The Horse I Couldn’t Quit

Five years ago I took on an off the track thoroughbred with the idea that he would be an easy flip. Some quick cash. A safety net for my savings account.

Four and a half years ago I decided he was too much fun to sell right away. We would play for some time. He was such a joy to be around.

Mak as a 4yo at his first show. Photo by Chelsie Novak

Last summer, financially strapped and having difficulties with another unsellable horse, I made one of the toughest decisions of my life and loaded him on a trailer to Virginia. I cried myself to sleep that night after drinking an entire bottle of wine, but rationalized with myself that he had found an amazing home with a great kid, and would be fine.

Nineteen days later, I realized I had made the biggest mistake of my horse life. The perfect home wasn’t so perfect, and the little girl wasn’t the best match. He was unhappy, and was telling them in spades of his unhappiness. And this horse that I had always believed to be amateur and kid friendly was pronounced crazy. Herd bound. Tough. 

So after a few more tears were shed, Luke and I drove the 11 hours to Virginia and brought Mak home. We unloaded him back into his field that night and I stared out into the paddock in a turmoil of emotions.

Maybe I didn’t know my horse that well.

Maybe he wasn’t as easy as I, an experienced horseman, thought.

Maybe I had epically misjudged both him and my gut.

And maybe, just maybe, I had committed a huge disservice to him.

But still financially strapped and wondering how I would ever juggle the two horses, I put him back on the market. People would come and go, and yet every situation just didn’t feel right. I would make excuses to some, saying he just wouldn’t be a good fit. Or tell others that their budget, home, or lifestyle wouldn’t work. I ignored any email west of the Mississippi, and anyone who inquired about a young rider mount.

And then fall came, the market went dry, and I turned him out into his field.

In the spring, I pulled him back out and began to hack. We went to a few little jumper shows and bopped around, and then out of seemingly nowhere I finally made the decision that I was done.

Finding his mojo again.

The sale had nearly done me in, and the aftermath had devastated me. But my horse was telling me that our journey wasn’t over. And so in March, his ad came down and his entries went up. 

I set goals for my year that only a year ago I didn’t think were possible. I hadn’t thought Mak enjoyed himself as an eventer so I had listed him as a hunter. And yet with just a single XC school this spring, I realized how wrong I was. 

His ears were pricked, his stride was strong, and his eyes were happy. And I just knew that he was back. That we were back. 

Loving XC. Photo by XPress Photos

And then his happiness and stability was put to the test.

Because a few weeks ago, my friend Dan called me. A client of his was bringing his family to Lexington for the United States Pony Club Championships and didn’t want to haul his daughters mount in from Wyoming. Dan asked if I knew of a horse that a young teen would be safe on at 3′, and I hesitated.

Because I had thought I had just the horse, but his past experiences had brought me to this pause.

Was Mak safe for a kid? Last summer would say no.

Was Mak as amateur friendly as I thought, and a true kick ride? Last summer would indicate he had a stop in him.

And was Mak well mannered enough to survive a pony club rally where I couldn’t micromanage his every moment? Last summer would scream no.

And yet I sat down and came to the realization that last summer wasn’t a true indicator of his brain, or his ability. It was a single moment in time, with a bad match, and a bit of a meltdown. He hadn’t been happy, and he made it known.

But he was happy now, and therefore I said yes.

So Emma Reed arrived on Sunday night and immediately came from the airport to meet him. We tacked up, threw her up on him, and went into a 48 hour boot camp before rally started. She had her first walk, her first trot, and her first canter just days before the competition. We popped her over jumps, and with each one you could see her smile grow.

Emma’s first ride on Mak.

It was a great fit. And obviously the fit that was lacking just a year ago.

So I hauled Mak to the Kentucky Horse Park and handed him to this young lady; entrusting his care to her. For 4 days she would be his sole provider. For 4 days she couldn’t demand my help.

And he was perfect.

Emma went into the riding portion of her tethralon competition and threw down a foot perfect ride on a horse she had just met. Mak took the jumps beautifully in stride, but more importantly he handled the auxiliary aspects of the ride well. 

Emma had to dismount him, put down a split rail, walk Mak over it, and remount; all of which he took in stride. She had to jump a bank out of the arena and gallop up a steep hill to open and close a gate, which Mak definitely didn’t understand, but he performed regardless.

And she had to care for him as her own, which we all witnessed her do.

Some well deserved treats at the barn

And not only did Emma do that, but she also swam like a fish, shot like a sniper, and ran like a Usein Bolt.

