A few months ago, dripping in sweat and battered and bruised, I came home and text messaged my best friend Meghan, telling her that I thought it was time to give Nixon back. He was as close to dangerous as a horse I had worked with, and I just didn’t see myself getting through to him. I had been catapulted into the cement, and concussed and slightly scared, I was ready to admit defeat.
I was prepared for this, because for three months I had been struggling with this horse. I would think we would take 1 step forward, and he would slide 3 steps back. It was the most frustrating training task of my life. And for an amateur who rides alone every day, it was getting to the point of scary.
She wrote back that I couldn’t do it. That this horse was my “Rolex horse”. She started pulling up documentation of some of the greatest in our sport, and how difficult they were. She encouraged, and egged me on, telling me to give it one more week. Maybe one more jump school. One more attempt to get on that trailer. I dropped my head and said “ok.”
I knew that I was this horses only chance. I was part yearling manager, part rodeo cowgirl, part full-fledged amateur eventer, but I was a whole lot of calm and brave. That is how I have gotten through to so many horses. I don’t have a lot of tension in my body on a horse. I enjoy exploring and meandering just as much as they do. And that was what had worked for Nixon on the track. They got him to the G1 level by letting him meander around the backside. So meander we did. I stopped treating him like a sales horse, or a horse heading to a massive show in two months, and started treating him like the ex-racehorse that he was. A horse that had ran only a few months before. A horse who had won $500,000. A horse who knew he was the champion.
He had had an interesting life. A $290,000 yearling, he had ended up with some of the best owners in the business: Marc Ferrell. He went on to win graded stakes races across the country, but found in a $5k claimer 5 years later, Marc had done best for the horse and claimed him, shipping him home. Unfortunately, Nixon had gone down on the trailer on the way and was battered and bruised from the trip. It was not the easiest transition into being a sport horse, to say the least. But we tried.
And it didn’t happen overnight. But slowly, and consistently, this horse, this “recusant maverick who seemed to hold a grievance against the world” as ESPN put it, started to soften. He started to get that lead. He started to load on that trailer. And suddenly, I had a horse that I craved riding every day.
This past weekend, I shipped him into the Kentucky Horse Park for the Retired Racehorse Makeover competition. I had zero expectations, besides the fact that I wanted him to be a good civilian. I knew he would probably have a tense moment or two, maybe a botched lead, or a break in the free walk, but I wanted him to respect me, the fellow horses, and (hopefully) stay in the ring!
But, true to Nixon’s normal form, he had other ideas. A few months ago, I was being interviewed by Melissa Bauer-Herzog and I told her that this horse just seems to love an audience, he THRIVES off of people watching him and cheering him on. Her response? “Well, then maybe he’ll think the makeover is the Olympics and be unbelievable.”….and unbelievable he was.
This horse that was scaring me only a few months ago came into the dressage ring like he had been doing it his entire life. His head came up, his ears perked forward, and he truly danced for the judges.
I am not a dressage rider. I grew up doing western pleasure, switched to eventing, switched to roping, and ended up back as an eventer. My personal best dressage score at a recognized show is a 34. And yet on Saturday, Nixon knocked ten points off of my best. He scored a 74 in his test. A 26 in eventing lingo.
We went back in on Sunday for the freestyle in second place. Nixon was exhausted, I was traumatized by the audience, and felt there was no way we could top off the performance from the previous day. But then I realized something. I had come full circle. At the age of 12, my mother had risked divorce and bought me my first thoroughbred. That thoroughbred had also been scarier than expected, and because of that, I spent 3-4 years just learning dressage. Teaching him how to move, teaching me how to ride. He eventually became the greatest horse of my life, and I had just recently had to say good bye to him this summer.
On Sunday, I felt that horse, that trainer, my mother, and every one else who has followed me on this lifelong journey and lifelong love of this breed as I trotted into the arena and a calmness came over me. I sat up straight, I kept my hands steady, and I smiled. Because I had already won. I had yet another amazing thoroughbred underneath me. A horse that was unrideable only a few months prior. A horse that most wouldn’t have given a chance to. And I was in the finale of America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred Competition.
We won yesterday. At least the dressage discipline, which gave a giggle to so many who know how much I don’t like dressage. But honestly, I’m winning every day. I own two of the most amazing horses in the world. Both are thoroughbreds. Both raced. One successfully, one not. Both teach me how to be a better rider every day. My mom, that same mother that risked her marriage for my first thoroughbred, told me yesterday after watching the live stream that I rode the best I ever have. I told her that Nixon had taught me how to do that. And both now come happily when they’re called. Both blow kisses in my ear when I unwrap a peppermint. And both, to me, are America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbreds.
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Carleigh, you are soo amazing!! I’m unbelievably impressed by you!! Extremely happy for you and Nixon. Very sad I missed it. You’re awesome!!
You have me teary eyed thinking about your journey. Congratulations all the way around.
You give hope to all of us who have chosen to continue our own journey with a difficult, but “we know it’s in there” thoroughbred. As a former fan of Wooden Phone from the track, I am now a current fan of Nixon and you 🙂
SUPER SUPER SUPER!!! And good for you to give Nixon yet another chance. I get discouraged with my (now senior) OTTB who had a checkered career with trainers who pushed him when they needed to step back and give him the chance to “mush it all through” so he knew what he was being asked to do; someone at his last trainer’s barn saw a kind horse with a heart full of try and I ended up with him. He’s been a challenge and a frustration, but today we had a lesson that was our BEST in like EVER!!! Very proud of my guy, too. (Must have been heavy gravity or something because I felt just like you did in your blog!!) America’s most wanted, indeed 🙂
At 62 I adopted my first ever horse, an OTTB. Annie was found starved and hoofs grown out. We have been through two traniners both telling me to get rid of her as she was dangerous. With me she is wonderful and is the same with my hyper active granddaughter who becomes very calm when around Annie. I am not a trained rider. I do not have lots of money. I do not want to event her although I would be open to someone else doing so. I just want a horse to ride to my mailbox 5 miles away. Your story is inspriring. Annie will go to “camp” soon. When she returns I look forward to picking up the mail. My best to you and Nixon.
Love this. Love your idea of letting him meander as horses do. If you’re on Facebook check out Anna Marcinak’s posts which might speak to you. Congratulations on your win.
Believe it or not, I have been following your life as a horseman for many years. Mostly because I knew how proud my sister/your grandmother was as she followed you also. What an incredible competitive feat you ( and Nixon) just pulled off.Be very,very proud of yourself for what you have accomplished. Those of us that know you and love you certainly are and ALWAYS will be. Much love, Uncle Peter
Carleigh, I am new to your blog, by way of the Chronicle of the Horse. At times while I was reading this post, I felt like I was reading parts of my own story. My OTTB gelding is also a dark bay, who’s dad happens to be Afleet Alex. I’ve had a few times when I was also exhausted, frustrated, and bruised ready to give up. Somehow I kept talking myself into trying, just one more thing and it has finally begun to pay off as he’s starting to grow up! Though he will likely never be an “easy” horse, and we’ve certainly not accomplished anything near what you did with Nixon, every time we take another step forward it feels like I’ve already won; just because I didn’t stop trying. It’s comforting to know that someone else’s tenacity has paid off in such a big way 🙂 Congratulations!
That is awesome! I have now talked to quite a few who own Afleet Alex’s offspring and they all say the same thing–terribly tough horses, but extremely intelligent and extremely sound! You just have to get them to come around to your ideas through clever mechanisms and training tactics, and they will be absolute freaks–in a good way!!!!
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