A metaphor for life

I never really know what to write on these posts, or how often I should write, or even where to start.  But every once in a while I remember a great story that I have never told anyone, or look at my computer and realize that on this specific day I was doing something either extraordinary, or maybe suffering in a way that I think people can relate to.  I discovered that by getting them published by websites like Horse Collaborative and the Paulick Report that I have filtered my writing into stories that only pertain to horses, and yet I started this blog in order to do a few things – to write, as I have always loved it and have never been able to use this love for anything besides school work, to tell my family and friends stories that I think may impact them in some way, and to take stress out of my life – as I have always found writing therapeutic.  I decided after a few stressful weeks of being consumed with what the outside world would think of me and my stories, that I will go back to this — and if horses play a role in these stories, it is simply because they play a role in my life – but I will write about them because of how they impacted my life in its entirety, not for the outside world.

I woke up this morning, on October 3rd, and realized that I had missed October 2nd, and was slightly taken aback.  It was the first time in 6 years that I had not felt even slight depression on this day – for this was the day that my dad was diagnosed.  Whether this is a sign of healing, a sign of too much schoolwork, or simply just a sign of absolutely nothing, I do remember exactly what I was doing on that day, and how I got through that following week — Levi. If I can recruit all of these horse lovers, and how they agree with me that horses are the best therapy in the world, and mesh them with the people at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and the Bone Marrow Registry, it will be the greatest success of my life.  So here is just another story of how leukemia, my father, and the horse that got me through this endeavor came together.

My dad was one of the healthiest men I ever knew.  He was a collegiate athlete –  having played both basketball and baseball at his (and my) alma mater of St. Lawrence University.  We had this, among many other things, in common – same college, both athletes, and I was currently taking a class with Dr. Budd – a professor that he had also had in biology at St. Lawrence – it was only slightly uncanny.  So on October 2nd, 2007, nothing was out of the ordinary when I was sitting in the brand new Biology Department at SLU, and he was at a routine doctors appointment.

He had gone to a Buffalo Bills game the previous weekend and noticed that he became out of breath when walking up the stairs to get another beer from our seats.  He had been training for his first half marathon with my mother, and thought this was a strange occurrence – he should be able to leap up these thirty steps without a second thought, but instead became winded.  He scheduled an appointment with his general physician, and after seeing that his blood pressure was actually quite normal and his cholesterol was fine, he demanded blood work.  The doctor disagreed, saying that my father was overreacting to something that was probably nothing – but being a surgeon himself, my father continued on in his investigation and ordered the bloodwork.  In a matter of 6 hours, my fathers, mine, and my families lives were turned upside down – it wasn’t “nothing” it was Acute Myeloid Leukemia – my dad had cancer.

I knew nothing of this and was sitting at a desk, attempting to actually understand transmission electron microscopy, when my phone rang and I saw that my best friend Mindy was calling.  It being only 3pm, I answered and quickly tried to put her off – telling her that I was busy and needed to study.  But her call left a weird feeling in me – she had just kept asking where I was and if I was with either my boyfriend at the time or any of my friends.  I adamantly told her that I was not, I was in fact alone, and I REALLY needed to study for this exam and hung up.  Thirty seconds later my mom called me and I picked up in absolute frustration – I was NEVER going to pass this exam, and thought to myself “my phone is getting turned off after this!” But within 30 seconds I knew that these calls were connected, as my mom also asked if I was alone, and when I confirmed that I was, she asked if there was any way that I could NOT be alone and find a friend.  My heart plummeted to my stomach and I just asked one word — “why?”

My mom broke down and told me that my once healthy father had just been diagnosed with cancer — and leukemia of all cancers – the same disease that had taken my Uncle from me at the young age of 10. As is with most horrific memories, I can remember every individual moment of this phone conversation feeling like it took hours, although it must have been only 5 or 10 minutes.  I ran down the hall to the general biology lab and grabbed my boyfriend, tears streaming down my face, as 30 unsuspecting freshman and a professor looked on in horror, pulling him out into the hallway and sank to the floor.  My mother kept talking, telling me about the bloodwork, the plan, and that they were currently packing to head to the same hospital that my Uncle had been treated in – the would set up on the same floor, with the same nurse, and with the same despair.  I couldn’t process anything — I couldn’t even speak.  My mom finally ended the conversation by saying “are you ok?”  And my only response was one that she, and I, have become quite familiar with – I run.  I just said “I have to go mom” and she said something that I have now heard more times than I can count: “ok honey, have a good ride.”

I ran from my boyfriend and raced to my car, speeding through the backroads of Canton and Potsdam without a thought for safety or caution, just knowing that I needed to do one thing – and that was to get on my horse and get away from the world.  I raced into the barn, snapped a lead rope to his halter, swung up, and galloped away – my last memory was of my friend Sara just screaming after me “are you OK??”  I don’t know how long I rode for, bareback and bridleless, meandering around the dirt roads – walking at times, galloping at others, just taking all of the information in.  My horse Levi had been retired from competition for almost 4 years, and he ambled on as a well trained horse does, never questioning my tears, my screams, or my tension on his back.

I returned to my house and settled into an Adirondack chair with a glass of bourbon, not wanting yet to admit to the world that this was happening, thinking that if I stated it out loud it would actually become truth.  But my phone rang and I looked down and saw it was my father calling.  I picked up and simply said “hi” not knowing what else to say, and in classic form for my dad, he just said “how are you?” worried about my pain more than his own.  We talked about the science behind the disease, discussing potential treatments and therapies, and ended the phone call with him asking if one of my papers was ready for him to edit.  He begged me to stay on campus until the following week and take my exams, and I agreed – trying to save him from any excess stress as I knew how important my grades and impending vet school applications were.  I never cried, he never admitted fear, and we ended the phone call by saying “I love you” for the first time since childhood.

