+

Growing Pains

I text messaged my fiancé as I drove out of the Kentucky Horse Park, knowing he would want an update.

“Just finished with Nixon, heading home.”

And his response was a standard: “Everyone do ok?”

And I didn’t really know how to respond.

They were both GOOD, but both had had stops. Both had had some issues. But both had finished the day better for it instead of worse. 

But that one stop, or that one bad distance, weighs heavily on someone like me. I have written before of just how Type A I am when it comes to my horses and their rides, and so one stop can feel like twenty. And one fall can feel like the end of the world.

But then I thought more about it as I drove home.

Schooling days mean friends. Photo by Brooke Schafer


These are schooling days, and meant for exactly these situations to happen. At a schooling day and not a competition. Sort out your issues before they arise on your record, and more importantly before you’re running at speed trying to make time. 

And for someone like me, my issues and the growing pains attached seem to be seen at schooling days.

For I am not complacent in my riding. And with the desire to rise, so comes the pain of the journey. 

I have no shame placed on those who are complacent. When I started eventing again in 2012, I had one goal: Beginner Novice.

2012 goals. Photo by XPress Phot


And then I got Mak, and that turned to Novice. And then two years later, it was Training. And now, in 2018, it is Prelim—at least for that horse.

Because Mak is THAT horse. The one who tries. Who is inherently good. Who aims to please. And so BN, and then N, and now T, began to feel easy. And with it, my goals increased. 

Making it feel easy. Photo by Brooke Schafer


But the road to this place wasn’t linear, not in any way, shape, or form. We had stops at down banks at Novice, and then he had a hiatus in the hunter rings. We ran into water demons at training, and now have decided that skinnies aren’t all that great.

Damn skinnies. Photo by Brooke Schafer


But that’s fine. 

He’s the type of horse that I can actually try to sort those things out, as he doesn’t just shut down. I have to realize that he and I are learning this together, and sometimes I grow while he regresses, and sometimes he grows while I curl into the fetal position. 

Regroup. Retry. Photo by Brooke Schafer


And on the flip side, I can take those growing pains, learn something, and try to impart that knowledge on his younger brother.

Because for where Mak is Honest Abe, Nixon is Rico Suave. Where Mak is cool, calm, and collected, Nixon is Mach 10, 95% of the time. And while my goal for Mak is a T3D and a *possible* move up to Prelim, my goals for Nixon are so much smaller, and maybe so much more unobtainable.

For Nixon, I want rideable. Rateable. And enjoyable. We have had quite the bumpy relationship, full of more growing pains than I could have ever prepared for, but right now? Right now, I have a horse that is a ticking time bomb one minute, but a $500,000 import who has ran around every 4* the next. And we’re trying to blend those two things into just the free thoroughbred that he is.

A rideable Nixon. Photo by Brooke Schafer


Both went out to the schooling with me trying to stay optimistic. Both had stops. Both were a mixture of me not riding at my fullest capabilities, and them being distracted or confused.

But both came home sound, safe, better for it, and ready for the next day.

I will never be the person who is complacent in my riding as long as I own horses who can rise with me, and the money to do so. 

And I currently have two horses who force that growth every day. Every ride. Every time I tack up. 

For that, I am appreciable. Because without growing pains, we won’t have growth. And I’m just not done growing. Rising to the new challenges. Conquering them one by one, or with gaps of years in between.

So I guess you could say my day schooling was great. Because we found some flaws, we found some solutions, we grew up a little bit more, and we kicked onto the next. That’s all I can truly ask these horses to do, and that’s all I can truly ask of myself.

Growth. Photo by Brooke Schafer


Growth.

Advertisements
+

Matchmaker

I’ve sold a lot of horses.

Always with the intention to sell, and always with a profit in mind. Because for the last 5 years, I was a broke graduate student. And finding, retraining, and selling thoroughbreds helped me pay the bills for my own horses. 

Maybe more importantly, was the fact that I loved it.

I enjoyed the selection process; assessing the pros and cons of each horse, and knowing what I could and could not live with. I enjoyed scouring the farms and the backsides, meeting so many great people along the way. And I lived for that adrenaline rush of loading a new pony onto my trailer and beginning the journey.

But I also craved that first, second, and third ride on those horses. It’s so thrilling to assess their brains on those initial hacks. To take them on their first field trip, or over their first jump.

For months these firsts continued, and my enamor with the process increased. Their first XC school, their first show. Their first grid, or their first time being braided. I lived for these moments.

And finally, they were offered for sale. And 95% of the time, I even enjoyed this part.

Because (outside of one situation), I truly felt as though I got to play matchmaker. I got to weed through the emails and messages and find the few who felt like a good fit. I got to schedule the first dates at the farm, and make the introductions. And then I got to watch those first dates unfold, and stand on the side lines to see if this coupling was meant to be.


Would she ask the right questions? Would he respond with an answer that was appropriate? Would she laugh when he made a joke? Would he listen when she talked?

It was like being a mother to a son who was finally 16 years old and handing the keys over. Had I taught him well? Had I raised him to open the door and pull out the chair? Would he chew with his mouth closed and walk her to the door?

All of these things were important because they all determined if a second, or third, or fourth date would be scheduled. Or more importantly—a marriage proposal. 

I lived for making these partnerships, because nothing brought me more happiness than watching these relationships unfold. At events, on social media, through texts and emails. I am in contact with every owner of every horse, some even the second or third in the chai of command.


So, I guess it came as no surprise when my friend Kelly reached out to me to help find that partner for her own horse.

She had owned Miko for most of his life-having gotten him as a spry 3 year old. Although 100% thoroughbred, the massive gangly gelding had never raced, and yet took to eventing like a fish out of water.


And although I had known them for most of their partnership together, I didn’t know as much as I did until I moved into the same small boarding barn with her-our horses filling almost half of the stalls there.


A few years ago, I knew she wanted to move up to training level. We went out and XC schooled together. We hacked together, and shared treatment responsibilities. I helped her kick over her first big corner, and she screamed at me to look up down a bank.

And in the spring of 2016, we scheduled to go around the course of Spring Bay after the competition had finished. But in a twist of events, I canceled. I had run my young horse around beginner novice and had a terrible ride. My mind wasn’t in the right place, and I didn’t feel like having a terrible ride on my big boy. 

So Kelly asked her then husband to come with, and she kicked off. They flew over the first few fences, but then in a flash, everything unraveled.

A missed distance, a pick instead of a kick, and a bad spot led to Miko chipping hard to a galloping fence and Kelly getting kicked out of the tack.

I knew only seconds later when her husband called me in desperation to come get her horse while he joined her in the ambulance to the hospital. Within only a few moments, both hers and her horses lives were forever changed.

The doctors told Kelly that she wasn’t to ride again…ever. 

She had suffered one too many severe concussions, and like an NFL player, was risking early onset Alzheimer’s, mental cognitive disability, and her life if she were to have another significant fall. 

And with that, hers and Mikos dreams of eventing at the upper levels were over. But maybe more scarily, was that her one escape and therapy was gone, and with it, she didn’t know what to do with her heart horse.

Kelly and I spent many a night at the barn talking about this. At first, I tried to convince her that it wasn’t the worst thing to sell him. Find him a good home, and watch the journey unfold. But it quickly became obvious to me that she wasn’t ready to relinquish the reins that definitively. 

We would go back and forward. With her saying she wasn’t ready, and then realizing that her horse needed a job. She would decide she wouldn’t live with herself if anything were to happen to him, but then realize that he needed the work. 

