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?
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
In January of 2014, I had that amazing opportunity to travel to Hamilton, New Zealand to present my research at an international conference on equine reproduction. To say it was a once in a lifetime chance would put it lightly. I met some amazing people, made some fantastic connections, and was able to have my “debutante ball” into this scientific community go quite well, I believe. Unfortunately, on my travels back home into the States, I had the unfortunate mishap of losing my passport on the airplane that brought us in from Auckland to San Francisco. I was quickly escorted into the detainment area and held for questioning. The questions began smoothly: what was my name? Date of birth? City where I was born? They then progressed into questions that most would find simple, but I found emotionally startling: where were my mother and father born? Drained from 15 hours of flying along with the mental fear of not being allowed to continue on to Lexington (what do they even do to you? I didn’t want to find out), I felt tears began to trickle down my cheeks as I told the officer words you probably shouldn’t admit during detainment: I. Don’t. Know.
How could I not know my father’s history? It is simply put: he was adopted. For many this is just a simple conversation piece, but for me it triggers so many emotions. The obvious fear of not getting into the country, sadness at not knowing my heritage and ancestry, but more importantly anger at a woman, more specifically a grandmother, that I will not only never meet, but also resent for the entirety of my life.
My father, in retrospect, on paper, and in real life, was an amazing man. He was tender hearted, boisterous, fun loving, shy, and exuberant all in one. He was the best of friends, the most dedicated husband, and the consumate “Dad”. I found out that he had been adopted when I was in my teens – it was always something that he didn’t want to speak about, and I quickly came to understand that for his generation, it was believed to be something that was not shouted off the rooftops. I never understood this, some of my best friends were adopted and they wore that title proudly – it was something that we spoke of fearlessly and with excitement. It made them different; unique. But for my father is was something he held close. Fast forward only a few years later and his adoption was brought front and center into our lives; something that he would not longer be able to avoid. He had been battling leukemia for almost eight months when we were informed that his original bone marrow transplant had not worked and he was no longer in remission. All of us in the immediate family had been tested to see if we were a match, only to be dismayed that none of us were. Children were notoriously bad matches due to the fact that only half of their genetic material came from their parent, and spouses were even less likely due to obvious genetic reasons. The best possibility for a patient requiring bone marrow was to have a sibling, or someone with as close to genetic compatibility, be their donor. For my father, this forced him to come head first towards one of his most trying qualities: his adoption.
We began the process of tracking down his mother, knowing that this was no longer a generational gap that could be ignored, but as our last stitch effort to get him the cells that could make him well – that could make him LIVE. We were told through the legal system that his biological mother was still alive, but advised to send a lawyer to meet with her to inquire about any other children that may be able and willing to literally save someone’s, more specifically my fathers, life.
Fast forward five and a half years. As tears drip down my cheeks and I nervously chew on my lip, I was forced to say “I don’t know.” Five years ago I found out that my biological grandmother was alive, but I also found out that I could be genetically related to the most heartless of people. I will never know where my father was actually born, or if he had siblings who were a genetic match to him. I will never know if he would have made a joke to me while walking me down the aisle, or if he would have spoiled my future children rotten by taking them to Boxcar Barney’s and buying a triple scoop of cookie dough. His biological mother refused to participate with us. She refused to tell us if she had other children, or even if she herself was a match. In effect, she refused to acknowledge my father as her child and refused to acknowledge that the outcome of his battle with leukemia was officially on her hands. Three months later my father lost his battle.
I was blessed with 22 years with an amazing father. I have now been blessed with five years of learning how to live on my own two feet. My trip to New Zealand was one of those moments where I was forced to experience the highest of highs only to be leveled down to the lowest of lows. I wanted nothing more than to call my father when I found out I was accepted to the conference, and have him edit my abstract. I wanted his scientific mind to watch as I rehearsed my presentation, and his support as I traveled off of the continent for the first time. But instead I made it through all of that on my own two feet, with the support of an amazing group that I have surrounded myself by in these past five years. I know that genetically I may be related to someone I will resent for the entirety of my life, but that she also provided me with the man that has ushered me to where I am today.
I got through customs be answering the other 98% of their questions, and was greeted by my fellow travelers who jabbed my shoulder and giggled at the fact that I was still able to get through detainment faster then their foreign visa’s got them through their custom’s. I looked around and giggled, realizing that I had officially completed my trip to my first conference in equine reproduction. I got there because of the girl my father raised, by I survived it, and the ride home, because of the woman I had become.
