I have written so much of my love, and eventual loss, of my father six years ago – and hinted on the fact that my one true passion – horses, were the bane of his existence. It was our one true disagreement, the one chip in an otherwise perfect father/daughter relationship. But where he was the man in my life who was quick to push me away from these bucking bronco’s, deter me from a life as a professional rider or trainer, and never condone any competition or clinic, I had another man waiting in the wings to lend support, a helping hand, and a snazzy western pleasure outfit, and he was my Uncle Bob.
My Uncle Bob (and my Aunt Holly) were the driving force behind this all consuming obsession – and it started early in life – with the lease of Chocolate, aka Heathen Pony, and the relationship that they encouraged with a fellow competitor on the circuit of theirs – Rose Watt. When my parents didn’t have the time to drive my to 4-H practice, Bobby was there. When no one wanted to go tack shopping with me, Bobby was the first to jump at a trip to Schneiders or Rod’s, and when no one could console me after a bad loss or a bad toss, Uncle Bob was the first to crack a joke and pick me back up. My childhood was spent with him in dusty fairgrounds on bad ponies, and we were quite the twosome. I was quick to earn the name of Ramrod from my Uncle Bob – a name that I took great pride in. He said that even when my pony Chocolate was attempting to buck me off at his hardest, I stayed centered on the saddle – sitting “ramrod” straight. I carried that nickname for 20 years – and I guess somethings never change.
Some of my fondest memories of my Uncle Bob are of the week that we spent together at Paradise Ranch in 2003. My parents had to abandon ship at the last second, leaving Uncle Bob and Aunt Holly on a week long vacation at a dude ranch for a week with a 13, 17, and 20 year old. It was giggle worthy to say the least. But between the arguing, the (occasional) underage beverage snuck in, and the mischevious situations that my siblings and I put them through, Uncle Bob and I got in an entire week of riding together. He hadn’t sat on a horse in years, and yet his legs just draped in the stirrups, and his back stayed straight. He embodied a cowboy in every aspect of the word – he was honest to a fault, quick to help anyone in their time of need, a hard worker with a never ending time clock, a driver of big chevy trucks, he could pull off a Stetson, and at the end of the day, the perfect guy to crack open a Bud Heavy and exchange stories into the night. We spent the week galloping the Big Horn Mountains, giving the wranglers a run for their money in team penning, and swing dancing into the night. It was one of the best weeks of my life, and I am so grateful for those memories.
My relatively short life was surrounded by these strong men – my father to lean on during issues with my studies and life’s daily struggles, and my Uncle Bob was there to make me laugh, to get me that new Stetson, or that rope that no one else in my right wing upscale family would buy me. He was the ying to my dads yang, and when I lost my dad – he quickly stepped into the roll of both ying and yang. Neither of them liked to think of me as being old enough for a serious boyfriend, and knowing that I never would the chance to have my dad approve of my relationship with Luke – I approached his introduction to my Uncle Bob trepidatiously. Within seconds of their introductions though, I was quick to realize that they were kindred spirits; the same person in one. We spent the last few weeks of my Uncles life at his home, getting everything “settled” for the future – and a large part of this was watching him bond with Luke over their shared loved of “toys” – his immaculately cared for Chevy, his anally organized garage, and his love of his antiques. They drank beers, they chatted over their battling brands of choice of cigarette, and they drove around in the Suburban like a bunch of hooligans. It was reassurring to see my uncles love for my partner in life, and yet excruciating to watch Luke get attached to a man that I knew didn’t have very long. But like Garth said, “I could have missed the pain, but I would have had to miss the dance.”
My uncle lost his battle to prostate and lung cancer, two years ago. On December 13th, 2012. On that day I lost my ying and my yang, my cheerleader at horse shows, and my instigator of fun times. But as I have learned in my relatively short life, I also was forced into gaining insight, bravery, and strength. A few weeks before the day, my uncle pulled me outside into “His Garage” and told me that he loved me. We were both the type to never express emotion – sharing a slap on the back instead of an “I love you” or a clink of beers instead of a “you’re the best.” But with the future uncertain, and time running out – we were both forced to conquer our insecurities and our awkward fear of emotion and embrace and admit how much we meant to each other. We ended the conversation with him telling me that he didn’t worry about me. He knew that I would be ok. That I was strong. That I knew how to sit a buck — because I was his Ramrod. I still am Uncle Bob – I will always miss you, but I will always be your Ramrod.