And finally, after almost two years of back and forward, we talked about a care lease. Her life had changed significantly, and with it, so had her ability to keep Miko in the level of care he was used to. 

Would she make money? No. But would she be paying the bills for a horse she just groomed? No. And in response to that, Miko could be making some other persons dreams come true.

And at about this time, I saw the worlds best Facebook status.

A friend of mine down south was looking for a been there, done that horse. She was in the process of adopting a teenage son out of foster care, and he wanted to ride. She needed a horse that could take a joke, pack a kid, and still run and jump. She didn’t care about their maintenance or their record, their color or their size, she just wanted them to be safe at 2’6 and fall in love with her family.

And I just knew that I had that horse.

I quickly messaged both of them, and explained each other’s story. I told Molly that Kelly had gone through hell, losing her ability to ride, and that she wanted the perfect home for Miko, because anything less than perfection would give her a heart attack. I told Kelly that I didn’t know if this young boy would be able to event Miko this year, but that both Molly and her husband were great horsemen and at the end of the day, he would be taken amazing care of.

And then I rubbed my sparkly fairy dust together, whispered my voodoo, and sent a prayer to the Horse Gods that this all worked out.

And it did.

Molly and Miko


Molly took Miko after talking to Kelly on the phone for hours, but without trying him. They both decided that a trial would be best and worst case scenario, he came back to Lexington in a month. 

Only, I don’t think he will ever return.

Because in a true twist of fate, he has become everything Molly needed and more. 

As her adoption fell apart, her live unraveled, and her other horses became fire breathing dragons, she swung onto this new horse, knowing so little about him. And he just recognized that this was his chance to help, and help he did.

So last weekend they entered an event. It was Miko’s first in over 3 years. It was Molly’s first in a year-having broken her leg on XC last spring. And it more importantly, it was their first together

They danced through dressage, they boldly jumped stadium. And finally, as years of anxiety and nerves washed away, they cantered around XC like two old friends.


Kelly and I immediately got the message afterwards about just how much that ride meant, and just how in love with Miko she was.

He had stepped up to the plate even though it wasn’t the plate he was was originally supposed to be at. He had held her hand during a superbly rough week, and taken care of her when she needed it the most. And he had brought her confidence back right when she needed that boost.

But maybe more importantly, was that Molly had shown Kelly that her horse was still loved. Still ok. And still happy doing that job that he loved.

I am so excited to watch this relationship unfold. Molly is planning on trekking herself and Miko up to Lexington in a month to enter May Daze HT where both Kelly and I will be. 

That weekend will be a big deal for everyone. For Molly as she tackles her redemption ride at BN-her first time back at that level since the day she shattered her ankle. For Kelly as she transitions from rider to cheerleader. And for me, as I get to watch yet another couple that I matched leave that start box and gallop off into the sunset. We will all win that day, and I can’t wait for it to get here. 

Redemption Ride

Two years ago, I walked off of the cross country course with my shoulders sagging and my head hung low.

Photo by Brooke Schafer


I had dropped my reins, determined not to take a single ounce of the disappointment out on the horse underneath me, while flashbacks to my childhood whirled through my mind. 

It was 2016, and I was on the most talented horse I have ever sat on.

And in 2016, I was just cocky enough to crave some of that talent.

Sure I had sold some pretty fantastic horses, and currently owned one who was solidly competing at training level, but I dreamed of more. 

I had never gotten the chance to have those dreams as a child, because I had never owned a solid horse. My one childhood horse Levi had been talented enough on the flat, but he was never brave enough on XC. And my current horse was brave enough over fences, but I truly felt that his ability and scope would be maxed out at training or prelim.

And then Nixon showed up.


At 17.1hh, with a massive glistening black shoulder, and an eye that screamed “let me at it,” I thought I finally had *that* horse, and this was only confirmed by every 4* rider that I rode him in front of. They all told me that Mak was cute, but Nixon was limitless. They told me that Nixon was who took me all of the way.

In a clinic with Doug Payne


But none of them had to ride him every day of that journey.

Because while Mak was cute, he was also safe. The same horse day in and day out. An old soul in a young body. And in contrast to that, Nixon was hard. He was hot. He was scary

He was scary enough that after that elimination in April of 2016, I didn’t feel as though he was rideable enough to enter another until yesterday. Exactly 2 years later.

During those two years, we earned our 1st level scores towards our bronze medal. We clinicked. We schooled. And we sweated. We had some good moments.

And I thought I had him mentally back last spring, and then that was quickly shattered as he kicked his way out of my trailer and left his hind leg in pieces. And after that, I thought he was done.

Nixon didn’t seem mentally the same after that fateful day in March, 2017. Where he was once cocky, he was now anxious. Where he was once bold, he now had a spook. And when he spooked, he ran. And when he ran, he RAN HARD.

Not the easiest ride. Photo by JJ Sillman


In December, he took off with me. In dressage tack, and in the arena. Something he had never done. Unjustified. And I pulled him up, called my fiancé, and dissolved into tears.

I wanted him gone.

I rode alone every day, and this was no longer safe. I started calling the few people I trusted to give him to, and made arrangements to find a back 40 if that didn’t work. I chucked him into the field and kissed my 4* dreams good bye. I was resigned and content to go training for the rest of my life.

4* dreams


But then, something happened.

The minute I gave up, he stepped up. I stopped trying to put him in that 2nd level frame to get more scores, and trotted him around for 10 minutes a day like it was an AQHA show, and he took a deep breath. I didn’t jump him for 3 months, and when I did come back, we did courses of crossrails at the trot. 

I made every ride be simple. Short. End on a good note.

I brought back trail rides, adventures to masterson, and happiness.

And Nixon thanked me by simply behaving.


Now; he’ll never be an easy ride, and I’ll never be able to put a beginner on him, but for me, he is rideable.

And yesterday, we finally showed just how much. Because yesterday, we had our beginner novice redemption ride.

In the pissing rain, and without a warm up, Nixon stepped up to the plate, swung, and hit it out of the park.

We had a workmanlike dressage, a forward and happy stadium, and then the kicker of it all—we lived on XC.

A relaxed dressage. Photo by JJ Sillman


I haven’t even schooled this horse over XC jumps since last August, so my goal was to trot. Trot in, trot out, and treat it like stadium. If we need a halt, we need a halt. If we need to walk a jump, so be it. The goal was to have a conversation, go between the flags, and stay on. And Nixon did all of that and so much more.

No death defying stop. Photo by JJ Sillman


He trotted the first fence relaxed and happy, and then cantered off, excited to be out in the open. I brought him back to a trot and along we went. And then about 8 strides before the next jump, he broke into a gallop, and I thought “this isn’t going to end well.”

Trotting the first jump. Photo by Brooke Schafer


This is how our last XC round had ended. With him bolting, me see-sawing, his head between his knees, and then the inability to even see the jump, and a stop.

So this time, I decided to trust him. 

I lifted my hands, sat up, and rode his 22’ stride with bravery. I added leg instead of going into the fetal position; and I stayed calm.

And for the first time, he just kept his stride, and up and over we went.

Galloping boldly. Photo by Brooke Schafer


For 16 fences, it was the same. We trotted, we galloped, we saw the jump, we got excited, and we went over it.

I was near tears by the end of the course, realizing just how many battles had to be won to get to this place. 

I had to battle his body as he shattered piece by piece in his fits of rage.

I had to battle his inability to get back onto a trailer after that incident.

I had to battle his brain as we rewired it, praying we could bring it back.

And I had to battle my expectations for this horse. I had gone from the highest of highs—believing he was my horse of the future, to the lowest of lows-wondering if he needed put down.

