+

Retraining, not rescuing, the modern day thoroughbred

In the few weeks since I have placed Nixon (Called To Serve, the winner of the dressage discipline at the RRP TB Makeover) on the market, I have been barraged by comments about how he will fall through the cracks due to the fact that I am selling him.  Let me start by saying how insulting this is to an owner, a trainer, a rider, or any connection to a horse that is for sale.  I have taken this horse, this “recusant maverick who seemed to hold a grievance against the world” and transformed him into something beautiful.  This process was 75% Nixon, 20% proper nutrition, veterinary care, and farrier work, and 5% me.  He was never malicious.  He never offered a buck or a rear, but he instilled fear in me through his outright SPEED.  But we persevered, and I say we because I am not his only owner. I am backed by my partner in crime, and super significant other, Luke.

I wish that I was a millionaire who could take on as many projects as my day would allow, but hence, I am not.  I am a graduate student living damn close to the poverty line.  The only reason I can even afford one horse is due to this manfriend whom we know as Luke supporting the roof over my head and the food in my belly, but low and behold, that was never enough.  I also have a retiree in my field, the most beloved horse of the century, or for those of you who follow my blog, Frank the Tank.  I have my “keeper” or my “heart horse” Mak Attack, my other retired racehorse who stole my heart 3 years ago as a four year old, the horse I hope to move up the levels with.  And then, due to mostly insanity, I get ONE project.  At a time.

These projects fulfill a lot in my life: my “baby fix,” funding for Mak and Frank, and on top of all of this, they allow me to play some role in the “unwanted horse” situation that so many believe encompasses the TB breeding and racing industry.  Only, none of the horses that I have gotten to retrain have ever been unwanted. Here are their stories:

1. Preston (2010 Devil His Due – Dear Phil)

Preston1

I got Prescient, or Preston, last summer after selling a warmblood for a friend and remembering just how much I loved working with young stock.  A friend from graduate school had reached out to me and told me that her father, a successful trainer here in Lexington, had a 4 yo who just wouldn’t stop growing, and would never make it to the track.  He was a favorite of the grooms and the breeders, but just wasn’t ever going to make it as a racehorse.  So off we went, bringing this massive 17.1hh TB from the track and into the world of eventing.  Preston turned out to be the easiest, most naturally gifted, horse I ever retrained.  And this didn’t go unnoticed.  Within 3 weeks, and without marketing, I had a call from a young lady named Skylar Davis.  She had seen him on instragram and was smitten.  A week later, Preston became hers.  They have now moved from starter up to novice, most recently finishing 2nd at Jump Start Horse Trials on their dressage score of 27!

Preston2

2.  Mason (2010 Dehere – A Song in A Minor)

Mason1

The fund’s from Preston’s sale did two things – it enabled me to finally get a jump saddle that fit Mak, and it allowed me to pursue another ex-racehorse.  So I reached out to my friends on Facebook to see if any of them had anything that was ready to retire, and heard back from a good friend who told me that he had a 4 year old that had been sitting in his field for a year, and was ready for a job.  I went out to inspect this munchkin, and found a horse who outwardly resembled Preston so much, but inwardly was an entirely different horse.  Where Preston was a big, slow, mature citizen, Mason was quick, opinionated, and a spitfire.  But what Mason lacked in maturity, he made up for in style.  His form over fences was second to none, and he drew looks wherever he went.  But because of this back cracking jump, he was also a harder sell.  I kept him for 6 months, competing him at local jumper shows and unrecognized events, before finally hearing from a young lady in Virginia.  She was looking for her “it horse” that would hopefully take her to Young Riders, and who knows, maybe even Rolex, and had locked eyes on Mason.  Watching her try Mason, and the massive smile on her face as he attempted to jump her out of the tack, just let me KNOW that they were meant for each other.  Julia Luce purchased Mason in March of this year, and have already taken the eventing scene by storm – most recently finishing in 3rd at the Maryland HT at Loch Moy last month. His jumping style still turns heads, even with Julia in the tack.

Mason2

Which brings me to Nixon, or Called To Serve…

3. Nixon (2009 Afleet Alex – Andover Lady)

Nixon1

The funds from Mason did two things as well – they provided for a dressage saddle for Mak (y’all would have been impressed if you had seen me in the 1965 Stubben Tristan at the makeover), and again, they enabled me to obtain another ex-racehorse.  I knew after selling Mason that I needed to stick with my gut about what type of horse to get next.  They had to qualify for the RRP, but they also had to qualify for me.  So when I ran into Brent Wilson of Vinmar Farm at Keeneland on day in April and he told me about this horse who had just shipped in, I was intrigued.  He hit all of the criteria: big, bay, young, sound, good conformation, RRP qualified….but what we weren’t sure about was good brain.  I don’t need to go back into this summer, and how hard of a nut Nixon was to crack, but what’s important is that he cracked.  He’s now a phenomenal sport horse prospect.  And with this revelation, he is now on the market.  The funds that Nixon will bring in will provide for so much – another project, the vet bills incured when Mak fractured his splint bone this summer, who knows, maybe even my very own trailer that I can use in order to haul even more ex-racehorses around to local shows and events!

Nixon2

The moral of the story is this.  Not everyone is out there to sell horses into bad situations.  Not every sales horse is heading to slaughter.  There are good horse SALESMEN, just like there are bad horse TRADERS.  I do my best to find horses that are desirable to the market, and then apply training and skills in order to make them lucrative.  A horse with a skill set it so much less likely to trickle down into a bad place – although this does happen, and I acknowledge that.  But without people like me who sell these horses, hopefully trained and obedient companions instead of recusant mavericks, there would be many fewer horses for the rest of the population to own. These same people that berate the TB industry for overbreeding are also those who believe that horses should only be adopted or “rescued.”

Well I believe the opposite.  Not every horse need rescued – as these three so perfectly portray.  But every horse needs retrained.  And that is what I am here for.  To take one horse at a time, give them love and care, and most importantly, teach them a new skill set that turns them from horses who gallop – to horses that jump, half pass, rein back, open gates, rope, pen, and most importantly, prosper.

IMG_3945

+

Already a winner…

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.

IMG_3952

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.”

IMG_3906

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.

IMG_3899

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.

Nixon

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.

Levi

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.

IMG_3944

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.

IMG_3945

+

Finding a balance…

I went through a really rough time a few weeks ago.  There were so many days where I woke up and dreaded what lay ahead.  Stress rose up, and happiness sunk down.  I spent many hours on the phone with my mother in tears, feeling as though I could speak to no one else.  It was a combination of so many things – feeling unsteady in my life, in my future, with my surroundings.  Grief always rolled around near the beginning of September, and this was only confounded with my qualifying exam.  Exasperated by small things – like a lame horse, a friendship lost, a feeling of desperation at the foreseeable failure.  It was the closest to depression I had ever met.

I would sit in my truck, blast music through the speakers, and try to figure out why I was able to process this feeling of loss unlike others. Was it the compartmentalization that I had learned to cope with at a young age?  When so many loved ones were ripped from me, and I figured out that life must go on even when you felt absolute pain. Was it my ability to find happiness in even the smallest things?  In a beautiful sunset?  Mind-numbing lyrics?  A stroll through a sun-laden farm full of gorgeous animals?

Or was it my horse?  I don’t mean this in the “horses are therapy” cliche that I have stated so often to others.  Yes, they are good for the soul and a great way to spend our time.  But more-so than this, the barn is an escape.  It is 2 to 4, or maybe even 10, hours of metaphorical nothingness.  There is no wireless access within these four walls, there is just the slow, mechanical, list of details that need to be accomplished.  Soft country music playing from an old stereo.  A halter is buckled, cross ties attached, reaching for a hoof, circling hair with a curry, brushing off dust and dander, wiping on fly spray, a saddle pad, and then another.  The saddle is swung on, the girth attached.  A thumb and then a bit in the mouth, and then a leg over.  It is a mind-numbing burial of pain.

When you ride young horses, there is no ability to take the time to check your phone for the lack of a returned text message.  There is no time to remember that you don’t quite comprehend that topic that you had studied for the last 8 hours.  As Nixon grabbed the bit and pulled, I was unable to check Facebook to see if that lost friend had posted another status that I felt was targeted at me.  While Mak struggled to lengthen his canter to the left, I focused only on my seat, and not on my life.  All I had was myself, my horses, and the music that always plays from my phone.