I have read the many posts written lately on the trials and tribulations of selling horses, and started giggling as I realized that most of these complaints (don’t fight price, don’t harass sellers after 9PM, etc) were the least of most of our worries. And by our, I mean any one who has ever sold a horse. I am not a professional rider, nor do I have a team of working students or a website on which to advertise or field the crazy amounts of emails, messages, and phone calls that selling a horse entails. But I LOVE riding young horses. This has been a passion of mine since my time working at a ranch in Wyoming where I realized that I was actually good at instilling confidence in young horses, and has carried over to breaking some yearlings, retraining some random warmbloods and Appaloosas (because those OBVIOUSLY go together) and more recently, in the retraining and selling of thoroughbreds who are finished with their racing careers. I have met some fabulous people through this journey, becoming a part of their lives, all the while getting to ride some pretty spectacular horses, making me a better rider along the way. And with selling these horses, I have learned you usually have to wade through about 100 responses to find that “perfect fit” for your equine buddy. Advertising is usually key, and with that being said, let me please offer some advice to all of those people who find these gorgeous horses on the World Wide Web and decide to contact the seller.
1 – Trades:
I do not get involved in these “quick flips” where someone tries to simply get a few hundred dollars for their horse. I put time, money, sweat, and *sometimes* tears into these horses. They are extremely well cared for, they are hauled around to shows and events, and in turn, I put a fair market price on them. With that being said – when I have a sound, sane, gorgeous 4 year old TB for sale – do NOT contact me and ask if I would trade him for your 16 year old laminitic warmblood, implying that I am getting the better end of the deal simply because it is a warmblood. In full Michelle Tanner voice, all I can say is: HOW RUDE.
2 – Completely Ludicrous Bargains:
“A horse worth a dollar vs a horse worth more than a dollar…see if you can pick which is which.”
This goes along the same path as trades. Is bargaining a part of horse sales? Sure. But please remember that most of these bargains take place AFTER you have ridden, or preferably vetted, the horse. You might find something that will need a bit of chiropractic work, or injections, but willing to spend the extra money on maintenance and therefore ask for a bit of a discount – most sellers are negotiable to this. But DO NOT contact someone who is selling a horse for $15,000 and as them how low they will go, or (my favorite) if they’ll take 15 HUNDRED. You will be lucky if you even get a response.
3 – Questions that I can not answer:
“Mak likes labs, but not Pekignese.”
This encompasses SO many things. Like what the weather will be in 3 weeks when you want to come try him. Or how much it costs to ship him to Iowa. Or when he got his first set of shoes. Or if he likes Great Danes. You might just catch me on a day I feel extremely snarky. Or after a few glasses of wine. But there’s two options – I DON’T respond, or I find that Great Dane and make an extremely cute Christmas Card – but either way I probably won’t sell my horse to you.
4 – Questions I can answer but am not sure why I am being asked them:
“Trick Pony Mason”
This involved EVERYTHING that I have already posted in his ad. If I wrote he was 16hh, he’s 16hh. If I wrote that he has been trained as an eventer, don’t ask me if he can pull a cart. If I wrote that he was a 2010 model, don’t ask me how old he was. And my ABSOLUTE favorite – don’t ask me if he’s snuggly. Or if he likes treats. Or if he comes when he’s called. I don’t even want to explain why these are slightly ridiculous unless you are buying him to a) be a seeing eye horse b) doing a research project on equine obesity, or are c) extremely lazy.
5 – Comments/Questions that do not pertain at all to my horse:
If you see a horse posted on a facebook page, an instagram account, or any other social media thingymabob that allows you to comment – that does not mean you HAVE to comment. This goes back to the “my momma told me if I have nothing nice to say, then say nothing at all” idea. If I have a horse priced at $15,000 and you think he’s worth $15 – that’s fantastic, but not necessary to be commented. If I have a horse that is bay but you only like grey’s – also fascinating, but yet again, not necessary. If I have a horse that is 16hh and you’re 4’11 daughter can only rider 17hh or higher – well I hope you invest in a step stool and some nose bleeding apparatuses, but again, not essential for my knowledge.
