When I was five years old, my Aunt Holly and Uncle Bob recommended to my mother that I begin REAL riding lessons – and specifically with a local woman that they knew from the Quarter Horse industry, Rose Watt. Up until this point my “riding” had consisted of my weekends with my grandparents – climbing up on, and falling off of, my Shetland pony Shana.
Being now five years old, you know – an age of such maturity, athleticism, and attention span – my mother decided that yes, indeed I was ready to begin weekly lessons and rigorous training. We went and met with Rose at her farm – Edgewood Stables – and not only became enamored with her, but with her pony Chocolate – the latter having already been described as “Heathen Pony” or “Bucker.” And with that one meeting, I moved on from aimlessly wandering around paddocks, to aimlessly wandering around show rings attempting to understand WHY you had to always go left first when entering a pleasure class, WHY you had to go AROUND the barrels individually and not all at once, and WHO told people that ponies couldn’t jump 6′ fences. Looking back, I realize that my lessons must have exhausted her, but good lord I was cute.
The years rolled on, and my relationship with Rose, and her family, quickly moved on from that of trainer/student to that of mother/daughter. My teenage years were spent rebelling against my parents, and my horse was always the first thing to be threatened against curfews, boys, and bad grades. My summers were spent in full “barn rat” mode, hanging out with her daughters, sleeping on their couch, and smuggling myself and my horse into her truck and trailer to get to horse shows. I roamed around the different disciplines, making my thoroughbred do an event one weekend, a hunter show the next, we ran barrels, we did western pleasure, and I even (sorry Rose) roped her goat. I have fond memories of playing “knock out” with a single fence against her daughter, attempting bronced out bareback trail rides on green broke ponies, and numerous trips to the hospital. Needless to say, I look back on those formative years with a giggle, but I would probably murder the teenager that tried these things on my farm.
Last Friday I received a panicked phone call from her daughter that spun my world and left me full of emotions that I couldn’t even describe: Rose had been in a bad riding accident and was being life flighted to the hospital. Amy knew nothing else, and I was told nothing more. I have already realized in my short 28 years how much Rose has taught me as a horse woman – it was so much more apparent as I made the trek to Lexington and began taking lessons with others – people that I thought would teach me SO much more than my small upbringing in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania. And yet I was quickly made aware that my foundation was just as strong as someone who had trained with an Olympian all of their life. But these emotions had so little to do with riding and so much more to do with LIFE. Each memory indicative of Rose and the woman that she was, the woman that she taught her daughters and many surrogate barn rats like me to be. These are only a few of them.
Gumption: When I was a very young girl, only 8 or 9, we received a phone call in the late evening telling us that the barn had collapsed. The ice compounded with wet heavy snow had been too much for the structure, and they needed all hands on deck to get the horses out before the remaining beams collapsed. My mother left me and my sister at home and raced to the farm, ready to help. They got every single horse out, but the barn was completely destroyed. Rose moved the horses to a friends stable almost 20 minutes away from her home and continued on in her lessons and boarding immediately. Looking back, she must have been devastated with the loss of her home, her income, and her blood, sweat, and tears, but none of us students ever saw her falter.
Work Ethic: Our barn, like most, was inhabited with a plethora of girls – so we all became teenagers right around the same time, and the arguments over boys, ponies, and other senseless things began. And yet Rose showed up every afternoon after a long day as a counselor at a local school with a smile on her face and a boisterous laugh. She must have been exhausted after already putting in 12 hours in her “career”, but her love of teaching, and her love of horses, pushed her forward as she taught lessons well into the evenings, and then she gave up 50 weekends a year to haul us all to shows and rallies both near and far. I rarely saw her take a vacation, but I also rarely saw the smile come off of her face.
Compassion: Rose essentially became a second mother to me, but this was never more apparent to me than throughout the year that my father was battling cancer, and the years following his death as I attempted to regroup in my life. She herself had encountered many similar battles, through the loss of her husband among many others. I knew during those long, lonely months, that I could call her, or even just show up at the barn that I now no longer even boarded at, and she would listen for hours, or simply throw me up on one of her training horses and begin barking orders, allowing me to push back any depression or anger at the world and simply ride. Every time a new event occurred in my life that made me question my place in the world, my faith, or my bravery to push through – I thought of two people: my mother, and my second mother Rose. Her daughter and I spoke often, the only other person in the world who could say “I know how you feel” and I could believe them. And each time, when one of us was feeling especially down, we would remind the other to “think of our mothers.” These women who could endure SO much, and yet wake up each morning with a smile and a mission – to improve their own lives as well as the lives around them.
And this leads me to endurance: I have witnessed Rose endure so much in life, but from an outsiders view you would never know. There are so many people in this day and age who feel the need to complain about the slightest thing – their horse being lame, their car getting a dent in it, waking up late, or having a bad hair day. And yet the people who are struggling through the hardest battles in life remain mum. These are the people that are there when you need them, take the shirt off their backs, and are laughing boisterously over a glass of wine at the end of the day – because these are the people who understand what it is like to have nothing, and still enjoy the gift of a new day and a beautiful sunset. She still remains one of my dearest friends, a shift from the mother/daughter dynamic to a true friendship as I grow older.
I know that Rose will make it through this next trial in her life with these same traits, battling through and anxious to get back to the barn, back to her horses, her students, and her life, we can all be assured that she will be back in the saddle again – and in no time. But beyond that, I hope that every other young girl has that trainer – the one the not only teaches you half pass and pirouette, how to get a flying change and how to find a distance, but the one that teaches you how to LIVE life – a life that means something, and a life that impacts so many around you. I know she has impacted mine, and I know so many others who would agree. Get better Rose, your Edgewood Team that encompasses such a great area around the world now, is rooting for you. We love you.
Four years ago, almost to the day, I began dating my boyfriend Luke. We were both managing farms in Paris, KY and it seemed predetermined for us to find each other – both from Pennsylvania, both managing thoroughbred breeding farms, both slightly obsessed with his yellow lab Bailey – fate took over, and our relationship took off.