That was my therapy.  For blissful hours, I felt I had the excuse of no response.  No interruption.  No worries of the future.  It was simply a leg yield, transitions, supple this way and supple that.  Minutes drifted away, and time passed.  I entered no shows during this time.  I kept my horses to myself, and treasured that escape at the end of the day.  There was no need to compound the stress that I was already experiencing. I started to tell myself as I woke up and dreaded the day, that at least at the end, there was this light at the end of the tunnel.

Things are now looking up.  I passed my exam.  I made it through another anniversary of my father’s death.  I found true acceptance and love from the friends that held me through this time.  And I got through the weeks of unhappiness through this escape.  I am so blessed to have this in my life. These horses and the therapy that they give me.

I recently heard some criticism of my blog and it’s “message” and yet again felt the need to discontinue my writing. I don’t do well with criticism.  I have finally acknowledged that this is one of the great stressors in my life.  This is what forces me to do well in so many aspects of life, but it also leads to a fear of failure. But then I realized something.  Just as these animals nurture me, so does my writing – acting as a way for me to convey the honesty of life.  Social media is able to twist so much – allowing many to believe that all of us live in perfect bubbles of rainbows and butterflies. And this blog is my platform to acknowledge that although many things in the world around us are amazing and beautiful – there are also moments of extreme pain in between.  And I hope that everyone is able to have that escape that I blog about.  Whether it be through music, a beautiful  sunset, or the therapy of these 4-legged creatures that we surround ourselves with.  Take it. Grab it between your fingers. Breathe it in.  Reassess where your sadness comes from.  Compartmentalize.  And then heal.  For if I’ve learned anything from life, its that nothing is more healing than a good song, a beautiful sunset, and a long hack on a favorite horse.

Hack

The Fedorka Triple Crown

Eight years ago, I experience the worst summer of my life.  It was the worst summer for entire family.  Our emblem of strength and unity was quickly fading away, and it quickly became a catalyst for Murphy’s Law.  Our father wasn’t just losing his battle to cancer, we were losing our battle with life.  My father was a surgeon, graduated valedictorian from his class at Boston University, and not only knowledge, but an education were paramount to him.  But as his health deteriorated, so did our degrees.

I was the first.  My summer was spent watching my father get poisonous drugs pumped into his system, all the while receiving one rejection letter after another from the top veterinary schools in the country.  My sister was next.  She decided that in order to spend as much time as possible with my father, she would take a year off from medical school.  Something that was so unlike Katie, yet something that she deemed so necessary.  She was not a quitter, and we feared that if our father were to pass, she would never return.  And then there was my young brother.  He was heading into his freshman year at the University of Rochester.  We sent someone to get him during his very first week of classes and drive him back to Pittsburgh just to watch my father take his last breath.  Afterwards, we demanded that he take the year off and regroup, but he was adamant that he continue.  He said it was what Dad would have wanted, but that first year, and then the next, and the next, he sank instead of swam.   He never got himself out of that first week.

For eight years now, we have rebuilt.  It took a few years to walk erect.  It took a few years to get back on track.  But with each morning, each step, and each sunset, we forged on.  Some days were horrible.  There were nights spent calling our mother in desperation.  Our “Department Chair” was gone.  He was who we sent papers to.  He was who called the night before a big exam to wish luck.  He understood deadlines.  He understood applications.  He understood education.  But he left, and we were left with each other.  We became each others champions.  It took a long time, but we became a team again.  We became The Fedorka’s; albeit Part Two.

This didn’t truly come to fruition until these past two weeks.  It all started with my brother sending a group text out to us.  He had been accepted to law school.  It only took eight years, a lot of frustrated nights, some tears, an arrest, and many angry phone calls.  But he did it.  He entered into Syracuse University’s School of Law last week.  My mother was able to be there for his convocation, and we were so proud.

And then my sister rose to the challenge.  She began her fellowship in orthopedic surgery at Harvard, having returned to medical school after that year off.  She was waiting on abated breath for her results from her boards.  We all were.  So when my phone beeped on Thursday morning, with another family group message, I knew before reading that it was big news.  She had passed boards.  She was officially a board certified orthopedic surgeon.  One doing a fellowship at Harvard.  Eight years, a deferment, and a lot of late nights later, she had followed into our father’s foot steps and it had lead to greatness.

But that left me in a state of turmoil.  Her text message had arrived on the biggest day of my academic career.  My path had not gone in the classical way that my father had wanted.  Years of rejection from veterinary school had lead me to the Thoroughbred racing industry, and a career as a farm manager.  I had been pressured and manipulated into returning to school as a masters student, and then a doctoral student, and on this day, I was taking my qualifying exam.  It was thought to be the most stressful aspect of any doctorate degree.  Worse than writing your thesis, MUCH worse than defending; it was the pivotal moment.  Pass, and you got the green light towards a defense.  Fail, and you were out.  At best, you took it again in 6 months to a year.  At worst, you defended a masters, and left with a lesser degree.

The wheels began to spin.  My siblings had set the bar so high.  My brother was in law school, succeeding along the path he and my father had chosen.  My sister was boarded, she was a doctor, something she and my dad had bonded so intensely over.  And then there was me.  I was back to being the “free spirit.”  My path was unethical.  I was not becoming the veterinarian that we had agreed upon at the age of 8.  I had rerouted to a doctorate in veterinary sciences.  But I was petrified of failing.  Not even so much for myself.  I love so much more about life than just science.  My life would continue on without a degree.  But the pressure was on for another reason: my father.  For even 8 years later, his ambition, his drive, and his passion for us kids to be the best we could be, was still so evident.  And my siblings were rising to this challenge.  I felt as if I failed, it would be like winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness for my father, and then losing the Belmont.  Maybe even with a DNF next to my name.

If I passed, it would be a triumvirate of success.  An acknowledgement to the greatness he created.  A head nod to the legacy he left.  So many late nights being quizzed, so many papers being edited, so many college visits he attended.  But if I failed, it was just another check on the failure list.  Right next to the vet school applications.  I text messaged my best friend that morning and said that I was already in tears.  That the weight on my shoulders was too great.  I told her that I missed my father more than anything at this exact moment.  He was the only person I wanted to talk to.  He was the only one that could talk me off of this ledge.  But I couldn’t.  I wasn’t afraid of my committee.  I was afraid of disappointing my already deceased father.

But then the text messages, Facebook posts, and phone calls began pouring in.  I attempted to stare at my notes while my phone pinged.  So many amazing people lending me THEIR strength, and their courage.  So many of them had been there with me 8 years ago, doing exactly this same thing.  Supporting my weight.  And others had been placed in my life since then.  Lifting me up from my fall.  I know they were each brought in for a reason. It might be for exactly this day.

I entered the exam with my head held high.  I reminded myself that my father had taught me to be an analytical thinker.  My grandfather had taught me to be an elegant speaker.  My mother had taught me to be a horsewoman.  And my advisor had taught me to be a great reproductive physiologist.  I just needed those four things.  They didn’t need to be in the room with me for these four things to shine.  That is the whole point in being a great teacher, or mentor.  You instill these traits into your students, and then you push them into the world, hoping that your lesson plan had worked.

I left the exam feeling like a weight had been lifted.  My advisor walked out after a few moments of deliberation beaming, and let me know I had passed.  I was officially a PhD candidate.  I got the green light.

I walked down the hall, picked up my phone, and scrolled through my numbers, acknowledging that I wanted nothing more than to call my father.  Instead, I called my mom.  All three of her children had succeeded.  The legacy was intact.  I knew at that moment that this time would have been my father’s proudest.  Moreso than any wedding, any mortgage signed, any news article.  He held education at the highest.  And his children had risen to the challenge.  His legwork had succeeded.  His passion that was instilled in us from birth had remained.  The Fedorka Triple Crown had been won.

Fedorka

Defending an industry that won’t defend itself…

I’m tired. There is this feeling of worthlessness that enters my body every time that I sign on to the internet, every time that I click open on the comments section of one of my blogs, every time that I go home to Meadville, Pennsylvania, and am barraged by questions about the industry that I love so much.  Today it was slaughter houses, last week it was a high name event trainer assuming that my retired racehorse was neglected on the track, a month ago it was that damn PETA video resurfacing, and 6 months ago it was the lies and false accusations about the nurse mare industry.  But what do all of these have in common?  They come from horse people:  people that should know better, or know otherwise, but don’t.

