Gambling on life…

I woke up this morning and sat down with my cup of coffee (lightly sugared) to catch up on the news while my dogs ate their breakfast.  It is my daily “down time” and I relish in it, savoring every last minute and every last drop.

As I was sipping on my steaming hot coffee, I heard the news anchors begin to speak of the lottery, and how the Jackpot was the highest it has ever been – at $700 million dollars.  I began to visualize what I would do if I won that much money, and was astonished to realize that my taste wasn’t that expensive.  Things like a new truck, as mine is on its last dying miles.  A new blanket for my (very) large horse, as he is currently borrowing his brothers.  Entry fees for all of those events of 2016 that I currently can’t afford. The list was long, but the majority was simple.  Things that most American’s, or at least those who own horses, would also have.  There was no Aston Martin.  No island in the Caribbean.  No private jet.

In fact, there was almost nothing elaborate….well, except, for a farm.  Because if I won $700 million dollars tomorrow, that first thing that I would purchase would be a farm.  The farm of my dreams.  The farm of my significant others dreams.  Luke and I have been sending each other links to farms for sale for the entirety of our 5 years together.  Always with the message of “look at this one” or “this one isn’t too much.”  And by too much, we mean $1,100,000 for 200 acres.  The monopoly money of our dreams.

The farms that we send are not ornate.  In fact, they are usually run down and in need of some elbow grease.  We look for good land, solid structures, and a smaller house.  The usual one is overgrown with weeds, with some fencing down.  The shutters falling off of the home, the stall doors no  longer on the hinges.  Because we know two things – that this is the only way we will ever afford one, and that between his extreme intelligence of mechanics and maintenance, and my strong desire to work my ass off for this, we will get it done.

 

But two things stop us: Money. And fear.

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I was at a KENA (Kentucky Equine Networking Association) meeting a few weeks ago, when I heard a man speak of what makes a small business successful. He said that the two most imperative things that a small business needs to survive are a) to have a business plan, and b) enough capital to survive two years.

While hearing him talk, I fidgeted in my seat; literally feeling a fire be lit under my ass, and I raised my hand.  I told him that my partner and I had a hell of a business plan, but that we were lacking the capital.  I asked him how he advised that we raise it.  How we expected to survive two years building a farm in an industry that runs on millions, not hundreds. He laughed and asked me what my business plan was, and what made me unique.

So I had to answer, and think of what in fact did make us unique?

Luke is a genius.  The person that so many of our fellow farm managers and friends call to repair a tractor, or evaluate a field.  He has foaled thousands of mares, able to reposition the most extreme dystocia.  I watch in awe as he survey’s a farm, knowing what needs to be done to this field or that.  Knowing how to rotate the horses, bale hay, and still have the paddocks looking pristine.  He is the numbers man.  The one that knows how to scrimp on this, and spend on that.  Making the pennies stretch out, and using elbow grease in replacement of the money.  And on top of that all, he has the softest hands I’ve seen on the end of a shank; able to show the most difficult of horses.

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Luke doing night checks

And I am the yin to his yang.  Where he understands mechanics, I understand science.  I want nothing more than to spend my days in the barn with the yearlings, tweaking their nutrition and exercise plan this way or that. Getting their coats to look just right.  The repositioning of fat to muscle.

Luke6

Overseeing prep is difficult for the short people

And on top of my love of yearlings, and the sales, I am getting my doctorate in equine reproduction.  The last four years of my life have been spent studying infertility in mares.  What I call persistent endometritis, but the general farm manager calls “the dirty ones” or “the pain in my ass.”  I have the knowledge, the education, and now the hands-on experience of getting these mares healthy and fertile again.  Something not many can claim.

And what sets us apart, even beyond this?  We understand the industry as a whole.  We are capable of getting mares pregnant, keeping them pregnant, foaling viable foals, raising successful sales yearlings as well as racehorses, and then when the time comes, we are successful at retraining them for second careers and long, happy lives.  It is a cyclical thing in our minds.

Amy 8

A successful transition to a second career

But the cycle costs so much just to get jump started. And for years now, we have been doing it under the umbrella of others money, others gamble.

