A few months ago, dripping in sweat and battered and bruised, I came home and text messaged my best friend Meghan, telling her that I thought it was time to give Nixon back. He was as close to dangerous as a horse I had worked with, and I just didn’t see myself getting through to him. I had been catapulted into the cement, and concussed and slightly scared, I was ready to admit defeat.
I was prepared for this, because for three months I had been struggling with this horse. I would think we would take 1 step forward, and he would slide 3 steps back. It was the most frustrating training task of my life. And for an amateur who rides alone every day, it was getting to the point of scary.
She wrote back that I couldn’t do it. That this horse was my “Rolex horse”. She started pulling up documentation of some of the greatest in our sport, and how difficult they were. She encouraged, and egged me on, telling me to give it one more week. Maybe one more jump school. One more attempt to get on that trailer. I dropped my head and said “ok.”
I knew that I was this horses only chance. I was part yearling manager, part rodeo cowgirl, part full-fledged amateur eventer, but I was a whole lot of calm and brave. That is how I have gotten through to so many horses. I don’t have a lot of tension in my body on a horse. I enjoy exploring and meandering just as much as they do. And that was what had worked for Nixon on the track. They got him to the G1 level by letting him meander around the backside. So meander we did. I stopped treating him like a sales horse, or a horse heading to a massive show in two months, and started treating him like the ex-racehorse that he was. A horse that had ran only a few months before. A horse who had won $500,000. A horse who knew he was the champion.
He had had an interesting life. A $290,000 yearling, he had ended up with some of the best owners in the business: Marc Ferrell. He went on to win graded stakes races across the country, but found in a $5k claimer 5 years later, Marc had done best for the horse and claimed him, shipping him home. Unfortunately, Nixon had gone down on the trailer on the way and was battered and bruised from the trip. It was not the easiest transition into being a sport horse, to say the least. But we tried.
And it didn’t happen overnight. But slowly, and consistently, this horse, this “recusant maverick who seemed to hold a grievance against the world” as ESPN put it, started to soften. He started to get that lead. He started to load on that trailer. And suddenly, I had a horse that I craved riding every day.
This past weekend, I shipped him into the Kentucky Horse Park for the Retired Racehorse Makeover competition. I had zero expectations, besides the fact that I wanted him to be a good civilian. I knew he would probably have a tense moment or two, maybe a botched lead, or a break in the free walk, but I wanted him to respect me, the fellow horses, and (hopefully) stay in the ring!
But, true to Nixon’s normal form, he had other ideas. A few months ago, I was being interviewed by Melissa Bauer-Herzog and I told her that this horse just seems to love an audience, he THRIVES off of people watching him and cheering him on. Her response? “Well, then maybe he’ll think the makeover is the Olympics and be unbelievable.”….and unbelievable he was.
This horse that was scaring me only a few months ago came into the dressage ring like he had been doing it his entire life. His head came up, his ears perked forward, and he truly danced for the judges.
I am not a dressage rider. I grew up doing western pleasure, switched to eventing, switched to roping, and ended up back as an eventer. My personal best dressage score at a recognized show is a 34. And yet on Saturday, Nixon knocked ten points off of my best. He scored a 74 in his test. A 26 in eventing lingo.
We went back in on Sunday for the freestyle in second place. Nixon was exhausted, I was traumatized by the audience, and felt there was no way we could top off the performance from the previous day. But then I realized something. I had come full circle. At the age of 12, my mother had risked divorce and bought me my first thoroughbred. That thoroughbred had also been scarier than expected, and because of that, I spent 3-4 years just learning dressage. Teaching him how to move, teaching me how to ride. He eventually became the greatest horse of my life, and I had just recently had to say good bye to him this summer.
On Sunday, I felt that horse, that trainer, my mother, and every one else who has followed me on this lifelong journey and lifelong love of this breed as I trotted into the arena and a calmness came over me. I sat up straight, I kept my hands steady, and I smiled. Because I had already won. I had yet another amazing thoroughbred underneath me. A horse that was unrideable only a few months prior. A horse that most wouldn’t have given a chance to. And I was in the finale of America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred Competition.
We won yesterday. At least the dressage discipline, which gave a giggle to so many who know how much I don’t like dressage. But honestly, I’m winning every day. I own two of the most amazing horses in the world. Both are thoroughbreds. Both raced. One successfully, one not. Both teach me how to be a better rider every day. My mom, that same mother that risked her marriage for my first thoroughbred, told me yesterday after watching the live stream that I rode the best I ever have. I told her that Nixon had taught me how to do that. And both now come happily when they’re called. Both blow kisses in my ear when I unwrap a peppermint. And both, to me, are America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbreds.