It is the same story: I hear or read a falsity about this industry, I become enraged, and I begin to type or speak.  Whether it be via a comment, a Facebook status, a blog, or a tirade of a conversation.  But with each conversation, whether it be face to face or over the World Wide Web, I begin to feel like my words are worthless.  That it is my word against theirs, and that there is NOTHING to back me up. I realize that I have such little clout.  I am not the Mosses, Larry Bramlage, or Bob Baffert.  I don’t manage a massive breeding operation or a shedrow at a successful track.  I hung up my pitchfork and returned to school to obtain my doctorate, and with that, I hung up my street cred.  The name “Carleigh Fedorka” does not ring bells, unless it is said in Lexington, Kentucky, and usually adjoined to the words “wants a new project horse” or “is available to work the sales.”   That name tacked onto the comments section gets dismissed and overlooked by the people scrolling the comments; instead, they see the other thousand comments telling lies, falsities, and exaggerations about this industry that I cherish so much.

And after the defense that I lay down is overlooked – a defense that I have studied for, worked for, and perfected after years of living with lawyers – I am left feeling enraged.  But I have recently realized that my anger has shifted.  It is not pointed towards the people who elocute these falsities, because, honestly, who could blame them?  They read something on the internet, something as ridiculous as the idea that we pull every mare off of her foal to be bred back and the foals are placed with nurse mares, leaving THOUSANDS of unwanted “nursemare foals.”  They see cute pictures of skinny paint foals, they see hundreds of comments demeaning the thoroughbred industry, and they suddenly believe those words as gospel.  And when people question this lunacy, the masses have that website, and those sad eyes, to back up their statement.  And what do I have?  I have my words. My thoughts.  My opinions.  And my lack of street cred.

My anger has shifted towards the industry that I love.  Because beyond me there is an industry of hundreds of thousands of people who so boisterously say that they want change.  That say that they understand that this industry needs to grow and develop if we want it to survive.  Who spend millions of dollars every year to advertise the races, to promote the game, and who are so dense that they don’t realize that this industry that we love is being killed by things as simple as social media.

There are 200,000 people who “like” the Last Chance Corral.  That is 200,000 people who will never go to the races or the sales because they believe that this “sick and twisted” industry pulls 30,000 nursemare foals off of their dams just so that their dams can nurse a “more valuable” foal.   There are thousands of people who demand “bail money” for the thoroughbreds who inhabit the auction houses of America.  Claiming that these racehorses are overpopulating the slaughterhouses, making the mass public think that they are the only breed at New Holland. These same people have infiltrated social media with comments where they are CERTAIN that American Pharoah himself is heading to slaughter.  This is not to mention the 3 million people who “like” PETA, which is self explanatory.  And these people share these lies, and these lies get shared again and again and again, and soon go viral.

And what do we do?  The “old boys club” of this gallant industry that I stand with?  Well, the industry is so focused on Lasix, and Polytrack, and the format of Book 1 at the Keeneland September Sales, that they dismiss these nuisances that are so “insignificant” to them.  They assume that by ignoring these comments that they will simply go away, but instead of going away, they are TURNING AWAY millions of people who could, and would, eventually become fans.  Horse people who might actually learn to love what we do.  Who might eventually invest in a broodmare or two, or want to come to the Breeder’s Cup.  Who would learn to love this industry just as I have, who might buy a couple hundred acres, and then pass on this love to their children, and grandchildren.  The effect could grown exponentially in either direction – and right now, its growing away from us.

There is so much great about this industry, so much that goes unadvertised to the masses.  So here is what I ask to be thrown into the loop of these meetings of the greats.  Do we need a governing body to control things like race day medications and rehoming of racehorses who are finished with their first careers? Yes.  We need someone to finally stand up and administer regulations that keeps our sport clean and fair, and most importantly, that takes care of the horses and staff in it.  But to add to that, keep one office open in that building that I’m sure will be erected in Lexington, Kentucky.  And on the door of that office, hang a sign that reads “Public Relation’s.”  Because on top of the physical changes that need to be made to this industry, we need a mental change.  A mindset that realizes how global news has become, and how bad press can travel so quickly.  We need a strong governing body, but one that has a strong governing VOICE.  And that voice needs to come from someone who not only gets it, but also who has a bit of clout.  With an emblem behind them that people can trust and respect.  That is what I wish for this industry, because this name has neither of those, and this pedestal is starting to crack.

Industry

Grief, and the anger and guilt that come with it.

To the outside world, my life appears to be one adventure after the next.  I am working on obtaining my doctorate, I have an amazing man in my life, numerous animals who love me that I spend every extra moment with, and a group of amazing friends, both near and far, who constantly lure me on adventures.  My family, or what remains of them, are all healthy and happy…for the time being. Because that is mentality that we live with.  We appreciate the good times, but are constantly waiting for the floor to drop out from underneath us.  It leaves us with severe anxiety, quite a bit of cynicism, and a lot of anger.

It all starts with the diagnosis.  Finding out that you might lose a loved one.  That there is only a 23% chance that your life will remain normal.  I remember the day after finding out my father was diagnosed with leukemia, I went to my advisors office to tell him that I would be missing a week of class.  I was going to be traveling to Pittsburgh in order to see my newly-diagnosed, cancer-ridden father.  He gave me one piece of advice: “Stay off of the internet Carleigh.  Nothing good will come of it.”  But what did I, and the rest of my family do?  We ran to google.  In the search box: “Chances of surviving AML.” Click Enter.  Within 0.03 seconds my life was transformed.  The odds were not in his favor. There were no new treatments to give us hope.  But soon after the initial diagnosis was given, and the central line was put in, life, for the most part, returned to normal.  I returned to school and tried to maintain normalcy as a senior in college.  But with each smile, or laugh, or glass of wine with my girlfriends, guilt would soon follow.  Guilt at feeling happiness when I should feel only sorrow.  Guilt at the fact that I was living when my father was dying.

It then moved on to the days immediately prior to experiencing death.  No one can prepare you for that.  A dear friend of mine lost his mother this past year, and I remember telling him that there was nothing beautiful about witnessing death.  It is not the peaceful scenario that is it portrayed on the movies.  There is no gentle last breath.  It is a shutting down of organs, stressed calls to the nurses station, and anxiety ridden grief.  But the worst part?  It is full of guilt.  Because when you know it is the end, when you know that you are past the point of no return, when your mind and soul can’t take another labored breath, you begin to wish death on your loved one.  And then you feel guilt.  Because you have been taught to fight to the end.  You weren’t raised to be a quitter, but you just want them to quit.  To move past this life and into somewhere, ANYWHERE, where organs work and pain isn’t felt.

And then once you have lost someone, the anger sets in.  They say it is one of the biggest steps in moving on, that anger.  You will feel angry at seeing your friends have their father’s walk them down the aisle, angry at the mushy posts on Facebook on Father’s Day, angry at people lamenting over the loss of their great grandmother, or their cat.  Nothing in the world seems fair any longer, but there’s no turning back.  And then you get angry at the universe, or at God, if that is what you believe in. Because you were given one life to live, and these are the shitty cards that you have been dealt. But that’s where the guilt kicks back in.  Guilt in the anger that you are feeling.  Because you watch the news and you see genocide, hate crimes, discrimination, and murder.  And you acknowledge the fact that although you have gone through something that was REALLY shitty, that it could always be worse.  So you feel pure unfiltered guilt.  Guilt for feeling like your anger is superior to others.  That your pain is superior to theirs.  And guilt over thinking that this was the lowest, because you know that you could always go lower.

I wish I could explain these emotions on a pretty picture, one adorned with a cute, uplifting, or inspiring quote, but I can’t.  There is no snazzy motivational quote to give to anyone who has ever truly experience grief. And especially to those rarities out there who have experienced one grief after another, who never trust the world that lies around them, always waiting for the tide to turn.  That is where the true naivety comes in: do you live life as an optimistic, constantly trying to seek happiness because you know what true sorrow is?  Or do you live life waiting for the next crash, never truly trusting the Universe every time the phone rings.  I am awkwardly straddling these lines, so I guess only time will tell. But what I do have is my family.  A group of amazing people who understand these bipartite feelings.  And for that, I try to let the anger, the guilt, and the grief go, and focus on the good, for without them, I would be nothing.

family

King just for a day

American Pharoah spent his formative months in my backyard. My boyfriend and I live on the property where he was raised from a young foal to a weanling, although now it is under new ownership. A good friend of mine was the photographer who snapped the foal picture that everyone has shared on Facebook. And another good friend owns the advertising company that does all of the work for Winstar, the farm who stands his sire, the Zayat’s who own him, as well as his trainer, Bob Baffert. I have worked the sales for the man who foaled him – Tom VanMeter, and my boyfriend was an intern for the farm who prepped him for the yearling sales.  While the thoroughbred industry may be widespread throughout the world, in the little bubble that I live in in Lexington, KY, the connections to and fondness for AP ran rampant.  All of us hold him quite dear to our hearts. He encompasses so much to us, but most importantly he validates the reason we wake up in the morning.  To raise strong, solid, well mannered horses with the upmost care, respect, and nutrition and therapy that human and science has to offer.  On Saturday, it was evident that this was accomplished.