We complement each other so well.  He sees the broad picture, I see the details.  He can repair a tractor, while I would rather bandage a leg.  He loves the mares and foals, while I enjoy the yearlings and the stallions.  And yet both of us are driven.  Both of us understand the 90+ hour weeks.  Both of us are used to the long days and longer nights – although he does look better than me after an all-nighter!

But we both have also witnessed friends and fellow horsemen fail.  We tell each other that we almost know too much.  We know how much a tractor, a spreader, and a batwing cost.  We know how hard it is to get clients into your stalls, and then to actually get the clients that pay.  We know how difficult it is on relationships, families, and children when the parents devote their lives to a farm and not to a home.  But we want it.  We want it so badly.

Unfortunately, for now, it is just a figment of our imagination.  An idea that we pray will become a reality.  Pennies are being saved, connections are being made, and yet it still feels so far away.  So maybe, just maybe, we will have to begin to gamble.  We agreed to go buy lottery tickets to that Jackpot last night, beginning our gambling ways.  But we know that this will be something that requires a much larger jump, a much larger bet.

But what is the hardest thing to gamble on?  The money in your bank?  The roof over your head?  Or maybe, just maybe, it is yourself.

Luke3

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Being a woman in a mans world…

I just got done reading Steve Haskins piece on women in the industry. My first reaction upon reading the headline was a resounding “YES!! Finally!!” And then I started to think. About what his story said, but more importantly about what his story didn’t say.

Are there women making up a large portion of our audience? Yes. Thousands upon thousands of our followers, viewers, and race goers are women.  And like Mr. Haskin said, they are brought to the races because of one thing and one thing only – a love of the horse.  This love is empowering for us, but it is also our greatest downfall.  Because these same people are the ones who read on social media of all of the horror stories which get written about our beloved industry, and just as they could become our greatest fans, they quickly become our greatest threat.  They become the naysayers, the loathers, the club that quickly hits “share” before looking into the facts.

And as Mr. Haskin states, there are a select few who get to the elite positions within the industry. But the keywords here are, select few. Does that mean that many don’t try? Of course not.  Thousands of women have worked within the industry.  And some do rise to the top.  But in the Sport of Kings, it quickly becomes apparent that many of the Queens are simply treated as pawns.

I was one of them. I got into the industry as a groom. I quickly moved up to a management position, based simply on a hard work ethic and a high intelligence. I was willing to learn, but more importantly I was willing to do anything. Show up for the vet an hour ahead of time without being paid?  Sure. Cancel a dinner date with my boyfriend so that I could ride in the trailer with a mare to the breeding shed?  Definitely. And work my ass off cleaning stalls just to prove a point that I could keep up with the boys? Every day.

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That got me to a management position, but it wasn’t easy. I was told by some farms that they wouldn’t even hire a girl. That they would rather discriminate against a woman, instead of “control” or “deal with” their men. These men who obviously couldn’t be forced to behave in the social norm, to respect women, and treat them as equals.  Because in this archaic industry, many men still thought that the social norm was to treat women as second class citizens.  In fact, in 2016, the social norm is still to treat women as second class citizens.  It is not just our industry, it is sadly the way of the world!

I was lucky, that I found one of the farms that would give me a chance.  But it wasn’t all sunshine and roses in the position. I dealt with men daily who didn’t respect having a woman in charge.

I remember having a bloodstock agent come out one day while my mother was visiting. The showing of the yearlings didn’t go well and tensions were high. One of the girls that worked on the farm walked into the barn and in defeat said that she was just wanted to cry. My mother sternly and firmly reprimanded her. She said “don’t you dare, not when my daughter has spent the last 18 months convincing these men that girls weren’t going to cry at the drop of a hat!”  I realized that day, that my mom knew exactly how hard it was for me in this world.

Or the time that I worked the sales for my boyfriends consignment. We were getting a big colt ready for the ring, when a neighboring consignor walked up and asked who was taking him. My boyfriend pointed at me with a confused look on his face. But I was used to this. I was used to the men assuming that women handled fillies and boys handled colts. I don’t think that my boyfriend believed me when I came home and told him of the sexism that ran rampant throughout the industry. I remember that day the man laughing, and saying “no, seriously, who is taking the colt?”