I went through a really rough time a few weeks ago. There were so many days where I woke up and dreaded what lay ahead. Stress rose up, and happiness sunk down. I spent many hours on the phone with my mother in tears, feeling as though I could speak to no one else. It was a combination of so many things – feeling unsteady in my life, in my future, with my surroundings. Grief always rolled around near the beginning of September, and this was only confounded with my qualifying exam. Exasperated by small things – like a lame horse, a friendship lost, a feeling of desperation at the foreseeable failure. It was the closest to depression I had ever met.
I would sit in my truck, blast music through the speakers, and try to figure out why I was able to process this feeling of loss unlike others. Was it the compartmentalization that I had learned to cope with at a young age? When so many loved ones were ripped from me, and I figured out that life must go on even when you felt absolute pain. Was it my ability to find happiness in even the smallest things? In a beautiful sunset? Mind-numbing lyrics? A stroll through a sun-laden farm full of gorgeous animals?
Or was it my horse? I don’t mean this in the “horses are therapy” cliche that I have stated so often to others. Yes, they are good for the soul and a great way to spend our time. But more-so than this, the barn is an escape. It is 2 to 4, or maybe even 10, hours of metaphorical nothingness. There is no wireless access within these four walls, there is just the slow, mechanical, list of details that need to be accomplished. Soft country music playing from an old stereo. A halter is buckled, cross ties attached, reaching for a hoof, circling hair with a curry, brushing off dust and dander, wiping on fly spray, a saddle pad, and then another. The saddle is swung on, the girth attached. A thumb and then a bit in the mouth, and then a leg over. It is a mind-numbing burial of pain.
When you ride young horses, there is no ability to take the time to check your phone for the lack of a returned text message. There is no time to remember that you don’t quite comprehend that topic that you had studied for the last 8 hours. As Nixon grabbed the bit and pulled, I was unable to check Facebook to see if that lost friend had posted another status that I felt was targeted at me. While Mak struggled to lengthen his canter to the left, I focused only on my seat, and not on my life. All I had was myself, my horses, and the music that always plays from my phone.
That was my therapy. For blissful hours, I felt I had the excuse of no response. No interruption. No worries of the future. It was simply a leg yield, transitions, supple this way and supple that. Minutes drifted away, and time passed. I entered no shows during this time. I kept my horses to myself, and treasured that escape at the end of the day. There was no need to compound the stress that I was already experiencing. I started to tell myself as I woke up and dreaded the day, that at least at the end, there was this light at the end of the tunnel.
Things are now looking up. I passed my exam. I made it through another anniversary of my father’s death. I found true acceptance and love from the friends that held me through this time. And I got through the weeks of unhappiness through this escape. I am so blessed to have this in my life. These horses and the therapy that they give me.
I recently heard some criticism of my blog and it’s “message” and yet again felt the need to discontinue my writing. I don’t do well with criticism. I have finally acknowledged that this is one of the great stressors in my life. This is what forces me to do well in so many aspects of life, but it also leads to a fear of failure. But then I realized something. Just as these animals nurture me, so does my writing – acting as a way for me to convey the honesty of life. Social media is able to twist so much – allowing many to believe that all of us live in perfect bubbles of rainbows and butterflies. And this blog is my platform to acknowledge that although many things in the world around us are amazing and beautiful – there are also moments of extreme pain in between. And I hope that everyone is able to have that escape that I blog about. Whether it be through music, a beautiful sunset, or the therapy of these 4-legged creatures that we surround ourselves with. Take it. Grab it between your fingers. Breathe it in. Reassess where your sadness comes from. Compartmentalize. And then heal. For if I’ve learned anything from life, its that nothing is more healing than a good song, a beautiful sunset, and a long hack on a favorite horse.
Eight years ago, I experience the worst summer of my life. It was the worst summer for entire family. Our emblem of strength and unity was quickly fading away, and it quickly became a catalyst for Murphy’s Law. Our father wasn’t just losing his battle to cancer, we were losing our battle with life. My father was a surgeon, graduated valedictorian from his class at Boston University, and not only knowledge, but an education were paramount to him. But as his health deteriorated, so did our degrees.