I knew that I needed something to distract me from all of this in order to get me through the week, and while many 21 year olds may have turned to alcohol, I turned to my horse.  There was a show that coming weekend, and it included the “Healey Farms Jumper Classic” for a purse of $500. I hadn’t jumped my horse in months, and had retired him from eventing due to a water phobia years ago, but I knew that at the ripe old age of 20, he would still jump any fence I put in front of him, and on a whim I entered the class, knowing that the chances of even placing were slim – but that wasn’t what mattered – what mattered was centering my mind on something besides blast cells, bone marrow donations, and chemotherapy.

My non-horsey friends all showed up on Saturday, prepared to cheer me on in my defeat, and I anxiously put my old show clothes on and tacked up my trusted thoroughbred – patting him on the neck and whispering to him that it didn’t matter if he hit one of the rails – the fences went up to 3’6, and I just wanted to feel the wind on my face over a fence for the first time in months.  We warmed up and headed to the ring for the first round.  I wasn’t worried about speed, just safety – and short spot after short spot, Levi left the rails up.

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The video of this round is one of my favorites — you can hear my friends in the background cheering me on with every rail that stays, and Levi is just loping around, ears up, and excited to be allowed to jump again.  We were one of 4 who went clean, out of 18 riders.

I came back for the jump off and decided I was going to do this one for my dad.  To prove to him that even when the odds were stacked against you, even if you weren’t the youngest or in the best shape, even if you didn’t have the most money, you could still win.  I galloped at the first fence with more determination than I think I ever have.  Trainers on the rail were talking about how there was no way that I was going to get around this – Levi was retired, I was a cowgirl who only ever trail rode, and they had never even see me jump.  I was definitely going to “smoke” a rail.  But no amount of training, or lessons, or money spent on valuable warmbloods were going to stop me from getting around this course.  Levi loped over the first few fences, excited for the bigger spreads, but then came the combination.  He got his striding beautifully, but going into the turn he slipped on the muddy footing and nearly went down.  My breath caught and I could only think one thing — that in doing this crazy, stupid, dangerous, thing for my dad to prove to him that he could beat this, I was going to fall off and be the perfect example of why these risks shouldn’t be taken, and these battles can’t be won.  I clung to Levi’s neck, praying to stay on, refusing to fail and refusing to give my father ANY excuse to not head into this battle with just as much determination as I had headed into the ring.

Levi stayed steady, regrouped, and we continued through the rest of the jump off with as much grace as we could muster.  Without stirrups, my legs burning probably as much as his were, we continued on – yet again leaving each rail up in their cups, and finished the round as the only person to go clean.  I was shocked.  Pulling a horse out of retirement for one last victory gallop, attempting to be a metaphor of strength and determination for a suffering family, and nearly failing epically in this endeavor, I had actually won.

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I called my father that night with a new outlook on life.   His odds of beating AML were 30% – something that sounded so impossible, but my odds of winning that class had been 1 in 18, a 5% chance, and I had pulled it off with everything stacked against me.  My outlook on life had been altered.  I hung up the phone after telling him I was donating my $500 winnings to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and that I would be home in a few days to help him get through this.  We could fight this. We would fight this. And we would win.

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I got him…

The month of September is always the longest of the year – it is the Keeneland September Yearling Sale – 4000+ horses and 3 weeks of 4am mornings.   Needless to say, last Saturday I was dragging just a little bit when my phone rang while standing in a fillies stall babysitting her as she threw herself against the wall.  I pulled my phone out of my pocket and saw an 859 number that I did not recognize – but knowing it was a Kentucky number I answered wearily – awaiting for it to be a reminder to pay my cable bill or insurance for my truck, but instead I heard the four sweetest words to ever reach my ears:

“The horse is yours.”

Literally feeling like I was walking through a haze, I asked quietly “what?”

“The horse is yours” and then “this is Will-B, and the horse is yours.”

I was shocked into speechlessness, and just motionless as I continued to hear him ramble on.

“That horse, Marilyn’s Guy, he came out of that last race a bit sore and the owners said you can have him.  For free.”

My heart began to race and my palms began to sweat.  This was the call I had been waiting for for almost 6 years.  Larry was coming home.  I asked Will-B to hold on for a moment and quickly called Larry’s breeder, Drew Nardiello, and told him the news.  His reply was short and sweet:

“Tell Will-B to put him on the next Brook Ledge van and bill it to the farm.”

I told Will-B the news while Drew cleared it with Brook Ledge, nearly shaking with excitement and just bursting with the news – I had to tell someone – so I called first my mom, and then conferenced in my best girlfriends.  All three of them nearly in tears, knowing just how much this means to me.

Marilyn’s Guy, or affectionately known as Larry, arrived at Chesapeake Farm this morning.  His nylon halter was removed, his shoes were pulled, and he was tossed six flakes of hay in the same stall he was located in when I met him in 2009.  I raced to the farm the minute my classes were over and threw myself around his neck with tears in my eyes. We had our emotional reunion, spent with snuggling and grazing, hugs and kisses.  Tomorrow he will get to be turned out for the first time in who knows how long, and for the next few months, and even years, he will get to JUST BE.

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At the age of 8, he has run 42 times and won almost $450,000, a true War Horse if there ever was one.  I hope to throw a leg over him in a few months and hack him around the farm that he will live the rest of his days on – and if he can fit into my trailer (doubtful), I hope to maybe even take him to hack off of the property one day and pop over a fence or too – but that it not what is important, what is important is that he is HOME, and he is SAFE.  There are so many people I need to thank for this journey to end with a smile instead of suffering and tears.

 

To Drew Nardiello, the owner of Chesapeake Farm and the breeder of Marilyn’s Guy – thank you for being one of the “good guys” who follows his horses and ensures they end up in a good home.  Drew has been with me on every step of this journey, contacting every owner and trainer right alongside of me.  He paid for Larry to ship home from Delaware, and he is also who Larry will live out his days with on a gorgeous farm full of lush grass and amazing care, and for that I am forever grateful.

