A year ago today, I loaded the love of my life onto a trailer for his new home.

I thought I was doing the right thing. I was letting him go to teach the next generation. I was letting him go into a world (the hunters) that I thought would make him happier. And I had matched him with a kid that I thought would always love him.

Mak in the hunter ring. Photo by Anne Gittin

My gut instinct told me that these were good people. And for the first time, at least in regards to horse sales, my gut instinct was wrong.

Less than a month later, I got the call. It ranged from telling me that my horse was falsely advertised to lamenting about teenage behavior.

 They tried to tell me that my horse was sold to them lame, even after he had undergone the most extensive pre purchase examination I had ever been a part of. They asked me if I had sedated him for the trial ride, even after pulling blood for a drug test.

And at the end of the conversation, they ask that I take him back. 

I walked into my living room with my phone on speaker, and stared at my boyfriend as tears streamed down my face. And my boyfriend simply took the phone from my hand and glaringly stated that we would be at their farm the next day.

I was devastated.

My tears were driven by a range of things. 

Feeling as though I had somehow falsely advertised him–was he actually harder to ride than I thought?

Feeling frantic at having another horse back–as I had sold him because I couldn’t adequately pay for two.

Feeling betrayed by buyers who falsely represented their goals and their experience–as I later learned this horse was bought to heal a fractured relationship between a teenager and her mom.

And feeling disgusting by myself for putting my horse in a situation that wasn’t the best for him. I thought I had asked the right questions. I thought I had heard/read/found the right answers. And I was wrong.

Mak coming home

Mak came back from Virginia relatively unphased. He was a couple of pounds lighter and bursting with skin disease, with thrush in all four feet. 

But his brain was unchanged. And I knew I could fix the weight, the hooves, and the skin, but his brain was the most important thing. And he still had his intact.

For my own sanity as well as legal purposes, we had a post purchase examination done. One of the top sport horse vets in the country came out to investigate, and left the farm with the statement that this horse was sound and ready. 

I was to carry on. 

So carry on I did.

Carrying on with eventing. Photo by JJ Sillman

I took that horse with that amazing brain, and got back into a rhythm. We went to AA hunter shows and demonstrated that he truly could be a adult amateur hunter ride. We went to combined tests and events and demonstrated that he was still a kick ride on XC.

And yesterday, in front of the largest crowd he will ever be ridden in front of, Mak walked into the Rolex Arena and demonstrated that he was still the best off the track thoroughbred that Kentucky has ever bred.

I had been at the Kentucky Horse Park early that morning to braid a pony for a friend. The Pony Clubbers had the duty of carrying the flags for each of the nations represented in the competition for closing ceremonies, and needed to look like Rolex ponies themselves. 

The pony I was initially there for. Making him look beautiful. Photo by JJ Sillman.

And I sat in the stall while chatting with a tiny red head standing on the other side of the door. A girl who was in charge of this herd of Pony Clubbers and their ponies. A girl who had become a dear friend in the past year. A girl who had been the agent for the sale of my heart horse.

A year ago Courtney had heard about Mak and reached out to her husbands family to come try him. She had acted as agent during the PPE, and hugged me as I watched him load up and leave.

But then, three weeks later, she had held my hand as I sorted out his retrieval.

Courtney had watched the sale fall apart and had been the second phone call after the request for retrieval. She had offered to help me go get him. And she had watched the last year unfold as I regrouped with him.

She knew I had been honest. She knew I had sold her family a good horse. And at the end of the day, she knew that she had met a good person. A horse sale may have failed, but a friendship blossomed in its place.

Making dear friends out of dire situations.

And as I braided, we chatted. Giggled about random barn gossip, and awed as we watched videos of the XC rides the day before. 

I finished my braids, and she convinced me to walk to the morning jogs. But we made it no farther than 10 feet before encountering a problem.

One of the flag ponies was lame, and one of the Pony Clubbers was in a pinch.

I thought about it for no more than a few seconds and quickly offered up Mak.

The horse who had been returned to me for being falsely advertised. For being too hot. For being crazy.

Because I had had a year to regroup, and a year to process. And I knew none of those things were true. I knew he was the safest horse I owned. And I knew that no other horse would become trained to a flag, an audience and immense noise, as quickly as he.

So in under an hour we had Mak bathed, braided, and at the Kentucky Horse Park to tack up.

 It was a massive fray of excitement and enthusiasm his young rider Keely grabbed my saddle to clean it, my dear friend Alyssa jumped on a bucket to braid, and I ran frantically around to detangle his tail and polish his feet.

Mak and Keely heading to the big ring!

I told Keely that she would be fine. To stay out of his face, and when in doubt, to add leg.  I told her that I didn’t think he would mind the flag, or mind the crowd, but that he might fixate on the jumps. He loved to walk, but he didn’t always love to stand still. 

