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.

11 Comments on “Full of Firsts

  1. Very nice story. I would have liked to have read what he did at his first ever jump.
    Our OTTB jumped the 12″ cross rail as if it were four foot high.

    • Honestly he’s never overreacted to them! Just kinda trotted over it without picking up his legs much! He is nicknamed the gentle giant for a reason 🙂

  2. So very happy for you both. A great story. Patience pays off every time with our horses.

  3. Love this, Carleigh. Fate brought you together–so happy you found each other again ❤

  4. Gosh…I don’t know who is luckiest. You, or The Elephant (not a dignified enough name now for all he accomplished this weekend).

  5. Oh Carleigh! YAY times one thousand. Relish every wonderful and long awaited moment: how lucky you have circled back to each other.

  6. Congrats – he’s a special horse and I’m glad you both have each other! As someone with an “older” recently retired race horse who is now learning to event, I definitely get how wonderful it feels when the horse really starts thriving in the new sport!!

    • I don’t often read things that make me want to cry, but this did. Love how you described all those powerful memories. Just a gorgeous horse.

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