Flash forward four years later, and he has moved from my boyfriend to my manfriend (he might kill me for writing that) or as my Australian friend calls it, my partner. Not much has changed besides the fact that I have returned to school to obtain my PhD in veterinary sciences, but he continues to manage a thoroughbred breeding farm, oh, and I guess we now have TWO lab’s to love! I spend my free time getting my farm fix on his farm by helping him – I assist with foaling all of the mares, I pull the yearlings manes/clip them prior to the sales, do turn out, come out on most Sundays to help feed, and if I’m feeling extra awesome I’ll help muck stalls (I know what you’re all thinking, I TOTALLY deserve The Girlfriend of the Year award – I KNOW). So nothing was out of the ordinary when his phone rang at 11PM on a freezing night in February this year. We threw on our bibs, hopped into his truck, and ventured into the night.
We arrived to the barn and I proceeded to the mares stall while Luke ran to the tack room to turn off the foaling alert monitor while also grabbing the foaling kit. The mare was well into the second stage of delivery – the front feet were presented with the amnion, and the mare was lying down and pushing – we wrapped the mares tail, reached into the birth canal to check the rest of the presentation of the foal, making sure that he was “diving out” as necessary for equine birth, and then walked out of the stall – allowing the mare to have as natural of a birth process as possible. But nothing happened. The mare stopped pushing and the foal never progressed outwards – and we knew that human assistance would be required and we went into the stall and began pulling. Rotating left leg, right leg, left leg, right leg, we attempted to dislodge the shoulders from her pelvis to no avail. We attached OB chains and began pulling with more strength – but still, nothing. Luke looked at me and nodded his head – our system was well oiled enough that I knew what this meant – he was hooking up the trailer, and I was to get her up and loaded – we were off to the clinic.
The trailer ride was one of the longest, and possibly the coldest of my life. I offered to ride in the trailer with the mare in case she began having contractions again during the ride, and Luke raced down the back roads of Kentucky in fast pursuit of veterinary assistance. We arrived at the clinic prepared for surgical intervention, and the vets were sent off to begin to prepare the sedatives and possible anesthesia – but in a miraculous display of human strength and ingenuity, two more strong men added their weight to the chains and attempted one last pull and into the world came BODE.
We all stared at the monstrosity that was the foal in front of us. One of the interns summed it up by simply stating “WHOA. Now that’s a big’n.” He was HUGE, a solid 150 lbs. But there was no time to ogle, the foal was quickly taken to a stall to receive oxygen and other essential nutrients/medications as we all believed that he had been oxygen deprived while being in the birth canal for almost an hour and a half – we knew that in an ideal birth, he would have been breathing within thirty minutes of the mares water breaking! Luke and I stayed with the mare and the rest of the veterinarians, making sure that she was not hemorrhaging or showing signs of colic – both of which are quite common post-dystocia. Suddenly one of the interns came into the room and turned to the main theriogenologist and the surgeon stating, “We might need to wait til he calms down to get the catheter in…oh, and I don’t think he needs oxygen.” I stormed to the stall, wondering how a 15 minute old foal could possibly be “too hyper” for medical intervention – especially a foal that we were certain would be a “dummy foal” and oxygen deprived, and I arrived to the stall and saw it surrounded by grooms, techs, and vets – all staring in and smiling. I peered around the corner and saw what the fuss was all about – not only was Bode already standing, he was PLAYING. Snorting at the straw, hopping around, and attempting to trot out the stall door, I just knew deep down that any apprehension of this foals survival could dissipate. He was a fighter.
Bode and his mom were discharged from the hospital rather quickly as neither of them appeared to be harmed in any way from the more stressful than normal foaling, and he arrived at Luke’s farm ready to take over the world. He was a monster of a foal, but quite possibly the most affectionate and loving colt I had ever met. I admit to helping Luke more often than I had previously, but most of my “help” came in the form of me sitting in Bode’s stall – grooming him, picking his feet, but just loving on him in general.
And Bode, in return, loved on me back. When he was 2 months old, he went through a rebellious streak and I received a phone call from a disgruntled Luke tell me that “my colt” was not letting anyone catch him, and that he was more of a jerk than I let on to people. I hopped into my truck and drove to the farm, walked out into the field and called out “BODE!” – chuckling as my boyfriend glared at the colt jogging up to me and giving me an affectionate head butt.
It was determined – we were besties.
The months rolled on, and Bode blossomed into an amazing, and still quite large colt. His owner comes to visit him often, usually walking away mumbling “gosh, that’s a good looking colt,” and the owners of his sire visited, letting us know that he was, indeed, a gorgeous foal. It wasn’t just me – the general consensus was that this foal was COOL. He towered over his playmates, and was put together beautifully.
Two weeks ago I was having lunch with Luke when he suddenly got somber and said, “I have something to tell you.” I stared across the table at him, prepared for the worst with thoughts of illness, infidelity, and other traumatizing ideas when he said the ultimate: “We have entered Bode in the November sale.”
I was completely shocked – first at the information that I was receiving, and then secondly at the emotions that were running through my system. I used to be a yearling manager, and as part of my job, nearly 90% of the horses that I raised were sold at either Keeneland or a Fasig Tipton sale. On top of that, I myself have sold quite a few sport horses in the past few years, something that I quite enjoy doing – taking horses off the track and providing them with the training for a second career. But this hit me like a rock. I had been prepared for Bode to eventually leave the farm – maybe as a yearling at the sales, or (hopefully) even as a two year old to be broke and run under my boyfriends farms silks – but I had never considered that he would sell so soon.
