Today, I am a confident rider because of a thoroughbred stallion named Empire Maker.
I learned to love thoroughbred sport horses again because of Empire Maker.
And I met Lindsey Walczak because of Empire Maker.
I had posted of my horse Dynamaker (“Mak”) on the Retired Racehorse Project’s Bloodline Brag. Getting Mak at the age of four had been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. He was simple, he was easy, and he was fearless. While others spoke of their frustration with their thoroughbreds, I spoke of the ease with which mine took to retraining and a new career.
He loved to jump. He loved to explore. He loved to compete. He was a natural athlete, just like his sire Empire Maker.
A few months after posting about Mak a fellow rider reached out to me. Her name was Lindsey and she also had an Empire Maker, Reckless Capote. She wrote of how similar they sounded and how much they looked alike. And although she lived in South Dakota, her OTTB had taken to being a hunter/jumper with ease in her rodeo-riding town.
I got to know Lindsey fairly well through social media and then during her trips to Rolex Kentucky. I watched as she journeyed from South Dakota to North Carolina, bringing Reckless with her. From vet calls and saddle fittings, to horse shows and trail rides, I watched her relationship with her Empire Maker unfold.
At the same time, my relationship with my Empire Maker was moving along at a steady clip. Mak took me to my first training level event, over big fences, and to more trail rides than I can count. I would take Mak out to my trainer’s farm for lessons as often as I could, and as he would pass out in the middle of the arena as I watched the other students jumped the course, my trainer Allie Knowles could only laugh.
She knew his pedigree. She knew he was by Empire Maker. She understood his quirks because she too had an Empire Maker.
Where Mak was sloth-like, Allie’s was more like a tiger. While Mak would pass out in the middle of a lesson, her “Atticus” would be off exploring every possible thing he could. And, where Mak was jumping 3′ fences and grazing the polls, Atticus was stepping over 4’6.
We laughed at how different they were, even though they looked alike. Both had been stamped by their father as dark bays with flashy faces and minimal white on their legs.
Allie moved Atticus up the levels only to find out that an advanced horse he would never make. As the levels got more difficult he expressed his disinterest in various ways. She would come home, regroup, reroute, bring him back a level or two and try again.
But it just wasn’t meant to be, and so last winter she turned him out at her fiancés thoroughbred breeding farm and essentially retired him from eventing. Her Empire Maker was not going to be a Rolex horse, and she resigned herself to the fact that he might simply be a pasture ornament.
That is, until last week. I woke up on Friday to devastating news. Lindsey had lost Reckless to a painful battle with colic. The surgeons had opened him up only to find a hole in his diaphragm, one that may have been there his entire life.
She had to make the excruciating decision to put him down.
And then she messaged me. She spoke of how strong her grief was. She tried to reason through her words of just how lost she felt. At the crux of it all was that she had to get a horse to replace him immediately. She had recently adopted a Haflinger named Porky to be Reckless’s companion, and now the companion was in need of a companion.
So I did what anyone would do—I posted on my Facebook a cry for help. Did anyone know of a companion horse that Lindsey could have? I watched as Allie shared the post, reaching out to her own large social network.
I spoke to Lindsey often during the next few days, trying to see if any of the leads had been for the right horse. A horse that would fit her needs as well heal her broken heart. She told me that none of them seemed perfect, because none of them were Reckless. She knew she wouldn’t be able to replace him but she wanted to at least try. And maybe, just maybe, that meant finding another Empire Maker.
Suddenly it dawned on me. Here I had one friend with a turned out Empire Maker, and one who needed one. I immediately text messaged Allie and asked her not only if Atticus was available, but also if he would fit Lindsay’s needs. At the most basic level she just needed a companion, but at the highest level, she wanted to continue her weekly riding lessons where she did dressage, jumped a few fences and occasionally competed at local schooling shows.
I watched the wheels turn in Allie’s mind as she processed just how perfect this home might be. Not only would Atticus get a home where he would be doted on and cared for at the highest level, he would also be providing a Christmas miracle for a fellow equestrian. Allie herself knew what it felt like to lose a heart horse, and understood the pain.
And with that, Atticus was offered to Lindsey.
So last week, Lindsay drove from Charlotte to Paris, KY to pick up her new Empire Maker. I know Atticus will never replace Reckless, no horse could. But because of Empire Maker I got to meet Lindsey, and because of Empire Maker I got to watch a beautiful relationship unfold. And now, because of Empire Maker, we will get to watch another.
I can’t wait to read the updates, see the photos and be a witness to this journey. I know Allie can’t either. It is nothing short of a Christmas miracle that one equestrian had an Empire Maker at the exact moment that another equestrian needed one. While Lindsey heals from the loss of Reckless maybe Atticus will make her days a bit more jolly and bright.
In a time when we are all just looking for a little bit of hope, a little bit of light, it is imperative that we find it in the small things. To push away sadness and fill our hearts with as much joy that we can find during this holiday season. Joy in our families, our friends and our horses—specifically, a stallion named Empire Maker.
About the Author
Carleigh Fedorka is a Ph.D. student at the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center. A Pennsylvania native, she moved to Kentucky after graduating from St. Lawrence University and has worked closely in all aspects of the thoroughbred industry. She spends her free time eventing as well as training, selling and rehoming OTTBs. Read more about her horse life at her blog, A Yankee in Paris.