I was the first. My summer was spent watching my father get poisonous drugs pumped into his system, all the while receiving one rejection letter after another from the top veterinary schools in the country. My sister was next. She decided that in order to spend as much time as possible with my father, she would take a year off from medical school. Something that was so unlike Katie, yet something that she deemed so necessary. She was not a quitter, and we feared that if our father were to pass, she would never return. And then there was my young brother. He was heading into his freshman year at the University of Rochester. We sent someone to get him during his very first week of classes and drive him back to Pittsburgh just to watch my father take his last breath. Afterwards, we demanded that he take the year off and regroup, but he was adamant that he continue. He said it was what Dad would have wanted, but that first year, and then the next, and the next, he sank instead of swam. He never got himself out of that first week.
For eight years now, we have rebuilt. It took a few years to walk erect. It took a few years to get back on track. But with each morning, each step, and each sunset, we forged on. Some days were horrible. There were nights spent calling our mother in desperation. Our “Department Chair” was gone. He was who we sent papers to. He was who called the night before a big exam to wish luck. He understood deadlines. He understood applications. He understood education. But he left, and we were left with each other. We became each others champions. It took a long time, but we became a team again. We became The Fedorka’s; albeit Part Two.
This didn’t truly come to fruition until these past two weeks. It all started with my brother sending a group text out to us. He had been accepted to law school. It only took eight years, a lot of frustrated nights, some tears, an arrest, and many angry phone calls. But he did it. He entered into Syracuse University’s School of Law last week. My mother was able to be there for his convocation, and we were so proud.
And then my sister rose to the challenge. She began her fellowship in orthopedic surgery at Harvard, having returned to medical school after that year off. She was waiting on abated breath for her results from her boards. We all were. So when my phone beeped on Thursday morning, with another family group message, I knew before reading that it was big news. She had passed boards. She was officially a board certified orthopedic surgeon. One doing a fellowship at Harvard. Eight years, a deferment, and a lot of late nights later, she had followed into our father’s foot steps and it had lead to greatness.
But that left me in a state of turmoil. Her text message had arrived on the biggest day of my academic career. My path had not gone in the classical way that my father had wanted. Years of rejection from veterinary school had lead me to the Thoroughbred racing industry, and a career as a farm manager. I had been pressured and manipulated into returning to school as a masters student, and then a doctoral student, and on this day, I was taking my qualifying exam. It was thought to be the most stressful aspect of any doctorate degree. Worse than writing your thesis, MUCH worse than defending; it was the pivotal moment. Pass, and you got the green light towards a defense. Fail, and you were out. At best, you took it again in 6 months to a year. At worst, you defended a masters, and left with a lesser degree.
The wheels began to spin. My siblings had set the bar so high. My brother was in law school, succeeding along the path he and my father had chosen. My sister was boarded, she was a doctor, something she and my dad had bonded so intensely over. And then there was me. I was back to being the “free spirit.” My path was unethical. I was not becoming the veterinarian that we had agreed upon at the age of 8. I had rerouted to a doctorate in veterinary sciences. But I was petrified of failing. Not even so much for myself. I love so much more about life than just science. My life would continue on without a degree. But the pressure was on for another reason: my father. For even 8 years later, his ambition, his drive, and his passion for us kids to be the best we could be, was still so evident. And my siblings were rising to this challenge. I felt as if I failed, it would be like winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness for my father, and then losing the Belmont. Maybe even with a DNF next to my name.
If I passed, it would be a triumvirate of success. An acknowledgement to the greatness he created. A head nod to the legacy he left. So many late nights being quizzed, so many papers being edited, so many college visits he attended. But if I failed, it was just another check on the failure list. Right next to the vet school applications. I text messaged my best friend that morning and said that I was already in tears. That the weight on my shoulders was too great. I told her that I missed my father more than anything at this exact moment. He was the only person I wanted to talk to. He was the only one that could talk me off of this ledge. But I couldn’t. I wasn’t afraid of my committee. I was afraid of disappointing my already deceased father.
But then the text messages, Facebook posts, and phone calls began pouring in. I attempted to stare at my notes while my phone pinged. So many amazing people lending me THEIR strength, and their courage. So many of them had been there with me 8 years ago, doing exactly this same thing. Supporting my weight. And others had been placed in my life since then. Lifting me up from my fall. I know they were each brought in for a reason. It might be for exactly this day.
I entered the exam with my head held high. I reminded myself that my father had taught me to be an analytical thinker. My grandfather had taught me to be an elegant speaker. My mother had taught me to be a horsewoman. And my advisor had taught me to be a great reproductive physiologist. I just needed those four things. They didn’t need to be in the room with me for these four things to shine. That is the whole point in being a great teacher, or mentor. You instill these traits into your students, and then you push them into the world, hoping that your lesson plan had worked.