I have sold quite a few horses in these past few years – and enjoy the process of training them and then following them on in their new lives quite immensely – but the sales process is always my least favorite aspect of it all. So please, in your next horse shopping endeavor – filter your questions, stay polite (saying Hello, Good morning, Please, and Thank you in email correspondings is appreciated), and foremost – think before you type/talk. And to all of the amazing people I have interacted with these past few years, whether through trying a horse, selling a horse, or simply communicating – thank you for minding what your momma told you!
I don’t know what I clicked on on my (very old) laptop this morning, but I suddenly found many of my old papers that had been written during my time as a Creating Writing minor in college – fiction, nonfiction, scientific – and was amazed. I don’t have much to share with you in my current life – so here is a look into my past writing. I hope you enjoy.
“Your family is in our prayers.”
Another neighbor, another casserole, another hug, another prayer. I came home to watch my younger brother, not to play shrink to the 14,000 people that live in Meadville. They all come bringing food, advice, and their speeches of God and praying. Neighbors that I didn’t know existed, friends that I hadn’t seen in years, and the entire Meadville Bulldog hockey team seemed to think that I need to do nothing but eat and pray. I took the dishes and handed them to my growing, and very hungry, brother. I accepted the hugs and swore that I would wash the smell of Chanel from my clothes the following day. But I just couldn’t withstand the prayers.
You see my dad was diagnosed with leukemia two weeks ago. Not just leukemia, AML – acute myelogenous leukemia – the type that kills you. There were no symptoms to warn him that his body was killing itself. No bruises, no nausea, not even a stuffy nose. He felt tired. Tired! Everyone else feels tired and takes a nap, but not my dad. My dad’s a surgeon, valedictorian of Boston University Medical School, he knows his shit. He’s also athletic. Basketball, baseball, football, track – you name it – he did it. Between sports, surgery, and trying to control us kids, he just doesn’t have time to be sick. The last time he was bed-ridden was from tearing his Achilles tendon trying to out slam-dunk my brother. One routine blood test reversed his entire world. He went from the surgeon to the patient, from the provider to the invalid, and from the person in charge of his body to the person whose body had full control.
The phone rings. It’s my Uncle Bob.
“You know Carleigh, if you need anyone to talk to, we’ve all been through this before. We have the answers for some of your questions.”
I hang up.
I knew that my family had been through this before. I was there. I read the fucking eulogy. My Uncle Doug had also been diagnosed with leukemia after getting a blood test because he felt tired. He too was sent to the seventh floor of West Penn Hospital, the exact place where my dad lies hooked to the central line that drips poison into his blood. Same doctors? Check. Same nurses? Check. Same treatment? Check. Same prayers? Check. The only difference is that my Uncle Doug died. I was ten years old when my uncle died, and yet my family seems to forget that I even existed. I remember his bloated face, I remember his bald head, I remember his pain, and I remember his death. I remember when the doctor tried to comfort me by saying that he was now in a better place; heaven. So I guess there’s another difference – I don’t want my dad in a better place, I want him right here with me.
It is also because of my uncle’s death that I hate hospitals. The smell of sterility, the sound of silence, the lack of warmth in the air, even the pink pastels that cover the walls bother me. Everything that defines a hospital lacks the beauty of life. Pushing past my disgust I had rushed to Pittsburgh when my mother told me of my father’s illness, prepared for battle. Single-handedly I would fight off the obnoxious blast cells that were taking over his body, find new research that would cure him in record time, and find a way to make hospital food appetizing, all in one week. But within seconds of walking into my dad’s hospital room I realized that none of these things would happen – especially not in a week. He looked weak. He looked pale. He looked sad. I slowly set down my purse and walked over to his bed, reaching down to hug him.
I abruptly jerked up and spun around. Having no idea what I was doing wrong, I was shocked and angered at the interruption of my display of affection. I turned to the nurse ready to explain myself when she quickly clarified her actions.
“You can’t touch him without first washing your hands and sterilizing.”