And I had finally settled somewhere in between.

Nixon might never get an FEI passport; hell-he might never go Novice. But for this one day, for this one time, he finally got to call himself an event horse. He finally got to finish something that everyone had said he was built for.

He finally got to have that redemption ride, and I got to be the one in the irons.


I can’t tell you how much a ribbon from an unrecognized event in the rain can mean to someone who has an extensive record in every other world, but it means more than you will ever know. It took a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get to that rosette, and while this isn’t the beginning, it sure is a peak in this winding road we take with these horses. I can’t wait to see what’s ahead.

+

Redemption Ride 

Two years ago today, I sat on my couch and began thinking.

About what I wanted from my riding career. About the improvements I had made in the last year. About the two horses in my stable, and which I could afford.

I had just gotten home from the first show of the season, and realized I had some hard decisions to make. 

My young horse had risen above all expectations, and in his first real show with jumps involved, he had come home with the blue in both his divisions—finishing on dressage scores of 20 and 26. And vice versa, my seasoned show pony had had a temper tantrum in the dressage to finish at novice on something like a 40.

And I started to wonder.

Did my seasoned show horse (who was only 8 at the time) really want to event? He seemed to hate dressage, and was about as unsupple as they came.

And vice versa, my young horse was what every upper level rider dreamed of. Big. Strong. Balanced. Opinionated. Scopey. Fancy.

The fancy horse. Photo by JJ Sillman


So I did what I thought was necessary. I sold my “heart horse,” the plain Jane, the safe one to be a hunter, and I decided to keep the fancy one. Thinking I was heading to Rolex. Thinking I was making the right choice.

Hunter knees. Photo by JJ Sillman


And two years later, I just have to shake my head at the ludicrousness of it all.

Because I just got back from that same show, with those two same horses. And oh how the tides have turned, and how karma has a fantastic way of smacking you upside the head.

Because Mak is back; and in two years he has gone from barely bending in a 20m circle at novice to scoring a respectable 35 in preliminary. And while his career as a hunter might have been short lasted, his knees in stadium are second to none. I couldn’t imagine a day where I didn’t have access to the ride on this horse, and just have to laugh at the fact that there was ever a time I considered him sellable.

Cruising around the prelim. Photo by JJ Sillman


In two years, he hasn’t just learned to bend, he has become downright fancy. In two years, he has chosen to not only to succeed as an event horse, but to enjoy it. And in two years, he has earned the love and support of so many along the way.

Photo by JJ Sillman


And vice versa, in two years, Nixon has selectively hit every road block that a horse possibly could. The most talented horse I have ever sat on, our journey has been filled with so many ups and downs. Broken bones and shattered dreams. 

Talented yet special. Photo by JJ Sillman


And yet this weekend, we made our journey around a redemption ride. Because although his improvement isn’t as apparent on paper, it is so apparent to everyone who has followed this journey.

Because for the first time in 18 months, Nixon was able to jump around a course. For the first time in 18 months, we finished on a number and not a letter. For the first time in 18 months Nixon didn’t have a broken bone, loaded on a trailer, entered a dressage ring on all 4 feet, and jumped all the jumps.

Photo by JJ Sillman.


Two years ago, Nixon scored almost 20 points lower than he did yesterday. But two years ago, he was a different horse.

One year ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed of entering a combined test, as I barely had control at home. But one year ago, he hadn’t scared himself (literally) to (almost) death.

So yesterday; while my dressage tests may have been more tense than I planned, and my stadium trips a bit more enthusiastic than I had wished for, I was so pleased.

A behaving Nixon. Photo by JJ Sillman


Pleased that I could not only finish a show, but more importantly enter one. 

Two years later, I somehow still own these two same horses. Both of their journeys have been rocky—one because of me and one because of himself. Both of their futures have been unstable at one point in time or another—one because of me and one because of himself. And both of them have come around. 

Two years ago, I brought home two blue ribbbons, and today I have none. But my pride in these horses is somehow greater than it was two years ago.

Both of them have overcome. Both of them have turned a corner. And both of them are back. Maybe even better than ever. 

So now, instead of looking at two years ago, I’m staring straight ahead. And I’m so excited for the future.

Photo by JJ Sillman

+

It’s not how, it’s why

I hear it all the time.

“How do you do it?” 

“How do you make time for it?”

“How do you juggle it all?”

And every time, I laugh. Because to me, it isn’t a question of how, but why. 

Three inches of snow fell today in Lexington, Kentucky, and was still coming down at 4pm when I left the lab-having started my day at 7am on the research farm.

 My plan has always been to give my horses the day off. The arena was white, the temperature was below freezing, and they didn’t “need” the exercise per se.

But then, one after another, my day crumbled. I received a medical bill. I got bad data from a project. I read a comment on Facebook that made my blood boil. And after hours of nothing but negativity, distress, and poor outcomes, I threw my laptop into my bag and called it a day.

And I drove to barn shaking my head. Trying to rationalize my bad day, the stress that comes with it, and the negativity seemed to seap into every other aspect of my life. I just felt like I couldn’t win, and didn’t know what to do to change that outcome.

But there was thing I could do-that I could change. I could change my decision to not ride. I could throw my bridle on my trustworthy Mak, and swing on over his thick winter blanket. I could take him through the gates of the farm and just let the world dissipate as I roamed the roads surrounding.


For one blissful hour, I could feel peace.

For it is not how I do it. No, no. That’s not even close. But it is why.

These animals, and the hours I have clocked both on them and alongside them, have gotten me through so much.

They have picked me up off the cold hard floor when the world drops me there unceremoniously. They have gotten me through break ups, the loss of friendships, a qualifying exam, and unfortunately death.


They are there when I feel as though I can’t get any lower, and each time, they recalibrate my soul. I know that they have been there at my absolute lowest, so I never question if they will be there on a less drastic day.

I don’t have them in my life to win fancy ribbons, or to be able to add stars in my name. Mak will never go above prelim, Nixon might never even complete an event, and lord knows Frank might not ever leave the farm. I don’t care if they are the prettiest, or the fanciest mover. I just care that they provide me an escape. 

The distraction of a tough jump school. The quiet that comes from a long flat. The calm serenity of a good road hack. The bicep ache of a curry, or the world that is lost as you pull a mane.

I do my best thinking, I find my stability, and I recalibrate during that time.

So no, it’s not how. It’s why.

Because I have to. Just like eating. Or breathing. Or sleeping. That is riding for me. There is no other option.

Photo by JJ Sillman

+

Shattering the glass ceiling 

A week ago, I was invited to speak to aspiring equine industry members on the topic of communications.

Scientist, I am. Farm manager, I am. OTTB retrainer, I am.

Communications person, I am not.

Yes, I am a blogger. And yes, I got a dual degree from my alma mater-one in both biology and creative English writing, but I felt as though I was a fraud.

Immediately next door to me sat Jen Roytz, and her business partner Sarah Coleman sat downstairs. Together they created Topline Communications, and singularly they were better suited for this talk than I.

So instead, I did what I’m good at. I advised.

I asked the students what their background was, and recommended future careers and goals. I was brutally honest about this lifestyle, and recommended paths away from many of the careers they dreamt of. It was hard. It was blunt. It was me.

And then I got a group of Kentucky Equine Management Interns (KEMIs) in. A group entirely made up of women this year, and a bright group that I always enjoy lecturing too. I had met this group of 30 women in January when I delivered their inaugural reproduction lecture, so they had already been introduced to me and my no nonsense attitude.

I began my talk by giving them a “how-to” in communications as a farm staff member. 