I left the exam feeling like a weight had been lifted. My advisor walked out after a few moments of deliberation beaming, and let me know I had passed. I was officially a PhD candidate. I got the green light.
I walked down the hall, picked up my phone, and scrolled through my numbers, acknowledging that I wanted nothing more than to call my father. Instead, I called my mom. All three of her children had succeeded. The legacy was intact. I knew at that moment that this time would have been my father’s proudest. Moreso than any wedding, any mortgage signed, any news article. He held education at the highest. And his children had risen to the challenge. His legwork had succeeded. His passion that was instilled in us from birth had remained. The Fedorka Triple Crown had been won.
I’m tired. There is this feeling of worthlessness that enters my body every time that I sign on to the internet, every time that I click open on the comments section of one of my blogs, every time that I go home to Meadville, Pennsylvania, and am barraged by questions about the industry that I love so much. Today it was slaughter houses, last week it was a high name event trainer assuming that my retired racehorse was neglected on the track, a month ago it was that damn PETA video resurfacing, and 6 months ago it was the lies and false accusations about the nurse mare industry. But what do all of these have in common? They come from horse people: people that should know better, or know otherwise, but don’t.
It is the same story: I hear or read a falsity about this industry, I become enraged, and I begin to type or speak. Whether it be via a comment, a Facebook status, a blog, or a tirade of a conversation. But with each conversation, whether it be face to face or over the World Wide Web, I begin to feel like my words are worthless. That it is my word against theirs, and that there is NOTHING to back me up. I realize that I have such little clout. I am not the Mosses, Larry Bramlage, or Bob Baffert. I don’t manage a massive breeding operation or a shedrow at a successful track. I hung up my pitchfork and returned to school to obtain my doctorate, and with that, I hung up my street cred. The name “Carleigh Fedorka” does not ring bells, unless it is said in Lexington, Kentucky, and usually adjoined to the words “wants a new project horse” or “is available to work the sales.” That name tacked onto the comments section gets dismissed and overlooked by the people scrolling the comments; instead, they see the other thousand comments telling lies, falsities, and exaggerations about this industry that I cherish so much.
And after the defense that I lay down is overlooked – a defense that I have studied for, worked for, and perfected after years of living with lawyers – I am left feeling enraged. But I have recently realized that my anger has shifted. It is not pointed towards the people who elocute these falsities, because, honestly, who could blame them? They read something on the internet, something as ridiculous as the idea that we pull every mare off of her foal to be bred back and the foals are placed with nurse mares, leaving THOUSANDS of unwanted “nursemare foals.” They see cute pictures of skinny paint foals, they see hundreds of comments demeaning the thoroughbred industry, and they suddenly believe those words as gospel. And when people question this lunacy, the masses have that website, and those sad eyes, to back up their statement. And what do I have? I have my words. My thoughts. My opinions. And my lack of street cred.
My anger has shifted towards the industry that I love. Because beyond me there is an industry of hundreds of thousands of people who so boisterously say that they want change. That say that they understand that this industry needs to grow and develop if we want it to survive. Who spend millions of dollars every year to advertise the races, to promote the game, and who are so dense that they don’t realize that this industry that we love is being killed by things as simple as social media.
There are 200,000 people who “like” the Last Chance Corral. That is 200,000 people who will never go to the races or the sales because they believe that this “sick and twisted” industry pulls 30,000 nursemare foals off of their dams just so that their dams can nurse a “more valuable” foal. There are thousands of people who demand “bail money” for the thoroughbreds who inhabit the auction houses of America. Claiming that these racehorses are overpopulating the slaughterhouses, making the mass public think that they are the only breed at New Holland. These same people have infiltrated social media with comments where they are CERTAIN that American Pharoah himself is heading to slaughter. This is not to mention the 3 million people who “like” PETA, which is self explanatory. And these people share these lies, and these lies get shared again and again and again, and soon go viral.
And what do we do? The “old boys club” of this gallant industry that I stand with? Well, the industry is so focused on Lasix, and Polytrack, and the format of Book 1 at the Keeneland September Sales, that they dismiss these nuisances that are so “insignificant” to them. They assume that by ignoring these comments that they will simply go away, but instead of going away, they are TURNING AWAY millions of people who could, and would, eventually become fans. Horse people who might actually learn to love what we do. Who might eventually invest in a broodmare or two, or want to come to the Breeder’s Cup. Who would learn to love this industry just as I have, who might buy a couple hundred acres, and then pass on this love to their children, and grandchildren. The effect could grown exponentially in either direction – and right now, its growing away from us.