With this simple request, my view of my dad was instantly changed. The strong man that I had leaned on for twenty one years was now weak. And if he couldn’t even fight off the germs that were living on his own daughter, how was he going to resist the cancer that was invading his white blood cells? What if I was the one who killed him? What if it had been the bacteria that came from my body? I quickly walked over to the sink and rolled up my sleeves, trying to “sterilize” as much of my body as possible. I scrubbed my hands and forearms viciously, as though preparing myself for surgery. Suddenly I realized just how reversed this was. For the first time in my life my father was the one needing comfort and treatment, and I in turn was scrubbing in.
I sat down in the chair next to his bed and we began to talk as if nothing had changed. He asked me about school and I lied about my grades. He asked about the Bills and I told him how good Edwards was looking in replacement for Losman. He asked how vet school applications were coming and I told him that I had just gotten into the second round at Michigan State. With every question that he asked I answered in the most positive way I possibly could, trying to bring joy into his deteriorating life. After thirty minutes of small talk the hospital room had almost disappeared and my father was simply that – just a dad. Suddenly I was brought back into reality when the machinery that he was attached to started beeping rapidly. My head jerked in the direction of the obnoxious noise, and I quickly stood ready to hunt down a nurse.
“Sit down Carleigh, it just means my platelets are done. The nurse will come in.”
He pressed the button on his bed that connects him with the nurse’s station, telling them that his monitor was beeping. I looked up at the television screen. Yankees were losing. Pictures of my family covered walls, tables, and any shelf that hasn’t been covered by cards sent from friends. My head turned to the windowsill which is littered with pistachios, peanut M&M’s, and twizzlers – my dad’s menu on days when he’s not dieting alongside my mother. Posters of Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas hung on the walls. Looking past the junk food I could see the top of a cathedral; beautiful and ornate, and yet shadowed by none other than the oncology ward of the hospital. Souvenirs of his previous life enveloped my father in his imprisonment, constantly reminding him of two things: what he once had, and what he might never have again.
Cut to four hours later. Exhausted and starving, my mother and I drive the five blocks to our Family Home, a hotel built strictly for the families of patients at West Penn and UPMC Shadyside. The only difference between this place and a hotel is that everyone who stays here knows what it feels like to have your world shattered by a simple blood test. My mom swings her SUV into the only open parking spot within miles and sits back into her seat, the leather squeaking with the shift. I peak at her from the corner of my eye and start to unbuckle my seat belt in slow motion.
“Carleigh, what do you believe in?”
I wanted to reassure her, I wanted to comfort her, but I didn’t want to lie. My mom knew that I didn’t believe in God. How could I? He was always brutally shoved down my throat. I answered the only way I knew how.
“I believe in medicine Mom. I believe that the chemo is going to work. I believe that Dad is strong and will pull through this.” My mom looked at me in astonishment before unbuckling her seat belt and off-handedly replying.
“Really? That’s shocking, because I don’t think your sister does.”
My sister was a perfectionist. She was smart. She was pretty. She was going to be a doctor – to hear that she didn’t believe in medicine shocked me. As the only person in our family who wanted to, or was smart enough, to pursue allopathic medicine, she had spent the last three years in medical school learning to do just that. She was also the strong one. Although 5’1, she overcame the size of her body with the size of her mind. She was my role model, my confidante, and most importantly my best friend. Her lack of faith caused fear to erupt in my own beliefs. If she didn’t think that the chemo would work then why should I? Suddenly the thousands of prayers that had been spoken for my father’s health had been deleted solely by my sister’s inability to have faith in the medicine that was treating him. I began to question my own faith as we climbed the four flights of stairs to our apartment.
Let me be honest – I hated the Family House. It was one of those structures in the world that I respected but despised at the same time. Sort of like chemotherapy – it was there to help you, but really it just sucked. Two twin beds, a pull out couch, cable television, and wireless internet all adorn your humble abode. They provided a kitchen to cook in, therapists to council you, and a grand piano to play in your spare time, and all for the price of what? Don’t worry. On top of the 50 bucks you spend per night, all you need is to have someone you love be told they’re dying. It’s a real life-saver in the oddest of terms.
