In it to win it

I jumped around my first preliminary combined test yesterday. Of my life.

I never had the fancy horses, or the 4* trainer. I never had the clinics with DOC, or the winters at WEF.

But what I did have was a severe hatred of showing. A huge pressure to be perfect. And a crippling anxiety of people judging me.

This has held me back in a variety of things, the most obvious of which is my riding. One stop on XC would leave me reeling. Two rails in stadium would bring me into a rage. And if I scored over 40 in dressage? Well that was it, I was done.

Showing had never been fun, and therefore I didn’t show. Last summer I went to maybe 3 shows all together, and had a good experience at all but one. But that one E on my record would leave me up at night. I couldn’t get past it. It didn’t matter that the same horse scored a 20 in dressage at another show, or got me my first level scores for my bronze medal. All I could fixate on was the negative. 

And it wasn’t healthy.

So this spring, I made the decision to stop. To stop crippling myself with this anxiety. To stop worrying if people were watching or judging. To stop caring what they thought, or the color of the ribbon, and instead focus on goals that were obtainable.

I can’t control if the dressage judge didn’t like my horse, or better yet, all thoroughbreds. But I can control if my trot to canter transition actually occurs at F. I can’t control if the course designer is going to put in relatable distances that my horse can actually jump from. But I can control the canter from which he jumps. And I can’t control if the XC course is going to have a full coffin, or a drop into water, or a massive pool table that scares the bejesus out of me. But I can control whether or not I enter at the correct level for my training, and school the crap out of those questions ahead of time.

And most of all, I can control if it’s fun. I can control who I surround myself with. And I can control the report card of the day–as long as the goals are able to be measured by metrics.

Surround yourself with good people. Photo by JJ Sillman

I went into the combined test this weekend with simple goals, and commiserated of them with my friend Courtney in the weeks leading up to it. I wanted a steady and well mannered dressage. I wanted leg yields that were clean, and a halt that didn’t pull. I wanted Mak to jump from a rhythmic canter and show minimal hesitation at the 1.10m height. But maybe most importantly-I wanted to fit in.

I didn’t want to be in warm up and be “that person”. I didn’t want to have the horse in the meltdown, or be the rider who was obviously not at her level of capability. 

And Courtney wanted the same.

She was also moving up a level, taking her talented and yet ridiculously fiery mare to her first novice. She was also worried about if she was ready or if her mare would get through the day. And just like mine, her goals were simple. 

The diva herself. Photo by JJ Sillman.

She wanted a rideable dressage. She wanted to not clear out the warm up. She wanted her mare to respect the fences, and more importantly respect her. And she wanted to have a confidence building ride.

We talked a few days out and acknowledged that there were over 20 people in the divisions and we just laughed. We weren’t in this for a $3 ribbon. We were in it for the lessons it would teach on the current state of our training, and the homework it would send us home with. 

And with that, we loaded up and were off.

And we both made it through yesterday; ticking off the goals as they met us. 

Courtney got her mare loaded in under 5 minutes: ✔️

Courtney warmed up without a meltdown: ✔️

Courtney went into her test and had a calm, steady, and gorgeous Harper, even in the canter: ✔️

Carleigh got both horses to the show: ✔️

Carleigh remembered her preliminary dressage test: ✔️

Carleigh got Mak to do simple changes AND a rein back: ✔️

Carleigh got Mak to jump around a 3’6 course without a moments hesitation: ✔️

Carleigh got Mak to jump around a 3’6 course without a moments hesitation because she didn’t ride like a chicken shit: ✔️

And we walked back to the trailers and high-fived each other, acknowledging how successful we had been in our pursuit to conquer this list, and happy to have done it together.

We hadn’t checked the scores, and we honestly didn’t care. The divisions were massive, our ponies were green for the level, and yet our smiles were wide.

We untacked and cooled down. Iced and drank a water, and then went to pick up our tests. And as I walked to the show office, a fellow competitor told me that there was a ribbon. I looked up at her and congratulated her, and she laughed and said “no stupid–YOU have a ribbon.”

In confusion I smiled at her and kept walking, unsure of what she meant. Until I got to the show office and checked the scores.

I had finished 4th in my first ever preliminary combined test. On a dressage score of 32. I’m pretty sure there was bourbon in the judges Diet Coke, but I won’t complain. And then I looked higher. I had also finished 2nd in the training level combined test.

And maybe even cooler? Courtney had won her move up to Novice on a score of 27. Out of a huge division, with a double clean stadium to boot.

It had been a good day–in so many more ways than one.

And yet as we texted back and forward last night talking about our rides and sharing videos, neither one of us acknowledged the ribbons.

Because we couldn’t care less what color hung from our horses halters at the end of day. We wouldn’t care less if people were stalking the scores or disagreed with the judge. We only cared about our metricable success, and the goals we had not only accomplished-but conquered.

It’s not about the ribbons. It’s not about the judge. It’s about you and your horse, and the homework you’ve completed and the homework yet to be assigned. It’s about a beautiful August day surrounded by the best people.

And it’s about accomplishing your goals. The smallest, most minute, to the greatest and largest. Because that’s the only way to win it. And I’m in it to win it.


The Horse I Couldn’t Quit

Five years ago I took on an off the track thoroughbred with the idea that he would be an easy flip. Some quick cash. A safety net for my savings account.

Four and a half years ago I decided he was too much fun to sell right away. We would play for some time. He was such a joy to be around.

Mak as a 4yo at his first show. Photo by Chelsie Novak

Last summer, financially strapped and having difficulties with another unsellable horse, I made one of the toughest decisions of my life and loaded him on a trailer to Virginia. I cried myself to sleep that night after drinking an entire bottle of wine, but rationalized with myself that he had found an amazing home with a great kid, and would be fine.

Nineteen days later, I realized I had made the biggest mistake of my horse life. The perfect home wasn’t so perfect, and the little girl wasn’t the best match. He was unhappy, and was telling them in spades of his unhappiness. And this horse that I had always believed to be amateur and kid friendly was pronounced crazy. Herd bound. Tough. 

So after a few more tears were shed, Luke and I drove the 11 hours to Virginia and brought Mak home. We unloaded him back into his field that night and I stared out into the paddock in a turmoil of emotions.

Maybe I didn’t know my horse that well.

Maybe he wasn’t as easy as I, an experienced horseman, thought.

Maybe I had epically misjudged both him and my gut.

And maybe, just maybe, I had committed a huge disservice to him.

But still financially strapped and wondering how I would ever juggle the two horses, I put him back on the market. People would come and go, and yet every situation just didn’t feel right. I would make excuses to some, saying he just wouldn’t be a good fit. Or tell others that their budget, home, or lifestyle wouldn’t work. I ignored any email west of the Mississippi, and anyone who inquired about a young rider mount.

And then fall came, the market went dry, and I turned him out into his field.

In the spring, I pulled him back out and began to hack. We went to a few little jumper shows and bopped around, and then out of seemingly nowhere I finally made the decision that I was done.

Finding his mojo again.

The sale had nearly done me in, and the aftermath had devastated me. But my horse was telling me that our journey wasn’t over. And so in March, his ad came down and his entries went up. 

I set goals for my year that only a year ago I didn’t think were possible. I hadn’t thought Mak enjoyed himself as an eventer so I had listed him as a hunter. And yet with just a single XC school this spring, I realized how wrong I was. 

His ears were pricked, his stride was strong, and his eyes were happy. And I just knew that he was back. That we were back. 