Littleprincessemma Foal '12 at Vinery 7.17.2012

Littleprincessemma Foal ’12 at Vinery 7.17.2012

American Pharoah at 4 months.  Photo by Matt Wooley/Equisport Photography

The public calls this the sport of kings, but for so many of us “mere minions” in Lexington, Ocala, or other horse hubs around the world, watching American Pharoah charge down the homestretch meant so much. Our lives are these horses, our days are spent caring for them, raising them, researching them, nurturing them, treating them, and overseeing their every move. These are not the jobs that the public sees, these are not the usual people that get to be in the winner’s circle. We do not fly private jets, we do not travel to exotic places, but the one thing we all have in common is that we love horses. And not just any horses,we love the thoroughbred.  The rush that one gets in seeing the most well bred, athletic, and brave creature as they stretch their legs over ground at a speed that seems to break the laws of science, whether it be on a race track or simply in a massive field with their fellow pasture mates, is all that we crave.  A breeding farm might move a bit slower than it does on the track, but in Lexington, KY, it is what we know, what we do, who we are. It’s a lot of soothing tones, pats on big bellies, and hands on legs. It is a lot of tractor repair, stall mucking, bandaging, and weed whacking.  It is a thankless job; if the praise that you seek is from the voice of a human. Our thanks come in the guttural whinny of a mare when the grain bin rolls down the aisle, the kick of heels as a yearling is turned out into his paddock, and the naive ballsiness of a foal who approaches the fence just to nuzzle your arm before a nip.  It is 18+ hour days, 7 days a week, no holidays, no snow days, 365 days a year back breaking work.  But for those of us here, in the Horse Capital of the World, Saturday made it worth it.

American Pharoah6

The next American Pharoah?

This past Saturday, I was screaming at the TV with tears streaming down my face. In a room full of other members of this industry, I looked around to see tears in all eyes – from the toughest of men down to the friends of friends who knew so little about the amount of time, effort, heartbreak, and perseverance that goes into getting one of these horses to the track. We were not at the track, because we were on the farm. The Triple Crown runs during the busiest time of the year for so many in the industry. Holding a Bud Lite instead of Dom Perignon, in a ball cap that read “Medaglia D’Oro” instead of a frilly fascinator, and having to leave the party early just to get to the barn for an evening treatment of antibiotics and a night check on a colicky foal, this is our lives. There might be wealth, jewels, and crowns in The Sport of King’s, but in my little world, it is more like Muck Boots and Carhartt’s.  We are the people that encompass 98% of this sport of so-called Kings. But on Saturday evening, we were all crowned.

American Pharoah 2

Many have said, during the last six weeks, that money and greed are what run the racing industry. And this may be true for a very select few, although I have never met someone who will say they got rich off of a racehorse. The rest of us get rich off of the high that comes with seeing a horse that you are personally attached to, no matter how insignificantly, gallop out with ease across the finish line. It comes in seeing a mare you have raised since her own delivery as she welcomes her own first foal.  It comes in seeing a yearling that you had treated through an illness or injury finally break his maiden.  We acknowledge, just as in any sport, that there is always room for improvement, advancement, and change. So many of us are accepting of this. And it is coming, I hope. Advancements are being made in regulations of race day medications, transparency into the farms that breed these greats, and well as in simple honesty from the race industry out to the public.  The rehoming and rehabilitation of these racehorses into second careers has become a priority, one that the farms stand behind and that sport horse disciplines are prospering from.  We know that this sport can becomes even greater, but until then, I will take a brief rest on the laurels of finally seeing a true champion. For what the sport of horse racing does, is that it opens the arms of the royal family to mere commoners. It unites us altogether and extend an olive branch to those around us. So thank you American Pharoah. For so much. For letting me witness greatness. For bringing horse racing back into the living rooms of America.  And most importantly, for letting everyone who had even the slightest attachment to you feel like a king, even if it was only for a day.

american pharoah 8

Photo by Mathea Kelley

Little Victories To Most…

I walked off of the cross country course in tears yesterday.  Sweat poured off of my face, and the tears caught into the black mane and glistening neck of my thoroughbred.  I patted him on the neck as they ran from my eyes, not even sure how to process what had just happened.  The tears were so reminiscent of what had happened so many times over a decade ago with another thoroughbred.  But then I looked up and saw a herd of my friends running towards me, fists pumping into the air and huge smiles on their face.  For once these tears were not of frustration and sadness, but instead the surreal feeling of accomplishing a goal you honestly never thought was possible.  It was May Daze HT 2015, and I had finally gone Training level.

To so many young riders, professionals, or even the amazing adult amateurs, this seems like such a puny goal.  Training level is only 3’3, it’s not considered an “upper level”, and for mosts it isn’t daunting.  But for a sixteen year old girl who’s dreams of making it to the upper levels and completing the high ratings of Pony Club depended on successful outings at Training level; outtings that never went successfully, this was a milestone.  Training level was the reason I dropped out of Pony Club.  Training level was the reason I spent the majority of my teenage years in a fight with my parents.  And training level was the reason I quit competing horses over 10 years ago.

12 years ago I walked off of the Training level course on another bay thoroughbred, tears streaming down my face, adrenaline pouring out of my body, and made the realization that eventing wasn’t fun anymore.  There would be no C-3, nonetheless A in Pony Club as my DC demanded that I complete a Training level event in order to rate up.  There would be no Young Riders, as I couldn’t even kick around a Training level course, nonetheless a 1*, and my parents weren’t the type to just buy/lease me another horse to attempt the move up.  And there would be no eventing.  Plain and simple.  It just wasn’t fun.  Not only wasn’t it fun, but it was turning me into a horrible person.  I would come back to the barn and scream at my mom, telling her that none of this was my fault, and that she put too much pressure on me to be the champion rider that she had been.  I would scream at my trainer and tell her that I wasn’t scared of the damn water, but Levi was.  I would ostracize myself from my barn friends and fear and sadness filtered through my veins and was projected as just plain bitchiness.  I didn’t like who I was becoming.  So I quit.  For eight years.

levi5

But then four years ago I attended this same event, May Daze HT 2011, to watch a friend compete at Beginner Novice.  I hadn’t been to an event besides Rolex since my “retirement” at the age of 17, but as we walked the XC course, the adrenaline began pumping back into my veins and my eyes grew wider.  For the first time in years, I actually felt like I WANTED this.  The rush of jumping massive walls in tandem with your best friend, the wind rushing past your ears on a good gallop set, and the feeling of accomplishment when you crossed the finish flags.  I turned to her and said that I wanted out of my self inflicted retirement.  I wanted to event.

Flash forward 6 months laters and she was the one asking me to event.  She had her pintaloosa pony Miles and needed him sold.  It was a win/win for both of us, as I would get to gallop around those beginner novice courses I had been dreaming of, and she would get someone to put a record on her pony in order to sell him for a decent price.  We shook on it, loaded him onto the trailer, hauled him to my farm, and began on this journey back into the world of eventing.  For months, Miles and I just bonded as I tried to remember how to ride.  Simple things like asking for a shoulder in, keeping my leg down, or even just braiding seemed to have vanished from my brain.  But by the time that May Daze HT 2012 rolled by, I felt ready – and it was off to my first event in over 8 years.  We galloped around the Beginner Novice course like it was nothing, and I remember galloping through the finish flags and thinking “Oh ya.  THIS.  This is why I used to love doing this.”  There is absolutely no better feeling than that.  That camaraderie, teamwork, and partnership.  The trust that goes from your hands, seat, and leg, and somehow transmits to your horses side and head – willing him forward over obstacles that he doesn’t even know the other side of.  There is nothing else like it.