There is so much great about this industry, so much that goes unadvertised to the masses. So here is what I ask to be thrown into the loop of these meetings of the greats. Do we need a governing body to control things like race day medications and rehoming of racehorses who are finished with their first careers? Yes. We need someone to finally stand up and administer regulations that keeps our sport clean and fair, and most importantly, that takes care of the horses and staff in it. But to add to that, keep one office open in that building that I’m sure will be erected in Lexington, Kentucky. And on the door of that office, hang a sign that reads “Public Relation’s.” Because on top of the physical changes that need to be made to this industry, we need a mental change. A mindset that realizes how global news has become, and how bad press can travel so quickly. We need a strong governing body, but one that has a strong governing VOICE. And that voice needs to come from someone who not only gets it, but also who has a bit of clout. With an emblem behind them that people can trust and respect. That is what I wish for this industry, because this name has neither of those, and this pedestal is starting to crack.
To the outside world, my life appears to be one adventure after the next. I am working on obtaining my doctorate, I have an amazing man in my life, numerous animals who love me that I spend every extra moment with, and a group of amazing friends, both near and far, who constantly lure me on adventures. My family, or what remains of them, are all healthy and happy…for the time being. Because that is mentality that we live with. We appreciate the good times, but are constantly waiting for the floor to drop out from underneath us. It leaves us with severe anxiety, quite a bit of cynicism, and a lot of anger.
It all starts with the diagnosis. Finding out that you might lose a loved one. That there is only a 23% chance that your life will remain normal. I remember the day after finding out my father was diagnosed with leukemia, I went to my advisors office to tell him that I would be missing a week of class. I was going to be traveling to Pittsburgh in order to see my newly-diagnosed, cancer-ridden father. He gave me one piece of advice: “Stay off of the internet Carleigh. Nothing good will come of it.” But what did I, and the rest of my family do? We ran to google. In the search box: “Chances of surviving AML.” Click Enter. Within 0.03 seconds my life was transformed. The odds were not in his favor. There were no new treatments to give us hope. But soon after the initial diagnosis was given, and the central line was put in, life, for the most part, returned to normal. I returned to school and tried to maintain normalcy as a senior in college. But with each smile, or laugh, or glass of wine with my girlfriends, guilt would soon follow. Guilt at feeling happiness when I should feel only sorrow. Guilt at the fact that I was living when my father was dying.
It then moved on to the days immediately prior to experiencing death. No one can prepare you for that. A dear friend of mine lost his mother this past year, and I remember telling him that there was nothing beautiful about witnessing death. It is not the peaceful scenario that is it portrayed on the movies. There is no gentle last breath. It is a shutting down of organs, stressed calls to the nurses station, and anxiety ridden grief. But the worst part? It is full of guilt. Because when you know it is the end, when you know that you are past the point of no return, when your mind and soul can’t take another labored breath, you begin to wish death on your loved one. And then you feel guilt. Because you have been taught to fight to the end. You weren’t raised to be a quitter, but you just want them to quit. To move past this life and into somewhere, ANYWHERE, where organs work and pain isn’t felt.
And then once you have lost someone, the anger sets in. They say it is one of the biggest steps in moving on, that anger. You will feel angry at seeing your friends have their father’s walk them down the aisle, angry at the mushy posts on Facebook on Father’s Day, angry at people lamenting over the loss of their great grandmother, or their cat. Nothing in the world seems fair any longer, but there’s no turning back. And then you get angry at the universe, or at God, if that is what you believe in. Because you were given one life to live, and these are the shitty cards that you have been dealt. But that’s where the guilt kicks back in. Guilt in the anger that you are feeling. Because you watch the news and you see genocide, hate crimes, discrimination, and murder. And you acknowledge the fact that although you have gone through something that was REALLY shitty, that it could always be worse. So you feel pure unfiltered guilt. Guilt for feeling like your anger is superior to others. That your pain is superior to theirs. And guilt over thinking that this was the lowest, because you know that you could always go lower.
I wish I could explain these emotions on a pretty picture, one adorned with a cute, uplifting, or inspiring quote, but I can’t. There is no snazzy motivational quote to give to anyone who has ever truly experience grief. And especially to those rarities out there who have experienced one grief after another, who never trust the world that lies around them, always waiting for the tide to turn. That is where the true naivety comes in: do you live life as an optimistic, constantly trying to seek happiness because you know what true sorrow is? Or do you live life waiting for the next crash, never truly trusting the Universe every time the phone rings. I am awkwardly straddling these lines, so I guess only time will tell. But what I do have is my family. A group of amazing people who understand these bipartite feelings. And for that, I try to let the anger, the guilt, and the grief go, and focus on the good, for without them, I would be nothing.