I understood from an owners point of view why he was being sold. He is gorgeous, he is well bred, and at this moment in time he is healthy. Selling horses is a tricky game, one made with decisions of the heart as well as decisions of the brain and the bank. Not everyone is equipped to handle the emotional, or the financial, gain – and mostly – loss of this game, but most enter in with the understanding that in order to provide funds for the horses that you intend to keep, race, and breed, you must sell some to financially support this – as it isn’t a cheap or a quick process. Many farms keep the fillies with the idea that they can be bred and continue on the pedigrees of a great mare of the past, and therefore it is usually the colts that don’t make the cut as a “keeper.” Colts are a much more risky game – as such a small percentage ever make it to the breeding shed to pass on their lineage, and recent mares like Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, as well as the more current Untapable, have shown breeders that the girls can step up to the plate just as well as the boys! This might not be understood by the outside world, but the money that Bode brings at the sales will provide for a lengthy career and future for the smaller percentage of horses that the farm is able to keep as a runner, and eventually a broodmare, providing for their veterinary care, their stud fees, their training, and their management (ie, my boyfriend). In exchange, we put for sale these other horses and hope that they are nice enough to meet the criteria of the great bloodstock agents, who therefore inform the amazing owners to purchase these horses, and the owners put them in the barns of the trainers like Graham Motion, Larry Jones, or Christophe Clement – among others – the “good guys.” It is a gamble, but it is the game of breeding and raising racehorses.
So here I am, three months from the November sales, and contemplating this life that I have obtained within this industry. I have never been this attached to a horse that I don’t even OWN, and I understand the owners decision with my brain, while my heart may take a few years to catch up. I pray that one of the good guys buys him, and I hope that they are prepared for me to stalk their every move (I say this only jokingly…kinda…not really). I am also going to talk to the owner and ask if I could put my own personal number on his jockey club papers with a note asking that it be called if he is ever in a bad place or ready for retirement from the track. Besides those two things, and maybe the handy websites like my VirtualStable and Keeneland Sales results, that is pretty much all that I can do (besides cry myself to sleep and see a therapist, but those are off the subject). I hope to write a blog in 4 years with the title “I GOT BODE BACK” with my family and friends in a picture smiling ear to ear as I take him over his first XC fence. Until then, I will follow him through his race career, hopefully as an insider – a non-interest gaining partner, but someone that the owners can tolerate via email, but at worst as the person on the outside of the paddock and winners circle surrounded by strangers who wouldn’t know him from Distorted Humor, but with my iPhone taking video and tears streaming down my face. And to all of you – if you see that person in the next three or four years at the races, put some money on Bode – for he wasn’t just brought into this world as an entity. He was brought in with love.
Photo’s Copyright Susan Black Photography
I am a member of many of these “OTTB” groups on social media, and do so hoping to be a voice from the inside, one that can maybe answer questions on pedigree, or connect these people with their horses breeder or owner – usually in the hopes of a foal picture or some information on a quirk. I tell each of them to please be respectful during these inquiries – that the quickest way to injure this connection that we are trying to harbor between the racing industry and the sport horse world, is to convince all of the breeders, trainers, and owners that the metaphorical “WE” of the sport horse world is actually a world full of PETA activists who wants to shut down the industry in its entirety. Many of these people are quick to say that they “rescued” their horses, or that their horses were “in bad shape” and I hope to advise them that their breeder was probably not their last owner on the track, nor were they a money hungry mob man. I find it may be easier to simply make a list of things that I wish I could say to all future OTTB owners/caretakers:
1. Your horses breeder/owner was in the business to “make millions.”
This is Dynamaker as a yearling. He is my personal OTTB, so I will base most of these off of him. His dam Dynamist is by Dynaformer, who stood at Three Chimneys for his final breeding season at $150,000 per live foal. He himself is by Empire Maker, who stood at Juddmonte during his INITIAL breeding season at $100,000, but was more likely around $30,000 by 2007 when Dynamaker was conceived. His dam Dynamist was sold the year Dynamaker was born at the Keeneland November sale for $360,000. Did you know that the average price to board one of these weanlings/yearlings/mares at an elite breeding farm is approximately $30-$40/day? So board for the year for ONE horse is approximately $14,000? And that’s not including vet/farrier/dentist? So his breeder had spent approximately $500,000 by the time Dynamaker had made it to the track – and he won a whopping $6,040 before being retired and rehomed as a jumper where I found him. So, lets see, $500,000 – $6,040 = a $493,960 deficit. I don’t think many financial advisors would recommend this specific investment!
2. You horses breeder/owner thought of his/her animal as a commodity and did not love them.
Each of these animals is loved, adored, and cared for surrounded by the most educated horsemen, veterinarians, nutritionists, and farriers known to the industry. We may send them to the sales to allow someone else to enjoy them in their racing endeavors, but you will never see a more full “Virtual Stable” than that of a breeders or farm managers.
3. Your horses breeder/owner does not care about their horse post-racing.
I have had the privilege of being in contact with the breeders as well as the farm where my Dynamaker was foaled/raised/and raced for and can assure you that this statement couldn’t be further from the truth. The day I purchased him, I woke up to an email with this:
And two years later, I received a gorgeous competition saddle pad paying homage to his breeder and his racing career, with Dr. Chandler’s silks as well as his JC name embroidered on them for all to see:
Through email, running into each other at the sales, instagram, and facebook – I stay in contact with my horses breeder and farm and they are THRILLED with his success post-racing. As a manager of a different farm, I can guarantee you that I enjoy nothing more than finding out that one of mine has been rehomed to a second career, and will bend over backwards to give them any information/pictures that I can get my hands on!
4. Your horses breeder/owner simply “didn’t care” to follow their horses career or know what happened to it.
I was recently told that a foal that I had bonded slightly too strongly with would be going through the November sale, and had to choke back the tears as I realized that not only do I only have 4 more months of having immediate access to him – but that I would also potentially be losing any interaction at all, as the system is not set up to have information made public when horses are bought/sold/moved.
As the farm manager (or in this case, the farm managers girlfriend) I have zero say in what is chosen to be done with this foal, and I know that the owner has to do what is right for him and his herd of horses. I am currently plotting how I am going to maintain track of him during this transitional time until he is named and on the track where I can follow him through works and races, but it is not a perfect world and I understand that there is a chance that I may lose him. Does that mean that I won’t be devastated if that happens? Absolutely not. Does that mean that whoever gets ahold of him 4 years from now should assume that he was never loved? Well I hope that it is my name next to OWNER in that case, but otherwise I think that these pictures are evidence enough for that answer.