To amazing friends in the industry like Garth Waterfield who responded to my plea to find someone located at Delaware where Larry was exercising, who immediately responded that one of his best friends was training out of Delaware and gave me his number without hesitation.

To nearly strangers like Will-B VanMeter, who Garth recommended I call in hopes of reaching Larry’s trainer.  I had only met Will-B once or twice, and yet he took on this endeavor of securing aftercare for Larry like he was his own horse.  He played liason between myself and the trainer for WEEKS, answering my pestering texts and phone calls.  He also mediated the entire end of the story – getting Larry secured on a van safely and shipped home.  Will-B did this for his love of these horses, and I can assure you, if I ever own my own racehorse – they will be placed in his care.  Anyone with that much heart and enthusiasm for these animals deserves the credit he is due.

And finally, to all of my friends, family, and strangers who reached out after the first blog was posted and offered their time, money, trailers, and shoulders to cry on, in the hopes to get Larry home – THANK YOU.  I had offers of THOUSANDS of dollars to be given to me to claim him, and I can’t even begin to tell you how much that means to me!  I hope that you take that money and donate it to other horses who are in need of aftercare, as Larry’s safety is ensured!

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I had prayed that the day would come where I could give an uplifting update on this horse, but had feared for the past few years that that day would never come – or even worse, that it would be a story of grief and anger.  But Larry is home, in my arms, where I can see him whenever I want, and loved.  And for that, my faith in this industry is restored.

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Horses and Healing…

My mother text messaged me the other night and reminded me of something that literally made my breath catch.  She told me, “Thank you for taking me on the best ride of my life 6 years ago…” and I was instantly transported to the worst week of my life.  My father was losing his battle to the leukemia that ravaged his body, and my family had not had a break from sitting vigil at his side, praying for a miracle.  One of his best friends from his residency showed up, prepared to relieve us from our post, and I begged my mom to take a break from the pain, the suffering, and even from life – just for a few hours.  We went and tacked up my faithful Levi and my best friends horse Cory and began meandering around the trails surrounding the barn, ambling at times, galloping at others, barely talking, and just taking in the serenity that comes with a good ride on a great horse.  It was the first time in 11 months that I think she had the chance to breathe.

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Two days later, in a last effort to fix any aspect of my relationship with my father that suffered, I loaded Levi up and hauled him 6 hours back to Canton, NY to give him to one of my professors.  My horse, and the money spent on him, was the one hitch in my relationship with my father, and I thought that by giving him away I would leave my father with less stress in his worry about how I would support my horse addiction post-college as I embarked on my own into adulthood.  I was never able to tell my dad that I did this for him, for when I returned from my trip to Canton, my father had entered into a coma and would pass away three days later. It was September 5th, 2008 – 6 years ago. I was devastated to lose my father and my horse in the same week, but possibly more devastating was that I had given up my coping mechanism, my therapy, and my stress release at the one moment in time that I needed those things most.  To say that I crashed and burned without this support would put it mildly.

I moved to Lexington, KY two weeks later, and quickly quit the job I had lined up and sank into a pretty severe depression.  I never vocalized my pain, and put on a brave face for everyone – my family, my boyfriend at the time, and the friends that I still let into my life.  I tried to be the rock that everyone expected me to be, but there were days where I didn’t want to wake up and nights where I couldn’t sleep for the memory of my father taking his last breath would roll on a loop in my brain.  I felt I had no escape, until I made the realization that while the depression might have been caused by my father’s death, I wasn’t healing because of my lack of therapy – and in my case, that therapy was my horse.  I began to make the valiant effort to get hired on a farm – any farm – and finally found myself as a groom at Chesapeake – nothing glamorous, but something that changed my life for forever, possibly even saving it.  I have desperately wanted to have a conversation with my father and explain to him why I not only haven’t kicked this horse addiction, but how it has saved, shaped, and changed my life since his death – making me the woman that I am, hopefully one that he would be proud of.

Dad,

I want to start by trying to explain Lexingon, KY and the eye opening experience I had when moving here.  Horses are not a hobby here, they are a lifestyle, and a multi-billion dollar industry that is not scoffed at.  I remember telling someone that I rode horses and for the first time I wasn’t asked if I was a jockey – they actually asked if I was a jumper, did dressage, or evented.  I was appalled. The statement “riding is a not a sport” was quickly replaced with “who is your horse by?” or “how many left to foal?”  I felt home for the first time in months, surrounded by people that finally got me.

I got my first real job out of college in the thoroughbred industry.  It was full of mundane tasks – mucking stalls, feeding mares, grooming yearlings.  I walked horses into and out of fields, with a pitchfork and a tractor in between – but I made a salary.  I was one of very few kids who graduated college in the recession that wasn’t calling home every month for money from their parents.  I didn’t live luxuriously, but I LIVED.  I began to meet people – famous trainers, Sheikhs, people that I had idolized growing up reading books like “Funny Cide” and “Secretariat.”  Each time I called home to talk to my mom, my voice gained animation as happiness began to seep back into my veins.  One of my favorite calls was when I sold my filly for $625,000 and she got to watch the entire thing on Keeneland’s live stream – screaming that she saw “that man from the Kentucky Derby with the dark sunglasses” bidding higher and higher. I wish you had been there for those calls.

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Which leads me to the fact that I met the love of my life at soccer game on Darby Dan Farm.  He’s a horse person as well, but I think you would like him.  He is the first boy that understands my life – although he might also be the only one who knows when I’m lying when I tell him that my horses shoes only cost $20!  He is a farm manager – we spend our weekends mowing fields, turning out yearlings, treating wounds, and going to the races or the sales, and I couldn’t love it more.  He understands my passion, and he supports it – while also reining me and my “free spirit” in when needed.  I think you would appreciate that side of him – he keeps me in check, but he loves me unabashedly, something that I was desperately lacking when you left.

