A few months ago, dripping in sweat and battered and bruised, I came home and text messaged my best friend Meghan, telling her that I thought it was time to give “Nixon” back. He was as close to dangerous as any horse I’ve ever worked with, and I just didn’t see myself getting through to him in time to compete at the Thoroughbred Makeover. I had been catapulted into the cement, concussed and slightly scared. I was ready to admit defeat.
I was prepared for this, because for three months I had been struggling with this horse. Just when I thought we’d take one step forward, he would slide three steps back. It was the most frustrating training task of my life; and for an amateur who rides alone every day, it was getting to the point of scary.
She wrote back and told me I couldn’t quit. This horse was my “Rolex horse”. She started pulling up documentation of some of the greatest in our sport, noting how difficult they all were. She encouraged and egged me on, telling me to give it one more week. Maybe one more jump school. One more attempt to get on that trailer. I dropped my head and said “OK.”
I knew that I was this horse’s only chance. I was part yearling manager, part rodeo cowgirl, part full-fledged amateur eventer, but I was a whole lot of calm and brave. That is how I have gotten through to so many horses. I don’t have a lot of tension in my body on a horse. I enjoy exploring and meandering just as much as they do. And, that was what had worked for “Nixon” (Called to Serve) on the track. They got him to the Grade 1 level by letting him meander around the backside.
So meander we did. I stopped treating him like a sales horse, or a horse heading to a massive show in two months, and started treating him like the ex-racehorse that he was. A horse who had raced only a few months before. A horse who won $500,000. A horse who knew he was the champion.
Called to Serve (“Nixon”)
Afleet Alex—Andover Lady, by Kris S.
24 starts, $493,742 earnings
He had had an interesting life. A $290,000 yearling, he ended up with one of the best owners in the business: Marc Ferrell. He went on to win graded stakes races across the country, but when he was found in a $5k claimer five years later, Marc did his best for the horse and claimed him back and shipped him home.
Unfortunately, Nixon went down in the trailer on the way and was battered and bruised from the trip. It was not the easiest transition into being a sport horse, to say the least. But we tried.
And it didn’t happen overnight. Slowly and consistently this horse, this “recusant maverick who seemed to hold a grievance against the world”, as an ESPN article put it, began to soften. He started to get that lead. He started to load on that trailer. Suddenly, I had a horse I craved riding every day.
This past weekend, I shipped him to the Kentucky Horse Park for the Retired Racehorse Makeover competition. I had zero expectations, besides the fact that I wanted him to be a good civilian. I knew he would probably have a tense moment or two, maybe a botched lead, or a break in the free walk, but I wanted him to respect me, the fellow horses and (hopefully) stay in the ring.
Yet, true to Nixon’s normal form, he had other ideas. A few months ago, I was being interviewed by America’s Best Racing’s Melissa Bauer-Herzog, and I told her that this horse just seems to love an audience. He thrives off of people watching him and cheering him on. Her response? “Well, then maybe he’ll think the makeover is the Olympics and be unbelievable.”
And, unbelievable he was.
This horse that was scaring me only a few months ago came into the dressage ring like he had been doing it his entire life. His head came up, his ears perked forward and he truly danced for the judges.
I am not a dressage rider. I grew up doing western pleasure, switched to eventing, switched to roping, and ended up back in eventing. My personal best dressage score at a recognized show is a 34. And yet on Saturday, Nixon knocked ten points off of my best. He scored a 74 in his test. A 26 in eventing lingo.
We went back in on Sunday for the freestyle in second place. Nixon was exhausted, I was traumatized by the audience and felt there was no way we could top the performance from the previous day. Then, I realized something…I had come full circle. At the age of 12, my mother had risked divorce and bought me my first thoroughbred. That thoroughbred had also been scarier than expected, and because of that, I spent 3-4 years just learning dressage—teaching him how to move, teaching me how to ride. He eventually became the greatest horse of my life, and I just recently had to say goodbye to him this summer.
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On Sunday, as I trotted into the arena, a calmness came over me. I felt that horse, that trainer, my mother, and everyone else who has followed me on this lifelong journey and lifelong love of this breed.
I sat up straight, kept my hands steady and smiled. I had already won. I had yet another amazing thoroughbred underneath me; a horse that was unrideable only a few months prior; a horse that most would never have given a chance; and, I was in the finale of America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred Competition.
Yesterday, we won the dressage discipline, which gave a giggle to so many who know how much I don’t like dressage. But honestly, I’m winning every day. I own two of the most amazing horses in the world—both thoroughbreds. Both raced (one successfully, one not so much). Both teach me how to be a better rider every day. My mom, that same mother that risked her marriage for my first thoroughbred, told me yesterday that I rode the best I ever have. I told her that Nixon taught me how to do that. Now, they both come happily when they’re called. They both blow kisses in my ear when I unwrap a peppermint. And both, to me, are America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbreds.
Article originally published on ayankeeinparis.wordpress.com
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.