I understand that in just with every other industry, there are bad people in the thoroughbred industry, and these people tend to flood over any information about the good. The good people who have endured through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, just to be a part in the crazy, spectacular, and at times heart breaking world that is horses. I have seen owners cry after selling a mare, I have seen grooms spend the night in a stall to watch a colicky weanling, and I have seen farm managers walk away sobbing after losing one of “their own”.
We are attempting to clean up the industry bit by bit – just a few days ago a group of the top trainers signed a pledge to stand behind the elimination of race day medication by 2016 – and in the past few years more farms and tracks have pledged their assistance to thoroughbred aftercare. We still have a ways to go – but the path is slowly being chiseled away, something that needs to be done from both sides. We as breeders need to support and build aftercare, but the sport horse world and fellow second careers need to respect and not be disillusioned about the breeding and racing industries as well. One day I hope that we can meet in the middle, but until then I will continue to assist others in their journey with their ex-racehorses and hopefully remain a bridge between these two worlds.
I consider myself a strong advocate for the thoroughbred industry, and have stood behind the industry more times than I can count in the past few years as it is attacked from every side – the economy, journalism, extremist groups like PETA, and yet there is one horse in my virtual stable that constantly makes me question everything I defend: Marilyn’s Guy.
Just a quick recap for those of you who do not know me. I am an event riding pony clubber by upbringing, and took the plunge into the thoroughbred industry in 2009 when I was employed at Chesapeake Farm. I then moved on to manage other farms and am now currently getting my doctorate in veterinary sciences – so horses are still, and will always be forefront in my life. Many people now know me as someone to contact when they have a horse who is ready to retire from the racetrack, either for myself or for my connections, so few realize that only a few years ago I couldn’t tell you the difference between a Storm Cat and an AP Indy. But this all changed when I began working on a breeding farm, and more specifically, with the lay ups that were coming off of the track for miscellaneous injuries or time off and I met Marilyn’s Guy, or Larry. Larry was a leggy 3 year old in 2009, and had just won his maiden at Hawthorne by a whopping 13 lengths the week that I began my job. He was all we talked about during vet work- he had been bred by the farm, and was quickly becoming our next “big hope” for his dam, Marilyn Merlot – a gorgeous grey by Unbridled’s Song who need a bit of a push for her page. But, as is horse racing, it was detected that he had an issue with his throat, and he was brought back to the farm for some treatment and R&R. When I met Larry he was a gentle giant; at 3 years old, he was 17.2hh and dwarfed me, but his demeanor during his treatments had us bond immediately. Through medications, hand walking, and grazing, he quickly became my favorite on the farm. The horse that I would go visit and groom even after hours. I craved nothing more than to swing a leg over his back and take him for a hack.
But as it is with these athletes, he was sent back to training at the end of the summer with a hug and a kiss, and after a bumpy start, found his stride and began winning allowance races in good company. It was during this stretch that I rarely got to see him, only occasionally when he would have a layover at the farm between shipping up north or down south.
I would get to hand walk him, redo his bandages, and wish him good luck as I loaded him on his next van and onto his next track. He was 4 years old, still a gentle giant, and just sparkled with enthusiasm for the life that we have spent hundreds of years breeding into these horses. My last hug was spent loading him up to Arlington, and it is to this day one of my favorite pictures. He just exudes class and athleticism, a horse that is noticeable well taken care of – an emblem of what we fight for daily when we tell the outside world that our animals are LOVED and treated with respect.
Larry was bought from his breeder, but I continued to follow him, set on the idea that this was my future “Rolex” pony, an exaggerated version of me saying that I loved this horse and hoped to one day retrain him for a life of XC schools and trail rides, maybe even with an event or two if he was able to stay sound – which I worried about on a daily basis as his now 17.3hh frame deceived gravity.
Fast forward a few years and many updates and I had hope that maybe, just maybe, he was soon to be done – but then suddenly Larry started moving UP the ranks and into stakes class. I was appalled – he was 6, and wasn’t even consistently placing in the lower classed races, but began to put in bullet works. I went and put 10 dollars on him in the Excelsior Stakes at Aqueduct on a whim and in support for my now “old man” and watched without breathing as Larry put his heart and soul across the wire to win and officially become a graded stakes winner! I had tears in my eyes as I screamed at the TV for the horse that had gotten me hooked into this life.
Larry would not win a race after the Excelsior. He continued to run at good tracks and with upstanding trainers for a few more months and I waited impatiently to see him possibly ship to Churchill or Keeneland so that I could go see him in person and make an offer to his trainer, but he was claimed, and then claimed again until finally ending up in cheap claimers at Parx. He is now 8 years old, and has earnings of $430,000 dollars, but only $1,500 of that is from this year. He will start on Saturday with a tag of $12,000 at Parx for his 36th race.
THESE are the horses that cause disgusted looks from the outside world. They see them as pathetic and “discarded” without realizing that people still love them. I have contacted numerous people in the pursuit of Larry, letting them know that he would have a forever home if and when he was retired – whether it be with me or someone that I can trust. But every time that he is claimed, or drops a rank at the track, I begin to feel my own passion for this sport waiver. It should not be this way, I should not have to falter from my platform screaming to the masses of the goodness in this industry. I’m sure that we’ve all had a “Larry” in our early careers – that first horse that we would scream unabashedly for as they came around the final turn, that horse that you bet on even when they were at 35-1, or just that horse that made you take a step back and honestly think about just how beautiful these creatures are they we spend our lives around.
I hope to one day have some closure for this story and that it does not end with tragedy or grief. If he is ready for retirement, I hope that the owners are responsible – as if any horse is a deserving “War Horse” it is Larry. But if he is still sound and happy in his career – let him run. I will keep cheering for you Larry, I promise.