Loving XC. Photo by XPress Photos

And then his happiness and stability was put to the test.

Because a few weeks ago, my friend Dan called me. A client of his was bringing his family to Lexington for the United States Pony Club Championships and didn’t want to haul his daughters mount in from Wyoming. Dan asked if I knew of a horse that a young teen would be safe on at 3′, and I hesitated.

Because I had thought I had just the horse, but his past experiences had brought me to this pause.

Was Mak safe for a kid? Last summer would say no.

Was Mak as amateur friendly as I thought, and a true kick ride? Last summer would indicate he had a stop in him.

And was Mak well mannered enough to survive a pony club rally where I couldn’t micromanage his every moment? Last summer would scream no.

And yet I sat down and came to the realization that last summer wasn’t a true indicator of his brain, or his ability. It was a single moment in time, with a bad match, and a bit of a meltdown. He hadn’t been happy, and he made it known.

But he was happy now, and therefore I said yes.

So Emma Reed arrived on Sunday night and immediately came from the airport to meet him. We tacked up, threw her up on him, and went into a 48 hour boot camp before rally started. She had her first walk, her first trot, and her first canter just days before the competition. We popped her over jumps, and with each one you could see her smile grow.

Emma’s first ride on Mak.

It was a great fit. And obviously the fit that was lacking just a year ago.

So I hauled Mak to the Kentucky Horse Park and handed him to this young lady; entrusting his care to her. For 4 days she would be his sole provider. For 4 days she couldn’t demand my help.

And he was perfect.

Emma went into the riding portion of her tethralon competition and threw down a foot perfect ride on a horse she had just met. Mak took the jumps beautifully in stride, but more importantly he handled the auxiliary aspects of the ride well. 

Emma had to dismount him, put down a split rail, walk Mak over it, and remount; all of which he took in stride. She had to jump a bank out of the arena and gallop up a steep hill to open and close a gate, which Mak definitely didn’t understand, but he performed regardless.

And she had to care for him as her own, which we all witnessed her do.

Some well deserved treats at the barn

And not only did Emma do that, but she also swam like a fish, shot like a sniper, and ran like a Usein Bolt.

And at the end of the week, we all got to watch as she accepted her blue ribbon proudly, having won her division at the USPC Championships–a goal so few get to accomplish.

And my pony was right there next to her the entire time.

After Emma left the ring, I received a few inquiries about Maks status. Mothers who wanted me to let their kids try him, or trainers who saw the safety and sanity which he exhibited, and I said no to all.

I’ve already been there; I’ve already done that.

And I know from experience that I can guarantee nothing. If I go bankrupt, I will find him a perfect home before I let any aspect of his care suffer. But I also know that I will sacrifice just about anything before I let that happen again. 

Because Mak has deserved it.

And I have learned that I just can’t quit him.

He was brought into my life for a reason, and he has lived up to that reason quite often. He is brave enough for me to enter my first ever combined test at the preliminary level in just a few weeks. He is safe enough to hand off to a young teen who he has never met for a weeklong competition. And he is happy enough to keep coming back for more.

And that is worth the trials and tribulations that we have encountered. He is with me now, and besides the loan outs and short leases to allow others to realize their dreams and boost their confidence, I don’t see that changing any time soon.


Everything will be ok…

I have a severe rash covering 80% of my body.

It’s been on me on and off since I was 13 years old. It stumped the dermatologists in my small town of Meadville, Pa and they sent me off to the Cleveland Clinic, hoping to get some answers and relieve me of my pain. 

When I was 13 it covered my arm pits, my face, and my neck. It appeared as hives, which turned into welts, and eventually opened up and were extremely painful and ghastly to look at.

They biopsied me, tested me for a million allergens, put me on prednisone (which made me vomit for two weeks) and finally gave up.

They sent me home and told me to spot test everything I interacted with. We eliminated anything fragranced (laundry detergent, deodorant, shampoo, perfume and lotion), found a make-up brand that didn’t make me break out (Almay), and became cognizant of bringing everything I needed every time we traveled. 

Occasionally, the rash would come back for no rhyme or reason. It was usually small, and it usually was resolved with some steroid cream and a few Benadryl.

Until last year. 

Last year my legs broke out. I went to the doctor and they diagnosed me with psoriasis. It was painfully horrendous all summer as it rubbed the back of my calves while I rode, and the back of my thighs when I sat. And then it got cool out, and it went away.

And I remember watching the commercials for shingles or psoriasis and thinking “Oh, c’mon. You’re that embarrassed by a little rash on your arms? It’s THAT big of a deal?”

Until this summer, when it came back with a punch. 

For the last month now, I have been miserable. The itching over powers every other sense in my body. I don’t enjoy food, I can’t focus at school, and I am constantly scratching any time possible. 

I get out of the shower in the morning and stare at my body as if it has betrayed me. My confidence is shot, and I’m embarrassed to be seen in almost any public outing.

My arms and legs are the worst, and yet it is July in Kentucky. With 90 degree days, I am usually forced into some form of outfit which reveals this horror. And people ask, or stare, wondering what would be wrong with me. 

I jokingly call it my leprosy, but a lepar I look. And I finally have full sympathy for those paid actors in those commercials.

I feel ugly. I feel miserable. I am miserable.

But for three glorious hours of the day, I am not.

For three glorious hours of the day, I am not judged for my looks or thinking of my rash.

I cover myself from head to toe in my breeches and a long sleeve shirt, zip up my tall boots, and head to the barn. 

I have three horses who demand my upmost attention. They demand that I focus on what is underneath my seat and not what is on my skin. And as I think to shift my right hip back to ask for haunches in, or my left rein back for half halt, I am completely focused on them.

No one cares if I’m covered in a rash. No one cares if I am packing on a few extra pounds. No on cares if I’m smiling or frowning, they just care that I am 100% with them and riding them to the best of my capabilities. 

And for three hours, my mind is on that, and not on me.

But this week, this ended. My rash had finally covered the entire surface area of my legs which lies on my saddle, and my three hours of bliss turned into three hours of agony. My mother just happened to call me during one of these rides and caught me in tears. My escape have become just another section of my prison.

So today I head to a specialist to try (yet again) to figure this out. My mother thinks I have Celiac’s Disease, my physician still says it’s psoriasis, the doctor at UTC calls it a bad case of poison ivy, and yet I am sure I suffer from an autoimmune disease like Lyme’s or Lupus.

But I’m interested to see what these doctors have to say. 

I hope to get some resolution. 

I hope to get some relief.

Because I want my confidence back. And more importantly I want those 3 hours back. I have come to realize that it is ok if I have gained 15 pounds as long as it isn’t hindering my riding. It is ok if my bank account reads $2.17 as long as I have enough to pay the board. And it is ok if I am covered head to toe in a blistering rash, as long as it doesn’t put me on the sidelines.

It has also made me appreciate every individuals struggle. If you were to see me at a show, you would think I am just fine. My jacket and my breeches hide the scars, and my smile hides the pain. I complain about it to my closest friends, but only a select few know how bad it has gotten. 

And that is ok. It is ok to pretend like everything is fine. It is ok to ride through the pain.

But I wanted to post this here because it is not ok for us as a society to let others believe that we are the only ones suffering. The only ones who have lost our confidence. The one ones who feel fat. The only ones who feel ugly.

I don’t feel awesome right now, but that is ok.

Because I have a team of great friends who let me vent, 3 fantastic ponies who let me ride them, and a doctor who will hopefully have some answers and provide some relief.

Wish me luck.


