There are horses you love for yourself. There are horses you love for others. And there are horses that you have never met and feel a connection to. And when we lose that love, that connection to one of the greats, it hurts more than a shot to the heart.
This morning, we lost one. And today, so many of us are feeling that pain.
A few weeks ago, while lamenting at the decline of our sport of eventing, I got into an argument with a group of friends. They argued that our sport has become one of money. The wealthy can afford the imports, the FEI events, and the fancy trainers. And while the wealthy rise, us lowly average middle-classed people stays stagnant.
We can’t afford to go south for the winter. We can’t afford to buy a 3* horse, or go shopping in Europe. And because of that, our chances at the big leagues are infinitesimal.
But I argued. I had seen it happen. I had seen one get there – both rider and horse. And I had had the honor of following it simply by luck.
Kelly Sult and I had grown up in Pony Club together, both members of the Lost Hounds Pony Club. We competed against each other on similar type ponies – hers named Hooter and mine named Chocolate, and we both outgrew them at roughly the same time. And then as so many do, we both moved onto bay thoroughbreds.Only hers was different.
Because I remember Reggie before he was Hollywood. Before he had jumped around some of the largest tracks in North America. I remember him as the recusant maverick of the barn. The horse no one wanted to ride, nonetheless own. I remember his tall lanky body, and his feared hind legs. I remember his owner lamenting of her fear of him, and the trainers response that he was nuts.
And I remember Kelly coming and taking him, and beginning their journey. She wasn’t a professional rider by any means, in fact, she was just a kid. But in a family where a retired 4* horse or an import wasn’t an option, she took a chance.
Because where others saw fear, Kelly saw the look of eagles.And she will be the first to say that it wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies at first. They were eliminated from their first event with three stops at the water. Added another 60 at their second event at that same obstacle. But once they got him over that fear, there was no looking back.
And she just ticked off the levels, one at a time.
Kelly and I moved into different phases of our lives at this time, but I always followed along from afar. I appreciated her try. I appreciated knowing that someone could get up the levels with little more than natural ability, help from family and friends, a good horse, and a whole hell of a lot of try.
I journeyed North for college while she kept riding. Kept trying. She didn’t train with the big boys, and she didn’t buy the fanciest tack. Her father, a truck driver, purchased every book he could find on eventing, and he became her eyes on the ground. Her mother and sister came and groomed at every event they could. And her team from back in Erie, PA and its surrounding areas cheered from afar whenever we could.And I remember sitting in my fathers hospital room in Pittsburgh in 2008 trying to convince him to watch Rolex. With one eye on the screen and the other on the chemotherapy dripping into his veins, I can vividly remember hearing the name “Kelly Sult” come over the quiet volume, and turning my eyes up to the screen. I remember my fathers lack of interest in the Rolex Kentucky 3 Day event suddenly being perked when he realized we knew “that girl” from home. For a few hours my father pretended to be interested in eventing. For a few hours we spoke of horses without fighting. Without screaming. For a few hours, this daring young rider covered in purple and her rugged thoroughbred distracted us from the world. From the pain. And I will forever be indebted to them for that.
Soon after that inaugural Rolex (where she placed 14th and was the highest placed young rider) I moved to Lexington, Ky and got to see Kelly more often. With Area 8 Eventing extending from Northwestern, PA all the way to The Bluegrass, we attended many of the same events, and her family was always quick to lend a helping hand to a fellow Lost Hounder, or video a round for me. We would get to catch up, and I would always ask about Reggie, that bullish thoroughbred I had known since way back. She would always giggle, and say that Reggie was still Reggie. The man of the barn. Her heart horse.
And each April, my family would reconvene around the rolling hills of the Kentucky Horse Park, along with hundreds of other riders from my home grounds of PA, we would all search for that beautiful glistening bay with his ears up and his eyes searching. We would all cheer for Team Hollywood and scream as “one of us” made it around from one massive obstacle to the next.
Reggie ran his last Rolex in 2011, at the age of 19. He didn’t know his own age, but Kelly knew he was ready. He deserved a retirement of lush grass and turn out. Occasionally he packed around her kids for up/down lessons. Occasionally she swung on for a hack or to pony a young horse. But at the end of the day, he just enjoyed his time as the leader of the farm. The big man. The one who turned her into the rider she now was and forever will be.And this morning, after a beautiful day of sunshine in Pennsylvania yesterday, Reggie took him last breath. He did it with poise. He did it with grace. Just like he had done so much of his career.
For almost twenty years now, we have all been blessed by this horse. And now, on January 30th, 2018, we are all heartbroken.
And I say we because this team, this duo of unlikely ability, was an emblem to so many of us. For all of us at Erie Hunt & Saddle Club. All of us at Lost Hounds Pony Club. All of us in the Tri-State Region, and all of us from Area 8 Eventing.
Reggie and Kelly showed us that you didn’t need a last name. You didn’t need a fancy pedigree. You didn’t need to train with an Olympian. You didn’t need to have a team of working students, or a trust fund.Reggie was a beacon of the heart and soul that the thoroughbred breed encompasses. He showed so many what was possible if the horse is matched with the right rider. He proved to so many that taking a chance doesn’t always equate failure. He was everything that we hope to find in our next mount, and more. And at the end of the day, Kelly allowed him to be that horse.
I am so saddened for Kelly.
I am so saddened for her sister and her parents.
I am so saddened for her entire support crew.
But at the same time, I’m so happy.
I’m so happy I got to witness this journey. I am so happy Kelly got to be on it. I am so happy that we got to see this unfold. To see the path that can be paved if you just match the right rider with the right horse, work your ass off, and believe.
I am so happy that Reggie found his girl. And I am so happy that he left us with grace. In peace.
They say that when horses die of old age, they are finally free. From the aches and pains of a long career. From the slow and steady gaits they used to never know. I believe that is true here, and that Reggie is finally freed of a body that has aged more quickly than a mind.
So today, I hope he is running that Rolex track yet again. Soaring over the hammock and diving into the head of the lake. And if we look into the sky tonight, maybe we’ll just see a streak of purple as the sun sets and the clouds fade on another day. I know that’ll be Reggie racing the clouds. Running free. Running happy.
We’ll miss you Reggie. You were truly one of the greats.