I knew not to react, and I knew not to lose my temper. I was just as capable of a handler as any of the men around us. I also knew that there were many girls who thought that they were better horseman than they actually were. But there are also plenty of men who believed the same. I had worked the sales with many consignors, many showman, and in many places.

And do you know who the first person would be that I would hire for my own consignment? A tiny 5’1 blonde 24-year-old who weighs less than 110 pounds, Ashley Bradshaw. I worked one single sale with her, and was able to put aside my own ego, and just simply watch and learn. She might’ve been younger than me, she might’ve been smaller than me, but she was better.

I watched large colts, just melting in her hands. Colts who had previously been savaging the men, practically fall asleep on the end of her shank. I learned that day, that neither sex, nor size, nor strength mattered, when you were working with horses. Confidence, good hands, and a good head do.

But our industry as a whole isn’t there yet. Steve Haskin mentioned the two or three women who are doing amazing in each field– Maggi and Rosie, Linda Rice and Amy Zimmerman. But he never mentioned a farm manager. And I know, I know, we would all be quick to say Sandy Hatfield. The only female stallion manager I know. The only female to ever win Farm Manager of the Year. I respect her. I wanted to be her. But again, she is only one.

Mr. Haskin states that the women get involved because they grew up around horses. To me, this means that they should be MORE capable in the hands-on positions within the industry. In the groom, the showman, the manager. But they are not accepted as such.  Instead, they are placed in the positions of nightwatch, office staff, assistant.  And are those positions still highly necessary and well respected?  Of course.  I am not trying to take away anything from them.  But they are not the general manager, or even the broodmare or yearling manager.

So many of my friends within the industry are women, and so many of them WERE in those management positions, or capable of getting there. But they don’t last.  They go into an office position, or work in bloodstock, or worse, leave the industry entirely.

And is a large part of this because most women don’t want it? Sure. I don’t know many people in general who want the 90+ hour work week, the lack of sleep, the full dedication to ones job. It is a dirty, long, thankless position. One that only receives recognition by the animals with which it cares for.  But these same variables weigh heavily on a mans mind as he makes the leap into farm life.

Ponying

So I think that there are more reasons. The industry is still skewed heavily towards the man. It is still unbelieving that a woman can do the same job. Women still make less money for the same position that a man holds.  And women are still hesitant to give up their lives, their hobbies, and their families, just to be placed in a job where they are constantly questioned of their ability.

And this needs to change. Because if you polled 100 men and 100 woman, I can guarantee there will be a higher percentage of women who would sacrifice their lives for the chance to work with horses.  These same women who would devote their lives to the industry that we all love.  But so many of them are being pulled away by a career with more money, fewer hours, and more respect.  A career that can afford them their own personal horses and a retirement plan.  A career that gives maternity leave and overtime.

And many of these women are reading on social media of the “atrocities” of the thoroughbred industry, and they are the first to be swayed by the stories on Facebook and twitter.  These women who love their horses also fear for the safety and wellbeing of the thoroughbred and are quick to share a story, whether it be true or not.  These women who are capable of standing on the platform of the industry and speak of the truths and greatness of our fellow horsemen, are also capable of standing on a soapbox and fill the minds of their friends and followers with the negative stories, with the PETA lies, and the nursemare untruths.

So will women keep the industry alive?  I wish I could say that I believe so. But more certainly, I hope so.  I know so many women who are capable of leading the way, but who are on their last few laps of trying to break the walls down for the thousands behind them.  I gave up.  I went back to school.  I broke under the pressure.  But there are girls who are stronger then me who might just do it.  But they need help.

So in reference to Mr. Haskin’s National Velvet, these women do in fact have their Pi, and now they just need their Mi Taylor.  They need that man who believes in them, who opens the door for them when they knock, and who pushes them to succeed.  The man who said:

Some day you’ll learn that greatness is only the seizing of opportunity – clutching with your bare hands ’til the knuckles show white

So be that industry.  Give the women that opportunity.  Because trust me, the women I know, will clutch it until their knuckles turn white.