A Come to Jesus

The best thing that ever happened to me was graduating college in the recession.

It was 2008, and I was one of those kids that entered school with high aspirations of six figure jobs and Doctor in front of my name.  I had gone to a fantastic, albit extremely expensive liberal arts school – one that cost more for four years of education than what many American’s make in a decade.

And in May of 2008, as I tossed my cap into the air and hugged my fellow graduates, I thought to myself “Yes.  This is when I set off into the wide unknown and MAKE IT.”

And then the stock market crashed.

And then I didn’t get into vet school. 

And then my father passed away. 

And then I moved to Lexington, Kentucky with $1,000 to my name and a cat.

I started as a small animal vet tech, quickly transferred to selling cowboy boots at a local store, and yet still found myself floundering.  No one was doing well.  Paychecks were hard to come by, and hours were hard to find.  Everyone was struggling.

So I began to drive from farm to farm looking for work, only to find that few were hiring.  With the market crashing, horses took the brunt of the hit.  A hobby sport to most – when budgets must be cut, the ponies tend to go first.  And with less horses there were less staff needed on the farms.  People were begging for work – just to muck a stall or drive a tractor – and therefore the inexperienced 22 year old blonde girl got the brunt of it.

No one wanted to hire me. 

So when I was finally hired at Chesapeake Farm in March of 2009, I was shocked.  The average starting salary a decade ago was $8/hour, and yet I was offered $10 due to my ability to work in both the office and on the farm.  I worked 50hr+ weeks without weekends and brought home a paycheck of about $300/week, leaving my monthly salary at $1200 – and an annual income of about $15,000.

$600 of those dollars went to rent, $150 went to my truck, and another $120 to my private health insurance plan.  I ate peanut butter sandwiches, hacked onto my neighbors wireless internet, and watched old DVD’s of Grey’s Anatomy on repeat.  I didn’t buy new clothes, I didn’t eat out, and I sure as hell didn’t own or ride a horse.


But at the end of the day, I loved every minute of it.

Because I had come to know how hard those jobs were to come by, and I didn’t want to risk losing mine.  I showed up 10 minutes early and was always the last to leave.  I offered to short shift, turn out yearlings, and do the evening treatments. I didn’t think I was hireable anywhere else, and because of that, I busted my ass.

The recession nearly did me in, but the recession was the best thing to ever happen to me.

And now ten years later, I just don’t see that same drive in our recent graduates.

Because in the last few months, we are hearing of the opposite problem.  Farms desperately need help, and visas for foreign workers are limited.

We need an American work force, and yet can’t seem to find one.  

In 2008, you weren’t able to find a job.  And in 2017, you can’t seem to find the help.  The work is nearly the same – its a lot of hand walking, currying, mucking out, and leading to and from.  The hours are nearly identical – six days a week, 8 hours a day.  The only thing to have seemingly changed are the paychecks –  as the income has increased drastically – with wages that would have made me salivate ten years ago.

And yet the work force doesn’t seem as driven.  

These youngin’s are coming out of college and demanding that they start at the same wage as the men and women who have been hoofing it for decades.  They bemoan of student loans and truck payments, fancy rentals and their own personal livestock.  And they complain of the long hours, back breaking labor, and rough stock.

Work 3

They float from one farm to the next, always assured that they will find another job.  They don’t give two weeks notice, and they expect all holidays off.  They claim to want to work with horses, and expect the piece of paper from their local universities to automatically feed them into a managerial role.

They are too comfortable.

I advise a number of students, both intentionally and not, through my role as a course instructor, and I have heard the gauntlet of fears, concerns, and complaints.

And at the root of most of this issue is money. These students lament over their high student loans and their inability to work for such cheap wages in order to pay these back.  And I feel for them, I do.

Except I kind of don’t.

These kids enter college in an equine programs field expecting what?  To graduate and immediately earn six figures?  They know that undergrad is going to cost them a good deal of money, and they sign the dotted line to take out those loans – usually cushioning with a bit of extra funding in order to live in comfort for the next four years.  And then they happily lope through college living the high life.

Until what?  Until the real world hits them.

And yes, there are options for those kids upon graduation to make a decent amount of money with that degree. Pharmaceutical sales, equine insurance, or even heading off to law school, graduate school, or vet school.  But those jobs are limited and those careers are hard to obtain.

And many of these graduates don’t want that.  They want to work WITH the horses.  They want to be the farm manager, and they expect that managerial job to come to them immediately.

Work 2

And thats where things get tense, and money gets tight.  Because the majority of the farms could care less if your degree is in an equine field or in English lit.  They don’t check your GPA – they check your driving record. And at the end of the day, the majority of farm owners would rather hire a manager who can speak Spanish than compute SAS code.

And that farm owner/manager didn’t sign the dotted line for you on those lines, or sign your agreement to the nearest University.  What they did sign off on was providing you with a living wage and a decent work environment.  They did not make your  prior decisions for you, so don’t expect them to rectify them.

We need to get out of this vicious cycle.  We need to promote educational venues outside of the stone walls of University.  A college degree isn’t the end all/be all, especially in this business surrounding our beloved equines.  We need to encourage our youth to pursue higher professionalism, not higher education.  We need to teach promptness, cleanliness, and a pep in a step – not just Calculus and Shakespeare.

Because this business needs this generation, and this generation needs some hard work. To realize that a hards days wages are worth it.  To learn the value of callused hands and cracked skin.

To understand that job’s aren’t finite.  That you can be replaced.  That the economy and the industry can crumble around you no matter how hard you might try.

I’m not praying for another recession, because lord knows that was a scary time.  But we need a kick in the ass.  We need a come to Jesus. And we need some fear, and the men and women of the work force with which it creates.

Work 4





The Pre Purchase Examination

I have sold quite a few horses.

Some for a lot of money, some for a little. Some which have had training for years and are solid citizens at their discipline, others which are green and simply prospects. They differ in experience, in size and shape, and in discipline. 

But what they all have in common is the pre purchase examination. 

And it sucks.

For someone like me who gets severe anxiety over the behavior, performance, soundness, and ability of her horses, the pre purchase examination is HELL. I lie sleepless the night before and lament over the possibilities. I get to the barn an hour ahead and pull the horse from his field or his stall and take him for a jog. I listen for the rhythmic fall of his hooves and pray to the horse gods that the veterinarian and the client hear the same.

And then I place them back in the stall, knocked free of mud and dander, and I wait. For the vet to come. For the sale to either go forward or crumble to dust. For the beer (or 4) awaiting me at home. 

Most PPE’s go the same way. The veterinarian does a full physical-measuring everything from resting vitals to listening for heart murmurs. They run hands over legs and assess angles of hooves. They ask if the horse has been on any medications or if any joint has been injected. And if they are an exceptional vet, they assess the horses temperament as they do all of this. 

Assessing temperament. Maybe not a children’s horse?

A good vet knows the background of their client. Is this horse for a child? An adult amateur? Or a professional who is currently overseas contending a 4*. Will it be used as an up/down mount, perhaps jumping a crossrail or two? Or will it be going intermediate in 2 years with hopes of podiums and that red coat. Has it been raced? Does it have a competition record? Did it compete recently–whether it be in racing or the sport of choice? 

Because all of these things can help paint a picture. 

But before the picture can be painted, the vet needs to see the horse move. We jog on pavement or at least hard level ground and go through the flexion portion of the PPE. First the ankles, and then the knees. The hocks, and the stifle. And with each jog down the lane, your heart flutters a little more. You can hear the rhythmic gait, the soundness as your horses feet fall flat and sound. You move forward to lunging, to see if the horse maintains that soundness on a circle; at a bend.