Don’t post pictures you’re not allowed to (aka get clients permission).

Check your photos to make sure they have nothing in the background that would indicate poor horsemanship, management, or care of a farm.

Even fly masks make me cringe.


Don’t post any photos of horses with catheters, bandages, or treatments of any kind.

Hesitantly mention the sire, but rarely state the mares name.

And finally, get good at conformation photos-few owners will refuse a stunning photo of their horse that highlights the good.

That was my communications talk. And it took all of 8 minutes out of my 30.

So I moved onto my one-woman show about various farm things. How to properly hold a hickory twitch. Why you shouldn’t give acepromazine to male horses. How to keep yourself safe while scoping a yearling. Why we don’t pull placentas. 

Ya know, the fun stuff.

But then I asked them if they wanted to ask me any questions. 
One student bravely volunteered and asked me what I thought the 5 greatest issues that the thoroughbred industry faces. And for a solid minute, I paused. It was a hard question, and one that wasn’t an easy list to make. So I started hesitantly, and then grew more passionate as I went.

1. Race Day Medications, an understanding of mass spectrometry, and the scientific setting of thresholds.

2. A National governing body that can set those race day medication thresholds, and standardize the treatment and care of all horses racing.

3. A ((more)) transparent industry that combats untruths spewed about them such as the Nursemare myth that has more followers on social media than The Bloodhorse or The Paulick Report.

4. Aftercare. We’ve made SO much progress, but so many tracks just aren’t getting the hint, or just don’t care. The situation down in Louisiana is both appalling and disgusting.

5. Sexism.

I had warned this same group of 20 22 yo’s of sexism after lecturing them about the reproductive physiology of the mare in January. I had watched their eyes slightly roll as I told them stories of my own experiences. Fast forward two months and the eye roll moved to incessant chatter about their own experiences.

But unlike what you might think, I didn’t tell them to whine, or panic. I told them to put their head down and do the work. I told them that they would want to cry on numerous occasions, but to wait until they were alone to do so, and then splash some water on their face and get back to their fork. 

I told them that so many girls, and then women, had battled hard for them, even if they didn’t realize they were battling. People like Sandy Hatfield gaining stallion management positions, women like Veronica Reed following under her tutelage and most recently running the shed at Winstar. 

Women like Mary Stewart, who become the first female in a management position at Claiborne, or women like Belinda Locke, who works her ass off in the position of yearling manager and enjoys the most of her time with the colts.


Women like Carrie Brogden who has shown the mind of a woman in the world of breeding, pinhooking, and sales. Or hell, Liz Crowe, who has done more in only a few years running her own bloodstock services than I could dream of in a lifetime.

In a nutshell, it is possible. Women are out there crushing it. 

Does that mean that sexism doesn’t exist? Hell no. It’s there. And it’s strong. 

Some farms still won’t hire women. Many didn’t allow women into the breeding shed until only 20 years ago. Clinics didn’t make females partners until about that same time, and many still don’t understand the meaning of maternity leave for their female vets. Harassment is still readily apparent on the backside and at the sales, and was something that Natalie Voss covered so well with Paulick.

But that doesn’t mean that women should run away from this industry.

Why?

Because this industry needs women.

From a “Women is Power” movement-they need people who are organized, empathetic, impassioned, and smart.

From a “By the Numbers” movement-90% of the current veterinary school admissions are women, 100% of the KEMI program, and 80% of the UK Ag Equine Programs are women. Women are who WANT to work with horses, so we need to let them.

That is the talk I have given so many of my students as I have lectured at Midway, Georgetown, KEMI, or UK.

You WILL meet sexism. But part of that sexism is believing that we are weaker, more emotional, less rationale, and unable to do the job.

So by being as strong as your counterparts (muck the same number of stalls, carry the same buckets of water, and buck the same number of bales), not bursting into tears (lets be honest, I have seen grown men cry at the track too), and being constantly organized, on track, and with the group—they can’t deny us.


The farms won’t be able to deny that you are capable. And others will see that capability at places like the sales, the shed, and the paddock. You WILL get there. And I truly believe this next generation will.

Times are changing. Minds are changing. And so many amazing women have lifted those bales, choked back those outbursts, and lifted their progeny into this world in order to get us to this point. 

The glass ceiling of this business has been cracked, but it needs shattered.

Are you ready to be the one to take that task?

Women and colts: a beautiful marriage. Photo by Melissa Bauer-Herzog

+

Hindsight

A little over a year ago, I received a Facebook message from a girl named Caroline.

She started by saying that we had been introduced via her boyfriend, whom I had known for years, and then quickly began her line of questions. She wondered if I taught lessons, and if I had lesson horses available to take those lessons on.

She explained that she had just committed to taking a Horse off the track, and although she had been an avid rider in Ireland during her childhood, adulthood had kicked in, and as she rose up the ranks of the thoroughbred breeding and racing industry, her riding career was placed aside.

I truly had a negative answer to both—as I was neither an avid “trainer” nor did I truly have lesson horses, but seeing something so similar to my own situation in her, I said yes.

We met at a local riding park and I tossed her up on my Mak-a horse that might run around the 1.10m with me one day, but can be used in an up/down lesson the next. Walk, trot, canter, and over a few fences we went.

I quickly realized that she was a better rider than she gave herself credit for, but that her confidence was shot. 

One of Caroline’s first “lessons” on Kennedy


But I knew that feeling.

That had been me. That had been 2011. 

I hadn’t competed in an event since 2003. I hadn’t jumped a fence since 2007. I hadn’t polished a boot or braided a mane in as much time. 

But just like Caroline, I was friends with people who had. And for one blissful summer, I reimmersed myself. 

And just like Caroline, my goals in 2011 were limited.

I just wanted the escape of a horse; to feel the adrenaline of a good ride over a nice course. I wanted to compete at beginner novice max, and just not make an ass of myself.

2011 Goals


I didn’t know if I could afford even the ownership on one horse, nonetheless 3. I had an old Crosby, a borrowed trailer, pull on tall boots that were purchased at Schneider’s in the year 2000.

And I had a BLAST.

Flash forward 7 years and I now own 3.5 horses. I am hoping to move up to preliminary on one, and 2nd level on another. 

2018 goals


I look back at those pictures and am horrified of a lot.

My lower leg. My terrible braids. My jump saddle in a dressage ring. My ghetto fabulous illfitting cavesson. I note my brush boots on my XC schools, my child sized safety vest and my sombrero like helmet.

Wait; you guys didn’t do Dressage in two point?


And a few months ago, Caroline lamented of these same inadequacies to none other than my boyfriend.
She told him that she felt like she would never get to the point where she could afford that trailer, or that dressage saddle. She said that she just wanted to go beginner novice and not fall off. She felt like she would never get “there,” that mythical land of comfort, confidence, and ability.

And Luke just turned to her and laughed.

He told her that those words sounded so similar to a girl he used to know. One who cried herself to sleep because she didn’t think she could afford one single horse. The girl who had to gulp 3 beers before being sent out on her first BN XC course in 10 years. The girl who never matched. Never had the newest tack. The one who arrived slightly disheveled but smiling.

#winning #lookinggood


Because while that girls tack was older, and her stock tie was askew, one thing was always there—and that was her smile.

7 years later, it’s still there.

If someone had told me 7 years ago that I would be considering a move up to prelim, I would have fallen to the ground laughing. If someone had told me 7 years ago that I would sacrifice every dinner out, vacation, and new fashion in order to afford a truck, trailer, board, and entry fees to make that possible, I would have rolled my eyes.