And at the end of the week, we all got to watch as she accepted her blue ribbon proudly, having won her division at the USPC Championships–a goal so few get to accomplish.

And my pony was right there next to her the entire time.

After Emma left the ring, I received a few inquiries about Maks status. Mothers who wanted me to let their kids try him, or trainers who saw the safety and sanity which he exhibited, and I said no to all.

I’ve already been there; I’ve already done that.

And I know from experience that I can guarantee nothing. If I go bankrupt, I will find him a perfect home before I let any aspect of his care suffer. But I also know that I will sacrifice just about anything before I let that happen again. 

Because Mak has deserved it.

And I have learned that I just can’t quit him.

He was brought into my life for a reason, and he has lived up to that reason quite often. He is brave enough for me to enter my first ever combined test at the preliminary level in just a few weeks. He is safe enough to hand off to a young teen who he has never met for a weeklong competition. And he is happy enough to keep coming back for more.

And that is worth the trials and tribulations that we have encountered. He is with me now, and besides the loan outs and short leases to allow others to realize their dreams and boost their confidence, I don’t see that changing any time soon.


Everything will be ok…

I have a severe rash covering 80% of my body.

It’s been on me on and off since I was 13 years old. It stumped the dermatologists in my small town of Meadville, Pa and they sent me off to the Cleveland Clinic, hoping to get some answers and relieve me of my pain. 

When I was 13 it covered my arm pits, my face, and my neck. It appeared as hives, which turned into welts, and eventually opened up and were extremely painful and ghastly to look at.

They biopsied me, tested me for a million allergens, put me on prednisone (which made me vomit for two weeks) and finally gave up.

They sent me home and told me to spot test everything I interacted with. We eliminated anything fragranced (laundry detergent, deodorant, shampoo, perfume and lotion), found a make-up brand that didn’t make me break out (Almay), and became cognizant of bringing everything I needed every time we traveled. 

Occasionally, the rash would come back for no rhyme or reason. It was usually small, and it usually was resolved with some steroid cream and a few Benadryl.

Until last year. 

Last year my legs broke out. I went to the doctor and they diagnosed me with psoriasis. It was painfully horrendous all summer as it rubbed the back of my calves while I rode, and the back of my thighs when I sat. And then it got cool out, and it went away.

And I remember watching the commercials for shingles or psoriasis and thinking “Oh, c’mon. You’re that embarrassed by a little rash on your arms? It’s THAT big of a deal?”

Until this summer, when it came back with a punch. 

For the last month now, I have been miserable. The itching over powers every other sense in my body. I don’t enjoy food, I can’t focus at school, and I am constantly scratching any time possible. 

I get out of the shower in the morning and stare at my body as if it has betrayed me. My confidence is shot, and I’m embarrassed to be seen in almost any public outing.

My arms and legs are the worst, and yet it is July in Kentucky. With 90 degree days, I am usually forced into some form of outfit which reveals this horror. And people ask, or stare, wondering what would be wrong with me. 

I jokingly call it my leprosy, but a lepar I look. And I finally have full sympathy for those paid actors in those commercials.

I feel ugly. I feel miserable. I am miserable.

But for three glorious hours of the day, I am not.

For three glorious hours of the day, I am not judged for my looks or thinking of my rash.

I cover myself from head to toe in my breeches and a long sleeve shirt, zip up my tall boots, and head to the barn. 

I have three horses who demand my upmost attention. They demand that I focus on what is underneath my seat and not what is on my skin. And as I think to shift my right hip back to ask for haunches in, or my left rein back for half halt, I am completely focused on them.

No one cares if I’m covered in a rash. No one cares if I am packing on a few extra pounds. No on cares if I’m smiling or frowning, they just care that I am 100% with them and riding them to the best of my capabilities. 

And for three hours, my mind is on that, and not on me.

But this week, this ended. My rash had finally covered the entire surface area of my legs which lies on my saddle, and my three hours of bliss turned into three hours of agony. My mother just happened to call me during one of these rides and caught me in tears. My escape have become just another section of my prison.

So today I head to a specialist to try (yet again) to figure this out. My mother thinks I have Celiac’s Disease, my physician still says it’s psoriasis, the doctor at UTC calls it a bad case of poison ivy, and yet I am sure I suffer from an autoimmune disease like Lyme’s or Lupus.

But I’m interested to see what these doctors have to say. 

I hope to get some resolution. 

I hope to get some relief.