It was March 16th of last year. One of the first balmy days in Lexington, Kentucky that makes all of the fair weather riders flock to the barn. As I was riding I received a text message from my boyfriend letting me know that one of his mares was foaling. I dismounted, untacked, and calmly headed to his farm, knowing that everything was in the best hands capable – Luke had foaled thousands of mares – he was one of the best “foaling men” I had ever had the privilege to work with. I arrived at the barn to see him standing in the aisleway, amnionic fluid covering his pants, and his hands streaked with mucous and blood.
“He’s out. Mare never laid down. I had to catch the damn foal” He stated with a grumble.
I looked at him with an exasperated glare before peering over the stall door. “Another bay colt, I’m sure you’ll get attached to this one as well.” Hearing this, I gently smacked him on the arm – but he knew me too well, I do have a slight predisposition for bays.
Suddenly the mare started screaming out of her stall in a panicked tone, running at the wall, and our moment of solitude was broken. I quickly let myself into the stall to grab a hold of her halter while he pulled up a syringe full of Banamine, knowing that many mares became distressed post foaling. But this time it didn’t work. The mare began throwing herself into the wall, and the foal laid in the straw – completely helpless. We quickly glanced at each other and knew that we were on to option B – we were moving onto Emergency Mode. A phone call was made to the vet, and the foal was moved to a neighboring stall. I attempted to restrain the mare while calmly whispering to her in singsong, but she began tossing herself to the ground with more force, and my boyfriend quickly pulled me out of the stall. We sedated her in the hopes of her not injuring herself, but there was little more that we could do: help was on the way, banamine was in her system, and the foal was safely next door.
For minutes we stood in the aisleway, never saying a word. The mare laid on her side, her belly noticeably contracting and tense, but mostly sedate. I opened the stall door and walked around her, checking to see if she had finally passed her placenta. But instead of the glistening red velvety tissue that we are so familiar with, I saw a pale color. The coloring left my own face and I turned to my boyfriend, urgently telling him that we needed to get the mare UP. He looked at me quizzically, questioning why I was demanding anything of him, especially since this was his farm and his mare, but he trusted me and listened. As he pulled the mare to her feet, I simply, and quietly said “she’s prolapsed” as I gave him a knowing glance while I rushed passed him to get the supplies from the tack room that we would need.
We got the mare to her feet and began washing the expelled uterus with extra bags of saline fluids found in the tack room, left over from days gone by. I desperately attempted to push the cleansed tissue back through the lips of her vulva, but with every fold pushed in, two more would come out. We would finally get the entire uterus in, hoping that the mare standing and gravity would keep it in place, only to have her throw herself to the ground and expel it once more. We knew that a trip to the clinic was our only hope, but as Luke began to dial the phone, blood came pouring out of her and into my hands, and we knew she was gone. Her artery was unable to take the stress of the uterus pulling on it and had finally ruptured, pulsated out deep, rich blood. She bled out and died a few moments later, while we stared in horror knowing there was absolutely nothing we could do. Having been delayed by rush hour traffic, the vets arrived as she was bleeding out, with no chance of saving her.
I slid down the front of the stall and stared off into the aisleway, desolute at the fact that we had lost her. I lowered my head into my hands, just ready for the day to be over when I heard a nicker and suddenly remembered the foal. I shuffled down to the neighboring stall and peered into the find him standing and looking around quizzically, questioning what this world was that he had entered on such bad terms. I heard my boyfriend and the vets dialing their phones, desperate to find a nursemare to raise this perplexed colt, and I began to gently stroke his neck, knowing that with the assistance of a new, albeit different mom, we would get him back on track to become an amazing athlete. There was hope.
These are the reason we as the thoroughbred industry uses nursemares. In the eight years that I have worked on farms, managed farms, and been a part of the the thoroughbred industry, I have used a nursemare FOUR times. Twice was for a mare dying due to a uterine artery bleed/prolapse, and twice because a mare colicked and died on the operating table. So four nursemares used, and approximately 500 mares foaled. Each one was a devastating time on the farm, having lost a beloved and valuable broodmare, and each full of panic and desperation to give the remaining offspring the best life possible. Each time, the nursemare has arrived, and become a loved and integral part of our farm, cared for as well as the million dollar mares that surround her.