Miles 1 Miles2

But as is with sales horses, Miles was sold in October of 2012, and again, I was without a horse and without eventing.  This didn’t last for long though, and I soon received an offer from a great friend to come ride one of her horses, Mak.  He was a 4 year old thoroughbred off of the track that she had been working with as a project, and wanted to see if I liked him.  I drove to her barn, gave her a hug, and she opened the stall door to this beast of hers.  I stared up at him and thought “wow, he looks like Levi.”  Just like the horse that had taken me through my childhood, he was over 16 hands high, he was a rich dark bay, with a large star squarely between the kindest of eyes.  She left me alone in his stall while she went to tack up her other horse, and I quickly tacked him up and led him out to the ring.  I swung up and looked around, noticing that a crowd had started to arise around the arena.  I kicked Mak forward into a long and lazy trot, and then a lopey canter, and finally a walk on a loose rein.  With each stride, the smile on my face grew.  I could just tell this horse was COOL.  He wasn’t the most athletic horse, he didn’t ripple with muscle and energy, and lord knows he wasn’t built like the cliche Rolex horse, but what he lacked in these, he made up for in willingness.  His attitude was that of “oh, ok. sure. whatever.”  I affectionately called him a little stoner, as he did not act like your cliche young thoroughbred who had recently raced.  I giggled as we loped over little flower boxes, beamed when he finally picked up his left lead, and just felt my heart growing bigger with each step.  At the end of the ride, I stopped and patted him on the neck, turned to my friend and just said “Chels – you’ve got a good one here.  He’s really cool.”

I went home that night and told my boyfriend about this awesome horse I had ridden.  Tears began to well in my eyes when I realized that everyone else had a nice horse, and with this eventing bug still so recently reinfected in my life, I was horseless.  I knew that Mak was a horse that I could work with, our personalities just meshed so well, but I also knew that I had just started graduate school, was essentially broke, and wasn’t sure if I’d even have the time, nonetheless the money, for my own horse.  I called my mom and told her about him.  I explained that he was looked so much like Levi, reminded me so much of Natty (another horse that I had recently ridden), and that I was just in love. I waited for her to respond with a normal motherly response – one of “oh, that’s nice, too bad” and instead she said “Go get him Carleigh. You have been more happy in the last 6 months than you have in the past 6 years.  Get him.”

training2

A day later, Mak became mine.

For two and a half years now, Mak and I have come together to form a great partnership.  I tried to take the mistakes I had made with Levi and learn from them, attempting with every fiber of my being not to redo them with Mak.  For his 4 year old year, we did almost nothing but hack on a loose rein.  We walked through ditches, we swam through creeks, we galloped through fields, and we learned to love to discover new things.  I took away the trust I had learned from my time working as a wrangler in Wyoming and gave that trust to him, and in return, Mak offered no naughtiness.  He was so simple.  He was happiest with no contact on his mouth, out on a trail, sniffing out new adventures.  I had finally found a horse who shared the same bravery and adventurous soul as myself…I was so happy.

training 3

We began jumping smaller jumps, and it became quite obvious that Mak had a knack for it.  He did not care what was in or on the jump, he just spent as little amount of energy to clear it, and then proceeded on in his ambling lope.  So in the spring of his 5 year old year I entered him in his first Beginner Novice, which he completed with his eyes closed.  And then I entered him in his first Novice, and again, he galloped around without a hitch.  But after Novice, I was done.  I didn’t know how to do Training – many people and one horse had made that pretty apparent in my life.  I finally had “the horse” that was fully capable, but I wasn’t capable of getting him there.  I pondered on this for a few nights and then made the realization that while I might not have the skills to capably get him around, I knew quite a few people who did.  When funds allowed it, I would call and train with fantastic people – Sharon Vander Ziel in dressage, and Allie Knowles in jumping.  And when funds didn’t allow, I would call numerous friends who themselves were competing at the upper levels to come school with me.  I didn’t care who offered the criticism or critique, I just wanted feedback.  I was adamant – this mental, emotional, and possibly physical block of training level HAD to get out of my life. I entered into the Training Level Rider division at the same event that 4 years ago drew me back in to this amazing, heartbreaking, fabulous, unnerving, and uncertain game that we all love.  I was officially entered at Training level at May Daze HT 2015.

image image

Flash forward to yesterday afternoon, and I was walking off of the cross country course with tears streaming down my face.  Only for the first time in my life, they weren’t tears of sadness or frustration.  They were tears of happiness, or maybe even disbelief.  I had finally done it.  I had gone Training level.  And not just gone Training level, I had CONQUERED Training level – going cleanly around the 20 obstacles without even a hesitation.  And I had done it on a horse I had brought up myself.  I had taken away the mistakes I had made as a teenager, and revamped my training process.  I had taken away the bravery I had gained during my cowgirling years in Wyoming and applied them to eventing.  And I had taken away my pride and asked for help from outstanding professionals that I trusted with every fiber of my being. I looked up and blinked away the tears to see my boyfriend and my friends striding towards me with smiles on their faces.  They knew how important this was to me, and they knew that the tears were deserved.  I got hugs, hand shakes, and fist bumps, instead of the frowns and sideways glances I was used to after a Training level event.

And I know. It might not be Young Riders, it might not be Rolex, and lord knows it isn’t the Olympics, but it is my own championship.  I didn’t even get a ribbon, finishing in 14th.  But in my mind, May Daze HT 2015 is a milestone.  And Mak and me?  Well, we’re champions.

training5

The Bully of the Barn: Called To Serve

“A headstrong bully who seemed to have a grievance against the world, he refused to accept instructions or guidance, but instead attempted to impose his will on everybody he encountered, insisting on doing everything his way, in his own time and in his own special style, thank you very much. And if that seems only mildly alarming, add this little detail to the portrait: This recusant maverick, this loose cannon of an athlete, weighed nearly 1,200 pounds.”

From “Called set to Serve notice” By Gary West on ESPN.com  March 1st, 2013

These were the words that kept replaying in my head as I drove the windy roads through the Bluegrass on a sunny day in April. I had ran into a good friend, Brent Wilson, at Keeneland and playfully said to him that I was looking for another project as my boyfriend rolled his eyes.  Brent’s face lit up and he said “No way, I just got one in yesterday.  And he’s AWESOME.” He immediately whipped out his phone and showed me photos of a horse that fit 98% of my criteria. Bay, Check. Tall, Check. Sound, Check. Gelded, Check. He was a little bit older than my previous projects, but the age of six didn’t deter me much.  Brent proceeded to tell my boyfriend, myself, and our friends, that this horse was the REAL DEAL.  He had won his farm half a million dollars – winning the G3 Discovery Handicap, as well as placing 3rd behind Game on Dude in the G1 Santa Anita Handicap.  We parted ways after agreeing to have me come out and put an eye on him in the upcoming week.

I left Keeneland and immediately went through my arsenal of horse-stalking capabilities.  Pedigreequery told me that he was a 2009 Afleet Alex gelding out of a Kris S mare that had a beautiful pedigree herself.  Equibase let me know that he had sold as a yearling for almost $300,000 and ran 24 times, with 5 wins, 3 places, and 4 shows.  But unlike my previous projects, I was also able to dig deeper on this horse.  There were actual news articles about him because of his level of athleticism. News articles that went beyond his pedigree, his Beyer, and his connections.  Articles like this one by Gary West that proclaimed Called To Serve to be a bully. A maverick.  A jerk.

Nixon4 Nixon3 Nixon5

But I knew his connections.  I had heard that Marc Ferrell was a good guy, and I knew for a fact that his farm manager Brent Wilson was.  Brent had given numerous horses to fellow eventers and riders that I knew, and each had proven to be a diamond.  And I knew that these two, Marc and Brent, had loved this horse enough to go out and claim him for $5,000 from New Mexico and then have him shipped home to Kentucky just to ensure their warhorses well being and safety.  He had deserved a lush retirement, and he had loved to work.  They knew that he would need to be retired sound and placed into good hands to achieve both of these things, and thats exactly what they did.