And at the end of the speech, we gave her a leg up, and off we went.

Photo by Taylor Pence, Copyright US Equestrian

An hour later, Mak marched into a sold out Rolex Arena with a rider in the irons that he had never met. He carried the American flag with pride–with gusto–and pranced around the entire circumference of the arena with his ears up and his eyes proud.

As they announced the American riders one by one, the crowd rose for a standing ovation and went wild. And Mak, the “crazy” and “hot” off the track thoroughbred just held his head high and continued his strut.

Photo by Smith Equine Media

It was one of my proudest moments as an owner. As a horse mom. I wasn’t even in the tack, but I was so proud of my horse.

And I realized something at the end of it all. Life happens for a reason. And while it will constantly throw you lemons, you can always make lemonade.

My lemonade is made up of a few things: 

I have an amazing friendship with Courtney–a girl I only met a year ago. A girl I wouldn’t have met without the sale of this horse. She went through one of the most difficult journeys of my life by my side, and stuck by me even when “her team” became divided from mine. She has become one of my inner circle, and one of my biggest supporters, and I see her friendship as one of the most amazing takeaways from this experience.

I became stronger with my boyfriend. Luke showed me through this journey how much he was in my corner. He drove 18 hours in one day to go get Mak back from Virginia, and then helped me cover his living expenses as I finished up this doctorate. He showed his true colors in a stressful situation, and threw everything to the side to help me and my horse.

And finally, I have my horse. He showed his soundness, his talent, and now his sanity for the umpteenth time yesterday. A horse that is truly one of a kind. Athletic enough to run training level in a few weeks, with a preliminary move up hopefully in our future. Brave enough to march into the Rolex arena with a flag flapping over his head.

I have my horse. Photo by JJ Sillman

And sane enough to trust to put a young rider on him that he has never met.

I am so blessed. 

I think of this journey as one of the pivotal turning points in my life. I learned that my gut instinct isn’t perfect. I learned that horse buyers aren’t always honest. I learned that you can build friendships out of the ashes of devastation. I learned that my support system runs deep. That it runs strong.

And most importantly, I learned that my horse is one of a kind. 

He showed the world that a thoroughbred is sane enough to march into a high stress scenario and hold his own. He showed a group of young Pony Clubber’s that the catch ride aspect of their ratings are there for a reason.

And he showed me that he is the best. The bravest. The strongest. The most resilient.

Yesterday, we made lemonade out of our lemon of a horse sale. And it tasted oh so sweet. 

With Keely and the best OTTB to ever exist. Photo by JJ Sillman

32 Comments on “Lemonade

  1. What an amazing journey…congrats to all of you!! OTTBs are the best!!

  2. Your blogs are so spot on and I can relate to them in so many similar ways…Look forward to your next one!

  3. What a lovely lovely ‘ending’ to the story. Not gonna lie, tears were welling. πŸ™‚

  4. In Mack’s mind, HE was the reason all those people were there, HE was the Rolex and he was determined to give the people what they came to see! Fantastic job, team Mack!

  5. Saw him strut his stuff yesterday! Now knowing the whole situation ( we thought he looked a little bit big to be a games pony!) brings tears to the eyes!

    • When the games Pony came up sore, we just didn’t know what to do! Luckily Keely (the rider) is a gorgeous and competent rider and I felt no hesitation putting her on him! It was either him or 17.3hh OTTB Kennedy! πŸ˜‚

  6. What a WONDERFUL story! The pictures are glorious, and the smile on the young rider’s face say it all. You have every right to be proud of Mak, and HE is a shining (in more ways than one!) example of the glorious OTTB.

  7. I am waaay past the point of tears welling … we are full on dripping over here.

    This. THIS is the pinnacle of horse ownership. Doing the right thing by taking him home, and being able to put a young, competent rider up with zero notice. This is what every horse owner should aspire to. Well done!

  8. oh, my. Thanks for sharing such an inspiring story. πŸ™‚

  9. thorougbreds are not crazy. Thirougbtrds are not hot. I think it is time to kill this myth. I have a 2yo at the track that can go and rip off 12 second furlongs all day and I could also put an experienced 8 year old on her. Thoughbreds can and will do whatever is asked of them.

    • That was the point of this blog! I always knew he was not hot, but he was sent back to me because of this false representation. It was good for it to be an OTTB carrying the American flag.

      At the same time though, just as not every pony, QH, WB or appy could do that, neither can every TB. It is matching the correct horse to the correct rider and placing them in the correct environment that is important.

  10. Any horse walking into that packed arena, roaring crowd, carrying a flag in high winds… WOW! Knowing he’s never been there or carried a flag with a new rider….worth 10 times his weight in gold!!