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Two years ago I finally used all of this horse nonsense for good and went back to school to get my doctorate in – what else – equine reproduction.  I may not end up a veterinarian like you had hoped, but I will still have Dr. in front of my name just like you.  The day I was admitted, I wanted to tell you first – something that pained me to no end that I was not able to.  I am surrounded by other educated people who also love these animals that you had abhorred, and I hope to eventually be a professor in an animal or equine science department – teaching physiology and endocrinology.  I even got to travel to New Zealand and present my research at a large international meeting – something I know you would have been so proud of.  I have written dozens of papers, abstracts, and presentations – each time wishing you were there to edit them.  I have to learned to do it on my own though, my independence since you left has only increased.

And finally, I filled Levi’s void with another horse and his name is Mak.  They look a lot alike, but this time I pay for everything – not you, and I appreciate the price of these animals all the more for it.  In return for my bank account, Mak got me through every never ending day of Uncle Bob’s battle with cancer – and for that I will be forever grateful for him, for the struggle of life has not gotten any easier since you left – but you left us with the strength to cope, and my horses assisted that with long trail rides and hours in a quiet barn meditating.

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I don’t think I will ever attempt to go without the therapy that is a horse in my life again – I learned the hard way that my brain and soul are not wired for that.  The thoroughbred industry accepted me and nurtured me back to health, and I am forever grateful to them for that.  I try to repay the industry in many ways – and who knows – maybe one day my research will cure infertility or a life threatening disease.  I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t walked onto Chesapeake Farm and begged for work, or if I hadn’t taken the chance on a gangly 4yo that my friend asked me to ride, but I know that if any crisis were to ever happen in my life again – I know where to go.  I can walk down the quiet aisleways of my barns full of equine royalty, hearing horses gently munch on hay, sneak into Mak’s stall, and take a seat in the corner.  He will come over and put his head in my hands like he always does, and I will be able to find peace and quiet from the outside world.

I wish you were here to experience this journey with me.  I hope that you would approve of where my life has strayed off to.  You and I didn’t know about anything in this world besides the Kentucky Derby before you passed away – but I saw out of the corner of my eye that year that Funny Cide won – you were screaming just as hard as I was, and I think you would have come to love this world of breeding, raising, and racing thoroughbreds.  I met his breeder a few years ago – and you would have loved to hear that he went to Cornell.  I think you would have loved these little intricacies that have tied my world of horses to a world full of good people, an amazing man, an education, and a full life.  I wish with all of my heart that you could have been a part of it, but know that you would be relieved to know that the mischievous smile that you loved so much has been restored – something that took grooming a lot of yearlings, mucking a lot of stalls, and posting a lot of trot sets – but its there, and I am ok again.

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Go west, they said…

I read a comment the other day under one of these blogs that said “don’t disrespect all of western riding just because you have only ever loped along in western pleasure” and beer was almost snorted out of my nose.  I understand how this confusion could be perceived – I do currently ride English, I did post pictures of me four beating along in a sparkly saddle, and yes, I do have voluptuous blonde hair that looks FABULOUS under a silverbelly.  I almost hit reply to defend myself, ready to admonish the commenter for their lack of knowledge and insensitivity, but then realized with a giggle that my non-western pleasure cowgirl time deserved more than a comment, it deserved a story.

My teenage years, as already described, were spent doing a little bit of all English disciplines – hunters, a bit of jumpers, quite a lot of dressage, and if my horse decided that he was not afraid of the horse-eating sharks and snakes in the water complex, we even evented (if the sharks existed, we ATTEMPTED eventing — and failed…miserably).  Where I boarded trails were sparse, and the crowd was made up of other teenagers just like me – we circled, and circled again, and circled some more around a nice dirt arena – making sure our helmets were on and the gates were locked before picking up a trot.  It was fun, it was slightly challenging, but lord it was SAFE.  And as the years ticked on, I became more and more petrified of the GREAT OUTDOORS.  There was only one answer — to literally take a leap into the wilderness, and sink, or swim.  I did a little bit of both at Paradise Ranch.

 

I applied for, and was given, the position of wrangler at Paradise in Buffalo, Wyoming in the summer of 2006. I was a college junior, I was determined, and a little bit too egotistical for my own good. Making the move from Buffalo, NY to Buffalo, WY took me for the greatest adventure of my life.  Here are some of my stories.

1.  Don’t get cocky — I will never forget my first day of sauntering up to the (quite large) ranch foreman and telling him that I could “ride anything” –  a nice east coast term for “I ain’t scared.”  He looked down on me with a smirk and told me to saddle up.  I was ready.  I knew I could stick a buck – because, c’mon, I had previously ridden 12hh Chocolate – or “Bucker” in my childhood.  Putting my foot in the stirrup on an albino horse named Casper (real original guys), I shifted my weight, put my belly on the saddle, wiggled a bit – testing him for his reaction, and then swung up.  I gave a little head nod, proud of my amazing riding ability, gave a nudge with my rowels, and WHAM. I was off. With only one full buck, I was slammed to the ground and staring up at the white chest above me.  I quickly learned that these horses were not the NORM.  They bucked not out of excitable energy or rude stubbornness, but because they thought I was a mountain lion and they were attempting to SAVE THEIR LIVES. He would be the first of seven that I fell off of that first day.  I never once again have said “I can ride anything”.

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Casper post-meltdown, my special albino friend.

 

2.  Learn the cowboy way — I went out to Wyoming to do a few things – one was to learn how to be a more efficient, braver, rider – another was to experience the wild west, and the third was to enhance my applications to vet school.  I knew the general “pony club” methods of treatment before heading out to the ranch – and by that, I mean that I could bandage absolutely everything, diagnose quite a bit, but the general rule of thumb had always been CALL THE VET.  At the ranch that wasn’t always an option, in fact, it rarely was.  We were the sole providers for these 200 horses, and if one of them was lame, sick, or injured – we were to assess, diagnose, AND treat.  I saw everything from fractures, to colics, to massive lacerations, and just about everything in between.  We vaccinated ourselves, we wormed ourselves, and we had to plan these schedules ourselves – something I had always depended on a vet for.  We had a cabinet with bandaging materials, some sedation, some pain medications, some banamine, a tube for oiling, and a gun – and that got us through the summer.  I learned more about thinking on my feet, trusting my instincts, and using my brain that summer than I think I ever have before, or maybe since.