UPDATE: Larry’s breeder Drew as well as myself have reached out to every hand that takes a part in Larry and have tried to secure him aftercare, getting more aggressive as the months, and now years, tick on. He has a permanent home lined up for him on Chesapeake Farm, amazingly offered by his breeder. He has shipping lined up (either through Brook Ledge, or my own personal truck and trailer if needed). And he has plenty of carrots and Fruit Loops awaiting him here in Lexington, along with the best farrier and veterinary care in the world. What we don’t have are owners who are receptive to the idea of retiring him, even though he is an 8yo GSW running for a $5k tag, and we are therefore acknowledging the idea that we might need to claim/purchase him to get him home. Please leave rude comments about the fact that we have not bought him yet off of this site, it is in the works–but scraping together $5,000 on a graduate school budget (approximately 1/3 of my annual income) is a hard decision to make. Thank you.
So for the past few weeks I have noticed (with a smile) that The National Bone Marrow Donor Registry, now known under the Be The Match Campaign, popping up on my facebook, my newspaper, and my television. Robin Roberts, her brave public battle against myelodysplastic syndrome, and her treatment plan of a bone marrow transplant, all brought a shining spotlight onto the Be The Match campaign – something that I have desperately been trying to do for years now. And while many of you have heard me say that I AM registered as a bone marrow (and organ) donor and that I DO support this phenomenal campaign, I think few of you know just how invested I am in this organization and why. I hope that by the end of this post you will not only understand WHY I believe in this with such conviction, but that it could possibly convince you to register yourself!
Let me start by repeating that my childhood was idyllic. My extended family, both my mother and fathers sides, lived relatively close to one another and we grew up spending weekends skiing together, holiday’s at the grandparents farm, and vacations at our house on Martha’s Vineyard. Unfortunately this amazing unit of a family, “the Murphys”, took a sudden blow when my Uncle Doug was abruptly diagnosed with CML: Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia. Not only was my Uncle Doug the comedian of the family and the life of the party, he was also “healthy”. A fitness guru, he was the one who sang through the house at 6 am in his long underwear to rouse us all from our slumber in order to hit the slopes before the “good powder” was gone. He was who made us take bike rides as a unit to the shores of Lake Erie. And he was the one that pressed us all for excellence in every endeavor that we approached! He dove into his treatment of chemo, radiation, and an eventual bone marrow transplant with such enthusiasm and strength that I don’t think that anyone ever doubted his success in his battle. My entire family was swabbed to see if any of us were a match to my Uncle, desperate to help him in the only frangible way possible. This was at a time when the donation would have been performed through a painful tap, and yet this deterred none of us in our goal of having my uncle back to his jovial self. If it took giving him a limb, an organ, or simply the marrow from our hip, what had to be done would be done. Unfortunately none of us matched him and it was left to the National Donor Registry to find him a match. Luckily for us, some stranger with no knowledge of the awesomeness that was my Uncle had gone out on his/her own and been swabbed and was A MATCH! We prayed that this transplant would work so that no more poison would have to be drained into his veins, we prayed that he would be cured and that our family would be restored back to its original blissful state, and we prayed that he would be relieved of the pain and angst that cancer causes. But to our dismay, the bone marrow transplant did not work, and with no other options, my family had to say good bye to my Uncle Doug on April 10th, 1996, leaving a broken and battered unit of a family that had once been so intact.
11 years later, after a few more setbacks and hurdles as a family, my father attended a Buffalo Bills game and was alarmed at how labored his breathing became while climbing the stairs to his seats. He scheduled an appointment with his general physician, and being a surgeon himself, asked the doctor to perform a few blood tests. Within hours, the tests came back with results that none of us could have expected: he had Acute Myelogenous Leukemia. We were shocked. There was no genetic connection, this was my mother’s brother who had died years ago, and her husband that was facing the rocky road ahead. The next few months were a whirlwind. We were moved to the same city, were placed in the same hospital, and put under the care of the same oncogolist as my Uncle had been 11 years prior. A piece of artwork hung outside of my fathers hospital room with a small plaque underneath it that said “In Memory of James Douglas Murphy.” It was eerie, it was ludicrous, but after a few long deep breaths, we threw ourselves into his treatment just as we had 11 years prior. Research had made some major advances since my Uncles journey, and we were approached with the idea of a Peripheral Blood Stem Cell Transplant where healthy stem cells were taken from his own body, grown and morphed, and then put back into him as his own personal bone marrow transplant. He had the treatment done in January and was in remission by February! It was a miracle! For the next two months we smiled, we laughed, we played, and we LIVED. But by May the cancer had come back and we were back in the hospital. None of us children matched him, and my father had been adopted, so no other known blood relatives existed. He was not matching anyone in the Donor Registry, and we were left with only one more option. The doctors performed an Umbilical Stem Cell Transplant, where stem cells from the umbilicus, which are much more undifferentiated and developed than adult stem cells and were easier to mutate and morph into the nutrient rich material that we needed to save him. Unfortunately, this transplant failed from the start. We were left in the hands of the National Bone Marrow Donor Registry, awaiting for a stranger to find it in themselves to be swabbed, so that our father could live. No such stranger came forward, and we lost my dad on September 5th, 2008.
The National Bone Marrow Registry, or the Be The Match Campaign, is an amazing organization, but one that few know about as well as one that has too many misconceptions:
- Did you know that the majority of bone marrow donations are now done through Peripheral Blood Stem Cell Retrieval, which is similar to a platelet donation? It is relatively painless, takes only a few hours of your day, AND is an “outpatient” procedure.
- Did you know that every 4 minutes, someone is diagnosed with blood cancer, a disease that can be CURED by YOU.
- Did you know that you do not have to pay for a cent of the registry, donation, or recovery?
- Did you know that people of any ethnicity are harder to match because there are so few people of ethnicity in the registry?
- Did you know that in order to be on the registry to save someone’s life, you just have to go here
Or to learn more about the people that you are potentially saving, and their diseases, go here:
Please sign up and BECOME THE MATCH. There are very few moments that us mere mortals get to put on our Superman capes and save lives, and this is one of those moments. Do it for yourself, do it for me, or do it for that stranger that is sitting in the hospital fighting for their lives and uncertain about their future as it could be laying in YOUR hands.