The nursemares that I obtained came from the “good guys” – the owners of the farm would raise the nursemare foals and sell them as either riding horses, or keep some to continue their business: the fillies would stay as nursemares, and the colts would be sold to farms as teasers. I have also known many farms to ask to keep the nursemare foals, due to their attachment to the mare and how much of a part of the family she became. Does this leave some unwanted? Yes. Is there a place for the people that rehome these nursemare foals to exists? Certainly. But do they need to lie to the masses in order to obtain funding to do so? No.
I have seen all of these “Nursemare Rescues” claim that EVERY single thoroughbred foal is taken from its dam and placed with a nursemare permanently just in order to send the mares to the breeding shed. An almost comical claim, as it would amount to almost 30,000 nursemare foals needing adoption every year. And shockingly, while they claim 30,000 foals need adopting (or so I assume); as of February 22nd, they had no nursemare foals to adopt out. They use this statement to break the hearts of those who are willing to donate, and in turn, turn them against horse racing and the thoroughbred industry. It is a commonality now that non profits and fundraisers lie to gain funds, and just as we spotlight which of these charities give the most back to research and treatments (LLS) and which pay their CEO millions of dollars (insert many cancer funds here), I think that where the money goes, and why it is needed, should be HONEST statements.
These organizations claim that the nursemare industry is the “dark and hidden demon child” of the thoroughbred industry, and this will only be combatted by transparency and openness – something that I think is coming to the public from us at a steadfast rate. While farms like Winstar open their foaling stalls to the public, and others like Claiborne and Denali alert the public via social media – our rigid stone walls are beginning to crumble. Just recently, an initiative called Horse Country was released under the guidance of Price Bell of Mill Ridge Farm. This united a coalition of farms in the Bluegrass to open their doors to the public and give unedited glimpses of what we are about: raising superb athletes under the guidance of the best professionals and using the most cutting edge science that research has to offer. We are almost there, and it is something that will take honesty, transparency, and winning the hearts of fans, one truth at a time. Hopefully with the help of these groundbreaking things, the public can see for themselves that these horses are raised with love, and not by 30,000 nursemares.
I am a graduate student. Broke. Living primarily off of my boyfriends free housing and affording my horse by selling others, both my own, as well as those owned by thoroughbred breeding farms in Lexington, KY. I have a “one in, one out policy,” no working students, no secretary; a “mom and pop shop” of horse sales if you will. I tend to vent my frustrations with selling horses to my friends, my family, and my fellow horse sellers, but today I was assaulted with the most extreme of bad horse shoppers. Some may call it unprofessional, some may call it ignorant, others may even call it slander, but I simply call it RUDE. Regardless of the scenario, I was quick to be told that “that’s a teenager for ya!” or “those teenagers and their facebook.” And at first I agreed, this issue was simply an immature teenager not understanding how social media can come back to haunt you, but than I had a reality check. I know a LOT of GREAT teenagers in this business, some of which I would say handle themselves with more professionalism than many pro’s that I ride against. I came home and said this to my manfriend, or super significant boyfriend (SSBF from here on out) and he said something that resonated with me: nature vs. nurture. These teenagers that I adore and respect will become adults that I would love to do business with, and these teenagers who are running amuck with no consequences will become the adults that are still unaware of their actions, either be it on social media or not. Here is a Tale of Two Horses (and Two Teenagers) Story.
Today was…interesting to say the least. I was working the Keeneland January sales, parading around short yearlings with the idea that with each step I took, I was one more step towards affording another event this summer. I am living nobodies dream, except for maybe my own. Months ago I had been contacted by a young woman in a plea to try my sales horse Mason – but she was one of probably 50 who have. Nothing about her contact was special, she was local, she wanted a young horse with potential, and her budget was approximately his price. She asked if I was negotiable, I said I was. She asked if I would do payments, I told her that I would have to speak with my co-owner. Weeks would go by before I would hear back from her, and then I would receive another question. But nothing was ever a pressing matter, she never scheduled to see him, and I quite honestly didn’t think she was that serious. It was no sweat off of my back, as he is a SUPER fun horse to be around, I have quite a bit of interest in him, and I was having fun riding him.