My mom began unpacking, all the while mumbling under her breath about how alcohol was not allowed in the apartments. Living 90 miles north of Pittsburgh had never been seen as a burden for shopping trips or hockey games, but to be that separated from my father was not an option. Her decision to move away from Meadville and locate herself in Pittsburgh had been hard but necessary. Small yet sturdy, she had shown her strength all day merely by keeping it together. Today had been special: it was my fathers 54th birthday. Presents and card were given, sterilized, and then read. A cake was delivered, but nausea overtook the desire to eat it. Friends, family, and doctors all called to wish him a happy birthday from afar, proof that his cancer had officially consumed his life. And yet when we asked him what he had wished for after blowing out the mock candles, he gave us the same answer that he had every year.
“That the Buffalo Bills will win the Superbowl.”
We laughed. The doctors thought he was kidding. I knew he spoke the truth. That’s just my dad. He has faith in the littlest things with the worst luck. He has stuck with the Bills from one bad season to the next. He even sat through Michael Jackson doing the halftime show. Tailgating in 85° heat in the preseason and sitting through blizzards in December, he had never given up on “his” Buffalo Bills. 2007 was his 17th year as a season ticket holder and for the first time he wouldn’t be at the games. When I asked him whether or not he liked his doctor he had simply said “Well, he’s a Bill’s fan, so I guess he’s a good guy.” A “Bill’s fan” is strong. They don’t give up when times get tough. They stick around even when their team is 1-15.
I’m a Bill’s fan too – I learned it from my dad. He taught me the names of the wide receivers, the yardage in a first down, and even how to throw a Hail Mary. Game after game, I have sat beside him in absolute wonder at just how bad an NFL team could be, and time after time I drove the two hours home with him in silence after a big loss. I grew out of jerseys just as quickly as the Bill’s traded quarterbacks.
That’s what brought me here. After getting to see my father for a few days, I was forced to come home to babysit my 18 year old brother. He wasn’t handling my dad’s cancer very well, and being the stereotypical teenager, had locked himself in his room. As I sat down by myself to watch the Bills get crushed by the Cowboys, I began to wonder why I never cheer for the winning team. I love football. I also love to win. So why do I like the Bills? Wait. I watch in astonishment as Wilson intercepts the ball. Bills 7 – Cowboys 0.
“NICK! Get down here! The Bills just scored!”
My brother races down from his room. He stares wide-eyed at the TV screen. He smiles for the first time in five days. This can’t be happening – the Bills don’t win. And the Cowboys are good, like real good. Interceptions, blocked throws, floundering kicks, with each play my cell phone lights up as my father calls.
“Are you watching this? Can you believe this?”
He is excited. He sounds happy. He sounds alive.
At the end of the game the Cowboys pull through in the last 20 seconds, beating us 25-24. Its 11:30 at night, but my exhausted father still has the energy to make one last call – to me.
“That was awesome,” he says breathlessly.
“But Dad, we lost. And if only Jauron had run Lynch, we could’ve held ‘em.”
My dad laughs. He is always amused when I throw out names and stats.
“Don’t worry Carleigh, we’ll get ‘em next time.”
He was right. There will always be a next time. After every game, the score is wiped clean and we pick ourselves up and begin again. I know that my dad won’t go before seeing his beloved Bills win a Superbowl, and luckily that won’t be anytime soon. Because my dad’s a true fan. He’s strong. He doesn’t give up when times are tough. That’s why I know my dad will beat this. I may not believe in prayer – how could I when I don’t believe in God? But I have faith even through the bad times– I have to – I’m a Bills fan too.
In January of 2012, I received a phone call from my best friend saying that she was going to finally sell her pony Miles. She had decided six months prior that he just wasn’t “the horse” for her and had started riding another horse at her boarding facility – discovering just how much she truly loved and MESHED with this new mount – and had decided to finally quit on her pony and let him get fat and obnoxious. It was the decision that Denny Emerson is hammering into all of our brains – to make the realization that not every horse is every humans cup of tea. Does it make them unridable? Dangerous? Or even mean? No. But just as every woman wouldn’t date every man, every human doesn’t enjoy riding every pony (Especially spotted ones. With a Mohawk. And who jump people out of the tack. For fun). She had bought him for $200 from a livestock auction, and had given him every chance to be her lifelong horse, but as we all know, trying to fit a square peg into a round hole is never successful, and neither was their partnership.