And then comes the anxiety attack. If your horse is merely a prospect, many will stop here. The horse either trots or doesn’t trot sound. And if it trots sound, go forth and prosper. If it doesn’t trot sound–find a new prospect.

But if the horse is worth a bit more, and the financial gamble is a bit greater, we proceed to radiographs, or X-rays.

Depending on the price; the anxiety of the buyer; and the outcome of the flexions, the number of radiographs can range greatly. Many will recommend radiographing what flexed positive, and leaving well enough alone for the rest. 

This could mean images of just the left front fetlock and the right hind stifle. Many vets will add front feet to play it safe. And others will recommend the full gauntlet. A 40-44 image set, or heck, a 50 image set if you add the spine. 

And this is where the price range changes for the buyer, the information increases for the veterinarian, and the anxiety attack sky rockets for the seller.

Because any blemish, any flake, and you know that your chances of making this sale decrease. 

Because we are now a society that demands perfection. A society that uses Google instead of their brains. And because every buyer wants the perfect horse. The perfect set of X-rays. The radiographs that vet schools use to teach their anatomy classes.

Because we hear constantly that clean X-rays are what are important, but to a good vet they’re not.

To a good vet, and a good buyer, the radiographs are just one part of the puzzle. 

Sure, there are deal breakers in a PPE. Maybe the horse has a completely paralyzed throat and yet you are purchasing for racing or 4* eventing.

Or maybe the horse has freshly torn suspensory and you are purchasing him as your mount to pursue Young Riders next summer.

But besides this handful of deal breakers, the majority of other flaws are simply that: flaws. And need to be interpreted alongside the other information.

Take my horse Nixon as an example. Nixon ran 26 times, and consistently. I know that the one break within his race career was due to an injury to his suspensory and that he was rested for over a year and then proceeded to race for another 2 years. He won almost $500,000 and ran WELL against the best.

Nixon winning the Discovery Handicap

And now as a sport horse, in his second career, he is the soundest horse I have ever owned. He lives barefoot from October-May, and has never received an injection or supplement. He is ridden 5-6 days a week and is in active training as both a dressage horse as well as an eventer. 
He is strong. He is tough. He is the horse I don’t worry about. 

And yet when I saw his X-rays a year ago, I freaked. Nixon has osselets in both front ankles. Spurs in both hocks. He has thickened tendons, and of course that old suspensory injury.

And I called my vet that day and asked if I had invested in a horse that wouldn’t ever hold up to the future I expected of him. I wanted this horse to take me all of the way–as his mind and ability were fully capable–but now I wasn’t sure his body was.

And Heather calmly, and slowly, talked me off of my ledge. She reminded me that his horse had been in HARD work for almost a year without taking a lame step. That his blemishes had been noted even as a 4 year old when he had gone through the Fasig Tipton Horses of Racing Age Sale.

And that so many horses that she sees at the upper level of the sport share the same issues.

So why wasn’t she scared of these radiographic abnormalities? Why didn’t she “fail” my horse and tell me to find another? 

Dr Heather and her favorite patient Nixon

Because as a good physician, as a professional sport horse veterinarian, and as a rider herself, she understood the bigger picture. The whole picture.

She knew he flexed clean. She knew he rode sound. And she knew that she wasn’t injecting those joints every 6 months to keep him going. And she knew that he had ran long and ran well on those same blemishes. So his abnormalities did not alarm her. 

Because there was no pass or fail. Just a chapter in the story.

I still recommend that people get PPE’s done, keeping in mind to do it at the level you are comfortable with. I ask that my vet comes and flexes all of my prospects that I find on the track or sitting in the field, and if these horses are crippled upon flexion I don’t radiograph, I just pass.

But for people investing real money and gambling their hard earned dollars, a PPE is a good indicator of a starting point. A good comparison if issues arise in the future. And a good predictor of if maintenance may be needed in the future.

Nixon is sound and happy without interference now, but at least I know what I started with. I have rationalized with the fact that with these abnormalities on his films that he might need some maintenance in the future–whether that be joint injections, an oral supplement, or maybe just alterations in our fitness plan, I do not know.

Moving out sound

But what I do know is that I have all of the information. And I have an amazing team surrounding me to help me interpret that information. I would never ask my veterinarians to pass or fail a horse because you can’t shove these animals in boxes, not to mention the fact that you certainly can’t place injuries in boxes either.

 Nixon’s torn suspensory is no longer even identifiable on ultrasound, his osselets have never caused a lame step, and the most maintenance I do is a Theraplate.

Many of the dings or nicks will never effect the performance of the majority of these horses, and when you finally do find that magical unicorn of a freak who radiographs perfectly, he will step in a hole the next day. 

So all you can do is your due diligence. Do your homework. Find a great trainer. Build a relationship with a superb vet. And at the end of the day, the most important part of that equation is YOU. 

Know YOUR needs.

Know YOUR comfort level.

Know YOUR budget.

And constantly educate and grow YOUR mind.


Worth fighting for

I have been with my significant other for 7 years.

We are not yet married, but besides that little piece of paper, our lives are a union. We own vehicles and animals together. We share a bank account and a home. 

We fight. About once a year we have a good knock down, drag out, screaming match. And I storm off to the barn for a therapeutic road hack while he heads to the garage to fiddle with a car.

And after a few tears, a couple of verbal bullets, and a handful of new grey hairs, we come back to the living room and apologize. We embrace each other in a hug and move on-hopefully in a better and more healthy direction. Assessing our character flaws and weaknesses. Improved.

My best friend.

Because at the end of the day, he is my best friend. And we are both cognizant of the fact that relationships take work

Seven years isn’t long in the context of his parents marriage (35 years) or mine (27 until my father passed away) but it’s practically a life time in this day and age.

Because in this world of smart phones, facebook addictions, and instant news, we all expect instant gratification. We all demand perfection.

Perfection is displayed to us on every “reality” show and romantic comedies end at the first date. No one depicts the tough times, no one shows the hard work or the resolution. We highlight those who have exceeded expectations, without mentioning much of the work it took. The Cinderella story just blames the shoe.

And while my relationship isn’t perfect, because-lets be honest-no ones is, it’s pretty healthy.

Because at the end of the day, I am in a relationship with my best friend. And intrinsically, we just enjoy spending time with each other. For richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.

And it made me realize that the same can be said about my horses

I don’t expect constant rainbows and butterflies. I don’t expect breakfast in bed or swooning embraces. I expect hard work. And some bumps and bruises.

 But I am willing to battle for it, because at the end of the day I love them. And I enjoy spending time with them.

I own a horse who is fancy as hell. When he’s good, he’s GOOD. He can canter pirouettes around my other two, and has the scope to be a 4* horse.  And yet about every six months, we battle. 

When he’s good, he’s GOOD

I know the minute that I walk into the barn that it will be one of those days. I know that he will be arrogant. And obstinant. And that there will be an argument.

And just like with my boyfriend, I know I have one of three options:

 1)  don’t take the bait and walk away, but in doing so, at the least rewarding the bad behavior, and at the most, risk repeating this same antic that will only infuriate me more in 6 more months. 

2) get out of the relationship, feeling as though the bad times outweigh the good, or 

3) tack up, swing on, and work through the bull shit.

I choose the 3rd. I know the good outweighs the bad. I know that the relationship can’t be perfect and that there are always growing pains. I know that life isn’t always pretty.