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How do you measure a year?

“525,600 minutes. 525,000 moments so dear. 525,600 minutes. How do you measure, measure a year?”

These lyrics sang in the Broadway musical “Rent” have been weighing heavily on my mind. Tis the season for everybody to begin to speak of their year, telling of triumphs, and failures. Victories, and setbacks. Statuses of show records, and levels competed. Claiming to change their strategy for next year.

They’re also the lyrics that were sang at my father’s funeral.

In the horse business, our victories are measured on an infantismal scale. The statuses that I keep seeing speak of three dollar ribbons, double clears, and qualifications to the next expensive show. 13 years ago, My statuses would’ve been the same. I was in the rat race, consumed by drive to get to the next level, the next championship, the next big show.

But then I burned out. Just as I see so many young girls do today. At 17 I retired. In the only way a youth amateur rider can. I hung up my safety vest. I turned my horse out. And defeated, I swore to myself that I wouldn’t compete again. At least not for a while.

So here we are at the end of 2015, a time when we’re supposed to look back in retrospect, and decide whether or not we were a success or a failure. My year was, quite simply, bipolar. The winter was harsh, the spring was short, and my show season nonexistent. My fall was my only true season of success.

I came in with a bang. Entering one of the first events of the season in Kentucky, I successfully ran around my first training. But having nursed a puncture wound for weeks prior to the event, I decided to have it radiographed a few days after. What we found devastated me. My horses left hind splint bone was in four pieces, and would need to be removed. My summer was over, at least for Mak. It would be spent with bandage changes, IV antibiotic’s, and if we were lucky, a slow and steady process of getting him back in shape.

2015 was over.

But, I thought luckily, only two weeks before this, I had brought a new young thoroughbred home. With the idea of doing the RRP thoroughbred makeover, I had gotten him in the hopes of eventing him as well. This was the best case scenario. Mak would be finishing his summer, just as Nixon would begin his. But as I have now learned is Nixon’s way, he had other ideas.

I spent all of May, June, July, and most of August exasperated. I didn’t get to do a single horse show. I also didn’t get to have very much fun. Because for me it’s not the horse shows or the events that make this fun. I didn’t even enjoy riding on a daily basis. He was, quite simply, tough.  Tougher than any horse I had ridden.  I thought I would actually have to admit trainer’s defeat with this one.  But because this is the horse world, I was more scared of what others would think if I gave up than what would happen if I didn’t.  Another failure of 2015.  A mental failure.

But a success?  Having cut out the toxic friendships, I was finally surrounded by those who encouraged me to continue on.  Even if failure was at the end of the tunnel, they convinced me to put every last drop of try into this horse.

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Nixon in the summer.  Photo by JJ Silliman.

I got to finally rectify this with Nixon in October, by getting to do back to back shows at the Kentucky horse Park. We won both.

So in my synopsis of 2015, that is what should read. Move up to training level – check. Win a combined test – check. Win a nationwide competition on thoroughbred retraining – check.

 

But of course being an horseman, I am a perfectionist. I might’ve had three amazing weekends, but that leaves 49 that I didn’t. That is how the Facebook statuses read.  Because we are horsemen.  And even when we have experienced the highest of highs, we still fixate on the lows.

 

I was recently interviewed for a television show that will be featured on RideTV. The woman interviewing me, Jane, asked me if I had any words of wisdom or a specific mentality that got me through the tough times. I thought for a moment, and then I remembered a saying that my parents had hung up in our home.

“The worst day of fishing, is better than the best day at work.”

This is how I feel about horse showing. I can’t afford to compete every weekend like some. But I can afford to compete a few times. I can’t afford to board my horses at an elite fancy farm. But I can afford to own a horse. And I can’t afford to have the latest style or trend adorning me. But I look pretty darn good in hand-me-downs. And the worst day of showing a horse, isn’t a bad day. Let’s be honest, we’re living every little girls dream. We have ponies. Do you think the little girls care if your pony is going prelim? No. Why? Because it’s a pony.