Because I want my confidence back. And more importantly I want those 3 hours back. I have come to realize that it is ok if I have gained 15 pounds as long as it isn’t hindering my riding. It is ok if my bank account reads $2.17 as long as I have enough to pay the board. And it is ok if I am covered head to toe in a blistering rash, as long as it doesn’t put me on the sidelines.

It has also made me appreciate every individuals struggle. If you were to see me at a show, you would think I am just fine. My jacket and my breeches hide the scars, and my smile hides the pain. I complain about it to my closest friends, but only a select few know how bad it has gotten. 

And that is ok. It is ok to pretend like everything is fine. It is ok to ride through the pain.

But I wanted to post this here because it is not ok for us as a society to let others believe that we are the only ones suffering. The only ones who have lost our confidence. The one ones who feel fat. The only ones who feel ugly.

I don’t feel awesome right now, but that is ok.

Because I have a team of great friends who let me vent, 3 fantastic ponies who let me ride them, and a doctor who will hopefully have some answers and provide some relief.

Wish me luck.


A Come to Jesus

The best thing that ever happened to me was graduating college in the recession.

It was 2008, and I was one of those kids that entered school with high aspirations of six figure jobs and Doctor in front of my name.  I had gone to a fantastic, albit extremely expensive liberal arts school – one that cost more for four years of education than what many American’s make in a decade.

And in May of 2008, as I tossed my cap into the air and hugged my fellow graduates, I thought to myself “Yes.  This is when I set off into the wide unknown and MAKE IT.”

And then the stock market crashed.

And then I didn’t get into vet school. 

And then my father passed away. 

And then I moved to Lexington, Kentucky with $1,000 to my name and a cat.

I started as a small animal vet tech, quickly transferred to selling cowboy boots at a local store, and yet still found myself floundering.  No one was doing well.  Paychecks were hard to come by, and hours were hard to find.  Everyone was struggling.

So I began to drive from farm to farm looking for work, only to find that few were hiring.  With the market crashing, horses took the brunt of the hit.  A hobby sport to most – when budgets must be cut, the ponies tend to go first.  And with less horses there were less staff needed on the farms.  People were begging for work – just to muck a stall or drive a tractor – and therefore the inexperienced 22 year old blonde girl got the brunt of it.

No one wanted to hire me. 

So when I was finally hired at Chesapeake Farm in March of 2009, I was shocked.  The average starting salary a decade ago was $8/hour, and yet I was offered $10 due to my ability to work in both the office and on the farm.  I worked 50hr+ weeks without weekends and brought home a paycheck of about $300/week, leaving my monthly salary at $1200 – and an annual income of about $15,000.

$600 of those dollars went to rent, $150 went to my truck, and another $120 to my private health insurance plan.  I ate peanut butter sandwiches, hacked onto my neighbors wireless internet, and watched old DVD’s of Grey’s Anatomy on repeat.  I didn’t buy new clothes, I didn’t eat out, and I sure as hell didn’t own or ride a horse.


But at the end of the day, I loved every minute of it.

Because I had come to know how hard those jobs were to come by, and I didn’t want to risk losing mine.  I showed up 10 minutes early and was always the last to leave.  I offered to short shift, turn out yearlings, and do the evening treatments. I didn’t think I was hireable anywhere else, and because of that, I busted my ass.

The recession nearly did me in, but the recession was the best thing to ever happen to me.

And now ten years later, I just don’t see that same drive in our recent graduates.

Because in the last few months, we are hearing of the opposite problem.  Farms desperately need help, and visas for foreign workers are limited.

We need an American work force, and yet can’t seem to find one.  

In 2008, you weren’t able to find a job.  And in 2017, you can’t seem to find the help.  The work is nearly the same – its a lot of hand walking, currying, mucking out, and leading to and from.  The hours are nearly identical – six days a week, 8 hours a day.  The only thing to have seemingly changed are the paychecks –  as the income has increased drastically – with wages that would have made me salivate ten years ago.

And yet the work force doesn’t seem as driven.  

These youngin’s are coming out of college and demanding that they start at the same wage as the men and women who have been hoofing it for decades.  They bemoan of student loans and truck payments, fancy rentals and their own personal livestock.  And they complain of the long hours, back breaking labor, and rough stock.

Work 3

They float from one farm to the next, always assured that they will find another job.  They don’t give two weeks notice, and they expect all holidays off.  They claim to want to work with horses, and expect the piece of paper from their local universities to automatically feed them into a managerial role.

They are too comfortable.

I advise a number of students, both intentionally and not, through my role as a course instructor, and I have heard the gauntlet of fears, concerns, and complaints.