So I woke up this morning, groggy and still half asleep, stumbled over Heathen 1 and Heathen 2, gave them their 762 pounds of kibble, and stumbled to my chair to peruse “The News” ie Facebook. One of the first things to pop up on my newsfeed was that one of my best friends from college was fundraising with Team in Training to run a half marathon for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Feel free to donate to her fundraising here:
My heart grew a bit tight as I choked back the tears, so happy that one of my amazing friends was fundraising for a cause so near and dear to my heart. I quickly donated some money (hint hint, you probably should too) and then began perusing the Team in Training website, all the while thinking “I should totes run a marathon. I could totally do it.” Images of cute running clothes, Kenyans, and medals rushed through my mind. It was feasible. Totally. I had, like, ran track in college. It’s for a good cause. And then SNAP.
My mind blew away the fluffy happy clouds inhabiting my brain and quickly returned to reality. I can’t run a marathon. Why, you might ask? Cause I totally already did once. And it wasn’t fun.
Let me give you a little bit of background to this story. My parents produced three amazing children. Well, one amazing child, one heathen, the me – the “free spirit.” My brother was the macho man hockey player
I was the super professional equestrian
She ran marathons all over the world. Lake Placid, Philadelphia, San Diego, Nashville, even Paris….France, obvi not Kentucky, duh.
So in the spring of 2009, she decided to enter in the Pittsburgh Marathon – but this time it was going to be different. This time we were going to do it in honor of my dad in the city that he spent the last 11 months of his life in. (We) gathered a group of courageous, amazing, and dedicated people and created Team 10 to 2!!! And while they all committed to running or walking either 13 or 26 miles, I committed to a) wake up at 6am to cheer them on and b) drink with them afterwards. Screw the fact that I had done Track and FIELD (key word being field here – I threw a SPEAR), I was NOT running a marathon!
The day of the race began rather dreary. I zoomed around the city in my sisters sporty little car, trying to make it to check points to write on my sweet erase board super motivating notes to my sister!
I met up with her at Mile 15 and had never seen her look so exhausted. She broke to a walk and turned to me and said that she just didn’t think that she could keep going. I gave her a firm smack on the ass and told her to get her head in the game!!! She could do this!!
Finally, I offered up my soul on a platter and said “Katie, I will run with you.” I zoomed home, grabbed an extra pair of her running spandex and sneakers, and zoomed back – knowing exactly where she would have the hardest time running. The marathon hit mile 21 right in front of West Penn Hospital, which my family and I hadn’t even been able to force ourselves to drive past, nonetheless jog past in the last 6 months. I parked the car, ran to the curb, waited, and gave myself a little internal pep talk. This couldn’t be so bad, right? It was just the last 5 miles! I’ll be fine!!!!
We started off great. Relaxed easy strides. One. Two. One. Two. I hummed some gangsta rap music in my head to get the adrenaline flowing. This wasn’t so bad…and then…CRAMP!!!!!! My uterus decided that it hated my intestines, who obviously told my stomach to go suck it. There was a water break coming up and my sister recommended taking a glass, but we were right in front of The Church Brew Works and drunk kids were trying to hand out beer! This seemed like a much better option. If I was drunk I wouldn’t be able to feel the pain that was about to assault me!
She went to the left, I went to the right, we both grabbed two cups of liquid, but you can guarantee mine tasted better! My cramps immediately dissipated and/or I got drunk and we continued on in our journey.
After running for FOREVER (it was actually a mile and a half) I began to feel fatigued and begged my sister to walk. This was LUDICROUS! I was EXHAUSTED! I hadn’t ran farther than a mile in my life! I saw that the next checkpoint was coming up and told her that I would be right back. I jogged over to find gel on tongue compressors and thought to myself “Awesome. I have ALWAYS wanted to know what the hell that energy gel tastes like! It was so nice of them to take it out of the packets and have it ready for us!”
I licked it off and began moving it around my mouth, finding it rather difficult to swallow. My sister quickly met up with me and asked me what the hell I was doing. I replied that I had ate the energy gel off of the tongue compressor and that the makers of it sure needed to get their shit straight because this crap was hard to digest! I opened my mouth to demonstrate to her what I meant and her jaw dropped. She laughed for a solid 5 minutes before replying: “Seriously? Thats not energy gel, thats vaseline to put on places that are getting chaffed.” Bile rose in my mouth only to be blocked by the vaseline that filled my throat. I gagged a few times, literally wiped the vaseline out of my mouth with my finger, and we continued on.
We were closing now towards the end of the race. People lined the sides of the road in throngs, cheering and screaming at the runners to “KICK ON!” “YOU GOT IT!!!!!” I felt the adrenaline rushing through my veins. My sisters speed began to pick up as she felt the finish line closing in on her. I picked up speed next to her, arms outstretched, chest held high, when suddenly she stopped me and said “NO. Carleigh. You do NOT get to cross the finish line. You did NOT run this marathon.” I was crushed.
She took off in front of me with only a few hundred feet left to go. I slowly ambled back up to a jog, looking around awkwardly for another option, an escape of some sort. The entire race was roped off to keep spectators out, and there was no break in the line until you got to the finish line, where there was a tiny gap on either size of the huge stage to run across. I picked up speed and ran straight for the hole, only to hear people on either side start to panic “NOOOOOOO – She’s MISSING THE FINISH LINE!! STOP HER!!” “OH NO!! THAT POOR GIRL JUST RAN 26 MILES AND FORGOT TO CROSS THE FINISH LINE!!!!” I didn’t know what to do, so I creepily walked back through the hole, and sprinted across the finish line out of sheer awkwardness. The crowd erupted! The marathon organizers handed me my completion medal, patting me on the back and congratulating me for the victory that I had accomplished!!!! I was a CHAMPION!!!!!!
We slowly began making our way back to the car, medals around our necks, people congratulating us along the way. I made sure to thank every person who congratulated me on my hard work, dedication, and superb athleticism – I HAD in fact run 6 miles, and for a sloth like me, that was about the hardest thing I had EVER done. I deserved the praise!!!! My sister glared at me at first, shook her head at me towards the end, but was quickly vindicated when every stride to the car deteriorated my body just a little bit more. By the time we got home I was unable to walk, could barely stomach food, and was strapping ice packs to every muscle in my body. It was one of the worst feelings of my life, and I swore to myself that I would never run a 6 mile marathon again!! But every now and then I pull out that dusty old medal and pat myself on the back because I, Carleigh Fedorka, supposedly ran a marathon.