Let us remember that when we get hard on ourselves.  We are the few that got to live out those childhood dreams.  We still have those ponies.

Shana

Childhood dreams

So this year, 2015, lets all take a moment to reflect not on the competitions, not on the levels, not on the three dollar ribbons. Instead, may you reflect on that one dressage school where your horse finally leg yielded. Or that time a 4* rider told you he thought your horse was “the one,” even after your horse took off with you over a crossrail. That cross country lesson with your trainer, where she smiled and said how much you’ve improved. That moment, when your vet becomes more than a vet and shows up on show day just to feed you. Or the show that you didn’t get off of the wait list for, but where you got to watch your dear friend cross the finish flags of her first BN in 15 years, a smile plastered on her face.

And that day, when the man who works at the stable that you board at, who rarely speaks a word, tells you that you deserved to win. He says, in broken English, that you work harder than anyone he has ever seen.

Those are some of my 525,600 minutes. And that’s how I’ll treasure this year.

12 Days of Christmas

 

I have contemplated writing a blog to summarize the year, but the words have failed me.  2015 was full of the highest of highs (winning RRP, finally going training level) to the lowest of lows (Mak fracturing his leg, a bad fall on Nixon) and its just hard to summarize the bipolar emotions.  But I started posting some 12 day’s of Christmas on my Facebook, and with some encouragement by some good friends, realize that this is the perfect way to summarize my year.

 

On the 12th day of Christmas (2015), my true loves (Frank, Mak, and Nixon) gave to me:

12 boards a-broken

Christmas 6
11 antibiotics given
10 events a-missing

Christmas 5
9 trot sets gasping

Christmas 7
8 burrs detangling

Christmas 10
7 rails a-knocking

CHristmas 4
6 shoes for pulling
5 abscesses BLOWN, DUH DUN DUN DUN

4 new tires

Christmas 9
3 horse shows

Christmas 8
2 that I placed in

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And 1 training level event without an E!

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Thank you all for supporting this blog, and may you and yours (2 and 4 legged) have a VERY Merry Christmas!

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A windy path to a unique career

“So when you graduate, you’ll be a vet?”

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I am now in the 3rd year of my doctoral degree at the University of Kentucky.  One of the only programs which offers a masters and doctorate in Veterinary Sciences, I started this program in an odd turn of events.  The majority of the students in my labs were veterinarians from foreign countries; countries that truly supported the pursuit of higher education.  Others were in the program after completing a bachelors in animal sciences, and wanting to get to veterinary school, assuming a master’s degree would assist in the application process.  And then even less were like me.  The horsemen.  Farm managers, skilled sport horse riders, passionate horse owners, who had gone into this field because of a passion for a disease, a lameness, an ailment.

Ten years ago, I would have never believed I would be on this route.  I had wanted to be a veterinarian practically from birth.  I was passionate about animal health, I loved working with the animals, and I was fascinated by medicine.  Under the tutelage of Dr. Kelly Johnson, this fascination had grown to an all-out consuming lifestyle.  I spent my holidays from school in her truck.  I spent my summers working on farms and ranches.  I attended a university with a renowned pre-veterinary route.  I worked my ass off, one exam at a time.  And then I failed. From one rejection letter to the next, my confidence in myself waned, and my passion for this field wavered.

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Working on a ranch in Wyoming to gain animal experience

Year after year, I did what the admissions told me to do.  I took that Online Animal Nutrition course.  I increased that GPA.  I worked with research animals instead of companions.  I got a full time job at a small animal clinic, having too many hours with large.  And nothing changed.  The rejection still followed me.  I became embarrassed by a 3.4 GPA.  I became enraged at my undergraduate university, believing its lack of reputation was at fault.  And I began to hate myself.  I was obviously undesirable. The vet school’s told me so.

So I rerouted.  I got hired as a manager on a premier thoroughbred breeding farm.  I found my niche.  I found happiness.  This industry that believed in the upmost care of their horses; the elite medicine of the game.  I met some of the best veterinarians in the industry.  But they all asked the same thing:

“Why not vet school?  You need to go to vet school.”