And at the root of most of this issue is money. These students lament over their high student loans and their inability to work for such cheap wages in order to pay these back.  And I feel for them, I do.

Except I kind of don’t.

These kids enter college in an equine programs field expecting what?  To graduate and immediately earn six figures?  They know that undergrad is going to cost them a good deal of money, and they sign the dotted line to take out those loans – usually cushioning with a bit of extra funding in order to live in comfort for the next four years.  And then they happily lope through college living the high life.

Until what?  Until the real world hits them.

And yes, there are options for those kids upon graduation to make a decent amount of money with that degree. Pharmaceutical sales, equine insurance, or even heading off to law school, graduate school, or vet school.  But those jobs are limited and those careers are hard to obtain.

And many of these graduates don’t want that.  They want to work WITH the horses.  They want to be the farm manager, and they expect that managerial job to come to them immediately.

Work 2

And thats where things get tense, and money gets tight.  Because the majority of the farms could care less if your degree is in an equine field or in English lit.  They don’t check your GPA – they check your driving record. And at the end of the day, the majority of farm owners would rather hire a manager who can speak Spanish than compute SAS code.

And that farm owner/manager didn’t sign the dotted line for you on those lines, or sign your agreement to the nearest University.  What they did sign off on was providing you with a living wage and a decent work environment.  They did not make your  prior decisions for you, so don’t expect them to rectify them.

We need to get out of this vicious cycle.  We need to promote educational venues outside of the stone walls of University.  A college degree isn’t the end all/be all, especially in this business surrounding our beloved equines.  We need to encourage our youth to pursue higher professionalism, not higher education.  We need to teach promptness, cleanliness, and a pep in a step – not just Calculus and Shakespeare.

Because this business needs this generation, and this generation needs some hard work. To realize that a hards days wages are worth it.  To learn the value of callused hands and cracked skin.

To understand that job’s aren’t finite.  That you can be replaced.  That the economy and the industry can crumble around you no matter how hard you might try.

I’m not praying for another recession, because lord knows that was a scary time.  But we need a kick in the ass.  We need a come to Jesus. And we need some fear, and the men and women of the work force with which it creates.

Work 4





The Pre Purchase Examination

I have sold quite a few horses.

Some for a lot of money, some for a little. Some which have had training for years and are solid citizens at their discipline, others which are green and simply prospects. They differ in experience, in size and shape, and in discipline. 

But what they all have in common is the pre purchase examination. 

And it sucks.

For someone like me who gets severe anxiety over the behavior, performance, soundness, and ability of her horses, the pre purchase examination is HELL. I lie sleepless the night before and lament over the possibilities. I get to the barn an hour ahead and pull the horse from his field or his stall and take him for a jog. I listen for the rhythmic fall of his hooves and pray to the horse gods that the veterinarian and the client hear the same.

And then I place them back in the stall, knocked free of mud and dander, and I wait. For the vet to come. For the sale to either go forward or crumble to dust. For the beer (or 4) awaiting me at home. 

Most PPE’s go the same way. The veterinarian does a full physical-measuring everything from resting vitals to listening for heart murmurs. They run hands over legs and assess angles of hooves. They ask if the horse has been on any medications or if any joint has been injected. And if they are an exceptional vet, they assess the horses temperament as they do all of this. 

Assessing temperament. Maybe not a children’s horse?

A good vet knows the background of their client. Is this horse for a child? An adult amateur? Or a professional who is currently overseas contending a 4*. Will it be used as an up/down mount, perhaps jumping a crossrail or two? Or will it be going intermediate in 2 years with hopes of podiums and that red coat. Has it been raced? Does it have a competition record? Did it compete recently–whether it be in racing or the sport of choice? 

Because all of these things can help paint a picture. 

But before the picture can be painted, the vet needs to see the horse move. We jog on pavement or at least hard level ground and go through the flexion portion of the PPE. First the ankles, and then the knees. The hocks, and the stifle. And with each jog down the lane, your heart flutters a little more. You can hear the rhythmic gait, the soundness as your horses feet fall flat and sound. You move forward to lunging, to see if the horse maintains that soundness on a circle; at a bend.

And then comes the anxiety attack. If your horse is merely a prospect, many will stop here. The horse either trots or doesn’t trot sound. And if it trots sound, go forth and prosper. If it doesn’t trot sound–find a new prospect.

But if the horse is worth a bit more, and the financial gamble is a bit greater, we proceed to radiographs, or X-rays.