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Showing my surgeon of a father how to give an injection of penicillin.

 

3.  Cowgirls don’t cry — during my summers (yes, plural – I actually went back for a second round the following summer) I encountered more physical and emotional stress than I was ever prepared for.  From traumatic falls, to homesickness, euthanizing loved horses and falling in love with others, friendships gained, and eventually going back to college and drifting away – it was a hell of a ride.  But through it all I learned the definition of “cowgirl tough.”  Numerous horses came with problems, and it was our job to solve them.  There were no “trainers” to come to your rescue or time to spare – their job was to be ridden, and eventually ridden by a less experience guest, and if they could not accomplish that – they were an expenditure that served no purpose.  I learned how to assess problem horses, how to properly work through them, and most importantly – I learned to get back on.  There were no tears in Wyoming.  No one was going to sympathize with your sore butt when they had screws in their wrist or a broken femur.  We rallied together and worked as a team, and picked each other up without the need for crying…at least in public.

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Some of these amazing friends who were there to always give a leg back up.

 

4.  Work hard, play harder — This job was not for the faint of heart, or the faint of muscle for that matter either.  Most days we were up hours before the sun, heading to the corrals to tack up and head out to push the horses back into the corrals as they were turned out to pasture at night.  We started our days around 5, and were usually heading back to the bunks around 6 or 7 — 7 days a week.  Did this burn us out?  Heck yes.  But we rallied.  Many of the staff had grown up in rodeo, and I decided to join the “circus” — first with barrels, then with quarter mile races, and eventually roping.  We would head to the arena after dinner and continue riding into the night, working together and honing skills that hadn’t been worked on throughout the day during the guest activities. And I realized that I LOVED roping.  We roped the horses out of the corral every morning, so I was able to learn in a slow motion practice – more of a ranch roping – eventually moving on to steers and team roping.  The group of wranglers on the ranch was amazing in teaching me their knowledge, and I thrived in the environment — it was, and still is, one of the coolest things to do on horseback, and something I wish I was still able to do.

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Roping practice at the ranch as well as evening rodeo at the weekly rodeos.

 

5.  The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man — Finally, my time in Wyoming taught me how to RIDE.  I have recommended this position to any of the younger girls that I see at events fearful of water, ditches, galloping downhill, or any other “natural hazard.”  I came back from my summer and went to ride with my trainer only to have her admonish me and ask where my equitation had done — I couldn’t answer, but I could promise her that I wasn’t coming off.  I learned how to handle just about any terrain, and at any speed.  When you are working with horses – herding them for miles at a time – you do not amble, you GALLOP.  And you learn to shut up or get out.  I also learned that this was something that I loved- that horses were going to be part of my life, for the REST of my life.  I craved waking up for the next day.  I loved being in the mountains, on my favorite horse, with nothing but the sound of horses grazing and the fog lifting up over the Big Horn Mountains.  It was, quite simply, good for the soul.

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I ended up leaving the ranch in August 2007 knowing that I was entering into my senior year of college and would most likely not return.  I kept my rope, my saddle, and my chinks – and they are hanging proudly in my tack room.  Every once in a while, especially when I am having a bad day, I crave the feeling of my Billy Cook and a gallop through the mountains, and I pull down the tack, dust it off, and tack up my thoroughbred for a long hack through the fields.  It is my time for reflection – where I have come since my cowgirling days, where I plan to go, and how I hope to someday get back to my mountains.  Cause everyone knows, you can take the girl out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the girl.

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Things that you can learn from a (great) riding instructor…

When I was five years old, my Aunt Holly and Uncle Bob recommended to my mother that I begin REAL riding lessons – and specifically with a local woman that they knew from the Quarter Horse industry, Rose Watt.  Up until this point my “riding” had consisted of my weekends with my grandparents – climbing up on, and falling off of, my Shetland pony Shana.shana Shana

Being now five years old, you know – an age of such maturity, athleticism, and attention span – my mother decided that yes, indeed I was ready to begin weekly lessons and rigorous training.  We went and met with Rose at her farm – Edgewood Stables – and not only became enamored with her, but with her pony Chocolate – the latter having already been described as “Heathen Pony” or “Bucker.” And with that one meeting, I moved on from aimlessly wandering around paddocks, to aimlessly wandering around show rings attempting to understand WHY you had to always go left first when entering a pleasure class, WHY you had to go AROUND the barrels individually and not all at once, and WHO told people that ponies couldn’t jump 6′ fences.  Looking back, I realize that my lessons must have exhausted her, but good lord I was cute.

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The years rolled on, and my relationship with Rose, and her family, quickly moved on from that of trainer/student to that of mother/daughter.  My teenage years were spent rebelling against my parents, and my horse was always the first thing to be threatened against curfews, boys, and bad grades.  My summers were spent in full “barn rat” mode, hanging out with her daughters, sleeping on their couch, and smuggling myself and my horse into her truck and trailer to get to horse shows.  I roamed around the different disciplines, making my thoroughbred do an event one weekend, a hunter show the next, we ran barrels, we did western pleasure, and I even (sorry Rose) roped her goat.  I have fond memories of playing “knock out” with a single fence against her daughter, attempting bronced out bareback trail rides on green broke ponies, and numerous trips to the hospital.  Needless to say, I look back on those formative years with a giggle, but I would probably murder the teenager that tried these things on my farm.