I’m willing to work through the tough times with my horse. I’m willing to put in the time, to develop and nurture the commitment to him.

I’m willing to take the bait. To hold the argument, to state my points and hear his. I’m willing to get off dripping in sweat and turn him out, walk away for a few hours and reassess. Because in that reassessment, I know that he’s worth it. 

I know that at the very basis of this relationship, just like with that of my partner, that there is a bond. A friendship. A respect and fondness for one another. And I know that that’s worth fighting for.

Fight on.


Full of Firsts

I walked to the start box today and stared down at my horses neck, trying to calm my nerves and relax my core.

His black name was streaked with white, and his neck was not the steel grey that it had been when I met him. He was a few inches taller, but with less of a hind end. His racing fit days were gone, and in their place was a different shape. A different form. His body wasn’t as it used to be, but his mind was finally back.

I could hear the starting box person counting me down, and with each second that ticked, another memory flashed. Our time together was so full of firsts, and today was no different.

“10” — The first time I saw him, so green and naive. I was 23 years old and had never worked on a thoroughbred farm. I had never put on a chifney, and I had never mucked a stall of straw. But the owner of the farm gave me a chance, and called me into the office to watch on the television as a grey horse streaked past his opponents to get to the wire with 8 lengths between him and the next. 

“9”–The first time I touched him, as I opened his stall door to assess the situation. This horse that would be in my care for the next few months as he underwent a tieback surgery and rehab. His massive frame dwarfed me in the stall, and I sat back and stared at the stunning specimen in front of me.

“8”–The first time I led him, as he began his hand walking aspect post-surgery. Every other horse needed a cocktail and a chain over their gums, but not this one. I would snap a cotton shank to his hovering head, and lead the 17.2hh 3 yo colt up and down the driveway, allowing him to stretch his legs as he took it all in.

“7”–The first time I said good bye to him, as he left to head back to the races. He was 3, he was glistening, and with his throat repaired he was ready to run. This young horse who impressed the masses with that first start was our hope and dream for Chesapeake Farm, and we were so excited. I made a promise to him that day that he would always be ok. That he would always be safe.

“6”–The first time I watched him win a graded stakes race. I was standing in my boyfriends families home and he was 6. It had been 2 years since I had laid a hand on him, but I still followed his every move. And as he won the G3 Excelsior Stakes at Aqueduct, I screamed myself hoarse. The big boy had done it – he had become one of the greats, and I thought that would keep him safe.

“5”–The first time I feared for his safety. I watched as the works outs stopped and the race entries ceased, and I wondered if I would ever get him home; if I would ever keep him safe. I had made a promise to him that I swore I would keep. I began to call the listed trainers, and Facebook messaging the owners, and watched as my pleas fell on deaf ears.

“4”–The first time I knew he was safe. Due to the outpouring of support from my blog and the endless support of his breeder, Drew Nardiello, he came home. At the age of nearly 9, he unloaded onto the same farm that he was born on, and placed in the same stall. I was so excited for what laid ahead.

“3”–The first time that I swallowed the idea that his chances of a second career were over. He came off the track sore of body and sore of mind, without the light that sparked in his eye that I had fallen in love with. I was sure he was done– to be nothing more than a pasture ornament. But I swallowed my pride and pushed down my dreams and reasoned with my mind that it was ok. As long as he was safe, it would all be ok.

“2”–The first time I sat on him. 18 months after he unloaded from that trailer. Enough time to heal his wounds and fill in his scars. Enough time to reignite that sparkle in his eye. I couldn’t believe that I was finally riding this horse that I had been craving sitting on for almost 7 years. 

 “1”– The first time he would leave a start box at a recognized event. That being today.

And we were off…”Have a good ride…”

I kicked Kennedy out of the startbox as the nerves dissipated and an eery calmness came over my body. I realized that this was not a race for the ribbons or a test of who was best. This was the icing on the cake of an otherwise layered and storied journey. This was evidence of what can happen if a horse is surrounded by a team of people who care for his best interests above anything else.

I watched his ears come up as he locked onto the first jump, and as I counted 3, 2, 1, I felt him rock back on his haunches and soar up and over. I stood up in my stirrups and gave him his head, letting him set the pace he wished, as the years of sweat, tears, heart break, and resolutions all collided into a rolling wave of emotions.

We picked off the fences one by one, as he exuberantly galloped along in his massive ground eating stride that had defied so many rivals on the track. And as we crossed the finish flags, I couldn’t help but bend over and wrap his immense neck in my arms, trying to choke down the tears.

Photo by Xpress Photos

This horse owes me nothing. And yet I owe him everything. I made a promise to him almost 9 years ago. He was a bit faster, and I was a bit more damaged. He was coming off the highest of highs while I was laying battered and bruised after losing the most important person in mine. And that day that I walked into his stall, I felt some of the light return to my deadening heart. 

We were caught at a crossroads. When I needed him, he was there. And six years later, these roles have swapped, and I have been able to return the favor.

At a crossroads so many years ago

We finished his first recognized event on our dressage score in 3rd place. An unreal result for a horse that so many others would have dismissed. That so many others wouldn’t have taken the time to heal. A horse who is running his first Beginner Novice at the age of 11 instead of 4-a young event horse by no means. He was too unsound. He was too old. He was too dull and his spirit too broken.
But Kennedy isn’t normal, because he had a team of people who knew it was all in there. Who knew that with patience; time; good care; and gentle guidance, that a good horse still lied within.

Kennedy in dressage. Photo by Claire Seals

And while so many firsts have now been tackled, it is evident that we have so many firsts to come.

Because the first time I met this horse, I made a promise to him. I promised him that I would never give up. I would pound the pavement and push the doors to make sure he stayed safe, that he stayed sound, and that he stayed happy.

And if this weekend was any indication of things, I would say that all three have been accomplished.

There is a first time for everything, and our future looks full of them.


Worth her weight in gold: A clinic weekend with Lillian Heard

I can remember moving to Lexington, KY a decade ago and thinking: 

“Now. Now is when I finally learn to ride.”

I had grown up in a small town in Pennsylvania and had dabbled in a variety of disciplines and industries. From 4-H to Pony Club, Western Pleasure to Pleasure Driving, and Morgan Horses to Quarter Horses, we did it all.

With my childhood trainer, later in life at the 2010 WEG.

My trainer was an amazing woman.

 With a depth of knowledge in a variety of things, she was never short sighted or slight in her knowledge, and at the end of the day, horsemanship was her primary goal.

Whether we were in a jump saddle or western, our horses understood our aids. Whether we were jumping an oxer or running a barrel pattern, our horses were supple. And whether we were aiming for a western pleasure championship or our A in Pony Club, our equine care was the same.

Her name was Rose Watt, and in retrospect, she was amazing.

But at the age of 22, the black 4 plank of the Bluegrass was calling. I thought that if I moved to The Mecca, that simply by osmosis I would become one of the greats. 

A young Carleigh. Thinking my training wasn’t good enough.

These trainers were all highly successful–with accolades adorning their websites and sponsors lining their trailers. And I arrived and thought “Now is my time. I will finally learn to ride.”

I thought that the big names and the fancy barns meant better lessons. That the dollars spent equated the knowledge gained in a linear fashion.

And I was wrong.
I quickly realized in lesson after lesson with these big names just how amazing Rose was as a trainer, and just how little the last name of your trainer meant.