Depending on the price; the anxiety of the buyer; and the outcome of the flexions, the number of radiographs can range greatly. Many will recommend radiographing what flexed positive, and leaving well enough alone for the rest. 

This could mean images of just the left front fetlock and the right hind stifle. Many vets will add front feet to play it safe. And others will recommend the full gauntlet. A 40-44 image set, or heck, a 50 image set if you add the spine. 

And this is where the price range changes for the buyer, the information increases for the veterinarian, and the anxiety attack sky rockets for the seller.

Because any blemish, any flake, and you know that your chances of making this sale decrease. 

Because we are now a society that demands perfection. A society that uses Google instead of their brains. And because every buyer wants the perfect horse. The perfect set of X-rays. The radiographs that vet schools use to teach their anatomy classes.

Because we hear constantly that clean X-rays are what are important, but to a good vet they’re not.

To a good vet, and a good buyer, the radiographs are just one part of the puzzle. 

Sure, there are deal breakers in a PPE. Maybe the horse has a completely paralyzed throat and yet you are purchasing for racing or 4* eventing.

Or maybe the horse has freshly torn suspensory and you are purchasing him as your mount to pursue Young Riders next summer.

But besides this handful of deal breakers, the majority of other flaws are simply that: flaws. And need to be interpreted alongside the other information.

Take my horse Nixon as an example. Nixon ran 26 times, and consistently. I know that the one break within his race career was due to an injury to his suspensory and that he was rested for over a year and then proceeded to race for another 2 years. He won almost $500,000 and ran WELL against the best.

Nixon winning the Discovery Handicap

And now as a sport horse, in his second career, he is the soundest horse I have ever owned. He lives barefoot from October-May, and has never received an injection or supplement. He is ridden 5-6 days a week and is in active training as both a dressage horse as well as an eventer. 
He is strong. He is tough. He is the horse I don’t worry about. 

And yet when I saw his X-rays a year ago, I freaked. Nixon has osselets in both front ankles. Spurs in both hocks. He has thickened tendons, and of course that old suspensory injury.

And I called my vet that day and asked if I had invested in a horse that wouldn’t ever hold up to the future I expected of him. I wanted this horse to take me all of the way–as his mind and ability were fully capable–but now I wasn’t sure his body was.

And Heather calmly, and slowly, talked me off of my ledge. She reminded me that his horse had been in HARD work for almost a year without taking a lame step. That his blemishes had been noted even as a 4 year old when he had gone through the Fasig Tipton Horses of Racing Age Sale.

And that so many horses that she sees at the upper level of the sport share the same issues.

So why wasn’t she scared of these radiographic abnormalities? Why didn’t she “fail” my horse and tell me to find another? 

Dr Heather and her favorite patient Nixon

Because as a good physician, as a professional sport horse veterinarian, and as a rider herself, she understood the bigger picture. The whole picture.

She knew he flexed clean. She knew he rode sound. And she knew that she wasn’t injecting those joints every 6 months to keep him going. And she knew that he had ran long and ran well on those same blemishes. So his abnormalities did not alarm her. 

Because there was no pass or fail. Just a chapter in the story.

I still recommend that people get PPE’s done, keeping in mind to do it at the level you are comfortable with. I ask that my vet comes and flexes all of my prospects that I find on the track or sitting in the field, and if these horses are crippled upon flexion I don’t radiograph, I just pass.

But for people investing real money and gambling their hard earned dollars, a PPE is a good indicator of a starting point. A good comparison if issues arise in the future. And a good predictor of if maintenance may be needed in the future.

Nixon is sound and happy without interference now, but at least I know what I started with. I have rationalized with the fact that with these abnormalities on his films that he might need some maintenance in the future–whether that be joint injections, an oral supplement, or maybe just alterations in our fitness plan, I do not know.

Moving out sound

But what I do know is that I have all of the information. And I have an amazing team surrounding me to help me interpret that information. I would never ask my veterinarians to pass or fail a horse because you can’t shove these animals in boxes, not to mention the fact that you certainly can’t place injuries in boxes either.

 Nixon’s torn suspensory is no longer even identifiable on ultrasound, his osselets have never caused a lame step, and the most maintenance I do is a Theraplate.

Many of the dings or nicks will never effect the performance of the majority of these horses, and when you finally do find that magical unicorn of a freak who radiographs perfectly, he will step in a hole the next day. 

So all you can do is your due diligence. Do your homework. Find a great trainer. Build a relationship with a superb vet. And at the end of the day, the most important part of that equation is YOU. 

