My mother text messaged me the other night and reminded me of something that literally made my breath catch. She told me, “Thank you for taking me on the best ride of my life 6 years ago…” and I was instantly transported to the worst week of my life. My father was losing his battle to the leukemia that ravaged his body, and my family had not had a break from sitting vigil at his side, praying for a miracle. One of his best friends from his residency showed up, prepared to relieve us from our post, and I begged my mom to take a break from the pain, the suffering, and even from life – just for a few hours. We went and tacked up my faithful Levi and my best friends horse Cory and began meandering around the trails surrounding the barn, ambling at times, galloping at others, barely talking, and just taking in the serenity that comes with a good ride on a great horse. It was the first time in 11 months that I think she had the chance to breathe.
Two days later, in a last effort to fix any aspect of my relationship with my father that suffered, I loaded Levi up and hauled him 6 hours back to Canton, NY to give him to one of my professors. My horse, and the money spent on him, was the one hitch in my relationship with my father, and I thought that by giving him away I would leave my father with less stress in his worry about how I would support my horse addiction post-college as I embarked on my own into adulthood. I was never able to tell my dad that I did this for him, for when I returned from my trip to Canton, my father had entered into a coma and would pass away three days later. It was September 5th, 2008 – 6 years ago. I was devastated to lose my father and my horse in the same week, but possibly more devastating was that I had given up my coping mechanism, my therapy, and my stress release at the one moment in time that I needed those things most. To say that I crashed and burned without this support would put it mildly.
I moved to Lexington, KY two weeks later, and quickly quit the job I had lined up and sank into a pretty severe depression. I never vocalized my pain, and put on a brave face for everyone – my family, my boyfriend at the time, and the friends that I still let into my life. I tried to be the rock that everyone expected me to be, but there were days where I didn’t want to wake up and nights where I couldn’t sleep for the memory of my father taking his last breath would roll on a loop in my brain. I felt I had no escape, until I made the realization that while the depression might have been caused by my father’s death, I wasn’t healing because of my lack of therapy – and in my case, that therapy was my horse. I began to make the valiant effort to get hired on a farm – any farm – and finally found myself as a groom at Chesapeake – nothing glamorous, but something that changed my life for forever, possibly even saving it. I have desperately wanted to have a conversation with my father and explain to him why I not only haven’t kicked this horse addiction, but how it has saved, shaped, and changed my life since his death – making me the woman that I am, hopefully one that he would be proud of.
I want to start by trying to explain Lexingon, KY and the eye opening experience I had when moving here. Horses are not a hobby here, they are a lifestyle, and a multi-billion dollar industry that is not scoffed at. I remember telling someone that I rode horses and for the first time I wasn’t asked if I was a jockey – they actually asked if I was a jumper, did dressage, or evented. I was appalled. The statement “riding is a not a sport” was quickly replaced with “who is your horse by?” or “how many left to foal?” I felt home for the first time in months, surrounded by people that finally got me.
I got my first real job out of college in the thoroughbred industry. It was full of mundane tasks – mucking stalls, feeding mares, grooming yearlings. I walked horses into and out of fields, with a pitchfork and a tractor in between – but I made a salary. I was one of very few kids who graduated college in the recession that wasn’t calling home every month for money from their parents. I didn’t live luxuriously, but I LIVED. I began to meet people – famous trainers, Sheikhs, people that I had idolized growing up reading books like “Funny Cide” and “Secretariat.” Each time I called home to talk to my mom, my voice gained animation as happiness began to seep back into my veins. One of my favorite calls was when I sold my filly for $625,000 and she got to watch the entire thing on Keeneland’s live stream – screaming that she saw “that man from the Kentucky Derby with the dark sunglasses” bidding higher and higher. I wish you had been there for those calls.
Which leads me to the fact that I met the love of my life at soccer game on Darby Dan Farm. He’s a horse person as well, but I think you would like him. He is the first boy that understands my life – although he might also be the only one who knows when I’m lying when I tell him that my horses shoes only cost $20! He is a farm manager – we spend our weekends mowing fields, turning out yearlings, treating wounds, and going to the races or the sales, and I couldn’t love it more. He understands my passion, and he supports it – while also reining me and my “free spirit” in when needed. I think you would appreciate that side of him – he keeps me in check, but he loves me unabashedly, something that I was desperately lacking when you left.
Two years ago I finally used all of this horse nonsense for good and went back to school to get my doctorate in – what else – equine reproduction. I may not end up a veterinarian like you had hoped, but I will still have Dr. in front of my name just like you. The day I was admitted, I wanted to tell you first – something that pained me to no end that I was not able to. I am surrounded by other educated people who also love these animals that you had abhorred, and I hope to eventually be a professor in an animal or equine science department – teaching physiology and endocrinology. I even got to travel to New Zealand and present my research at a large international meeting – something I know you would have been so proud of. I have written dozens of papers, abstracts, and presentations – each time wishing you were there to edit them. I have to learned to do it on my own though, my independence since you left has only increased.
And finally, I filled Levi’s void with another horse and his name is Mak. They look a lot alike, but this time I pay for everything – not you, and I appreciate the price of these animals all the more for it. In return for my bank account, Mak got me through every never ending day of Uncle Bob’s battle with cancer – and for that I will be forever grateful for him, for the struggle of life has not gotten any easier since you left – but you left us with the strength to cope, and my horses assisted that with long trail rides and hours in a quiet barn meditating.
I don’t think I will ever attempt to go without the therapy that is a horse in my life again – I learned the hard way that my brain and soul are not wired for that. The thoroughbred industry accepted me and nurtured me back to health, and I am forever grateful to them for that. I try to repay the industry in many ways – and who knows – maybe one day my research will cure infertility or a life threatening disease. I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t walked onto Chesapeake Farm and begged for work, or if I hadn’t taken the chance on a gangly 4yo that my friend asked me to ride, but I know that if any crisis were to ever happen in my life again – I know where to go. I can walk down the quiet aisleways of my barns full of equine royalty, hearing horses gently munch on hay, sneak into Mak’s stall, and take a seat in the corner. He will come over and put his head in my hands like he always does, and I will be able to find peace and quiet from the outside world.
I wish you were here to experience this journey with me. I hope that you would approve of where my life has strayed off to. You and I didn’t know about anything in this world besides the Kentucky Derby before you passed away – but I saw out of the corner of my eye that year that Funny Cide won – you were screaming just as hard as I was, and I think you would have come to love this world of breeding, raising, and racing thoroughbreds. I met his breeder a few years ago – and you would have loved to hear that he went to Cornell. I think you would have loved these little intricacies that have tied my world of horses to a world full of good people, an amazing man, an education, and a full life. I wish with all of my heart that you could have been a part of it, but know that you would be relieved to know that the mischievous smile that you loved so much has been restored – something that took grooming a lot of yearlings, mucking a lot of stalls, and posting a lot of trot sets – but its there, and I am ok again.