But if someone had told me 7 years ago that I had finally re-introduced myself to happiness, I would have agreed.

Hindsight is 20/20, but it can be viewed at any stage of your life. You might not see the future that lies ahead of you, but know that if you’re truly passionate and loving every second of the journey, that the road ahead is lined with things you would have never thought imaginable—or possible.

Finding joy in it is the most important. Caroline and Ullie


My path has been far from linear, but oh so enjoyable. And the best part is getting to watch others follow in the wake of it. People like Caroline, who are in the beginning of that secondary journey, or even the many who I know who are beginning their breaks.

Horses are always, and will always be, something you can come back to. It might seem far off. It might seem impossible. But while the future is blurry, it is possible. Hindsight is 20/20, but the road ahead is nicely laid with ascending oxers and passage.

You might not be able to see that futuristic place ahead, but just know that it’s there. All you have to do is keep your eyes up, your shoulders back, and keep kicking. 

+

If you see something, say something.

Recently, a story broke about animal neglect in Indiana.

A woman named Chrissy Francies had first ten, and then an additional six, horses seized from her property after a neighbor called the local animal control because he was alarmed at how many horses were being buried on her property.

He reported having seen seven horses die in the past year, and three within the month of January, and finally decided to do something.

Animal control came to the farm and found ten horses with a body condition score of 1- and yet almost all of their bodies hidden with thick winter blankets. But once those blankets were pulled, a horror scene was noticed underneath. Pelvises which showed months, if not years, of malnourishment. Ribs protruding. Spines standing alone, unattended by muscle or fat. And soulless eyes of these animals wondering if anyone cared. Two have already died since being seized.

Hard to Please after neglect

But the truly horrifying thing was that, in almost each of these cases, someone did care. And still does.

So many of these horses were given to Chrissy by a legitimate source. Adoption agencies like New Vocations, or a trainer like Jen Roberto. People who rehome, rehab, and resource thoroughbreds for a living. People who have been doing this their whole lives, like Stacy Emory or Michelle Craig. People who are impassioned by finding the perfect home for the perfect mount.

Hard To Please before

People like me.

I almost gave Chrissy my own horses. She had inquired about a friends HenryTheNavigator. She had inquired of a farms retired broodmare. Hell, she had inquired about Kennedy—my very own homebred that I was so adamant about finding a life of love for.

And each time, I was excited that she was interested. We had hundreds of mutual friends. I had met her at a local charity show sponsored by a rehoming organization. She messaged me frequently with questions regarding veterinary care, breeding, and genetics. And she showed no signs of being anything other than what I thought she was. A good person.

Chrissy appeared to take the horses that were so hard to rehome-so hard to find a permanent fix for. She offered to lease, or buy, the ones with injuries. The older broodmare. The War Horse.

And because we knew of nothing out of sort, we gave them to her.

And honestly, I do not know what is worse. The fact that this woman, who apparently suffers from some form of mental illness predisposing her towards hoarding, had so many horses in her care which suffered endlessly-some resulting in death.

Or the fact that apparently so many people knew of her transgressions and never said a word.

We have read in the comments that she was referred to as Crazy Chrissy. That she was run out of boarding facilities, and that it was known that she had too many horses and that none of them were receiving proper care. It was known that she didn’t pay her bills and that her social media was a spectacular joke.

But that was local.

And it is 2018. We live in a globalized world. And so many horses had to suffer because no one was willing to take a risk. To stick their neck out. To be the bad guy and cry foul.

I know what that’s like. I am usually exactly that guy. I have been the one to stick my neck out and receive the threats. I have been sent letters from attorneys, and comments threatening injury to my body and my home. I have been sent messages from friends telling me that I am in the wrong.

That the number of times I risk sticking my neck out for the betterment of the horse will be directly proportionate to my inability to make it in this business. 

And to that, I say fine.

I am sick of living in a world where we ignore criminal action. I am sick of living in a world where we fear doing the right thing because it might highlight your wrongdoings in the past. I am sick of living in a world where we attempt to dig dirt on anyone who casts a stone. And I’m sick of living in a world where our consciences can’t be clear enough to cast that first stone.

So here I am to say it.

If you hear something, search with your own two eyes.

If you smell something, there’s probably something rotting.

And if you see something, say something. 

Fairbankscity after neglect

We live in a strange world. One where 50% of our industry is made up of 4-legged creatures which can’t fight for themselves. Which can’t leave a job they detest. Which can’t forage for themselves.

And animal cruelty laws are weak, but public notoriety is strong. We might not be able to change the laws, but we can most certainly change the path. For our fellow equestrians. For our beloved horses.

Fairbankscity before

The government might not protect them, but we can protect each other. We can alert each other.

We just need to be stronger.

More vocal.

Less scared.

And the biggest advocate for the horses we love.

Because at the end of the day, if you know abuse or neglect is occurring and you’re turning the other way, you are no better than the abuser themselves. Remember that. Live with that. Take that to heart. And do something. Say something.

But until you do, I will.

To make donations to the horses in need, please go here.

+

A Hollywood Story: May 2nd, 1992-January 30th, 2018

There are horses you love for yourself.  There are horses you love for others.  And there are horses that you have never met and feel a connection to. And when we lose that love, that connection to one of the greats, it hurts more than a shot to the heart.

This morning, we lost one.  And today, so many of us are feeling that pain.

A few weeks ago, while lamenting at the decline of our sport of eventing, I got into an argument with a group of friends.  They argued that our sport has become one of money. The wealthy can afford the imports, the FEI events, and the fancy trainers.  And while the wealthy rise, us lowly average middle-classed people stays stagnant.

We can’t afford to go south for the winter.  We can’t afford to buy a 3* horse, or go shopping in Europe.  And because of that, our chances at the big leagues are infinitesimal.

But I argued.  I had seen it happen.  I had seen one get there – both rider and horse.  And I had had the honor of following it simply by luck.

Kelly Sult and I had grown up in Pony Club together, both members of the Lost Hounds Pony Club.  We competed against each other on similar type ponies – hers named Hooter and mine named Chocolate, and we both outgrew them at roughly the same time.  And then as so many do, we both moved onto bay thoroughbreds.

Kelly 9

Kelly and Hooter

Only hers was different.

Because I remember Reggie before he was Hollywood.  Before he had jumped around some of the largest tracks in North America.  I remember him as the recusant maverick of the barn. The horse no one wanted to ride, nonetheless own.  I remember his tall lanky body, and his feared hind legs. I remember his owner lamenting of her fear of him, and the trainers response that he was nuts.

And I remember Kelly coming and taking him, and beginning their journey.  She wasn’t a professional rider by any means, in fact, she was just a kid.  But in a family where a retired 4* horse or an import wasn’t an option, she took a chance.

Because where others saw fear, Kelly saw the look of eagles.

Kelly 20

The look of eagles.  Photo by Lisa Tossey

And she will be the first to say that it wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies at first.  They were eliminated from their first event with three stops at the water.  Added another 60 at their second event at that same obstacle.  But once they got him over that fear, there was no looking back.

And she just ticked off the levels, one at a time.

Kelly 11

Kelly and I moved into different phases of our lives at this time, but I always followed along from afar.  I appreciated her try.  I appreciated knowing that someone could get up the levels with little more than natural ability, help from family and friends, a good horse, and a whole hell of a lot of try.

I journeyed North for college while she kept riding.  Kept trying.  She didn’t train with the big boys, and she didn’t buy the fanciest tack.  Her father, a truck driver, purchased every book he could find on eventing, and he became her eyes on the ground.  Her mother and sister came and groomed at every event they could.  And her team from back in Erie, PA and its surrounding areas cheered from afar whenever we could.