Know YOUR needs.

Know YOUR comfort level.

Know YOUR budget.

And constantly educate and grow YOUR mind.


Worth fighting for

I have been with my significant other for 7 years.

We are not yet married, but besides that little piece of paper, our lives are a union. We own vehicles and animals together. We share a bank account and a home. 

We fight. About once a year we have a good knock down, drag out, screaming match. And I storm off to the barn for a therapeutic road hack while he heads to the garage to fiddle with a car.

And after a few tears, a couple of verbal bullets, and a handful of new grey hairs, we come back to the living room and apologize. We embrace each other in a hug and move on-hopefully in a better and more healthy direction. Assessing our character flaws and weaknesses. Improved.

My best friend.

Because at the end of the day, he is my best friend. And we are both cognizant of the fact that relationships take work

Seven years isn’t long in the context of his parents marriage (35 years) or mine (27 until my father passed away) but it’s practically a life time in this day and age.

Because in this world of smart phones, facebook addictions, and instant news, we all expect instant gratification. We all demand perfection.

Perfection is displayed to us on every “reality” show and romantic comedies end at the first date. No one depicts the tough times, no one shows the hard work or the resolution. We highlight those who have exceeded expectations, without mentioning much of the work it took. The Cinderella story just blames the shoe.

And while my relationship isn’t perfect, because-lets be honest-no ones is, it’s pretty healthy.

Because at the end of the day, I am in a relationship with my best friend. And intrinsically, we just enjoy spending time with each other. For richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.

And it made me realize that the same can be said about my horses

I don’t expect constant rainbows and butterflies. I don’t expect breakfast in bed or swooning embraces. I expect hard work. And some bumps and bruises.

 But I am willing to battle for it, because at the end of the day I love them. And I enjoy spending time with them.

I own a horse who is fancy as hell. When he’s good, he’s GOOD. He can canter pirouettes around my other two, and has the scope to be a 4* horse.  And yet about every six months, we battle. 

When he’s good, he’s GOOD

I know the minute that I walk into the barn that it will be one of those days. I know that he will be arrogant. And obstinant. And that there will be an argument.

And just like with my boyfriend, I know I have one of three options:

 1)  don’t take the bait and walk away, but in doing so, at the least rewarding the bad behavior, and at the most, risk repeating this same antic that will only infuriate me more in 6 more months. 

2) get out of the relationship, feeling as though the bad times outweigh the good, or 

3) tack up, swing on, and work through the bull shit.

I choose the 3rd. I know the good outweighs the bad. I know that the relationship can’t be perfect and that there are always growing pains. I know that life isn’t always pretty.

I’m willing to work through the tough times with my horse. I’m willing to put in the time, to develop and nurture the commitment to him.

I’m willing to take the bait. To hold the argument, to state my points and hear his. I’m willing to get off dripping in sweat and turn him out, walk away for a few hours and reassess. Because in that reassessment, I know that he’s worth it. 

I know that at the very basis of this relationship, just like with that of my partner, that there is a bond. A friendship. A respect and fondness for one another. And I know that that’s worth fighting for.

Fight on.


Full of Firsts

I walked to the start box today and stared down at my horses neck, trying to calm my nerves and relax my core.

His black name was streaked with white, and his neck was not the steel grey that it had been when I met him. He was a few inches taller, but with less of a hind end. His racing fit days were gone, and in their place was a different shape. A different form. His body wasn’t as it used to be, but his mind was finally back.

I could hear the starting box person counting me down, and with each second that ticked, another memory flashed. Our time together was so full of firsts, and today was no different.

“10” — The first time I saw him, so green and naive. I was 23 years old and had never worked on a thoroughbred farm. I had never put on a chifney, and I had never mucked a stall of straw. But the owner of the farm gave me a chance, and called me into the office to watch on the television as a grey horse streaked past his opponents to get to the wire with 8 lengths between him and the next. 

“9”–The first time I touched him, as I opened his stall door to assess the situation. This horse that would be in my care for the next few months as he underwent a tieback surgery and rehab. His massive frame dwarfed me in the stall, and I sat back and stared at the stunning specimen in front of me.

“8”–The first time I led him, as he began his hand walking aspect post-surgery. Every other horse needed a cocktail and a chain over their gums, but not this one. I would snap a cotton shank to his hovering head, and lead the 17.2hh 3 yo colt up and down the driveway, allowing him to stretch his legs as he took it all in.