    Saw him jigging and thought he was jazzed. Also thought he was the fanciest pony club pony I’d ever seen!

    • He held his ground!!!! I realized at the end that it was more of a proud walk than a hyper/nervous one! He did it the whole time!

  11. Carleigh – honey – ya have me in tears. This is such a beautiful ode to exactly why we’re all in this crazy game. At the end of the day, it’s about the horse. I’m proud to say I clocked that beautiful boy when he was on the track and it’s amazing to see how you’ve let his heart shine over and over. Thank you for the reminder that we can make lemonade even when it seems impossible, that your gut can fail ya but there’s probably a reason for it that we won’t understand til days/weeks/months/years later. I’ve always respected you, but this… this throws that way over the tallest of fences (that Mak would probably jump cuz he’s just that guy). Thank you. xo, Mo

    • When you clocked him, did he run a nice 4f in about 55? Cause that’s about the fastest I’ve gotten him πŸ˜‚!

      But thank you for that nice comment. It all happens for a reason. It might still hurt the bank account, the ego, and the gut instinct radar–but he’s back with me, and happy as a clam!

  12. Karma….it’s fun when you get to watch. “Hot horse…not as advertised” – yeah, those buyers and that teenager follow your blog. LOL

    • I think that intrigued/amused me the most. You’re a brave brave person to do something unethical to me and risk it being written on Chronicle of the Horse. I didn’t write about the situation for some time because I was concerned about the legality of the contract they breeched. But that contract became null en void in October, and I’m sick of being quiet about it. The horse seller gets blamed 90% of the time, and it’s not always the sellers fault. Buyers also need to be honest in regards to their wants and needs. And more importantly, their capabilities.

  13. What a great story, what a great horse. Proud for you!

  14. I loved your story! I am so glad that Mac is back with you. His spirit would surely have been broken had he stayed in that toxic environment. Things happen for a reason. Mac is meant to be YOUR horse now and forever.


  15. So many tears!!!! I too have had a similar situation but we rescued my poor wee mare after seeing what was happening and she came back with an injury that now only allows us to walk her. It would have been heartbreaking but he was meant to be with you! Such a happy ending and thanks for sharing. πŸ™‚

  16. Miss, your ottb isnt one of a kind. He is one of the many. The many ottb’s that are able to do amazing things. Things people seem to think they can’t do. Like maintain their sanity while carring a rider in front of a crowd. With a flag. Well, what is racing? A huge event in front of a crowd. Often times carrying a rider they have never met. Ever. Some little person in white pants was just legged up in the paddock and now its race time. They maintain their sanity. They do what is asked of them. They offer up their very life for us when we ask them to lay it down and give their very best effort. +++++++++++++ Unfortunatly many of the so called horsemen that come buy them off the track from us are not capable of what they tell us they are capable of. They lie. They misrepresent. They blame the horse, the previous owner, the fact the horse was once a racehorse. In my opinion, if a horse is able to handle racing, their isnt much else you can throw their way that is as nerve racking as racing for a horse. Unfortunatly, most no racetrackers are not nearly the horsemen we are, and they make the horse look bad. Your horse was lucky. He had a one of a kind. YOU. YOU are the one of a kind in this story. well done. Extreamly well done.

  17. Another fantastic article! Your writing makes me cry, it’s so perfect and heartfelt!

    I saw your FB posts and cheered along for you and Mak. So happy for you both!!!!

    Your pony club friends from Northeast Ohio (Bath Pony Club),

    Terry and Lauren Mansky

  18. I would consider Keely one of my daughters…as fine a human as your lovely Mak is an equine. Perhaps he sensed this.
    Thank you for this wonderful article about two amazing beings…one Hunan, one equine.

  19. I was tearing up as I read this story! It is amazing. I feel the same way about my OTTB. He’s a dream. I thank my farrier every time she comes for helping me find him. I didn’t think I wanted a 4 year old Thoroughbred to be part of my little therapy program, but I was so wrong. He is amazing, quiet and steadfast. He was a frail, skeleton of a horse when I took him in and I remember the vet saying “He’s going to be your best yet.” I was worried he’d change when he got up to weight, but he’s still a love. He’s doing an amazing job as a therapy horse and his fan base grows with every new volunteer that comes to help at our farm.

  20. And, oh how I’m weeping. The horse world has many unscrupulous people within BUT also, some of the most genuine. I love a good Thoroughbred! I believe they possess a different type of heart. A little bigger, a little stronger and loyal. Always loyal.

  21. I am so glad he is back with you. Thank goodness they called you to complain rather than sending him on to someone else although I am sorry they put you through all that turmoil. Isn’t is so disturbing when our gut instincts let us down? By the way, I was visiting Lexington last week and got to see Mak’s dad, the wonderful Empire Maker.

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