Kelly 21

Kelly’s father on the ground.  Photo by Lisa Tossey

And I remember sitting in my fathers hospital room in Pittsburgh in 2008 trying to convince him to watch Rolex.  With one eye on the screen and the other on the chemotherapy dripping into his veins, I can vividly remember hearing the name “Kelly Sult” come over the quiet volume, and turning my eyes up to the screen.  I remember my fathers lack of interest in the Rolex Kentucky 3 Day event suddenly being perked when he realized we knew “that girl” from home.

Kelly 14.jpg

Photo from US Eventing

For a few hours my father pretended to be interested in eventing.  For a few hours we spoke of horses without fighting.  Without screaming.  For a few hours, this daring young rider covered in purple and her rugged thoroughbred distracted us from the world.  From the pain.  And I will forever be indebted to them for that.

Soon after that inaugural Rolex (where she placed 14th and was the highest placed young rider) I moved to Lexington, Ky and got to see Kelly more often.  With Area 8 Eventing extending from Northwestern, PA all the way to The Bluegrass, we attended many of the same events, and her family was always quick to lend a helping hand to a fellow Lost Hounder, or video a round for me.  We would get to catch up, and I would always ask about Reggie, that bullish thoroughbred I had known since way back. She would always giggle, and say that Reggie was still Reggie.  The man of the barn. Her heart horse.

And each April, my family would reconvene around the rolling hills of the Kentucky Horse Park, along with hundreds of other riders from my home grounds of PA, we would all search for that beautiful glistening bay with his ears up and his eyes searching.  We would all cheer for Team Hollywood and scream as “one of us” made it around from one massive obstacle to the next.

Kelly 3

Reggie ran his last Rolex in 2011, at the age of 19.  He didn’t know his own age, but Kelly knew he was ready.  He deserved a retirement of lush grass and turn out.  Occasionally he packed around her kids for up/down lessons.  Occasionally she swung on for a hack or to pony a young horse.  But at the end of the day, he just enjoyed his time as the leader of the farm. The big man.  The one who turned her into the rider she now was and forever will be.

Kelly 18

Photo by Lisa Tossey

And this morning, after a beautiful day of sunshine in Pennsylvania yesterday, Reggie took him last breath. He did it with poise.  He did it with grace.  Just like he had done so much of his career.

For almost twenty years now, we have all been blessed by this horse.  And now, on January 30th, 2018, we are all heartbroken.

And I say we because this team, this duo of unlikely ability, was an emblem to so many of us. For all of us at Erie Hunt & Saddle Club.  All of us at Lost Hounds Pony Club.  All of us in the Tri-State Region, and all of us from Area 8 Eventing.

Reggie and Kelly showed us that you didn’t need a last name.  You didn’t need a fancy pedigree.  You didn’t need to train with an Olympian.  You didn’t need to have a team of working students, or a trust fund.

kelly 15

Photo from US Eventing

Reggie was a beacon of the heart and soul that the thoroughbred breed encompasses.  He showed so many what was possible if the horse is matched with the right rider.  He proved to so many that taking a chance doesn’t always equate failure.  He was everything that we hope to find in our next mount, and more.  And at the end of the day, Kelly allowed him to be that horse.

I am so saddened for Kelly.

I am so saddened for her sister and her parents.  

I am so saddened for her entire support crew.  

But at the same time, I’m so happy.

I’m so happy I got to witness this journey.  I am so happy Kelly got to be on it. I am so happy that we got to see this unfold.  To see the path that can be paved if you just match the right rider with the right horse, work your ass off, and believe.

I am so happy that Reggie found his girl.  And I am so happy that he left us with grace.  In peace.

Kelly 7

They say that when horses die of old age, they are finally free.  From the aches and pains of a long career.  From the slow and steady gaits they used to never know.  I believe that is true here, and that Reggie is finally freed of a body that has aged more quickly than a mind.

So today, I hope he is running that Rolex track yet again.  Soaring over the hammock and diving into the head of the lake.  And if we look into the sky tonight, maybe we’ll just see a streak of purple as the sun sets and the clouds fade on another day. I know that’ll be Reggie racing the clouds.  Running free. Running happy.

Kelly 12

We’ll miss you Reggie.  You were truly one of the greats.

+

Cloning and Genetic Engineering: Will It Affect Future Olympic Teams?

I’m sure by now, many of you have seen the video about cloning and genetic engineering.

Published by the World Economic Forum in a short 60 second video, it proclaimed that a company was only two years from producing the first genetically engineered super horse.  That through the use of cloning and altering the genome of our great runners and jumpers, we could produce horses that jump higher, run faster, turn tighter, and altogether are BETTER than the horses we have in existence.

Soon after this was posted, it was tagged along with the idea that these horses would be allowed in the *gasp* Olympics, and equestrian fans everywhere ran to their keyboards to say just how unfair this would be.  How grotesque it would be. How we were all about to play God.

And I had to do everything in my power not to throw a little bit of science smackdown on the outpouring of rage.

I told myself that it wasn’t worth it, that the general public wouldn’t understand just how radicalized this video had made one companies mission statement.

But then I realized that this is exactly what this blog SHOULD be.  Science.  Written in a way for the mass public to understand it. So here I go. I shall try to talk you all off of your ledges, and hopefully educate some in between the lines.

Cloning: Single Cell Nuclear Transfer

Cloning Horse

Cloning is a quite simple idea, wrapped in some crazy complex science in order to get it to work.  But in a nutshell, it begins with a horse that you want to clone.  Now, as the procedure costs upwards of $100,000, it would be believed that only a horse of tremendous value would be considered.  This horse, this valuable creature, is considered the “Somatic Donor” and donates their DNA through a variety of cell types – but usually hair.

Now, in addition to this horse, another cell from another horse is retrieved – specifically the oocyte, or egg.  This horses DNA should not matter, as the nucleus  – or the organelle filled with the genetic material, will be removed before it is ever utilized.

And in its place, the nucleus of the valuable animal will be implanted. This allows for the genetic material of one animal to be within the cellular structure of another. And this can then grow within the laboratory in a nice little petri dish full of fun nutrients at a specific temperature. And if the embryo survives, this is about where the cloning aspect of the procedure ends, and the embryo transfer aspect begins.

Because, just like in a standard embryo transfer procedure, this embryo is then implanted into a recipient mare.  A mare that is chosen for her reproductive soundness, her physical soundness, her temperament, and her mothering ability.  This is usually done at roughly day 7 after the clone is made, and when the recipient mare is heavily in diestrus and producing that magical progesterone which will both nurture the embryo while also telling the mare that she is pregnant!

And then, if all goes perfectly, in roughly 340 days, we have a beautiful baby pony.

IMG_0549

Now, none of this is new.  There are many famous clones walking amongst us – and there are quite a few commercial companies which will do this for you.  The famous racier Storm Cat has a handful of clones existing in Argentina as polo sires, William Fox Pitts event mount Tamarillo has been recreated, and the first clone of jumper Gem Twist was born 10 years ago in 2008.

So where is the outrage stemming from?

It’s not the cloning.  Its the genetic engineering.

CRISPR/Cas9: Genetic Engineering

For the past couple of years, researchers have been using a technique called CRISPR/Cas9 to edit the genes of research animals with the hopes of potentially being able to edit them in humans.  Is this playing with God?  Maybe.  But when your child has a genetic mutation that can lead to life ending diseases such as Cystic Fibrosis, and you can change this by altering one gene within their genome, it sounds pretty amazing.

