I don’t expect Michael Phelps to drown every time he swims.  I also don’t think that Simone Biles is going to snap her neck when she vaults. Those sports don’t need danger, so why does ours? Why is our immediate response to the hate that we will put them on a horse, and they will immediately REGRET ever riding one?  That they will probably fall off, most likely be injured, and heck – maybe even die.

Because I am certainly not watching the swimming, the beach volleyball, the soccer, the gymnastics, or the track because I want to see people be injured, or even die. I am watching because of the skill.

We watch because each of these things were sports that we tried as a child, or a hobby that we entertained as an adult.  We have all swum.  We have all jogged.  We have all attempted a cartwheel, and kicked a ball. But at the Olympics, it is on another level.

And we are cognizant of this because we know how horrible we are at cartwheels.

So I ask all of you equestrians this.  Don’t post on social media about how scary horses are.  Don’t respond to the hate by saying how dangerous our sport is.  Instead, invite that hockey player to the show.  Convince the football team to go to the Grand Prix.  Take your sorority sisters to the races, and convince your boyfriend to go to Rolex.

And more importantly, find your nieces, your nephews, and the neighborhood kids, and go to the barn. Find that trusty lesson horse at your barn and encourage them to all swing up.  Not in  order to scare them, or to prove a point, but in order to show them the basics.

I learned how to kick a ball at the age of 2.  I learned how to swim at that age too.  I could do a cartwheel at 5, and ran track all through college. And I did those things because they were considered safe, inexpensive to do, and a fun activity for a child.  I also got a pony at the age of 2 – and that skill set has held me through life.  It is more than a sport, or a hobby, it is a passion.

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So lets make riding that again.  Encourage children to be around the barn.  Bring equestrianism out of the television and back into the lives of Americans.  Only then will we lose the fear and find the skill in this sport.  Only then will the hate dissipate, and become understanding.  I look forward to that day, and I know the children of our future will too.