No one in Lexington may have heard her name, but they were impressed with my base of riding. And I quickly, and justly, switched routes. I found one or two trainers that reminded me of Rose, that were more concerned with the quality of riding than the ribbons, and I carried on.

Fast forward a decade, and this weekend I drive away from a clinic thinking this exact principle.

A few months ago, my friend Courtney returned from a week in Aiken and asked for a girls night. She ordered a drink, sat down next to me and raved about her trip. Her horse had been fabulous, the weather had been perfect, and she had ridden with a new trainer who had, quite simply, “got her.”

Her name was Lillian Heard, and Courtney was hooked.

Courtney and Lillian this weekend. Photo by JJ Sillman

Lillian was a 4* rider with numerous horses running at that level, but without the cult following that we see some have. I knew little about her, but knew I could trust Courtney. 

Courtney knew that I had a ((difficult)) horse similar to hers. She demanded that I take a lesson with Lillian in the future, because she knew that Lillian would “get me” and knew that I would obtain vast knowledge and homework from just a few lessons in a weekend long clinic.

I agreed, and Courtney quickly began to roll the wheels.

Within weeks, she had a clinic set up on a shoestring budget. 

Friends offered their farms; Courtney offered her house; and the bells and whistles of a fancy clinic were replaced with smiles and helping hands.

A variety of riders signed up, and a variety of riders attended. From starter to preliminary, with every single age and sex represented.

But what united us all was the smile on our faces at the end.

Photo by JJ Sillman

Lexington is unique in that it attracts big names to come do clinics simply by the sheer amount of eventers per capita. Most are riders that are standing on the podiums at the Olympics, and because of that, the organizers, and the fancy farms that host them, they cost more than what most of us make in a week…or a month.
And while it might be on your bucket list to ride with that person, or maybe you simply thought that the $500 spent was worth the selfie you were able to take, I have personally backed away from those clinics because my childhood taught me that the money spent doesn’t always equate the knowledge gained.

Lillian was an amazing clinician, and worth a hundred times the moderate amount that I spent on the weekend for two horses. 

Just like my childhood instructor, I gained more this weekend than I bargained for. 

The Elephant loved learning from Lillian. Photo by Nicole Patenaude.

She had my training level horse in a frame he had never found. She had my beginner novice baby jumping lines he had never seen. And all of these things were taught with careful consideration, a lot of praise, and a big smile. Even the auditors (aka friends and family who grabbed a folding chair and a bottle of water) were enthralled.

Signing autographs for the next generation. Photo by JJ Sillman.

It was an amazing clinic. With an amazing rider, but more importantly, an amazing instructor. 

One who I see adorning the podiums in the near future and gaining that cult following. 

But for now, with this group of us in Lexington, we are just so happy that Courtney figured a way to get Lillian here to us. For keeping it affordable. For keeping it fun. 

Cost doesn’t equate return. Olympic medals don’t equate high level instructorship. And a fancy farm is a fancy farm, but your horse will still learn to jump whether the standards cost $200 or were made of old bourbon barrels. 

I am so happy that I rode in this clinic this weekend, and am looking forward to the future dates that Courtney is attempting to set. The knowledge gained vastly outweighed the price paid, and that is exactly the math I like to see while computing my budget for things like this.

Lillian sharing her lunch break with Mak. Photo by JJ Sillman.

Because if I have learned anything in life, at least in regards to my life with horses, is that high price doesn’t always equal high talent. 

And a good instructor is worth their weight in gold-not dollars. 


Two left feet

I strive for perfection…but I own horses.
There is a duality in this lifestyle that is so hard for people like me. And by me, I mean my fellow adults or teenagers who play this game day in and day out.

I have dedicated my life to horses. I own horses, I ride horses, I deliver baby horses, and I research horses. I hold a doctorate in equine reproduction, and every day I wake up with not much more on my brain than thoughts of my equines.

But because I love horses, I also realize and understand that they are living, breathing, moving, changing creatures. They have opinions, and moods, and sometimes they just don’t want to play. 

But because of who I am, and my very specific type of personality, that frustrates the crap out of me.

I grew up an athlete. At a young age, my days consisted of soccer, softball, dance, riding, downhill skiing, and any other athletic endeavor that my parents could find me. In addition to that, I was a straight A student, and a classically trained pianist. 

I went to college and decided to focus on two things: biology, and javelin. And I did well in both.

I was a damned good javelin thrower

I didn’t realize I was abnormal until my boyfriend pointed it out. He oftentimes jokes that I’m the clumsiest athlete he’s ever met, but also laments on the fact that there are few things I am not good at if, and when, I put my mind to it.

I just am that type of person.

I like hard work. I like long hours and the blood, sweat, and tears. I like getting that A or moving up that level. 

I like to win.

But in my mind, winning isn’t a blue ribbon. Winning isn’t a pewter trophy or a big fat check. Winning is setting goals for yourself and achieving them.

And if you are an equestrian, that can be difficult at times.

Because unlike softball, or javelin, or even piano-we equestrians have a partner. A 1350 pound breathing animal that tango’s alongside us.

And there are days where we want to dance, and they don’t. And other days where they’re ready to dance, and we wake up with two left feet.

I had a day like that today. My horses weren’t bad, per-se, but my rides weren’t exactly good.

My goals were fairly simple: I wanted confidence building rides and to leave the XC schooling on both horses with my head held high, knowing that I had done everything possible to get them that encouraging schooling and a positive lesson.

Good XC schools

And I failed, on both. 

Both horses got sucked behind my leg, and both times I flailed instead of supporting. I grabbed instead of kick. 

In a nutshell, I didn’t dance.

But because they are well trained animals that *usually* have a decent rider for a mom, they packed my butt around 90% of the course. But both had stops. And the stops were unfair–at least to them.

And I called my girlfriend Courtney on the way home from the first round to lament. I was in a funk and didn’t know the answer.

But like a good friend that she is–she didn’t sugar coat it. She didn’t blame my horse, and she didn’t outright blame me. She offered calming words of wisdom and ideas for the reasons behind my lack of drive and my horses lack of will.

Getting them back in front of my leg

And at the end of the conversation, I felt better, although not great. I knew I still needed to work on me.

Because I am good at a lot, but I want to be GREAT at something. And I am unsure of what that something is just yet, but I do know that at the end of the day, I want to be a great rider.

And this doesn’t mean I will ever gallop around Badminton, or jump a 1.60m fence. It doesn’t mean I will be selected to any team or earn that red coat.

No, I just want to be great at being me. I want to be the best rider that I can possibly be; the best rider for the horses I have underneath me.

I can be better. I will be better.

I wasn’t that rider today, and my frustration over it is evident. But tomorrow is a new day, and both me and my horses hope to wake up on the right side of our beds and carry on.

And I hope when they ask me for this dance, I can say yes and actually lead. 



A year ago today, I loaded the love of my life onto a trailer for his new home.

I thought I was doing the right thing. I was letting him go to teach the next generation. I was letting him go into a world (the hunters) that I thought would make him happier. And I had matched him with a kid that I thought would always love him.

Mak in the hunter ring. Photo by Anne Gittin

My gut instinct told me that these were good people. And for the first time, at least in regards to horse sales, my gut instinct was wrong.

Less than a month later, I got the call. It ranged from telling me that my horse was falsely advertised to lamenting about teenage behavior.

 They tried to tell me that my horse was sold to them lame, even after he had undergone the most extensive pre purchase examination I had ever been a part of. They asked me if I had sedated him for the trial ride, even after pulling blood for a drug test.