So off to Versailles I went. Driving up the lane to the gorgeous barns of VinMar’s barns, I reminded myself that this horse had already fit so many of my criteria – but one of the most important of which was that I KNEW where he was raised.  I knew that he was brought up with respect and nurturing care.  I parked in front of the barn and strolled into the cool dark aisle way, shook Brent’s hand, and peered into the stall, only to see wary eyes stare back at me.  Called To Serve had only been back to the farm for a few days and was still unsure of his role here.  Was he racing soon?  What was this paddock?  Why wasn’t he breezing at 5 am?  One of the staff slipped a chain over his nose, and brought him out of the stall….and I was taken aback.  This horse was LARGE.  Standing at almost 17h, I could understand why people would be taken aback by him.  HIs shoulder rippled with muscle, his haunches stout and firm, and his head held high.  He knew that he was King. NIxon8

Brent was quick to point out the large flesh wound on his pelvis, explaining that even after the best attempt at getting this warhorse home to them safely, he had gone down in the trailer and scraped the skin off of numerous parts of his body, but most noticeably his pelvis.  But ignoring the wounds around his hips and legs, I was able to just drink in this tall glass of water. He. Was. Stunning.  I quickly asked Brent if he would mind if I swung up on him, and after a giggle and a reminder that he had only been off the track for 72 hours, he agreed that I could hack him around the paddock.

I hefted my saddle over his high withers and slipped a snaffle into his mouth, mumbling in a reassuring tone and patting this beast on his muscular neck, keeping my nerves in check as much as his.  We lead him to the paddock, Brent gave me a leg up, and we were off.  My 5’3 body looked ridiculous on his massive frame, but to him I was just another exercise rider.  I put him through his paces to each direction, with only a *few* interruptions of a few steps of gallop.  And although he was hot, I was impressed.  He offered no buck, no rear, and although he wanted to RUN, he came back to a loose rein and a happy walk.  I was SOLD. Bully, he was not.

As I dismounted, Brent and I discussed this horses future.  I told him that I was 100% interested, but we both agreed that this horse needed some time off to relax, unwind, and press reset on his brain.  I patted Called To Serve on the neck and thanked him for a good ride, and walked out of the barn thinking “Damn.  That is an athlete.”  He wasn’t a bully, he was just strong.  He knew that he was something special, and it had paid off in wins, money, and reputation.  I could understand why people could have grown wary of his towering frame and ominous presence, but I didn’t sense hostility.  I sensed royalty.

Nixon2

3 weeks later  I got THE text.  “He’s all yours.  Marc has agreed for you to have him.”  I quickly messaged Brent back with a girlish squeal saying “THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU” and then messaged my friends and my boyfriend that I GOT HIM.

Called To Serve is now known around the barn as NIXON.  I have had him for only a few days but I have already fallen in love.  He has demonstrated that his willingness to be urged towards the wire on the track by a skilled jockeys hands is also parlayed into bravery to hack on trails, pass scary objects, and even pop over some small fences.  He settled in so easily, as these traveling warhorses are trained to do.  And most importantly, he has yet to “impose his will” on anyone that he has encountered.  I am so excited to see where this journey with Nixon will take me, but I am so excited to watch it unfold.

NIxon6 Nixon1 NIxon7

Happy Mother’s Day: To The Strongest Women I Know

I remember looking up into my father’s eyes and being stunned into speechlessness.  Only it wasn’t an intentional lack of words, but instead my throat literally filled with tension and emotion, making sandpaper out of anything that I could possibly mutter in response.  We were standing next to the football stadium at the University of Rochester; it was the last time I would throw javelin in the NYS T&F competition, and I had just thrown very badly to finish 3rd.  My dad had travelled up from PA to cheer me on, but at the very end, he pulled me aside and asked if we could talk.  I followed him out of the dark tunnels of the stadium, staring up into his broad shoulders, and thinking “what now?”  My entire senior year at St. Lawrence had been such a roller coaster – he had been diagnosed at the beginning of October, and had been back and forward in treatments until February when he received his bone marrow transplant.  But it had taken, and he was in remission.  We were all so grateful.  Of science, of the donor, of my father for fighting.  So what could this possibly be?

Javelin 1 Javelin 2

“Carleigh, I went to the hospital last week and they found new blast cells.  The cancer is back.”

This couldn’t be true.  I couldn’t handle this.  I just couldn’t.

“Oh. Ok.” I mumbled back, still so unsure of showing my emotions to my rock of a father.  I looked around, watching as people strode by us, not knowing that on this sunny day in their life, my own world was crashing down.  Suddenly the sandpaper in my throat disappeared, and rage took it’s place.

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?  You let me come here, throw like shit, and walk around like an asshole while you knew the entire time that you were sick again!”  He apologized, but said he didn’t want it to effect my throwing.  It all began to sink in.  He would immediately go back to the hospital and begin more chemotherapy.  The machines would get hooked up, the jail sentence would begin again.  These last two months, this glimmer of normalcy, was all a sick joke.  He would not get normalcy, my family would not get normalcy, I would not get to finish my senior year without this impacting my life.

This education that my father had so demanded of his children had led me to HIS alma mater; St. Lawrence University.  I was at this championship track meet representing HIS college.  My commencement from HIS dream school with HIS desire to have one of HIS children would all be for nothing, because HE wouldn’t even be able to be there.  I hugged my father good bye, not knowing what to say, and walked back into the dark stadium – staring blankly into the dank and glim walls.  I made it to the section where my team was camping out, slid down against the cold dark cement, and burst into tears.  Grief stricken sobs wracked my tiny frame and I began hyperventilating, not knowing how to breathe in the air of the world that was taking my father from me.  My coach rushed over to me and immediately called for someone to grab my best girlfriends and teammates to come and calm me down – and immediately 6 amazing women surrounded me and held me.  It was the beginning of the end.

Graduation was only two weeks later, and I was devastated to realize that my father would not be attending.  I made it through the days in a haze.  Finals no longer mattered, all that did were my tear stricken hacks on my horse, and rage driven throws on the track.  My mother called me daily and asked how I was holding up.  She told me that although my father wasn’t going to be able to come, that she would be there with the proudest smile on her face.  I began to receive phone calls from other important women in my life – my Aunt Holly, who told me that NOTHING would keep her away from this amazing moment, my sister who said that no aspect of medical school would hold her back from jumping in her car, and my best friend Mindy who was adamant that she would be there – even if it meant missing aspects of her own graduation at Allegheny.  My friends rallied around me at St. Lawrence, lending me shoulders to cry on and beers to drown my sorrows.  We had made it through these 4 years together, we would make it to the end together.

Graduation 1

The day arrived and I sat in my chair, staring up at Gunnison Chapel, trying to hold in a plethora of emotions that filled my body.  Happiness at completing such a milestone in my life, sadness at parting with amazing people who had become such an integral part of my days.  Excitement at what laid in front of me in my future, grief at the uncertainty of if my future would include my father. The commencement speaker finished his (her?) speech and the announcement of my fellow graduates names began.  I applauded rambunctiously for my friends – screaming my support, but with each cheer, it became more painfully obvious that there would be a cheer missing for me.

Graduation 2

Suddenly it was my name being called, and I stood up and slowly began walking to the stage.  Climbing the stairs, I looked out into the audience, searching for “my section” and the women who were cheering like mad for me.  I finally found them, and happiness washed over me.  I might not have my father here, and in only a few months I would lose my father entirely, but I had these women.

These women who had held my hand as a child, dried my tears as a teenager, and pushed me forward into adulthood. They cheered from 100 rows back, but their support was boisterous enough to be heard for miles.  My mother, who had gone through more in her life than would be expected for 10 lives was screaming as tears rolled down her face, so excited for me to graduate in the very spot where she received her own diploma.  My Aunt Holly who had been such a symbol of strength to me throughout my life, who had become a surrogate mother to me, my horses, and my travels, as I grew up into a woman that I modeled after her.  My sister Katie who had been my role model my entire life, who was the most courageous, powerful, intelligent, and passionate person I had ever known, who had treated me as a best friend instead of a little sister, and who had dropped everything to be here.  And finally, my best friend Mindy, the person who had been “my person” for over 16 years, who had been the speed dial throughout these past 8 months and would journey with me even farther in life.  She was my confidant, my shoulder, my hair puller backer, and my strength.  She had become a member of my family, and was hurting just as much as we were.  On this commencement, I had my women, my “mothers,” and I was so proud.

Graduation 3

Commencement from college seems to always correlate with Mother’s Day, and on this commencement day of mine, I was surrounded by amazing women who had become such integral members in my maturation  – through life, through school, through good times and bad, and they were all there for me.  I realized as I strode across the stage that although I was missing an important member of my life on this day, I was blessed enough to be surrounded by strong women who understood this pain and wrapped their metaphorical arms around me in love and support – something that not many people have.  I was blessed beyond words to have so many powerful spirits there with me, so grateful to have them and their cheers.