And this is where the science gets tough, and I won’t delve too deep.

In a nutshell, the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing system allows us to cut, implant, or replace genetic material that we want to change. It has been successAnd in a life/death situation, this is fascinating.  In a run fast/jump higher situation, it sounds simply ridiculous.

But that is where we all need to pause, and think about what exactly we intend to engineer.

There is only one gene that has been found to correlate with “running faster” and it is myostatin.  Only the myostatin gene doesn’t predict if your horse will win races, it simply predicts which distance your horse will be best suited for, and this was well studied and found by Dr. Emmeline Hill in Ireland.

myostatin

There are 4 types of molecules which make up our double stranded DNA: Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, and Thymine, or A, C, G, and T.  And these are what come together to create our genes.

The Genes to Engineer:

And in the gene for myostatin — an important aspect of muscle development —  researchers found that C/C horses are suited to fast, short-distance races; C/T horses compete favorably in middle-distance races; and T/T horses have greater stamina and may be best suited to longer distances. Their take away?  C/C and C/T horses will do better in the 2 year-old sales, while T/T horses *might* just be more well suited to marathon distance and possibly steeplechase.

img_6482

Does this mean that we *could* genetically engineer a racehorse specifically to suit our distance preference?  Sure.  Except the Jockey Club won’t allow it.

And this is one of the main reasons why. While so many people lament the fact that the Jockey Club only allows the use of natural live cover breeding with no assisted reproductive techniques, at the root of it was because of something like this.  In the thoroughbred industry, we do not want anyone to play God.  And while everyone misunderstands the demand that we do not perform artificial insemination, or embryo transfer, or cloning, at the base of it is to avoid something like this.

But in the sport horse disciplines, we can.

Only in the sport horse disciplines, this information is fairly useless, at least now.  The eventer, jumper, reiner, or dressage horse doesn’t just run.  They also jump, turn, spin, and passage.  And there is no gene that has been found to specifically correlate to success in any of these things in the way that myostatin was found to correlate with distance of race for the thoroughbred.

Therefore, there’s simply nothing to mutate, or engineer….now.

The Olympics:

It is not the Olympic Committee, or FEI’s, job to discern whether a cloned horse can or cannot compete, as it is the breed industries and organizations which govern the actual registration of the animal, and just how that animal was created.

Because one could already say that the warmbloods which are bred with embryo transfer are also at an advantage over anyone bringing an OTTB to an FEI event.

With embryo transfer, we can also discern the sex of the embryo, and are perilously close to testing embryos for genetic disorders and allowing the owner to choose which embryo they would like the veterinarian to implant into the recipient. And this is playing God nearly as much as genetic engineering with CRISPR/Cas9.

embryo biopsy

Assessing an embryo via biopsy

There is only one breed organization which does not allow assisted reproductive techniques, and as stated previously, that is the thoroughbred.

But even the thoroughbred uses therapeutics and drug interference to get mares which would otherwise be considered infertile, pregnant.  Even the thoroughbred manipulates the stallions via hormonal therapy to get a stallion with low sperm count to cover the desired amount of mares.  We’ve all given ovulation-inducing drugs like hCG or deslorelin.  We’ve all administered Regumate to a mare with an incompetent cervix.  We’ve all used immunomodulators on a horse that pools fluid.

In a way, we are all playing God.

The Takeaway:

We are a far, far, way away from finding specific genes which actually impact the success of a show horse.  So much of it is because its not just one gene, so much of it is because of the nature surrounding a horse.

And you can take a genetically superb horse and it can get into a trailer accident and never again like confined spaces.  You can clone Gem Twist and miss a distance to a jump at the age of 4 and train him to not enjoy the process.  You can clone Tamarillo and have him find a divot in the water complex and choose to never go back in one.

Now what can/should genetic engineering be used for?  Well, any genetic disease which has been found disastrous for the breed.  HYPP in quarter horses, Lavender Foal Syndrome in Arabians, and maybe even diseases that have always had assumed genetic components without any scientific basis: like cryptorchidism, or Wobblers Syndrome. It would be possible to take a horse that you intend to use as a breeding stallion, but will not be allowed into the breed book due to a genetic issue, and clone him to produce a stallion who will.

Those reasons are legit, and will be interesting to study.

Will we one day find the genes which make a horse great performers? I don’t know, but honestly I don’t think so. So many horses have overcome bad genetics, while others have never risen to the fame of their siblings.  This hasn’t been overcome by breeding with statistics or science. This won’t be overcome by cloning.  This won’t be overcome by genetic engineering.

Because at the end of the day, the most important aspect of the horse isn’t the genes for its speed, or its jump.  It’s the genes that transcribe to the heart.

And that, my friends, can never be engineered.

img_9784

 

+

Why I BILLieve

In 1988 my father bought season tickets to the Buffalo Bills.


Twenty years later, in 2008 he passed away three days before the season opening game.

And ten years after that, the Buffalo Bills are making their first playoff bid in my adult life. 

It’s 2018. It’s time to BILLieve again.


Right after my dad was diagnosed with AML, I had a writing professor sit me down and tell me to write through my thoughts. To describe my emotions. To explain my grief.

The following week I submitted an essay on my belief system. I scripted my way through that first weekend in October spent far far away from campus. 

My dad had been diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia after attending a Buffalo Bills game. We sat in the 27th row in front of the 30 yard line, and he had walked up the same flight of stairs he had every other game of the 19 years of his reign there – but for the first time, he felt winded.

He had left the game, scheduled an appointment with his general physician, and waited. His physician told him he was the epitome of health. His weight was down. His cholesterol was better. His BP great for a 51 year old man. He didn’t see the problem.

But my father remembered the exhaustion he had felt climbing those stairs and demanded further testing. And a surgeon himself, he wrote up his own bloodwork. Twelve hours later I received the worst phone call of my life.

My dad had cancer.

And so I travelled to Pittsburgh, Pa to be by his side, and I wrote.

I didn’t know what to believe. I wasn’t my father, and my faith in God wasn’t strong. I wasn’t my sister, who was finishing up her medical school to become a surgeon like my father, and my faith in medicine was weak. I didn’t have much to cling on to.

The internet told me that my father had a 27% chance at life. The doctors told us it was maybe a tiny bit higher due to his age and health. So maybe a 35% chance, or 40%.

The odds were stacked against him. The chances were not good.

And I sat down in front of the television that Sunday night thinking terrible thoughts. My father was going to die. My family was going to shatter. 

And then I turned on the TV and began to cheer for my Buffalo Bills. 

They played the Cowboys that night, and I knew their chances were terrible. The Buffalo Bills had lost their street cred considerably since the time my father began cheering for them.

He had gone to all 4 Super Bowls. He had seen them in all of their glory. But, in 2007 that glory was gone. They were pretty terrible.


And yet I only knew how to be a Bills fan in the dark times. In the hard times. 

And yet every season, every game, I cheered again. I adorned myself in the Kelly, and then the Flutie, and then the McGahee jersey. I drove to Buffalo from wherever I was living at the time. And I screamed. 

I screamed in hope. I screamed in exasperation. I screamed in elatement. And I screamed in anger.
But I kept screaming.

Because I BILLieved.

I believed in a team that repeatedly was 6-10, or 7-9. A team that never had the odds in their favor but showed up to play every weekend, year in and year out. A team whose fans never gave up hope—even if we were playing the Pats or the Steelers. A team who never tired, even if they were jumping snow drifts into the end zone.


And I realized in that moment that I might not believe in God, and I wasn’t sure if I trusted the chemotherapy, but I wasn’t going to give up on my dad. 