 

Last Friday I received a panicked phone call from her daughter that spun my world and left me full of emotions that I couldn’t even describe: Rose had been in a bad riding accident and was being life flighted to the hospital.  Amy knew nothing else, and I was told nothing more.  I have already realized in my short 28 years how much Rose has taught me as a horse woman – it was so much more apparent as I made the trek to Lexington and began taking lessons with others – people that I thought would teach me SO much more than my small upbringing in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania.  And yet I was quickly made aware that my foundation was just as strong as someone who had trained with an Olympian all of their life.  But these emotions had so little to do with riding and so much more to do with LIFE.  Each memory indicative of Rose and the woman that she was, the woman that she taught her daughters and many surrogate barn rats like me to be.  These are only a few of them.

Gumption: When I was a very young girl, only 8 or 9, we received a phone call in the late evening telling us that the barn had collapsed.  The ice compounded with wet heavy snow had been too much for the structure, and they needed all hands on deck to get the horses out before the remaining beams collapsed.  My mother left me and my sister at home and raced to the farm, ready to help.  They got every single horse out, but the barn was completely destroyed.  Rose moved the horses to a friends stable almost 20 minutes away from her home and continued on in her lessons and boarding immediately.  Looking back, she must have been devastated with the loss of her home, her income, and her blood, sweat, and tears, but none of us students ever saw her falter.

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Work Ethic:  Our barn, like most, was inhabited with a plethora of girls – so we all became teenagers right around the same time, and the arguments over boys, ponies, and other senseless things began.  And yet Rose showed up every afternoon after a long day as a counselor at a local school with a smile on her face and a boisterous laugh.  She must have been exhausted after already putting in 12 hours in her “career”, but her love of teaching, and her love of horses, pushed her forward as she taught lessons well into the evenings, and then she gave up 50 weekends a year to haul us all to shows and rallies both near and far.  I rarely saw her take a vacation, but I also rarely saw the smile come off of her face.

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Compassion:  Rose essentially became a second mother to me, but this was never more apparent to me than throughout the year that my father was battling cancer, and the years following his death as I attempted to regroup in my life.  She herself had encountered many similar battles, through the loss of her husband among many others.  I knew during those long, lonely months, that I could call her, or even just show up at the barn that I now no longer even boarded at, and she would listen for hours, or simply throw me up on one of her training horses and begin barking orders, allowing me to push back any depression or anger at the world and simply ride.  Every time a new event occurred in my life that made me question my place in the world, my faith, or my bravery to push through – I thought of two people: my mother, and my second mother Rose.  Her daughter and I spoke often, the only other person in the world who could say “I know how you feel” and I could believe them.  And each time, when one of us was feeling especially down, we would remind the other to “think of our mothers.” These women who could endure SO much, and yet wake up each morning with a smile and a mission – to improve their own lives as well as the lives around them.

And this leads me to endurance:  I have witnessed Rose endure so much in life, but from an outsiders view you would never know.  There are so many people in this day and age who feel the need to complain about the slightest thing – their horse being lame, their car getting a dent in it, waking up late, or having a bad hair day.  And yet the people who are struggling through the hardest battles in life remain mum.  These are the people that are there when you need them, take the shirt off their backs, and are laughing boisterously over a glass of wine at the end of the day – because these are the people who understand what it is like to have nothing, and still enjoy the gift of a new day and a beautiful sunset.  She still remains one of my dearest friends, a shift from the mother/daughter dynamic to a true friendship as I grow older.

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I know that Rose will make it through this next trial in her life with these same traits, battling through and anxious to get back to the barn, back to her horses, her students, and her life, we can all be assured that she will be back in the saddle again – and in no time.  But beyond that, I hope that every other young girl has that trainer – the one the not only teaches you half pass and pirouette, how to get a flying change and how to find a distance, but the one that teaches you how to LIVE life – a life that means something, and a life that impacts so many around you.  I know she has impacted mine, and I know so many others who would agree. Get better Rose, your Edgewood Team that encompasses such a great area around the world now, is rooting for you.  We love you.

Loving and letting go…

Four years ago, almost to the day, I began dating my boyfriend Luke.  We were both managing farms in Paris, KY and it seemed predetermined for us to find each other – both from Pennsylvania, both managing thoroughbred breeding farms, both slightly obsessed with his yellow lab Bailey – fate took over, and our relationship took off.

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Flash forward four years later, and he has moved from my boyfriend to my manfriend (he might kill me for writing that) or as my Australian friend calls it, my partner. Not much has changed besides the fact that I have returned to school to obtain my PhD in veterinary sciences, but he continues to manage a thoroughbred breeding farm, oh, and I guess we now have TWO lab’s to love!  I spend my free time getting my farm fix on his farm by helping him – I assist with foaling all of the mares, I pull the yearlings manes/clip them prior to the sales, do turn out, come out on most Sundays to help feed, and if I’m feeling extra awesome I’ll help muck stalls (I know what you’re all thinking, I TOTALLY deserve The Girlfriend of the Year award – I KNOW).  So nothing was out of the ordinary when his phone rang at 11PM on a freezing night in February this year.  We threw on our bibs, hopped into his truck, and ventured into the night.

We arrived to the barn and I proceeded to the mares stall while Luke ran to the tack room to turn off the foaling alert monitor while also grabbing the foaling kit.  The mare was well into the second stage of delivery – the front feet were presented with the amnion, and the mare was lying down and pushing – we wrapped the mares tail, reached into the birth canal to check the rest of the presentation of the foal, making sure that he was “diving out” as necessary for equine birth, and then walked out of the stall – allowing the mare to have as natural of a birth process as possible. But nothing happened. The mare stopped pushing and the foal never progressed outwards – and we knew that human assistance would be required and we went into the stall and began pulling.  Rotating left leg, right leg, left leg, right leg, we attempted to dislodge the shoulders from her pelvis to no avail.  We attached OB chains and began pulling with more strength – but still, nothing.  Luke looked at me and nodded his head – our system was well oiled enough that I knew what this meant – he was hooking up the trailer, and I was to get her up and loaded – we were off to the clinic.