I walked off of the stage with my diploma in hand and returned to my seat, tears dripping down my face, as emotional gripped me.  I sat on the hard wooden seat, exhausted by the emotion, when suddenly my phone vibrated in my pocket.  I flipped it open to see a text from my father.

“I am so proud of you right now.  You have become such a beautiful woman.  You are so strong.  I am sorry I can’t be there.  But I’m there in spirit.”

I turned around and made eye contact with my group, and saw that tears were in all of their eyes too.  But they were smiling, so I started smiling. I might be lacking one, but what I lacked, they made up for in strength.  In numbers. In passion. I hope on this Mother’s Day that you find YOUR women who do this for you.  Who empower you.  Who nurture you.  Who wrap their arms around you when you are struggling.  I know that I have so many in my life.  So on this Mother’s Day, I want to take a moment to thank these women.  My Aunt Holly, my sister Katie, my best friend Mindy, and so many others who have nurtured me into the woman I have become.  And most importantly, my mom Carole.  The strongest woman I know.  The rock in my life.  Thank you all, thank you, thank you, thank you.

Frank the Tank: The Story of A Heart Horse

I walked up to the paddock and saw the the most rotund horse I had ever laid eyes on.  His thick black tail was dreadlocked, his forelock so long that it covered his eyes.  He slumped in the middle of the field with his back to me, one hind leg cocked up, his head low, but his ears swiveled, letting me know that he knew I was there.  A day earlier, I had been asked by the owner of the farm where I was working as a groom if I was liking my job and this entry into the Thoroughbred industry, and I had responded as any rider would have, “it’s going great, but I just miss riding.”

I had finally found a job after moving to Lexington 6 months prior.  It was enough to pay my bills, but I was still in a severe depression after having lost my father, stuck in a relationship that I didn’t know how to get out of, and in a city where I knew no one.  Twenty pounds overweight, and without the therapy of my horse, I had begun driving “door to door” to the thoroughbred farms asking for work, and was finally hired at Chesapeake.

And that’s what brought me here.  The owner responded, “well we have the pony back near the teaser – he’s rideable.”  I asked him if it would be ok for me to hack him on the farm, and he quickly agreed – letting me know that this “pony” had been used by a previous farm manager to do just that – pony the yearlings, in preparation for the summer and fall yearling sales.  But he warned me that he hadn’t been ridden in some time, not since that farm manager had left years before, leaving this horse behind.  The farm had done what any respectable one would have – kept him, fed him, vaccinated him, and trimmed his feet, but besides that, he was simply the definition of a pasture ornament, and hadn’t truly been handled except for on these specific days.  No one else on the farm was a rider, and none of the recent or current farm managers had ever seen a need to get him re-broke.

And that’s what led me to the paddock the next day.  This mammoth of a horse stood before me, looking neither intrigued in my presence, or really thrilled at my invasion of his space.  I climbed the fence and walked towards him with my hand outstretched, expecting him to turn and face, put his ears up, and whinny in excitement of finally receiving attention, but instead he FLED.  Running to the far corner, he spun and faced me, snorting out a roar through his nose.  I looked upon him in appraisal and thought, “pony, my ass.”  He had to be at least 15.1, maybe 15.2 hands, and instead of a lithe thoroughbred, his chest was as wide as the section of fence he stood in front of.  His muscles quivered in anticipation of my next move, so instead of moving, I just croutched in the field – the same technique I had recently learned in catching a nervous foal.  The pony dropped his head and took one nervous step towards me, still blowing tremendous breaths out of his nose.

Frank 6

I realized at this moment that this was going to be an endeavor that was going to involve much more than just saddling up and swinging over, but at this time in my life, I needed nothing more than an escape from the current state I was in, and I just knew deep down, that this was exactly what I needed.  I began to take very slow small steps towards this beast of a horse, and with each step towards him, pieces of pain in my life began to be chipped away.  He kept his focus on me, unsure of why I was coming towards him, but he held his ground, and when I got close enough to him to touch, he lowered his head and blew into my hand – taking in my scent.  I calmly put my hand on his neck, and let him just stand with me.  We sat there, both a little unsure of why we were at this location in our lives, both confused at the uncertainty that had been our previous lives, and both a little nervous of the future, but as I began to scratch his neck and rub his face, the uncertainty dissipated, he began chewing, and I realized that I finally had my first friend in Lexington, KY.  And thus began the journey of the horse formerly known as The Pony; Frank the Tank.

Frank and I began having our daily dates after I had completed a long day of work, meeting up behind the stallion barn for some long groom sessions, some intense bonding building walks, and some long nights where I did nothing but sit in his field with a 6-pack, enjoying his company more than the company of my current relationship.  I would park my truck next to his paddock, climb over the fence, and spend hours just detangling his tail or currying his winter coat off.  We quickly became thick as thieves, and the sight of my F150 would cause a guttural whinny and coerce him to trot to the fence, fully prepared for his massage, some peppermints, and maybe even a sip of my beer if he was exceptionally good.  He was as good of a friend as any; letting me voice my frustrations, cry on his shoulder, and share a beer and an apple as we watched the sun set over the farm.

Frank the Tank 10

But as is such in life, I soon found myself ready for more in life.  In 18 months at Chesapeake, I had gotten out of the relationship that had made me so miserable, I had found the happiness in my soul that had been so badly lacking after the loss of my father, and I had begun paving my way into the thoroughbred industry – and began looking for employment with a bit more responsibility.  I was hired on at Hinkle Farms as their yearling manager, and within a period of two weeks, I found myself uprooting my life and heading down the road to Paris, KY, but I promised Frank (and the staff at Chesapeake) that I would be back often to visit, not knowing just how much of a hole would be left in my heart as I said good bye to this rock in my life.

I hadn’t been at Hinkle for longer than a few weeks when the owner Tom Hinkle, sat me down and asked how I was liking my new job and the responsibilities that came with it.  I told him that I absolutely adored the job.  The 1200 acres that the farm encompassed were stunning, the yearlings that I had begun prepping were all top-caliber horses, and the staff had all been warm and welcoming.  He asked me to let him know if there was anything that I needed, or any way that he could help make this transition go more smoothly.  I thanked him for taking the time to care about how I was doing, and as I stood up to leave, words left my mouth without a filter, and I blurted out “I do miss my horse.”

With a confused look on his face, he responded “I didn’t know you had a horse?  Where is he? Back in Pennsylvania?”

I explained that I had a horse who wasn’t really my horse, but who had been a steadfast part of my life for the past two years.  I stumbled over my words, trying to explain why I enjoyed this horses company so much – he wasn’t athletic, he wasn’t well bred, or really anything to look at, hell, he was barely broke, but he was my friend. Without hesitation, Tom just turned to me and said “well then, if you miss your horse, you can always bring him here.”

I left his office and immediately picked up my phone and dialed the owner of Chesapeake’s number.  He answered with a giggle and asked if I already wanted my old job back so quickly, and then asked why I was calling.  I stuttered over the words, briefly trying to explain how Tom had offered me a place to keep a horse, and since Frank wasn’t doing much more than taking up a paddock on his farm, and costing him bills for his farrier, vet, and feed bills, if he wouldn’t find it in his heart to let me come get him?  Maybe as a free lease?  Just for some time?  Drew hesitated only briefly, and then said with a giggle, “of course. Come get him whenever.”

Frank was picked up and brought to Hinkle Farms where he and I quickly settled into a routine.  After a long day of yearling prep, I would tack him up and hack him around the immense farm.  Checking horses, checking fence, or just roaming around aimlessly, he quickly became a fixture on the farm.  We soon put him to work as a babysitter for weanlings as a calming figure during the stressful weeks immediately following weaning.  He then venture up into the world as a pony horse, and got to be the personal trainer for many a future racehorse.  He did trot sets with two year olds who were being legged up for the track. But most importantly, he kept me happy.  At the end of even the most stressful of days, Frank would still see my truck and immediately come loping to the fence line to say hello, nuzzling my cheek, and nip at my jacket, putting a smile back on my face.

Frank 3Frank the Tank 14

It has now been six years since I stepped into that paddock. Frank is now approximately 20 years old, and has moved from farm to farm as my life continues on in its strange and windy path, most recently getting brought to a farm to babysit a pony who needed a friend as she battles laminitis.  He has quickly become her friend, her protector, and her personal trainer as she ambles along. We know so little about his past, but what he do know is that he is worth his 1600 pounds in gold.