So she did the right thing by the horse and turned him out. But eventually bank accounts grow smaller, and car payments grow larger – so she made the decision to sell him. But seeing as he hadn’t been ridden in over 6 months, was fat and ornery, and wasn’t exactly a “packer” even during his training – she called me and asked if I would take the ride and get him sold. At the time I was looking for another off the track thoroughbred, having just three months earlier sold a horse that nearly did me in – he was supposed to be my keeper, having bred and raised him at the farm that I managed – but eventually selling him to what I considered a show home – knowing that I hadn’t shown in over 5 years, and didn’t have the time or the funds to show him myself. I had cried myself to sleep for quite a few nights after loading him up, and had decided that my next horse would be a keeper – as selling these horses nearly did my heart in. So when Meghan called and asked if I would sell Miles for her, I refused. Adamantly.
He was not what I was looking for in a horse – he was around 15hh, an appaloosa/paint mix, an ornery ride, and had the reputation for two things – being both a dirty stopper, and had a nasty back crack over fences. When he jumped – you better hold on, as “Wood Allergy” was his alter ego, but when he didn’t jump – his theatrics in front of the fence would make most cutting horses jealous. His compact conformation, and years of evolution into his appaloosa ways, made him turn on a dime – good for between fences, not so good in front of them. And yet I agreed to come ride him and see if I still liked his pony ways.
Miles as his alter ego “Wood Allergy” with his mom Meghan.
So on a dreary day in January, we tacked him up and hacked him around a field. He was light in the bridle, happy to move off of my leg, and most importantly – he felt SAFE. After having had over 6 months off, he offered no spook, rear, or buck, and just went around happily in a frame. I brought him to a halt, dropped the reins, and glared at Meghan – thinking over all of this in my mind. Was I really ready to get attached to yet another horse only to sell him and have my heart broken? Was he even sellable? His reputation preceding him had me nervous. But being the gambler that I am, I told her that I would take him – and get him sold. We drew up a contract, in order to keep our friendship intact, and I loaded him up and brought him home.
I quickly discovered that while Miles might not have been everyone’s (ok, really, he was just about no one’s) cup of tea – I adored him. I hadn’t competed, or even truly jumped in over 5 years, and yet fence by fence, round by round, he brought my courage back. I had been quite the brave rider growing up – but after hanging up my safety vest at the age of 18 to pursue an education and retiring my event horse, I had started to see 2′ logs as death traps. But I soon discovered what people had always spoken of when talking of their GOOD event horses – the horse that came down to a Weldon’s wall with their ears perked and their head up – EXCITED at the prospect of getting to jump it.
Miles during our first XC school together.
I began to quickly realize that this pony might just be the one to get me back into the game, and entered him (and I) into my first event in 8 years. I went out and walked the course the night before with Meghan, noticing with each fence that Beginner Novice suddenly looked like Advanced to me, and I began to get more and more nervous with each step. This was ludicrous – this pony had this reputation for a reason – I was going to be an embarrassment, or worse, I was going to get hurt. I tried to knock these ideas out of my head, braided him up, and shipped him in to the Kentucky Horse Park with a grimace.
But as I soon learned about this pony, who I affectionately called The Heathen – where I had doubts, he was quick to replace those doubts with one word – FUN. He LOVED his job, and he LOVED to jump. Dressage? Not so much. But you get him out of the sandbox and in front of fun rails, boxes, coops, and tables – and he THRIVED.
Miles at our first BN event at May Daze at The Park – KHP 2013.
I began to remember why I had gotten into this game in the first place, and quickly lost any apprehension of why I was doing this, and began to remember why we all SHOULD do it – it is SO MUCH FUN. Miles and I began to really get into sync, and I moved him up to Novice after he had qualified for AEC’s in his two BN starts – and then he went double clean at Novice at Erie Hunt and Saddle Club – the same course I had officially retired my old event horse on, due to finally realizing that he was extremely afraid of water, and I was not having exactly that – fun – back in 2003.
Miles in his novice debut at EHSC, August 2012.