The trailer ride was one of the longest, and possibly the coldest of my life.  I offered to ride in the trailer with the mare in case she began having contractions again during the ride, and Luke raced down the back roads of Kentucky in fast pursuit of veterinary assistance.  We arrived at the clinic prepared for surgical intervention, and the vets were sent off to begin to prepare the sedatives and possible anesthesia – but in a miraculous display of human strength and ingenuity, two more strong men added their weight to the chains and attempted one last pull and into the world came BODE.

We all stared at the monstrosity that was the foal in front of us.  One of the interns summed it up by simply stating “WHOA.  Now that’s a big’n.”  He was HUGE, a solid 150 lbs. But there was no time to ogle, the foal was quickly taken to a stall to receive oxygen and other essential nutrients/medications as we all believed that he had been oxygen deprived while being in the birth canal for almost an hour and a half – we knew that in an ideal birth, he would have been breathing within thirty minutes of the mares water breaking!  Luke and I stayed with the mare and the rest of the veterinarians, making sure that she was not hemorrhaging or showing signs of colic – both of which are quite common post-dystocia.  Suddenly one of the interns came into the room and turned to the main theriogenologist and the surgeon stating, “We might need to wait til he calms down to get the catheter in…oh, and I don’t think he needs oxygen.”  I stormed to the stall, wondering how a 15 minute old foal could possibly be “too hyper” for medical intervention – especially a foal that we were certain would be a “dummy foal” and oxygen deprived, and I arrived to the stall and saw it surrounded by grooms, techs, and vets – all staring in and smiling.  I peered around the corner and saw what the fuss was all about – not only was Bode already standing, he was PLAYING. Snorting at the straw, hopping around, and attempting to trot out the stall door, I just knew deep down that any apprehension of this foals survival could dissipate.  He was a fighter.

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Bode and his mom were discharged from the hospital rather quickly as neither of them appeared to be harmed in any way from the more stressful than normal foaling, and he arrived at Luke’s farm ready to take over the world.  He was a monster of a foal, but quite possibly the most affectionate and loving colt I had ever met.  I admit to helping Luke more often than I had previously, but most of my “help” came in the form of me sitting in Bode’s stall – grooming him, picking his feet, but just loving on him in general.

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And Bode, in return, loved on me back.  When he was 2 months old, he went through a rebellious streak and I received a phone call from a disgruntled Luke tell me that “my colt” was not letting anyone catch him, and that he was more of a jerk than I let on to people.  I hopped into my truck and drove to the farm, walked out into the field and called out “BODE!” – chuckling as my boyfriend glared at the colt jogging up to me and giving me an affectionate head butt.

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It was determined – we were besties.

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The months rolled on, and Bode blossomed into an amazing, and still quite large colt.  His owner comes to visit him often, usually walking away mumbling “gosh, that’s a good looking colt,” and the owners of his sire visited, letting us know that he was, indeed, a gorgeous foal.  It wasn’t just me – the general consensus was that this foal was COOL. He towered over his playmates, and was put together beautifully.

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Two weeks ago I was having lunch with Luke when he suddenly got somber and said, “I have something to tell you.”  I stared across the table at him, prepared for the worst with thoughts of illness, infidelity, and other traumatizing ideas when he said the ultimate: “We have entered Bode in the November sale.”

I was completely shocked – first at the information that I was receiving, and then secondly at the emotions that were running through my system.  I used to be a yearling manager, and as part of my job, nearly 90% of the horses that I raised were sold at either Keeneland or a Fasig Tipton sale.  On top of that, I myself have sold quite a few sport horses in the past few years, something that I quite enjoy doing – taking horses off the track and providing them with the training for a second career.  But this hit me like a rock.  I had been prepared for Bode to eventually leave the farm – maybe as a yearling at the sales, or (hopefully) even as a two year old to be broke and run under my boyfriends farms silks – but I had never considered that he would sell so soon.

I understood from an owners point of view why he was being sold.  He is gorgeous, he is well bred, and at this moment in time he is healthy.  Selling horses is a tricky game, one made with decisions of the heart as well as decisions of the brain and the bank.  Not everyone is equipped to handle the emotional, or the financial, gain – and mostly – loss of this game, but most enter in with the understanding that in order to provide funds for the horses that you intend to keep, race, and breed, you must sell some to financially support this – as it isn’t a cheap or a quick process.  Many farms keep the fillies with the idea that they can be bred and continue on the pedigrees of a great mare of the past, and therefore it is usually the colts that don’t make the cut as a “keeper.”  Colts are a much more risky game – as such a small percentage ever make it to the breeding shed to pass on their lineage, and recent mares like Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, as well as the more current Untapable, have shown breeders that the girls can step up to the plate just as well as the boys!  This might not be understood by the outside world, but the money that Bode brings at the sales will provide for a lengthy career and future for the smaller percentage of horses that the farm is able to keep as a runner, and eventually a broodmare, providing for their veterinary care, their stud fees, their training, and their management (ie, my boyfriend).  In exchange, we put for sale these other horses and hope that they are nice enough to meet the criteria of the great bloodstock agents, who therefore inform the amazing owners to purchase these horses, and the owners put them in the barns of the trainers like Graham Motion, Larry Jones, or Christophe Clement – among others – the “good guys.”  It is a gamble, but it is the game of breeding and raising racehorses.