Frank the Tank 8

Many people have asked me why it is that I own Frank.  He is not some big stunning thoroughbred or warmblood that I take galloping over fences.  We don’t even know what his pedigree is, but I’m sure if we did, it wouldn’t be full of millionaires or blue-bloods.  He does not ripple with athleticism, or quiver with potential.  But what he lacks in athleticism, he makes up in personality.  He eyes twinkle with a mischevious glimmer, his days are spent plotting ways to get more attention, more carrots, and a longer groom, and if that takes ripping down fence boards to achieve that attention, then so be it.  His escapades have been chronicled on my Facebook posts, drawing in fans from around the country.  Some who have never met him, others who have made plans to journey to Lexington to visit me, and end up demanded to meet Frank as well, and all who preach their adoration for this horse.  Most of them witnessed my life fall apart at the age of 22, and watched with hesitation as this pony brought back the Carleigh that they knew.

Frank 5Frank the tank 12frank the tank 13

Most importantly, Frank brings joy to my life.  He might not be ridden more than twice a year, but he gets sat on bareback weekly.  He puts up with my eccentricities, while I entertain his.  There are horses that are used for sport, as the other 99% of mine are.  There are horses that are used for work, as Frank has in his previous life.  And then there are horses used for nothing.  But I don’t think it is nothing, I think, at least in Frank’s case, it is something much more important than sport or vocation.  These horses are used to put smiles on faces and to fill hearts with happiness. They are therapist of sorts.  And, the in grand scheme of things, they are the most valuable to us as humans.

And that is Frank. My therapist.  My joy filler.  My heart horse.

Frank 2 Frank the Tank 9 Frank 1 Frank 4

The Thoroughbred: A Torrid Love Affair Part II.

I said good bye to Levi last night.  Only, it wasn’t the soft caress of his cheek as the euthanasia was administered that I had envisioned as a child.  He was in Upstate New York, and I was in Lexington, KY, when I got the call.

“He’s not doing well.  The vet said he’s so volatile that he can barely give him any meds.”  Jill said to me as I laid alone on my bed, refusing to acknowledge that this might be the end to anyone.  Options rushed through my head. What would I do if I was there?  If this was one of the multi-million dollar horses that have been in my care?  If the worlds best vets were just a drive away?  Banamine, check. Xylazine, check. Head to the clinic, check. But this wasn’t a million dollar horse, this was my 25+ year old retiree, and he was in the care of one of the best horsemen I had ever met.  The rational farm manager in me kicked in, and I calmly told Jill that I trusted her to make the decision.  Jill had also worked on elite thoroughbred farms, she also had higher education, and she also had a scientific mind.  I called my mom in tears and told her that it wasn’t looking good, and knowing that she would be as affected as I would be if he passed, I wanted to warn her.  An hour later, I got the text message that he was gone.

For those around me that never met Levi, it is so hard to explain why my bond with him was so intense, especially when they hear that I gave him away almost 7 years ago.  Our journey together was one filled with the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows.  You hear the cliche quote that its not the dates on the tombstone that matter, but the little dash in between, and our life together was no different.

Levi 7

Levi was not the perfect horse.  In fact, he contradicts every word I have breathed out in the last 5 years — find the right horse for you, sell the horse that isn’t right for you, and grow together with that perfect horse. I bought Levi at the age of 12 with high hopes of eventing to the highest levels, achieving my A in Pony Club, and “jump all of the jumps”…but the only thing that ever became true in that was jumping all of the jumps….as long as they didn’t involve water.  We soon realized that the very idealogy that encompasses eventing failed Levi: bravery.  He was neither brave nor fierce, and when it came time to head onto XC, he quivered in fear.  By a young age, it became rather apparent that he was quite a phenomenal show jumper and dressage horse, competing at high levels, and qualifying for National’s in both, but the minute that he left the ring, his knees grew weak.

Levi 3

And yet instead of abandoning hope and finding my next XC warrior, I battled him. From the age of 13 to 17, my weekends were filled with bipolar emotions.  We would warm up in the dressage, drawing looks of jealousy and anger from our fellow competitors – practicing 3rd level movements as we readied ourselves for a novice dressage test.  With every toe flicking extension, more people stared.  I would go into dressage and easily throw down a sub-30 score, he was just beautiful to watch.  We would head into stadium and make it look like a hunter round.  He had a gorgeous bascule, and tight knees.  And then we would head to XC.  If he had taken his bipolar meds and decided that his demons were non-existent on that particular day, I would head home with a big ribbon and a bright smile, convinced that our copious amounts of schooling had finally paid off.  But if he didn’t, it was the same story.  A double clear round until the water.  And then a stop. And then another stop. And then a full blown spinning/bucking/rearing meltdown.  And a walk off of the course with tears streaming down my face.

We finally got him confident enough to go through simple water and I moved him up to training level, but his water demons reared their ugly head again when the idea of dropping into water came into play, and yet again, many an “E” was placed on my record. The anxiety that was placed in exchange for where there should have been excitement and happiness soon filled my life…and I began to resent competing.  I grew angrier at those around us, blaming my mother, my trainers, my fellow boarders, even myself.  I became a person that even I didn’t like.  But I refused to sell Levi.  He was “MY HORSE.”  So instead of selling him, I gave up on eventing. And competing. I spent the next 5 years hacking.  We switched out my Crosby for my Billy Cook, my tall boots for chinks, and we roamed.  And with each step of road hacks and trail rides, I was reminded of why I loved this horse.  He was a trier.  He loved me and took care of me.  He accepted my disabilities and inadequacies, just as I did his.
Levi 1

Our journey together ended in an attempt to save a relationship with my father.   I loaded him up and drove the 6 hours to Canton, NY and placed him in the care of my favorite professor, Jill Pflugheber, and her daughter Sara. Her daughter was 16 and a fantastic little rider, but didn’t have her own horse and had been schooling other peoples horses in exchange for lessons at the barn where I boarded.  I had asked her to hack Levi for me during the summers where I was in Wyoming, and she had fallen head over heels in love with him.  During my last summer with Levi post-graduation, we had been texting back and forward, with her love for him was as apparent as ever.  I finally realized that this was where Levi’s and my story ended, and her’s began. For seven years, he has been an integral part of hers and her mothers life.  I have watched as he escorted her through the same heart breaks as he did me; her first heart break, the loss of her father, her entry into the real world. Each time that I heard from her or read a facebook status full of loss and ache, I knew that she had Levi, and that she would be fine.

Last summer I decided at the last minute to attend my college reunion, and a large part of this was that I somehow subliminally knew that I needed to see Levi, and say good bye.  Our last farewell was with him as a sound and spunky 19 year old – one with some good miles still left in him.  But now he was 25.  His back was swayed, and his ankles dropped.  I stopped in my rental car at a nearby gas station and picked up a carton of Fruit Loops, his favorite, and headed to his pasture.  Spotting him immediately, I called out and he lifted his head and slowly began rambling towards me, as if seven years of separation had never happened.  He happily munched on his Fruit Loops as tears streamed down my face and I rubbed on his neck.  The neck that had held so many championship ribbons, caught so many tears, and posed for so many pictures.  I sat in his field and just watched him graze for an hour, as the spring sun poured over us.  I knew deep down that this would be the last time I would see Levi, but was relieved that at least I got this day, this embrace, and this hour. I walked away, knowing that I couldn’t look back or I would be overtaken with grief.

Levi 4

Now almost exactly a year later, I have lost him.  Levi was everything to my young life.  We started together, both a bit wet behind our ears, me at 12, him at 7, and we continued on together.  He got me through bullies in middle school, my first heart break in high school, late nights cramming for finals in college, and the 11 month battle that I witnessed my father lose to cancer.  I may not be an elite level eventer because of him, but I am a HORSEWOMAN because of him.  He taught me so much, but most importantly, he taught me how to love unabashedly.  He taught me that the ribbons mean nothing, the pictures and prizes are irrelevant, but the journey means everything. He made me love the thoroughbred, leading me to Lexington, KY and the life I now have, and adore.

The  next day, Jill told me that he was laid to rest in an apple orchard on her families farm, and that he remained a trier until the end. That is all you can possibly ask for a horse that you spent your life trying for.  He touched so many lives along his journey, most of all mine.  So thank you Levi, for everything, every last part of this fabulous ride.