I smiled as I explained my story.  I laughed as I watched their interns struggle, all the while knowing that something about them had sparked an interest in the admissions committee. Something I thought that I was lacking.

But I slowly regained my confidence.  I increased my knowledge and my skill set.  And I became a damn good farm manager.  The veterinarians appreciated my passion for the medicine.  The lay people appreciated my horsemanship.  But something was still missing.  My scientific brain yearned for more.  So with a push from some of these famed veterinarians, I introduced myself to the Department Chair of the Gluck Equine Research Center at the University of Kentucky; Dr. Mats Troedsson.

I spoke to him of my background, my bachelors in biology.  I explained to him my passion for these diseases that were affecting my personal broodmare band; placentitis and endometritis, infertility and genetic abnormalities.  And as I spoke, I saw him smile.  I realized that I had met a kindred spirit.  He told me of his background in ambulatory medicine, but his passion for science.  He explained that his primary interests were exactly mine: placentitis and endometritis.  We bonded, and I left the meeting feeling like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

I began my graduate degree 6 months later, in Dr. Troedsson’s laboratory. Nervous to leave the farm, I was calmed when I found that in the reproduction lab, we worked with horses just as much as a farm manager would.  Still upset by my lack of a veterinary degree, I was amused to find that I would be performing my own ultrasounds, my own palpations, my own minor surgeries.

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Breeding a mare on my study

My thirst for medicine was quenched, and while I was not working hands-on with clients horses, I was satiated by the fact that my research might affect more. Instead of bettering one, I could actually better thousands.  The University of Kentucky is unique and outstanding in the fact that we have access to hundreds of research animals.  The farm manager in me is content by access to these animals, animals that are cared for just as I would my own.

And although there are still moments of insecurity in my career path, I try to push them aside.  I remind myself that I have gotten to do research on both of my diseases of interest: placentitis and endometritis.  And while the small studies that I have performed may not be ground breaking yet, my new found knowledge of both the physiology behind the disease, as well as in the laboratory techniques that can be utilized to study them, are imperative.  I went from a horse lover to a farm manager, a farm manager to a scientist, and to come full circle, a scientist that specializes in horses. I am finally content.

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Dr. Gabriel Davolli ultrasounding Harold for a study

I now meet so many young students who are either unsure of what they want to do with their bachelors, or are convinced that veterinary school is the only endpoint to a successful career with animals.  And I smile when I meet these people, because I was one of them.  I had no idea that this degree existed.  That I could be a doctor of philosophy in the field of veterinary science.  That there were other options.  I tell them of the pro’s and con’s of this degree.  I explain to them that I WAS one of them, and that although it took a windy road to get here, I am now happy.  

 

I hope to finish my degree within the next year, and can’t wait to have Dr. in front of my name.  This might be followed by PhD instead of DVM, but that’s ok.  I hope that those three letters strike up more conversations with the youth of the horse industry, and that they are intrigued by my story.  That they see something in me that reminds them of themselves, and that they learn about yet another career option in this great industry.  Let my struggle become their gain.  Let my passion for horses have a greater impact than what I ever had believed possible.

PhD3

 

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Sisters by barn…

I can remember it like it was yesterday. The age of five, wearing purple Wranglers at a dusty fairgrounds. I had gone to this Western Pennsylvania Quarter Horse Show with my Aunt Holly and Uncle Bob, most likely as an excuse to get me out of my mother’s hair. They were both ambitiously competing for another AQHA title, and like any young girl, I was quite easy to convince to travel to a show full of ponies. I was going to compete my own pony that I had been taking weekly lessons on, Chocolate, and struggling to memorize that damned barrel pattern.

Why did I have to turn left instead of right? What the hell was clockwise? Why did I have to trot instead of gallop? Who said I couldn’t whip my pony over and under like I see the adults do? This was a scam. I was ready for the pro’s.

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Pro.

So in a huff, my riding instructors daughter and I abandoned ship. We wandered off into the first mud puddle that we could find, and simply began to dig. As I tossed mud at her, and she smacked me with her stick, we realized something: this was love at first horse show.