Soon after placing 7th in his first novice, I received an email from someone interested in purchasing him. She told me that her 11 year old daughter had outgrown her small pony, and they were looking for a new event horse for her. I remember reading the little girls age and grimacing – Miles was FUN, but he was still a heathen, and truly enjoyed nothing more than making a 3′ fence look like it was 5′. For me, this was hysterical, but I could just envision a crumpled little body underneath that fence. But knowing that Miles had packed a few of my friends around smaller courses – I knew that he wouldn’t be malicious in her trial – and after her mother guaranteed me that she was a good little rider – having been the youngest rider at the most recent AEC’s – I invited them to come try him.
Kerry Slicker and her daughter Ainsley arrived in the evening of October 10th, and I quickly tacked Miles up and took him to the paddock to be hacked in front of them. To put it mildly – it was probably the worst ride I had ever had on him in the 10 months of our partnership. He was stiff, he was bolting, he was, quite simply, living up to his name of Heathen Pony. I felt completely defeated, knowing that if I was this child’s mother I would be running back to my car – but I pulled him up to the rail, nearly in tears, and instead of seeing fear – I saw a HUGE smile. Ainsley was chomping at the bit to get on, and thought he was just the COOLEST thing ever. I handed her the reins, gave her a leg up, and whispered a soft prayer (mixed with a bit of a threat) to the Horse Gods.
But there was no need to worry. The minute that Ainsley sank her weight into the irons, it was like they merged into one. Miles immediately relaxed, and they moved off into a graceful and balanced trot. She giggled her way around the ring, and Miles just did whatever she asked with his ears perked. I set up a line for them to pop over, and he jumped more relaxed than I ever had seen – I knew it immediately – these two were destined for each other.
I called Meghan and told her that this 11 year old was truly Miles “person” and I thought she was going to hang up on me. For a pony with the reputation that he had, selling him to such a young girl was frightening to everyone – but I just had a good feeling about it. Ainsley was a competent rider for her age, was going to have him in a solid training program with experienced trainers, and her and her family could offer him a home that would make even the most hardened horse salesperson happy – full of peppermints, lush turn out, and fun hacks with other young girls at the barn. I was sold, they were sold, Meghan was (hesitantly) sold, and in just a few days – Miles was off to his new home.
I quickly forged an amazing friendship with both Ainsley and her mother Kerry, and received numerous text messages as well as social media updates letting me know that they just ADORED him and were so thrilled with their purchase. The following summer I got to meet up with them at the Kentucky Horse Park to watch Ainsley not only go double clean on XC at BN, but also score a 28 in her dressage – knocking a solid 15 points off of my average score! You could just see them in a synchronicity that I (nor Meghan) had ever experience with him – it was like watching two soul’s become one – something so beautiful to watch!
Ainsley and Miles (now Rhythm) placing 3rd at MidSouth at the Kentucky Horse Park, June 2013.
I have now gotten to watch Ainsley and Miles, now known as Rhythm, at two events – both last year and this. It has been such an amazing experience to watch them grow together, knowing the bond that a girl (and now young woman) has with that first horse who steals her heart. I know that Miles will get her through so much during her teenage years – fights with her parents, first loves, and first heart breaks – and it makes it so worth it to have my own heart break every time that I sell one of these horses. Most recently Ainsley and Rhythm placed 10th in a large division at the American Eventing Championships, only further confirming that gut instinct I had two years ago that these two were destined for each other, and destined for great things.
I have seen so many comments under Denny Emerson’s posts about making sure you own the RIGHT HORSE FOR YOU, and most of them ask what they are supposed to do with their current horse – one that they are sure will never be rideable, or that is dangerous, or that they LOVE but just aren’t doing well – and to them I say – do what Meghan did. Make the realization that if it isn’t fun, it isn’t worth it. Find someone who finds the fun in your horse. Put the miles on that horse to make him enjoyable again. And then find that horses PERSON. There are always the rare cases where horses ARE dangerous, or ARE unrideable – but those chances of that being your horse are SLIM. Whether it be fear, riding style, the wrong sport of choice, or just the wrong person – find the horse who wants to be with you, and find the rider who wants to be with your horse. It will be worth it for your horses sanity, your own sanity, and the smile that you will see on that persons face as they gallop past you towards success.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.