When I was 12 years old I was asked the hardest question of my young life: western, or english. See, up until this point I had the “It Pony” Chocolate. Also affectionately known as “The Devil,” “Spawn of Satan,” or simply “Bucker.” Chocolate was an amazing little 11hh mutt of a pony who did it all: he jumped, he did western pleasure, we drove, we barrel raced, we did 4-H, USPC, you name it – he could do it…with only 1, 2, or maybe 400 outbreaks of bucking in between. If I hadn’t been the ripe young age of 5 when I got him, I would have sounded like a drunken Irishmen while riding on a daily basis.
But at the age of 12, I hit my HUGE growth spurt!!!!!!!! I went from the midget size of 4’6 to the HUMONGOUS 5’2. My MerylMadonna sat me down and instructed me to pick a team! Did I want rhinestones and silver? Or did I want to gallop over 6′ fences?
Obviously, being the 12 year old with Olympic dreams, I picked this:
So we began horse shopping. Looking for a large pony who was not only athletic enough to handle my cowgirl mentality but also nice enough to take me over the puissance walls that I envisioned in my mind turned out to be harder than we thought, and we soon decided to journey to the Virginia Hunter and Bloodstock Auction to further our search! I was a nauseous mess the entire way down – I pictured paints, bays, chestnuts, and grey’s. My future conquests that my pony and I would take on: PONY finals, Rolex, most likely my A rating in Pony Club, ya know, the standard for the 12 year old who had spent the last 7 years getting bucked off in western pleasure.
We arrived at the auction after an 8 hour drive, anxious and excited only to realize that there were only 2 large ponies, one of which was 24 and the other of which couldn’t steer.
My MerylMadonna mother and trainer shoo’d me away, exhausted from the drive and the stress, annoyed at the *banter* that I had been battering them with for the past 28 hours, and *possibly* hung over from the dinner the night before. I began to wander around the auction looking awestruck at the line of gorgeous dappled warmbloods and thoroughbreds when suddenly our eyes met:
I sprinted to my mother and grabbed her by the arm, jumped up and down for her attention, and threw a grade A temper trantrum. I HAD to have him. We were SOUL mates. It didn’t matter that he was 7, had little to no training, and was skin and bones, he was BEAUTIFUL. Approximately 4 hours later, after arguing with my trainer that I COULD ride him, I DID need him, he WAS perfect, and my NAME was actually Karen O’Connor, donating my entire life savings of $378 from my first communion, and convincing my mother that my father would NOT divorce her for this, this majestic bay thoroughbred became mine. He was blanketed with the 68″ show sheet that we had brought to adorn my new large pony, and bandaged to the fetlock with the shipping wraps that we had brought from home, he was loaded up and sent back to Pennsylvania. I got into the car on March 21st, 1998 and thought “Olympics 2000, HERE I COME!”
Fast forward 24 hours later, and my olympic mount unloaded himself from the trailer with such potential, athleticism, presence, and ….
I had officially entered into thoroughbred land.
What happened over the next 12 years was what I like to now refer to as Thoroughbred 101:
Lesson Number 1: When you put a 75 lb 12 year old on a 7 yo OTTB, he will think she is a jockey. Do not encourage parents to attend competitions if they have pre existing heart conditions:
Lesson Number 2: Teach the 12 year old girl with stars in her eyes that blue ribbons will not exist for 1, 2, or maybe even 20 years. She better learn to love green. Oh, and it’s never the judges fault, just your own.
Lesson Number 3: Little girls who fall in love with thoroughbreds should really love grooming, mucking stalls, braiding, and walking, because 50% of the time you’re horse is going to convince himself that he is lame, and you will be hoofing it along side of him instead of astride him.
Lesson 4: If you just put in the time, sweat, tears, $560,908 in treatments, clinics, and feed, and about 7 years, you will get the horse of your dreams
Levi would eventually get me through my first love and my first heart break, fights with my parents and fights with my siblings, new friendships gained and old friendships lost. Unlike most fathers, my dad actually prayed that I would find boys and sell Levi, but no relationship tore me away, and then as repayment, Levi got me through every never-ending day of my father’s illness.
Which brings me to Lesson 5: If you give a 12 year old horse-crazed girl a thoroughbred, the thoroughbred will give her his heart.
So until something else traumatic happens to me, a la yesterday, I shall give you a bit of backstory into my life and just why I have turned into the slightly awkward, boisterous, and at times inappropriate human being that I am. I was raised by two stellar individuals: my father – a basketball playing, fly fishing, Miller lite drinking surgeon who resembled a young Chevy Chase
and my mother – a petite cheerleader, who was at times a little flirty, a little loud, but maintained her looks in only a way that I can hope to, all whilst resembling a cross breed between Madonna circa 1984 (its in the hair)
and a Meryl Streep in her Mama Mia phase
(it’s in the way she holds that wine glass). My childhood was pretty idyllic on paper. I was raised as one of three children on a dead end street, where the crime rate was at about the “My Child Accidentally Urinated on your Petunia’s” level. We were surrounded by pets; cats, dogs, rabbits, hermit crabs, tadpoles, ponies (good lord, now I know why I have so much debt due to my bills from Hallway Feeds, thanks mom and dad). Which brings me to one of my most defining memories: my first pony.
Let me start this story by saying that father Chevy did not like horses. Not only did he not like horses, but we learned later on in life that he ABHORRED horses, but my mother MerylMadonna was a raised a good ol’ member of the local hunt club.
So she persuaded him, reluctantly, to let her buy us kids a pony! It started off glamorously, as all little girls dream of: Christmas Morning, Santa leaves you a note under the tree to venture out over the hills and through the woods to Cochranton, PA and you will find this:
We were ecstatic! A REAL Shetland Pony!!!! Named Shana! Images of cuteness ran through my mind: Shana galloping over pasture fences, Shana rearing up in elegance, Shana lovingly hugging me with her neck, Shana running up to me adoringly when I called to her! Ribbons! Trophies! Money! Prestige!