American Pharoah spent his formative months in my backyard. My boyfriend and I live on the property where he was raised from a young foal to a weanling, although now it is under new ownership. A good friend of mine was the photographer who snapped the foal picture that everyone has shared on Facebook. And another good friend owns the advertising company that does all of the work for Winstar, the farm who stands his sire, the Zayat’s who own him, as well as his trainer, Bob Baffert. I have worked the sales for the man who foaled him – Tom VanMeter, and my boyfriend was an intern for the farm who prepped him for the yearling sales. While the thoroughbred industry may be widespread throughout the world, in the little bubble that I live in in Lexington, KY, the connections to and fondness for AP ran rampant. All of us hold him quite dear to our hearts. He encompasses so much to us, but most importantly he validates the reason we wake up in the morning. To raise strong, solid, well mannered horses with the upmost care, respect, and nutrition and therapy that human and science has to offer. On Saturday, it was evident that this was accomplished.
American Pharoah at 4 months. Photo by Matt Wooley/Equisport Photography
The public calls this the sport of kings, but for so many of us “mere minions” in Lexington, Ocala, or other horse hubs around the world, watching American Pharoah charge down the homestretch meant so much. Our lives are these horses, our days are spent caring for them, raising them, researching them, nurturing them, treating them, and overseeing their every move. These are not the jobs that the public sees, these are not the usual people that get to be in the winner’s circle. We do not fly private jets, we do not travel to exotic places, but the one thing we all have in common is that we love horses. And not just any horses,we love the thoroughbred. The rush that one gets in seeing the most well bred, athletic, and brave creature as they stretch their legs over ground at a speed that seems to break the laws of science, whether it be on a race track or simply in a massive field with their fellow pasture mates, is all that we crave. A breeding farm might move a bit slower than it does on the track, but in Lexington, KY, it is what we know, what we do, who we are. It’s a lot of soothing tones, pats on big bellies, and hands on legs. It is a lot of tractor repair, stall mucking, bandaging, and weed whacking. It is a thankless job; if the praise that you seek is from the voice of a human. Our thanks come in the guttural whinny of a mare when the grain bin rolls down the aisle, the kick of heels as a yearling is turned out into his paddock, and the naive ballsiness of a foal who approaches the fence just to nuzzle your arm before a nip. It is 18+ hour days, 7 days a week, no holidays, no snow days, 365 days a year back breaking work. But for those of us here, in the Horse Capital of the World, Saturday made it worth it.
The next American Pharoah?
This past Saturday, I was screaming at the TV with tears streaming down my face. In a room full of other members of this industry, I looked around to see tears in all eyes – from the toughest of men down to the friends of friends who knew so little about the amount of time, effort, heartbreak, and perseverance that goes into getting one of these horses to the track. We were not at the track, because we were on the farm. The Triple Crown runs during the busiest time of the year for so many in the industry. Holding a Bud Lite instead of Dom Perignon, in a ball cap that read “Medaglia D’Oro” instead of a frilly fascinator, and having to leave the party early just to get to the barn for an evening treatment of antibiotics and a night check on a colicky foal, this is our lives. There might be wealth, jewels, and crowns in The Sport of King’s, but in my little world, it is more like Muck Boots and Carhartt’s. We are the people that encompass 98% of this sport of so-called Kings. But on Saturday evening, we were all crowned.
Many have said, during the last six weeks, that money and greed are what run the racing industry. And this may be true for a very select few, although I have never met someone who will say they got rich off of a racehorse. The rest of us get rich off of the high that comes with seeing a horse that you are personally attached to, no matter how insignificantly, gallop out with ease across the finish line. It comes in seeing a mare you have raised since her own delivery as she welcomes her own first foal. It comes in seeing a yearling that you had treated through an illness or injury finally break his maiden. We acknowledge, just as in any sport, that there is always room for improvement, advancement, and change. So many of us are accepting of this. And it is coming, I hope. Advancements are being made in regulations of race day medications, transparency into the farms that breed these greats, and well as in simple honesty from the race industry out to the public. The rehoming and rehabilitation of these racehorses into second careers has become a priority, one that the farms stand behind and that sport horse disciplines are prospering from. We know that this sport can becomes even greater, but until then, I will take a brief rest on the laurels of finally seeing a true champion. For what the sport of horse racing does, is that it opens the arms of the royal family to mere commoners. It unites us altogether and extend an olive branch to those around us. So thank you American Pharoah. For so much. For letting me witness greatness. For bringing horse racing back into the living rooms of America. And most importantly, for letting everyone who had even the slightest attachment to you feel like a king, even if it was only for a day.