And at the end of the conversation, they ask that I take him back. 

I walked into my living room with my phone on speaker, and stared at my boyfriend as tears streamed down my face. And my boyfriend simply took the phone from my hand and glaringly stated that we would be at their farm the next day.

I was devastated.

My tears were driven by a range of things. 

Feeling as though I had somehow falsely advertised him–was he actually harder to ride than I thought?

Feeling frantic at having another horse back–as I had sold him because I couldn’t adequately pay for two.

Feeling betrayed by buyers who falsely represented their goals and their experience–as I later learned this horse was bought to heal a fractured relationship between a teenager and her mom.

And feeling disgusting by myself for putting my horse in a situation that wasn’t the best for him. I thought I had asked the right questions. I thought I had heard/read/found the right answers. And I was wrong.

Mak coming home

Mak came back from Virginia relatively unphased. He was a couple of pounds lighter and bursting with skin disease, with thrush in all four feet. 

But his brain was unchanged. And I knew I could fix the weight, the hooves, and the skin, but his brain was the most important thing. And he still had his intact.

For my own sanity as well as legal purposes, we had a post purchase examination done. One of the top sport horse vets in the country came out to investigate, and left the farm with the statement that this horse was sound and ready. 

I was to carry on. 

So carry on I did.

Carrying on with eventing. Photo by JJ Sillman

I took that horse with that amazing brain, and got back into a rhythm. We went to AA hunter shows and demonstrated that he truly could be a adult amateur hunter ride. We went to combined tests and events and demonstrated that he was still a kick ride on XC.

And yesterday, in front of the largest crowd he will ever be ridden in front of, Mak walked into the Rolex Arena and demonstrated that he was still the best off the track thoroughbred that Kentucky has ever bred.

I had been at the Kentucky Horse Park early that morning to braid a pony for a friend. The Pony Clubbers had the duty of carrying the flags for each of the nations represented in the competition for closing ceremonies, and needed to look like Rolex ponies themselves. 

The pony I was initially there for. Making him look beautiful. Photo by JJ Sillman.

And I sat in the stall while chatting with a tiny red head standing on the other side of the door. A girl who was in charge of this herd of Pony Clubbers and their ponies. A girl who had become a dear friend in the past year. A girl who had been the agent for the sale of my heart horse.

A year ago Courtney had heard about Mak and reached out to her husbands family to come try him. She had acted as agent during the PPE, and hugged me as I watched him load up and leave.

But then, three weeks later, she had held my hand as I sorted out his retrieval.

Courtney had watched the sale fall apart and had been the second phone call after the request for retrieval. She had offered to help me go get him. And she had watched the last year unfold as I regrouped with him.

She knew I had been honest. She knew I had sold her family a good horse. And at the end of the day, she knew that she had met a good person. A horse sale may have failed, but a friendship blossomed in its place.

Making dear friends out of dire situations.

And as I braided, we chatted. Giggled about random barn gossip, and awed as we watched videos of the XC rides the day before. 

I finished my braids, and she convinced me to walk to the morning jogs. But we made it no farther than 10 feet before encountering a problem.

One of the flag ponies was lame, and one of the Pony Clubbers was in a pinch.

I thought about it for no more than a few seconds and quickly offered up Mak.

The horse who had been returned to me for being falsely advertised. For being too hot. For being crazy.

Because I had had a year to regroup, and a year to process. And I knew none of those things were true. I knew he was the safest horse I owned. And I knew that no other horse would become trained to a flag, an audience and immense noise, as quickly as he.

So in under an hour we had Mak bathed, braided, and at the Kentucky Horse Park to tack up.

 It was a massive fray of excitement and enthusiasm his young rider Keely grabbed my saddle to clean it, my dear friend Alyssa jumped on a bucket to braid, and I ran frantically around to detangle his tail and polish his feet.

Mak and Keely heading to the big ring!

I told Keely that she would be fine. To stay out of his face, and when in doubt, to add leg.  I told her that I didn’t think he would mind the flag, or mind the crowd, but that he might fixate on the jumps. He loved to walk, but he didn’t always love to stand still. 

And at the end of the speech, we gave her a leg up, and off we went.

Photo by Taylor Pence, Copyright US Equestrian

An hour later, Mak marched into a sold out Rolex Arena with a rider in the irons that he had never met. He carried the American flag with pride–with gusto–and pranced around the entire circumference of the arena with his ears up and his eyes proud.

As they announced the American riders one by one, the crowd rose for a standing ovation and went wild. And Mak, the “crazy” and “hot” off the track thoroughbred just held his head high and continued his strut.

Photo by Smith Equine Media

It was one of my proudest moments as an owner. As a horse mom. I wasn’t even in the tack, but I was so proud of my horse.

And I realized something at the end of it all. Life happens for a reason. And while it will constantly throw you lemons, you can always make lemonade.

My lemonade is made up of a few things: 

I have an amazing friendship with Courtney–a girl I only met a year ago. A girl I wouldn’t have met without the sale of this horse. She went through one of the most difficult journeys of my life by my side, and stuck by me even when “her team” became divided from mine. She has become one of my inner circle, and one of my biggest supporters, and I see her friendship as one of the most amazing takeaways from this experience.

I became stronger with my boyfriend. Luke showed me through this journey how much he was in my corner. He drove 18 hours in one day to go get Mak back from Virginia, and then helped me cover his living expenses as I finished up this doctorate. He showed his true colors in a stressful situation, and threw everything to the side to help me and my horse.

And finally, I have my horse. He showed his soundness, his talent, and now his sanity for the umpteenth time yesterday. A horse that is truly one of a kind. Athletic enough to run training level in a few weeks, with a preliminary move up hopefully in our future. Brave enough to march into the Rolex arena with a flag flapping over his head.

I have my horse. Photo by JJ Sillman

And sane enough to trust to put a young rider on him that he has never met.

I am so blessed. 

I think of this journey as one of the pivotal turning points in my life. I learned that my gut instinct isn’t perfect. I learned that horse buyers aren’t always honest. I learned that you can build friendships out of the ashes of devastation. I learned that my support system runs deep. That it runs strong.

And most importantly, I learned that my horse is one of a kind. 

He showed the world that a thoroughbred is sane enough to march into a high stress scenario and hold his own. He showed a group of young Pony Clubber’s that the catch ride aspect of their ratings are there for a reason.

And he showed me that he is the best. The bravest. The strongest. The most resilient.

Yesterday, we made lemonade out of our lemon of a horse sale. And it tasted oh so sweet. 

With Keely and the best OTTB to ever exist. Photo by JJ Sillman


The definition of sane

One of my motto’s in life is that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I apply this to my professional life, my personal life, my relationships, and my horses.

If I study the same way for my exams, and repeatedly get C’s, it is no ones fault but my own, and I should probably begin my preparation weeks in advance and with a different strategy.

If I get only five hours of sleep and still wake up exhausted and tired, I have to find a new strategy for an earlier bedtime.

And if I repeatedly shift my weight to the right while riding my left lead and my horse swaps behind, it is no ones fault but my own.


We live in a world where the minute that something goes wrong, there must be a reason. And for our horses, it is no different.

You have a bad ride, and instantaneously think that your saddle doesn’t fit, or the chiropractor needs called.  Your horse refuses a fence, and you immediately think that he needs his coffin joint injected.  Or you just can’t get that transition to the canter, and immediately add draw reins.