“7”–The first time I said good bye to him, as he left to head back to the races. He was 3, he was glistening, and with his throat repaired he was ready to run. This young horse who impressed the masses with that first start was our hope and dream for Chesapeake Farm, and we were so excited. I made a promise to him that day that he would always be ok. That he would always be safe.

“6”–The first time I watched him win a graded stakes race. I was standing in my boyfriends families home and he was 6. It had been 2 years since I had laid a hand on him, but I still followed his every move. And as he won the G3 Excelsior Stakes at Aqueduct, I screamed myself hoarse. The big boy had done it – he had become one of the greats, and I thought that would keep him safe.

“5”–The first time I feared for his safety. I watched as the works outs stopped and the race entries ceased, and I wondered if I would ever get him home; if I would ever keep him safe. I had made a promise to him that I swore I would keep. I began to call the listed trainers, and Facebook messaging the owners, and watched as my pleas fell on deaf ears.

“4”–The first time I knew he was safe. Due to the outpouring of support from my blog and the endless support of his breeder, Drew Nardiello, he came home. At the age of nearly 9, he unloaded onto the same farm that he was born on, and placed in the same stall. I was so excited for what laid ahead.

“3”–The first time that I swallowed the idea that his chances of a second career were over. He came off the track sore of body and sore of mind, without the light that sparked in his eye that I had fallen in love with. I was sure he was done– to be nothing more than a pasture ornament. But I swallowed my pride and pushed down my dreams and reasoned with my mind that it was ok. As long as he was safe, it would all be ok.

“2”–The first time I sat on him. 18 months after he unloaded from that trailer. Enough time to heal his wounds and fill in his scars. Enough time to reignite that sparkle in his eye. I couldn’t believe that I was finally riding this horse that I had been craving sitting on for almost 7 years. 

 “1”– The first time he would leave a start box at a recognized event. That being today.

And we were off…”Have a good ride…”

I kicked Kennedy out of the startbox as the nerves dissipated and an eery calmness came over my body. I realized that this was not a race for the ribbons or a test of who was best. This was the icing on the cake of an otherwise layered and storied journey. This was evidence of what can happen if a horse is surrounded by a team of people who care for his best interests above anything else.

I watched his ears come up as he locked onto the first jump, and as I counted 3, 2, 1, I felt him rock back on his haunches and soar up and over. I stood up in my stirrups and gave him his head, letting him set the pace he wished, as the years of sweat, tears, heart break, and resolutions all collided into a rolling wave of emotions.

We picked off the fences one by one, as he exuberantly galloped along in his massive ground eating stride that had defied so many rivals on the track. And as we crossed the finish flags, I couldn’t help but bend over and wrap his immense neck in my arms, trying to choke down the tears.

Photo by Xpress Photos

This horse owes me nothing. And yet I owe him everything. I made a promise to him almost 9 years ago. He was a bit faster, and I was a bit more damaged. He was coming off the highest of highs while I was laying battered and bruised after losing the most important person in mine. And that day that I walked into his stall, I felt some of the light return to my deadening heart. 

We were caught at a crossroads. When I needed him, he was there. And six years later, these roles have swapped, and I have been able to return the favor.

At a crossroads so many years ago

We finished his first recognized event on our dressage score in 3rd place. An unreal result for a horse that so many others would have dismissed. That so many others wouldn’t have taken the time to heal. A horse who is running his first Beginner Novice at the age of 11 instead of 4-a young event horse by no means. He was too unsound. He was too old. He was too dull and his spirit too broken.
But Kennedy isn’t normal, because he had a team of people who knew it was all in there. Who knew that with patience; time; good care; and gentle guidance, that a good horse still lied within.

Kennedy in dressage. Photo by Claire Seals

And while so many firsts have now been tackled, it is evident that we have so many firsts to come.

Because the first time I met this horse, I made a promise to him. I promised him that I would never give up. I would pound the pavement and push the doors to make sure he stayed safe, that he stayed sound, and that he stayed happy.

And if this weekend was any indication of things, I would say that all three have been accomplished.

There is a first time for everything, and our future looks full of them.


Worth her weight in gold: A clinic weekend with Lillian Heard

I can remember moving to Lexington, KY a decade ago and thinking: 

“Now. Now is when I finally learn to ride.”

I had grown up in a small town in Pennsylvania and had dabbled in a variety of disciplines and industries. From 4-H to Pony Club, Western Pleasure to Pleasure Driving, and Morgan Horses to Quarter Horses, we did it all.

With my childhood trainer, later in life at the 2010 WEG.

My trainer was an amazing woman.