Photo by Mathea Kelley
I walked off of the cross country course in tears yesterday. Sweat poured off of my face, and the tears caught into the black mane and glistening neck of my thoroughbred. I patted him on the neck as they ran from my eyes, not even sure how to process what had just happened. The tears were so reminiscent of what had happened so many times over a decade ago with another thoroughbred. But then I looked up and saw a herd of my friends running towards me, fists pumping into the air and huge smiles on their face. For once these tears were not of frustration and sadness, but instead the surreal feeling of accomplishing a goal you honestly never thought was possible. It was May Daze HT 2015, and I had finally gone Training level.
To so many young riders, professionals, or even the amazing adult amateurs, this seems like such a puny goal. Training level is only 3’3, it’s not considered an “upper level”, and for mosts it isn’t daunting. But for a sixteen year old girl who’s dreams of making it to the upper levels and completing the high ratings of Pony Club depended on successful outings at Training level; outtings that never went successfully, this was a milestone. Training level was the reason I dropped out of Pony Club. Training level was the reason I spent the majority of my teenage years in a fight with my parents. And training level was the reason I quit competing horses over 10 years ago.
12 years ago I walked off of the Training level course on another bay thoroughbred, tears streaming down my face, adrenaline pouring out of my body, and made the realization that eventing wasn’t fun anymore. There would be no C-3, nonetheless A in Pony Club as my DC demanded that I complete a Training level event in order to rate up. There would be no Young Riders, as I couldn’t even kick around a Training level course, nonetheless a 1*, and my parents weren’t the type to just buy/lease me another horse to attempt the move up. And there would be no eventing. Plain and simple. It just wasn’t fun. Not only wasn’t it fun, but it was turning me into a horrible person. I would come back to the barn and scream at my mom, telling her that none of this was my fault, and that she put too much pressure on me to be the champion rider that she had been. I would scream at my trainer and tell her that I wasn’t scared of the damn water, but Levi was. I would ostracize myself from my barn friends and fear and sadness filtered through my veins and was projected as just plain bitchiness. I didn’t like who I was becoming. So I quit. For eight years.
But then four years ago I attended this same event, May Daze HT 2011, to watch a friend compete at Beginner Novice. I hadn’t been to an event besides Rolex since my “retirement” at the age of 17, but as we walked the XC course, the adrenaline began pumping back into my veins and my eyes grew wider. For the first time in years, I actually felt like I WANTED this. The rush of jumping massive walls in tandem with your best friend, the wind rushing past your ears on a good gallop set, and the feeling of accomplishment when you crossed the finish flags. I turned to her and said that I wanted out of my self inflicted retirement. I wanted to event.
Flash forward 6 months laters and she was the one asking me to event. She had her pintaloosa pony Miles and needed him sold. It was a win/win for both of us, as I would get to gallop around those beginner novice courses I had been dreaming of, and she would get someone to put a record on her pony in order to sell him for a decent price. We shook on it, loaded him onto the trailer, hauled him to my farm, and began on this journey back into the world of eventing. For months, Miles and I just bonded as I tried to remember how to ride. Simple things like asking for a shoulder in, keeping my leg down, or even just braiding seemed to have vanished from my brain. But by the time that May Daze HT 2012 rolled by, I felt ready – and it was off to my first event in over 8 years. We galloped around the Beginner Novice course like it was nothing, and I remember galloping through the finish flags and thinking “Oh ya. THIS. This is why I used to love doing this.” There is absolutely no better feeling than that. That camaraderie, teamwork, and partnership. The trust that goes from your hands, seat, and leg, and somehow transmits to your horses side and head – willing him forward over obstacles that he doesn’t even know the other side of. There is nothing else like it.
But as is with sales horses, Miles was sold in October of 2012, and again, I was without a horse and without eventing. This didn’t last for long though, and I soon received an offer from a great friend to come ride one of her horses, Mak. He was a 4 year old thoroughbred off of the track that she had been working with as a project, and wanted to see if I liked him. I drove to her barn, gave her a hug, and she opened the stall door to this beast of hers. I stared up at him and thought “wow, he looks like Levi.” Just like the horse that had taken me through my childhood, he was over 16 hands high, he was a rich dark bay, with a large star squarely between the kindest of eyes. She left me alone in his stall while she went to tack up her other horse, and I quickly tacked him up and led him out to the ring. I swung up and looked around, noticing that a crowd had started to arise around the arena. I kicked Mak forward into a long and lazy trot, and then a lopey canter, and finally a walk on a loose rein. With each stride, the smile on my face grew. I could just tell this horse was COOL. He wasn’t the most athletic horse, he didn’t ripple with muscle and energy, and lord knows he wasn’t built like the cliche Rolex horse, but what he lacked in these, he made up for in willingness. His attitude was that of “oh, ok. sure. whatever.” I affectionately called him a little stoner, as he did not act like your cliche young thoroughbred who had recently raced. I giggled as we loped over little flower boxes, beamed when he finally picked up his left lead, and just felt my heart growing bigger with each step. At the end of the ride, I stopped and patted him on the neck, turned to my friend and just said “Chels – you’ve got a good one here. He’s really cool.”