We live in a land of constant change.  A constant need for things to change, and change quickly.  It is almost the antithesis of the insanity clause.  Because if the definition of insanity is that we repeatedly do the same thing and expect different results, than the definition of sane must be that you change your strategy or your plan and expect the same results.  Right?  Obviously that doesn’t make sense.

I have been thinking about this a lot, and what exactly complies the definition of sane in the sport of riding.

In this modern era, we have become so good at trying to change what isn’t working – or finding the flaw in our training – that we tend to over react to the slightest thing.  A bad ride.  A single refusal.  A few rails.  Tenseness.

And we reach out to a new trainer, a new veterinarian, or a new forum online and demand “fixes” or “answers.”

It is the inverse of insanity, at least by definition.  It is a constant change.

But it is possibly a form of insanity in itself as well. 

This sport is not linear, and we rarely see exponential growth.  I have written before of the plateaus that we reach and how they can be followed by the dramatic crash.  And how it is so hard to ride those waves, and still find passion for the sport after the crash. And some of that can be chalked up to insanity.

We repeat what we are doing, and little things go wrong in our training and are left unaddressed.  Or maybe our horse is truly experiencing back pain, and needs the reflocking of a saddle or an adjustment.  We ignore the slight disruptions in an otherwise pleasant ride, and carry on. And this leads to the resentment of work from the horse and rider, and the crash that follows.

But another way that I have seen this occur is by changing what does work.  It is the inverse of the insanity – or what we always call the sane.

It is having a perfectly sound horse, a perfectly good trainer, and a perfectly good plan, and changing it for no rhyme or reason.

We have a perfectly sound horse and a perfectly good ride, and yet something goes wrong.  We forget that the horse is a living, breathing animal, and that his opinion to things may change. It is not always due to pain, and it is not always due to poor riding. It may be merely due to him waking up on the wrong side of the stall.


Waking up on the wrong side of the stall. <<often>>

And yet you see the bigger name, the brighter lights.  The new therapeutic, or the quick fix, and you reach for that – hoping for instant and immediately gratification. The change is what you crave, thinking it might be the answer to all of your “problems” that aren’t in fact problems at all – but simple growing pains and adjustments as you develop yourself and your horse.

And I think in 2017, in this modern era of riding, that this is what we see the most often.  Not the insane – not the repetition of the identical and expecting different results, but rather the opposite.  We as riders change too quickly.  We make adjustments to our plan too rapidly.  We want the quick fix and the rapid improvement.

And while this might be the opposite of the insane, it makes it no more sane.  Remember that.  

Not all of the time – but perhaps sometimes – sticking with a plan and knowing that the results aren’t immediate is the best plan.  And that is the sanest decision you can possibly make.

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No instant fix.  Just sticking to the plan. 


The untold stories

A few weeks ago, I received a Facebook message.

It was a screen shot of a status itself, and simply a cutout of a comment.  A comment written in a lot of rage.  A comment about me.

The woman commenting was stating that I was a horrible human being due to the fact that I falsely spread stories about thoroughbred breeders and owners who cared.  That I constantly wrote of how aftercare organizations existed.  And that I believed in the programs such as CANTER, RRP, TIP, and others that promoted and supported this breed that I love.

She was saying that I was a horrible person because it was all lies.  She claimed that thoroughbreds are all too often ran until they’re broken and then shipped to an auction house.  She wanted me to retract my comments, and get on board with the facts.  The facts that stated that racing should be banned and outlawed, and that the industry that I loved was full of animal abusers.

She wanted to address the bad, while I wanted to promote the good.

And she is wrong. 

I feel as though this blog finds a good balance between uplifting stories of the good guys, and downtrodden stories admonishing the bad.  I have outed just as many industry insiders or aftercare organizations for neglect as I have showcased the breeders who do whats best.

And I will always keep is that way.

Because there are enough Facebook pages, websites, and organizations which only showcase the bad.  That are so focused on the subpopulation of this industry which is negative that they are unwilling to admit that there is a majority who give a damn.  Who care.  Who do the right thing.

And I will keep telling those stories because they often go unspoken.  Unknown.  And that is due to a variety of things – both because these owners are often very private in their affection for these horses, as well as in their attempt to not burn bridges with the trainers and other owners which may have owned the horse along the way.

But even moreso, I have seen that these stories aren’t told because they don’t become clickbait.  In our current state of affairs, in our current political climate – we love to see the world as glass half empty, and ignore the good in the world.

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But I saw the good this week.

I live on Mt. Brilliant Farm.  A beautiful and historic land, which has raised and nourished so many grandiose equines.  The barn that Man o’ War lived in during his stud career is a stones toss away from my backyard, and Creator was born just across the polo field.  They breed about 20 mares a year for racing, and another 5-10 for polo – as they support both of those equine sports with their efforts.


The girlfriend to the broodmare manager.

And yet I have never worked for this farm.  I am the girlfriend to the broodmare manager, and keep a relative distance as such.  But occasionally, I watch a mare foal or a bandage be changed.  I cheer on their yearlings at the sales and their racehorses at the track.  The attachment and fondness is there, simply because I want my super significant manfriend to succeed.  To do well in this job; on this farm.

But a few months ago he mentioned a horse.  There was a 6 year old gelding that they wanted to retire and retrain, maybe even potentially with my assistance.  The only problem with this amazing plan was that they didn’t still own this horse. In fact – they hadn’t owned him in almost 4 years.

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Shrek as a foal.  Photo by Mathea Kelley

He had been born and raised on the lush Bluegrass that adorns these 700 acres, loved on by all of the staff as well as the owners.  Hutton Goodman said the he had become more of a pet than an entity, and was affectionately nicknamed Shrek due to his massive size and frame.  He was the farm favorite, and was the one that they all loved on for an additional few minutes at the end of the day.

And then when he was almost 2 years old – he was taken to the sales where he sold for $350,000 – a great price as far as everyone was concerned.

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Shrek as a yearling.  Photo by Mathea Kelley

He ran in New York for a while, and then moved out west.  But he ran well, and he ran hard.  He won a few stakes races, and earned almost $350,000 during his long and storied career over 33 starts.

But then he dropped in class. For the last year or so he ran solely in claimers, and this eventually dropped into the lower levels of claiming races.  The farm owner knew that he wanted this horse when we was finished with his career, and reached out to the current connections to let this be known.  He eventually offered some money as incentive, but his phone calls fell on deaf ears.

And so he rerouted.  And last Sunday, he entered a claim on the 6 year old gelding, won it, and shipped the beloved farm favorite halfway across the country to return to the place where he was born.

Shrek arrived yesterday, and the entire farm hopped into their vehicles to meet him at the barn.  It was a reunion that no one ever mentions, and very few see.  A smile was plastered on Hutton’s face as he reached up to pat the massive geldings neck, acknowledging that there was no more worry of where this “pet” would end up.

Because, he was finally home.

I do not know what the future holds for Shrek.  As of now, he is simply going to be a horse.  Have his shoes pulled, his belly let down, and enjoy some time on the same Bluegrass that he was bred on.  That he was born on.  That he was raised on.

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Shrek at home.

These are the stories that are so often untold, or looked over. The good guys doing the right thing, and the horses within their care. We hear of the higher caliber of horse – the colts retiring to stand at stud and the fillies to be bred.  We learn of the first foals for the big race mares through announcements in the TDN or the Bloodhorse.  But we often never hear of the gelding.  The hard knocking horse who ran hard, and ran well, and the farms, owners, trainers, grooms, and managers that backed them.

Those are the stories I will keep telling. I hope you enjoy them.