He might only have a 30% chance at beating that disease, but I was a Bills fan. I had rooted for worse. I had seen greater upsets. I knew it was possible.

And for 11 months, I held that firmly in my mind. 

My father ended up losing that battle, but not without trying to make that 55 yard field goal kick at the very end. Just like my team.

He was cremated in his jersey, and we demanded the opening game of 2008 be played at his calling hours. 

For three hours, as people attempted to say their goodbyes to a great man and sympathesize with his family, our eyes were trained to the televisions that we demanded the funeral home have. And we watched as OUR team stomped on Seattle that day. We knew it was for our dad. We knew it was for the Bills greatest fan. We knew he was smiling in heaven.

It’s been 10 years now since the Bills true Twelth man left us. Ten years where we’ve kept those season tickets, and kept the faith.

My father created a strong family. A family who doesn’t give up. A family who roots for the underdog, who doesn’t care when the odds are stacked against them.


And that family watched first the Bills squish the Fish on Sunday, and then turn our attention to the Cinci game and prayed.

My little brother thinks my dad was holding up that ball that Dalton passed. My sister thinks he was smiling on the sidelines. My mother cried, and I screamed. We were all in different states and different worlds, but we were together on that field.


And quickly the texts came through and the plans were made.

We were going to Jacksonville.

We were going to that game.

We didn’t care how much the tickets, or the flights, or the hotels would cost.

We were going to reunite on the side of that field, and we were going to scream.

This belief system has gotten us through so much. It has gotten us through decades of grief and pain, the good and the bad. It has gotten us through devastation and regret. Losing our #1 fan. 

It has gotten us through life.

So on Sunday, I BILLieve.

On Sunday, I’ll throw my faith behind a team who’s odds are stacked against them. Who’s chances are small. I’ll scream for the team my father learned to love in the 80’s and for the team his children have learned to love since.

I’ll be surrounded by the biggest Bills fans I know to exist, and missing the biggest Bills fan that used to.


And I know my dad will be there.

He’ll be watching.

He’ll be BILLieving.

I hope you will too. 

+

Solid Foundation

About two weeks ago, I sold a horse.

It’s been a few years since I have actually sold one, although a few have been for sale, and one even left my care only to return quickly.

And through that processes: the showings, the vettings, the negotiations, the panicked phone calls and the trek to Virginia, I started to think that maybe horse sales were not for me.

Two years ago I thought I could sell anything, and so I took on a horse that didn’t fit the majority of my prerequisites of what was a good project horse. Nixon was a little bit too old, a little bit too angry, and a little bit too much of a pro ride to be an easy or quick sale.

But like the rest, I put the blood, sweat, and tears into him. What he lacked in rideability, he made up for in good looks. What he lacked in amateur friendly bevahior, he made up for in athleticism that a professional would crave.


And yet when push came to shove, he was both too good and too unmarketable to sell. On a good day, Nixon is worth $50,000, and on a bad, I wouldn’t be able to get him on the trailer to even head to auction.

So, after 12 months of hard work, numerous tear-ridden phone calls to friends and family, and one blue ribbon at the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover, I took him off the market.


And I replaced him with my heart horse. The antithesis of Nixon. My pride and joy, my Mak.

Mak was everything Nixon was not. He was kind, he was calm. He was amateur friendly and a packer type.


And before I could even advertise him, he was sold.

And just as quickly, he was home.

I don’t know who suffered more in that escapade: Mak or me. While Mak came home fairly unphased by his month in Virginia, I was left fairly traumatized by the whole process and the aftermath.

Because I have always considered myself two things: a good baby trainer, and a good match maker. I do not consider myself a horse seller or trader, and never take on more than one at a time. 

I am not good at teaching horses upper level movements or selecting the ones that will go to the international stage, but I am good at selecting a sound body, a good brain (well, minus Nixon), and then putting a solid foundation on that young horse. 


And once that foundation is there, I used to love nothing more than finding the perfect match to take that horse to the next level. And I love following them in their journey. The Ainsleys and Skylars of my resume have brought me so much joy, and knowing that we found a great horse for that perfect rider and then watching them blossom together has been so rewarding.


But with Nixon, and then Mak, I began to question every aspect of this process that I used to enjoy. I hadn’t selected the best brain in Nixon. I hadn’t found the best match for Mak. And because of my delinquency, I believed my horses had suffered. 

I always wondered about what Mak went through during his trip to Virginia, and if he resented me for putting him in that situation. I always wondered if Nixon could be at the 2* level by now if he had gone to a better rider, someone more capable than me.

So for two years I stayed away from it. I didn’t take on a project and I didn’t sell a horse. 

But then I began to realize just how much I missed the journey. How much I missed watching that perfect person sit on a horse you created yourself the first time. The first time you get to cheer them on at a show. The first time you get to watch them tackle that next level or new movement.

So I got another project horse. A polo pony who had grown too tall was bestowed upon me by the farm my boyfriend is a manager of, and on October 1st, I began to lay the cement of this foundation.


Sig was different. Sig was 100% thoroughbred, but had never seen a stall, nonetheless a Racetrack. He was green broke and a bit feral, and yet I was smitten from the first ride.

And for 2 months we bonded. 

I took Sig for his first trailer ride, his first horse show. I showed him his first Dressage ring and his first cross country fence. I put his first blanket on him, and his first brush boot. We went for first hacks and first gallops, and everything in between.


And after a little bit of time, I had a pretty good idea of who I wanted to match him with. I wanted a capable rider who could bring out the best in him, while understanding that he didn’t need a professional to finish the job. I wanted someone who would do the things he loved while understanding that he was a blank slate that could go in any direction. And most importantly, I wanted someone who would love him as much as myself, my friends, and this farm had come to.

And I found her.

Lindsey contacted me a few weeks ago and inquired about the big baby. She asked all of the right questions, and I answered as honestly as I had ever done. I knew that I was never going to be the sketchy seller, who lies through their teeth. My prior failed sales had taught me that a bad sale was worse than no sale at all, and I responded as such.

I told her he could be a turd to bridle. I told her that he had gone through a phase where we couldn’t catch him. I told her that he had only ever been on a trailer with a ramp. And I told her that he would do just about anything if grain was involved. I told her he hated saddlebreds dressed as peacocks, and he demanded to be in the lead.

And she responded by saying that none of that phased her—he was only 3, wasn’t he?

So she made travel arrangements and drove to Lexington less than 48 hours later. And we bonded the minute that we met. We talked ponies and politics, relationships and friendships, and then I threw her up on the sweet baby and knew from the first circle that it was meant to be.


Sig shipped out last weekend to Maryland where he will pursue a life full of mystery. Lindsey has prehistorically done the jumpers, but has also dabbled in fox hunting, eventing, and dresssage, and I’m sure Sig and I will be able to convince her to do all of the above.

And for a week now, I have been reminded of why I used to love this. The comfort in knowing your horse is safe. In knowing he is loved. The excitement over what lies ahead and what updates you will receive. And the enjoyment you get out of watching the journey from afar.


I don’t know if or when I’ll get another project horse, but I do know that my heart, my conscience, and my soul are ever so slightly healed. Sig and Lindsey showed me that I do have a purpose in this massive world that we live on.

That I am still good at laying that foundation. At making that match. And at watching it unfold. 

So who knows, maybe I’ll get back in the game. In the meantime, there’s one more horse out there that I get to cheer on. That I get to point to and say “I helped him find her.” And that I get to love from afar, knowing how good his life will be because of that good start. That solid foundation. And the love that went into it.