I went home that night and told my boyfriend about this awesome horse I had ridden. Tears began to well in my eyes when I realized that everyone else had a nice horse, and with this eventing bug still so recently reinfected in my life, I was horseless. I knew that Mak was a horse that I could work with, our personalities just meshed so well, but I also knew that I had just started graduate school, was essentially broke, and wasn’t sure if I’d even have the time, nonetheless the money, for my own horse. I called my mom and told her about him. I explained that he was looked so much like Levi, reminded me so much of Natty (another horse that I had recently ridden), and that I was just in love. I waited for her to respond with a normal motherly response – one of “oh, that’s nice, too bad” and instead she said “Go get him Carleigh. You have been more happy in the last 6 months than you have in the past 6 years. Get him.”
A day later, Mak became mine.
For two and a half years now, Mak and I have come together to form a great partnership. I tried to take the mistakes I had made with Levi and learn from them, attempting with every fiber of my being not to redo them with Mak. For his 4 year old year, we did almost nothing but hack on a loose rein. We walked through ditches, we swam through creeks, we galloped through fields, and we learned to love to discover new things. I took away the trust I had learned from my time working as a wrangler in Wyoming and gave that trust to him, and in return, Mak offered no naughtiness. He was so simple. He was happiest with no contact on his mouth, out on a trail, sniffing out new adventures. I had finally found a horse who shared the same bravery and adventurous soul as myself…I was so happy.
We began jumping smaller jumps, and it became quite obvious that Mak had a knack for it. He did not care what was in or on the jump, he just spent as little amount of energy to clear it, and then proceeded on in his ambling lope. So in the spring of his 5 year old year I entered him in his first Beginner Novice, which he completed with his eyes closed. And then I entered him in his first Novice, and again, he galloped around without a hitch. But after Novice, I was done. I didn’t know how to do Training – many people and one horse had made that pretty apparent in my life. I finally had “the horse” that was fully capable, but I wasn’t capable of getting him there. I pondered on this for a few nights and then made the realization that while I might not have the skills to capably get him around, I knew quite a few people who did. When funds allowed it, I would call and train with fantastic people – Sharon Vander Ziel in dressage, and Allie Knowles in jumping. And when funds didn’t allow, I would call numerous friends who themselves were competing at the upper levels to come school with me. I didn’t care who offered the criticism or critique, I just wanted feedback. I was adamant – this mental, emotional, and possibly physical block of training level HAD to get out of my life. I entered into the Training Level Rider division at the same event that 4 years ago drew me back in to this amazing, heartbreaking, fabulous, unnerving, and uncertain game that we all love. I was officially entered at Training level at May Daze HT 2015.
Flash forward to yesterday afternoon, and I was walking off of the cross country course with tears streaming down my face. Only for the first time in my life, they weren’t tears of sadness or frustration. They were tears of happiness, or maybe even disbelief. I had finally done it. I had gone Training level. And not just gone Training level, I had CONQUERED Training level – going cleanly around the 20 obstacles without even a hesitation. And I had done it on a horse I had brought up myself. I had taken away the mistakes I had made as a teenager, and revamped my training process. I had taken away the bravery I had gained during my cowgirling years in Wyoming and applied them to eventing. And I had taken away my pride and asked for help from outstanding professionals that I trusted with every fiber of my being. I looked up and blinked away the tears to see my boyfriend and my friends striding towards me with smiles on their faces. They knew how important this was to me, and they knew that the tears were deserved. I got hugs, hand shakes, and fist bumps, instead of the frowns and sideways glances I was used to after a Training level event.
And I know. It might not be Young Riders, it might not be Rolex, and lord knows it isn’t the Olympics, but it is my own championship. I didn’t even get a ribbon, finishing in 14th. But in my mind, May Daze HT 2015 is a milestone. And Mak and me? Well, we’re champions.