So here I am, three months from the November sales, and contemplating this life that I have obtained within this industry.  I have never been this attached to a horse that I don’t even OWN, and I understand the owners decision with my brain, while my heart may take a few years to catch up.  I pray that one of the good guys buys him, and I hope that they are prepared for me to stalk their every move (I say this only jokingly…kinda…not really).  I am also going to talk to the owner and ask if I could put my own personal number on his jockey club papers with a note asking that it be called if he is ever in a bad place or ready for retirement from the track.  Besides those two things, and maybe the handy websites like my VirtualStable and Keeneland Sales results, that is pretty much all that I can do (besides cry myself to sleep and see a therapist, but those are off the subject).  I hope to write a blog in 4 years with the title “I GOT BODE BACK” with my family and friends in a picture smiling ear to ear as I take him over his first XC fence. Until then, I will follow him through his race career, hopefully as an insider – a non-interest gaining partner, but someone that the owners can tolerate via email, but at worst as the person on the outside of the paddock and winners circle surrounded by strangers who wouldn’t know him from Distorted Humor, but with my iPhone taking video and tears streaming down my face.  And to all of you – if you see that person in the next three or four years at the races, put some money on Bode – for he wasn’t just brought into this world as an entity.  He was brought in with love.

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Photo’s Copyright Susan Black Photography

A letter from the breeder to the rehomer…

I am a member of many of these “OTTB” groups on social media, and do so hoping to be a voice from the inside, one that can maybe answer questions on pedigree, or connect these people with their horses breeder or owner – usually in the hopes of a foal picture or some information on a quirk. I tell each of them to please be respectful during these inquiries – that the quickest way to injure this connection that we are trying to harbor between the racing industry and the sport horse world, is to convince all of the breeders, trainers, and owners that the metaphorical “WE” of the sport horse world is actually a world full of PETA activists who wants to shut down the industry in its entirety. Many of these people are quick to say that they “rescued” their horses, or that their horses were “in bad shape” and I hope to advise them that their breeder was probably not their last owner on the track, nor were they a money hungry mob man. I find it may be easier to simply make a list of things that I wish I could say to all future OTTB owners/caretakers:

1. Your horses breeder/owner was in the business to “make millions.”

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This is Dynamaker as a yearling.  He is my personal OTTB, so I will base most of these off of him.  His dam Dynamist is by Dynaformer, who stood at Three Chimneys for his final breeding season at $150,000 per live foal.  He himself is by Empire Maker, who stood at Juddmonte during his INITIAL breeding season at $100,000, but was more likely around $30,000 by 2007 when Dynamaker was conceived.  His dam Dynamist was sold the year Dynamaker was born at the Keeneland November sale for $360,000.  Did you know that the average price to board one of these weanlings/yearlings/mares at an elite breeding farm is approximately $30-$40/day?  So board for the year for ONE horse is approximately $14,000?  And that’s not including vet/farrier/dentist?  So his breeder had spent approximately $500,000 by the time Dynamaker had made it to the track – and he won a whopping $6,040 before being retired and rehomed as a jumper where I found him.  So, lets see, $500,000 – $6,040 = a $493,960 deficit. I don’t think many financial advisors would recommend this specific investment!

 

2.  You horses breeder/owner thought of his/her animal as a commodity and did not love them.

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Each of these animals is loved, adored, and cared for surrounded by the most educated horsemen, veterinarians, nutritionists, and farriers known to the industry.  We may send them to the sales to allow someone else to enjoy them in their racing endeavors, but you will never see a more full “Virtual Stable” than that of a breeders or farm managers.

 

3.  Your horses breeder/owner does not care about their horse post-racing.

I have had the privilege of being in contact with the breeders as well as the farm where my Dynamaker was foaled/raised/and raced for and can assure you that this statement couldn’t be further from the truth.  The day I purchased him, I woke up to an email with this:

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And two years later, I received a gorgeous competition saddle pad paying homage to his breeder and his racing career, with Dr. Chandler’s silks as well as his JC name embroidered on them for all to see:

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Through email, running into each other at the sales, instagram, and facebook – I stay in contact with my horses breeder and farm and they are THRILLED with his success post-racing.  As a manager of a different farm, I can guarantee you that I enjoy nothing more than finding out that one of mine has been rehomed to a second career, and will bend over backwards to give them any information/pictures that I can get my hands on!

 

4.  Your horses breeder/owner simply “didn’t care” to follow their horses career or know what happened to it.

I was recently told that a foal that I had bonded slightly too strongly with would be going through the November sale, and had to choke back the tears as I realized that  not only do I only have 4 more months of having immediate access to him – but that I would also potentially be losing any interaction at all, as the system is not set up to have information made public when horses are bought/sold/moved.

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As the farm manager (or in this case, the farm managers girlfriend) I have zero say in what is chosen to be done with this foal, and I know that the owner has to do what is right for him and his herd of horses.  I am currently plotting how I am going to maintain track of him during this transitional time until he is named and on the track where I can follow him through works and races, but it is not a perfect world and I understand that there is a chance that I may lose him.  Does that mean that I won’t be devastated if that happens? Absolutely not.  Does that mean that whoever gets ahold of him 4 years from now should assume that he was never loved?  Well I hope that it is my name next to OWNER in that case, but otherwise I think that these pictures are evidence enough for that answer.

 

 

I understand that in just with every other industry, there are bad people in the thoroughbred industry, and these people tend to flood over any information about the good.  The good people who have endured through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, just to be a part in the crazy, spectacular, and at times heart breaking world that is horses.  I have seen owners cry after selling a mare, I have seen grooms spend the night in a stall to watch a colicky weanling, and I have seen farm managers walk away sobbing after losing one of “their own”.

We are attempting to clean up the industry bit by bit – just a few days ago a group of the top trainers signed a pledge to stand behind the elimination of race day medication by 2016 – and in the past few years more farms and tracks have pledged their assistance to thoroughbred aftercare.  We still have a ways to go – but the path is slowly being chiseled away, something that needs to be done from both sides.  We as breeders need to support and build aftercare, but the sport horse world and fellow second careers need to respect and not be disillusioned about the breeding and racing industries as well.  One day I hope that we can meet in the middle, but until then I will continue to assist others in their journey with their ex-racehorses and hopefully remain a bridge between these two worlds.

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