 With a depth of knowledge in a variety of things, she was never short sighted or slight in her knowledge, and at the end of the day, horsemanship was her primary goal.

Whether we were in a jump saddle or western, our horses understood our aids. Whether we were jumping an oxer or running a barrel pattern, our horses were supple. And whether we were aiming for a western pleasure championship or our A in Pony Club, our equine care was the same.

Her name was Rose Watt, and in retrospect, she was amazing.

But at the age of 22, the black 4 plank of the Bluegrass was calling. I thought that if I moved to The Mecca, that simply by osmosis I would become one of the greats. 

A young Carleigh. Thinking my training wasn’t good enough.

These trainers were all highly successful–with accolades adorning their websites and sponsors lining their trailers. And I arrived and thought “Now is my time. I will finally learn to ride.”

I thought that the big names and the fancy barns meant better lessons. That the dollars spent equated the knowledge gained in a linear fashion.

And I was wrong.
I quickly realized in lesson after lesson with these big names just how amazing Rose was as a trainer, and just how little the last name of your trainer meant.

No one in Lexington may have heard her name, but they were impressed with my base of riding. And I quickly, and justly, switched routes. I found one or two trainers that reminded me of Rose, that were more concerned with the quality of riding than the ribbons, and I carried on.

Fast forward a decade, and this weekend I drive away from a clinic thinking this exact principle.

A few months ago, my friend Courtney returned from a week in Aiken and asked for a girls night. She ordered a drink, sat down next to me and raved about her trip. Her horse had been fabulous, the weather had been perfect, and she had ridden with a new trainer who had, quite simply, “got her.”

Her name was Lillian Heard, and Courtney was hooked.

Courtney and Lillian this weekend. Photo by JJ Sillman

Lillian was a 4* rider with numerous horses running at that level, but without the cult following that we see some have. I knew little about her, but knew I could trust Courtney. 

Courtney knew that I had a ((difficult)) horse similar to hers. She demanded that I take a lesson with Lillian in the future, because she knew that Lillian would “get me” and knew that I would obtain vast knowledge and homework from just a few lessons in a weekend long clinic.

I agreed, and Courtney quickly began to roll the wheels.

Within weeks, she had a clinic set up on a shoestring budget. 

Friends offered their farms; Courtney offered her house; and the bells and whistles of a fancy clinic were replaced with smiles and helping hands.

A variety of riders signed up, and a variety of riders attended. From starter to preliminary, with every single age and sex represented.

But what united us all was the smile on our faces at the end.

Photo by JJ Sillman

Lexington is unique in that it attracts big names to come do clinics simply by the sheer amount of eventers per capita. Most are riders that are standing on the podiums at the Olympics, and because of that, the organizers, and the fancy farms that host them, they cost more than what most of us make in a week…or a month.
And while it might be on your bucket list to ride with that person, or maybe you simply thought that the $500 spent was worth the selfie you were able to take, I have personally backed away from those clinics because my childhood taught me that the money spent doesn’t always equate the knowledge gained.

Lillian was an amazing clinician, and worth a hundred times the moderate amount that I spent on the weekend for two horses. 

Just like my childhood instructor, I gained more this weekend than I bargained for. 

The Elephant loved learning from Lillian. Photo by Nicole Patenaude.

She had my training level horse in a frame he had never found. She had my beginner novice baby jumping lines he had never seen. And all of these things were taught with careful consideration, a lot of praise, and a big smile. Even the auditors (aka friends and family who grabbed a folding chair and a bottle of water) were enthralled.

Signing autographs for the next generation. Photo by JJ Sillman.

It was an amazing clinic. With an amazing rider, but more importantly, an amazing instructor. 

One who I see adorning the podiums in the near future and gaining that cult following. 

But for now, with this group of us in Lexington, we are just so happy that Courtney figured a way to get Lillian here to us. For keeping it affordable. For keeping it fun. 

Cost doesn’t equate return. Olympic medals don’t equate high level instructorship. And a fancy farm is a fancy farm, but your horse will still learn to jump whether the standards cost $200 or were made of old bourbon barrels. 

I am so happy that I rode in this clinic this weekend, and am looking forward to the future dates that Courtney is attempting to set. The knowledge gained vastly outweighed the price paid, and that is exactly the math I like to see while computing my budget for things like this.

Lillian sharing her lunch break with Mak. Photo by JJ Sillman.

Because if I have learned anything in life, at least in regards to my life with horses, is that high price doesn’t always equal high talent. 

And a good instructor is worth their weight in gold-not dollars.