Sweet Baby Mason at his first event. Copyright XPress Photo
But then this past week, she finally asked to schedule a time and we agreed on an evening next week. Nothing less, nothing more.
Until today. I was contacted by a fellow “horse seller” who wanted to give me a heads up that this young lady was posting pictures of my Sweet Baby Mason telling the World Wide Web that he had quite a few conformation flaws, and asking THE WORLD if these would effect his career as an eventer. She took my picture, placed it under her name, and ripped him apart.
The picture that she posted.
I quickly contacted her and asked her to please not use my photographs on facebook, as well as letting her know that it was unprofessional that she had posted these negative things about my horse, moreso because she was going off of a photo and hadn’t even seen him in person, EVEN MORESO because she was scheduled to come TRY my horse to potentially BUY him. I attempted to take the high road, explaining to her how this was unprofessional and *possibly* illegal. But as they say, you can’t beat a dead horse, and you can’t fix stupid, and she simply told me that she was doing nothing wrong, flipped her hair (in my mind), and continued on her way. Like everyone had told me, she was being the STEREOTYPICAL TEENAGER. I was quick to write it off as nothing more than that: age and immaturity. Until I remembered the last horse I sold, and thus began the Tale of Two Horses (and Two Teenagers).
In August of this year, I sold a horse that gave me in the out to my new horse in, Sweet Baby Mason. His name was Preston. He was also a 2010 bay thoroughbred, he was also stunning, and he was also going to be a fabulous event horse (I know, I know, I have a type. So shoot me). I had only had him for 3 weeks when I received an email asking for my phone number; a prospective buyer wanted to contact me about him. I gave them my number, and immediately received a phone call. The lady on the other line was professional, she was polite, she asked all of the right questions, and she ended her conversation by asking if she could come try him the following week. We agreed on a time, and I waited impatiently to see if Preston had found his forever person.
Big Boy Preston
I waited anxiously for that Tuesday to arrive, and when it did, I headed to the minivan ready to shake the hand of this lady named Skylar. Certain she would be in her 20’s or 30’s, I was confused when I saw a lady get out, and then a tall, thin, teenager with a big smile and a high ponytail. The teenager walked up to me and said “Carleigh? I’m Skylar!” and I was astonished at her firm handshake. We quickly went over Preston, tacked him up, and I gave her a leg up, letting her get to know the gentle giant.
Skylar trying Preston
As she hacked around, her mother explained to me that she and Skylar’s trainer had decided that if Skylar were going to get a new horse, she needed to have the maturity to look for, and inspect, her future mount. They monitored her every move, but she made every phone call, typed every email, and scheduled all appointments…and at the age of 14. I was astonished. This was not the teenager I had experienced. This was also not a trainer micro-managing every last detail of the horse shopping endeavour, but in exchange for slightly awkward learning curves and some interesting dramatic pauses on the phone, this young lady was learning how to become an adult: one event horse trial at a time.
Skylar and Preston fell in love from the first stride, and after flying through the vetting, she and her mother were quick to swoop him up. I have now gotten to watch them begin their journey together, making it through their first beginner novice together with smiles on their faces.
Skylar is the reason I still have faith in this upcoming class of riders. For every bad egg, like the one I experienced today, there is a Skylar. And more importantly a Treva (her mother) and a Robyn (her trainer) guiding her into adulthood. I have experienced quite a few of these other teenagers as well, the Hayden’s, the Emma’s, the Anna Kate’s, and the Sloane’s. They know who they are, their parents know who they are, their trainers know who they are, and more importantly the industry knows who they are. I hope they can mold their friends and fellow riders into the amazing young women that they are, and maybe, just maybe, the young ladies who aren’t quite coming to terms with professionalism, maturity, and class, will find themselves on a Team Challenge Team, a Pony Club Rally Team, or even Young Rider’s with this clan, and they will be changed as well. The Tale of Two Horse (and Two Teenagers) needs to be less divided, and become one, and I know just the girls to lead the way.