MENTAL GOOD SHANA:
THE REALISTIC SHANA:
What occurred next I will try to explain. Instead of galloping fences, I got this.
Instead of winning trophies, I got this.
Our love affair was brief. It ended abruptly one day at the ripe young age of five when my mother suggested that we go on a trail ride together. We tacked Shana up, she gave me a leg up, and off we went to explore my grandparents farm. Birds chirped, rabbits sang to me, field mice made me a gown with glass slippers, oh, wait, sorry, my name is NOT Cinderella, when suddenly a large, fire breathing half zombie/half dragon, life sucking demon came running at us out of nowhere!!!!!!!!!!!
What came next I will never be able to explain: I VAULTED from Shana’s back and was knocked unconscious, my mother fled in fear, and Shana turned to me, sprouted a unicorn horn, and reared up in bravery to protect me from the fanged monster!
I will let you hypothesize what truly happened next before she was loaded onto a stock trailer and sent down the street to some amish kids to torture, but in the meantime, I shall leave you with my true inner voices picture of what my ideal Shetland should be. Thank you, and good night.
Ahhh…so here I go, finally taking ahold of the reins of something that I have threatened to do for years: write a blog. All of you reading this can thank my manfriend, as he has now “promised” (this will never happen) me that he would quitting sucking on cancer sticks if I gave up my own life-killing addiction, el book a la face, on which I proclaimed that if I had to give up my oxygen-giving statuses and blood circulating photo’s, I shall have to find another outlet for my slightly self-centered, mostly pathetic, outlet into others worlds. I should start by saying don’t worry folks – this blog will instruct you of nothing, will not be used to spread gossip and drama, and will probably at most times be simplistic and mostly boring stories about the zoo that I like to call my life.
Moving on to story number one. Today, my manfriend, shall we call him Ricardo for now, instructed me to take the “heathens” for their “exercise.” He knew that I would be chomping at the bit to take my new horse (don’t worry – you’ll be hearing plenty about him later) on a ride due to the weather finally breaking into the “should probably start shaving” degrees, and decided that I should multitask and get the energy out of a plethora of our brood. I hesitantly agreed, knowing which two he spoke of:
Bailey, the female “Marley”
and Cool Dude Woodford
Unfortunately, he forgot to prepare me for the most important ingredient in this recipe: my truck. The other options? A “gently used” BMW 328i, that while fun to be used to race around the backroads of Paris, KY, is really not what I would call the perfect vehicle to transport Heathen A and Heathen B to the farm. But like any brave eventer, I strapped my Charles Owens helmet and Tipperary vest on, loaded the children up, and shifted into 3rd….um, I mean reverse (Sorry, Ricardo) and set off on my way.
and quickly pulled into the most nearby gas station that I could find. Luckily, they had the liquid gold that Lord Luke, um I mean Ricardo, requires to be put into his “baby” so I quickly hopped out, paid that $4,098,302,300 dollars to fill the tank, and softly began humming “Baby Got Back.” The sun was shining, I was finally wearing a clean bra (laundry day!!), my half chaps zipped all of the way up due to a lack of long underwear, and I was off to ride my faithful steed – LIFE WAS GOOD!
I turned on my heel, ready to set off for the final 0.2 miles to the farm, and reached for the door handle. I pulled. Nothing. I pulled harder. Still Nothing. I was locked out. I peered in to see this face:
(obviously the face of innocence had decided to dress herself this day.) I reached for my back pocket, ready to speed dial Ricardo and have him come ride in on his white stallion (eh, hem – my truck) only to grab air. My phone was tucked gently under Miss Piggy’s paw, right above the lock button. I began to hyperventilate. Slow down. Breathe Carleigh. Lamaze breathe. Just like in Snooki and Jwoww. I looked around to find the most harmless looking person (ie the one with the most teeth, you’re in Paris now) and met eyes with a nice older gentlemen and his wife. I put on my best dumb blonde face:
and begged for his cell phone. I quickly dialed Ricardo’s number: Ring. Ring. Ring. “Hello Anastasia” (That’s obviously my name, I’m dating someone named Ricardo). I debriefed him on the subject. His response? “Try to either climb in through the truck, or have Bailey step on the lock button again.” This is the dog that I have been trying to train to shake for three years. She learned to sit, lie down, and stay in about a day – but quickly became bilingual, and then unilingual, and now simply speaks Spanish. That option was out. I was obviously going to have to climb in through the trunk.
I peered in, ready to end this already extremely awkward moment of my life, only to see that this “hole” in the trunk that I was supposed to fit into was about the size of my pinky. I took a deep breath in, got a running start, and dove…
And wiggled. And wiggled some more. Meanwhile, the entire time that my muffin top prevented my entrance into the car, my face was being assaulted by this:
I felt a quick tap on my calf, and wiggled back out only to see the saintly face of a man that I knew from the thoroughbred sales and his 10yo daughter. He offered to have her climb in through the small hole, obviously taking in my predicament. I gladly obliged and moved to the front of the car to distract Miss Piggy from mauling the poor child and causing my ((SECOND)) police report due to her poor behavior around children. As the small (she was the same size as my midget self) child maneuvered around desperate to reach the lock button, Heathen A miraculously shifted, placed all of her weight onto my ((brand new, unbroken, unscratched, white) phone, and I heard the most beautiful noise I thought I would ever hear:
Bottling my inner cheerleader bouncing up and down, I walked to the back and quickly filled the small group that had assembled around my car of this newest happening. Shame, guilt, utter joy, embarrassment, anger, and victory all churned together as I calmly closed the trunk, shook hands with the nice gentleman and his child, climbed into my car and drove off. Once a decent distance from the crowd and not within view of ASPCA, I turned around and glared at both heathens, ready for an attack, but only to be met with these faces:
Sigh. I guess they shall live to cause me anguish yet another day.