Our relationship, one that started as “trainers daughter” and “client” soon morphed into something more along the lines of sisters. And like sisters, we loved each other deeply, but fought each other just as much. Both being good riders, we tended to be each other’s competition. And both on rather difficult horses, there was usually one of us heading home quite defeated instead of elated.

Amy 2

XC Schooling 1998 – Amy looks thrilled, and doesn’t have a safety vest…probably why she’s thrilled.  Oh wait, she still had this expression when I made her jump a XC fence Friday.

 

But it was in between the shows that the memories were made. While so many were aiming at qualifying for Penn National, we were building forts in the hay loft and being regailed by stories of how her mom once found a homeless person in her childhood hayloft, scaring the bejesus out of us. While some were desperate to make it to Maclay’s, we were finding frozen puddles in the driveway and perfecting our “Michelle Kwan” on paddock boots, sliding into the pavement more times that I can count. And while so many were sweating blood and tears towards Young Riders, we were trying to find ways to steal the tractor in order to get to the nearest gas station for Nutter Butter bars and a cherry coke.

Amy 3

Fake eyelashes at PA 4-H States.  We were stunning.

Amy ran away (quite happily) from eventing and found her niche in the hunter world, while I ran away from all competing and found my niche in the delivery and raising of race horses, but we still stayed together at heart. I was there the day that her father passed, as she was for mine. I was the first person she called when her mother had a catastrophic riding accident, and her phone was the first to ring when my Uncle was diagnosed with terminal cancer. And then she held my hand by phone when my Uncle Bob slipped from my life, the only person I knew that I could call who would not judge my grief, guilt, and anger at losing another man from my world.  This same Uncle Bob that brought us together as toddler’s, somehow only made us closer as adults.

This past weekend Amy came to visit for Thanksgiving, as we try to see each other as much as possible, but that usually ends up once per year. As we drove to the barn to go check my horses, we began to discuss where everyone else from our riding childhood was. Some are still riding for pleasure, most have moved away and have no connection to horses, but there are only a handful who still compete. Who still devote their lives to this “hobby”.  A hobby that becomes so much more.  We giggled over memories of thrills and spills, most involving something her mother made us swear we wouldn’t do. But neither of us mentioned a ribbon or a trophy. We didn’t even really remember which show we were riding at that caused the endeavors of our lives.  It was so obvious that the all-consuming competition records that had tried to tear us apart were insignificant only 10 years later…

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Yup, we went through a quarter life crisis and got back into Western Pleasure…me on my thoroughbred event horse…

And yet a month ago, I watched hours upon hours of live stream of Penn National just to catch a glimpse of her A/O round, and then two weeks later, she watched the entire live stream of the Retired Racehorse Project Makeover just to see my freestyle. She was the first person to call, to post, to message. She held my hand throughout the journey, from 500 miles away.

There are no stars next to our names, or large pewter trophies in our living rooms. The ribbons I hold most dear are a red one and a black one, both for random reasons. I never made it to Young Riders, just as she never made it to the Maclay’s. But what we lacked in fame, we have now made up for in dedication. In passion. In love for these animals and desire to simply be better. Neither of us are heading to the Olympics, but we are champions in our own right. We are two of the few who “made it through” the teenage years. An accomplishment we realized was quite large on its own.

Nearing 30, we now realize what was important in our teenage years. It wasn’t moving up a level, it sure as hell wasn’t making another rating in Pony Club. It doesn’t matter if we had made it to Young Riders, or the Maclay’s. Because what matters is that we came out the other side as riders who were skilled enough to journey off on our own. We are also two of the blessed who gained a friend for life. But lets be honest, we aren’t friends, we’re sisters. And we know, we are not be sisters by blood, because our bond is even stronger, we’re sisters by barn.

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Legal. The illegal pictures didn’t make it.

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Retraining, not rescuing, the modern day thoroughbred

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Which brings me to Nixon, or Called To Serve…

3. Nixon (2009 Afleet Alex – Andover Lady)

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

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

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

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