My senior year of college was one of high stress – besides the obvious of taking upper level classes to finish my degree in biology, my father was bravely battling cancer, my vet school applications were due, and my life was one meeting or exam after another – so Christmas Break was like a bright light at the end of a tunnel. My father was on the up-and-up and was told he could spend the holidays at home, and us kids were all venturing back to snowy New York to get as much good family time, great food, and Christmas Cheer in that we possibly could. As part of this, we maintained a tradition that we hold dear to our hearts – we attended the Christmas Eve game at Ralph Wilson stadium and (chilled to the bone) we cheered on our Buffalo Bills! This year it would just be my sister, my brother, and myself, as it seemed a bit risky for my father to sit through the three hour game while immune suppressed, but the game plan was to go cheer the Bills on to a win (ha), and then meet my mother and father at our home in Chautauqua for Christmas Eve mass (hopefully somewhat sober).
It was the best of plans, one full of so much potential happiness and love – and we drove to the stadium bouncing out of our seats and, most importantly HAPPY. The Bills had a good chance of winning, our dad was feeling good and his chemo was done, and we were together – the tight knit family everyone knew us to be. Decked head to toe in our red, white, and blue, we headed to the stadium screaming cheers and smiling ear to ear.
But it wasn’t to be. During the game we received a panicked phone call from our mother saying that our dad had spiked an extremely high temperature and they were racing to Pittsburgh to see his oncologist. She begged us to stay at the game until it was finished, and then go to the lakehouse and pick up our presents – we were doing Christmas in the hospital. Our mood now polarized to the extreme opposite, we sat and watched as the Bills lost to the Giants, loaded our tailgating equipment into my fathers SUV, and began the long trip to Pittsburgh, only stopping at the lakehouse to do the scavenger hunt that was finding our presents and stocking stuffers that our parents had hidden meticulously. Continuing on, I will never forget the drained and defeated looks on our three faces – grief, sadness, and quite a bit of selfish anger as we thought of the Christmas that laid ahead. Instead of our annual picture on the stairs on Christmas morning, we would have the sterile lounge. Instead of a Christmas tree, we would have an IV unit dripping fluids into our fathers arm, and instead of cheer, we would have sadness. Our father was our Santa. He was the jolly one who brought us all together – who bestowed us our extravagant gifts, who made us giggle throughout the morning opening presents – without this light drawing us all in, there was no way that Christmas would be a true Christmas.
We arrived already defeated, all of the Christmas Cheer sucked out of our hearts and souls, only to be met by my mother – with a look of absolute determination on her face. She was adamant – Christmas would still be Christmas. Jobs were assigned – our cliche Christmas breakfast of Monkey Bread was made, stockings were stuffed, a Christmas playlist made on an ipod, presents were loaded to the brim of our SUV, and we were off to West Penn Hospital. We began opening presents, attempting to plaster smiles on our face, hugging our father in thanks while trying not to bump his central line – exchanging glances over his hospital bed, acknowledging that it just wasn’t the same. We were down to the last few presents when my mom asked my 17 year old brother to walk to the lounge and see if there were any more – and he came back in with a GINORMOUS box. Tearing into the wrapping paper, he pulled out a full set of the game “Rock Band” and we quickly began to attempt to assemble it to my fathers hospital issues television.
It was quickly activated and nurses began to gather as we began strumming and drumming along to The Who, David Bowie, and The Foo Fighters. We rotated the instruments, singing loudly and blasting music into the halls, constantly asked by the staff to quiet it down – but we couldn’t be quieted, we were the Fedorka’s. We were loud, we were happy, we were obnoxious, and we didn’t care. We laughed as my father attempted pathetically to drum, giggled as my voice cracked on a high note, and mocked my brother as he pretended he was actually skilled at the guitar. With each note that was faked, our spirits were raised, and we chuckled into the day until it was obvious that our dad was exhausted.
We left the hospital that day to go to our rental home and prepare a Christmas dinner to bring back and eat while watching a Christmas movie with our father, as he was not allowed to be released even for a meal. But as we left, there was a pep in our step, and smiles were on our faces. It didn’t take extravagant gifts, an ornate tree, or even our warm home decorated to the hilt to find Christmas Cheer. All it took was love – and family. Our WHOLE family.
That was the year that I finally learned what Christmas was all about. It was also our last Christmas together. But we still have video’s of our fathers failed attempts at drumming to Suffragette City, and pictures that we can reflect on and smile. So this Christmas Eve, please find that place in your hearts. Not one full of consumer driven angst and worry about money, or traveling, or time spent in anger over old issues and battles within your loved ones. Hug your loved ones, call those who are far away, and please, please, please, for me and my family, have yourself a Merry Little Christmas.