I rode my first horse at the age of three, and got my first horse at five. Cheyenne was a big grey, almost white mare and I felt like I could do anything when riding her. I was in love with horses for as long as my memories go back. I grew up riding bareback, Western and then English because I wanted to jump. Cheyenne was replaced by other horses through the years. At 16, I got my first Thoroughbred—”Gator”, a skin and bones stallion found starving in a pasture.
I rehabbed Gator and taught him to jump only to later learn why he was abandoned in a pasture—a bone spur in his knee. I bred him to my Palomino pony mare Flicka and ended up with an incredible horse, K.C. Banner.
As a teenager I would ride Banner in the local horse shows and enter the Gambler’s Choice and the Puissance jumper classes. We jumped 4 and 5 ft. fences with ease (yes, in those days the fences were larger and you were not eliminated on time). I moved from showing to eventing and made it as far as the Preliminary Championships before becoming aware of my limitations. The lack of formal training, along with my growing fears, put an end to my eventing aspirations. Guts only get you so much glory. Still not ready to give up on running cross-county and jumping, I took up fox hunting and even hunted side-saddle. As you can see, I am an adrenaline junkie when it comes to riding. Banner lived to 34 and is buried on our farm.
An unexpected turn of events
It was during my fox hunting days that my life took an unexpected turn. My horse Jesse was “banned” from the hunt for being “too enthusiastic”. I went in search of another Thoroughbred and ended up at Thistledown Race Track in Cleveland, OH. There, I found Captain Arias and my life’s calling—finding homes for Thoroughbreds who were done racing.
I learned that many of the Thoroughbreds who were not fast enough, yet still sound, were being sent to auction. It was a quick way to get rid of an underperforming racehorse and make a little money, too. Hoof and Mouth Disease was rampant in Europe at the time, and the U.S. horses were bringing good money at the auctions. Domestic slaughter houses were in full operation back then, supplying the world with horse meat.
Horrified by this news, I sent out an e-mail to my friends to tell them what I had learned. I let them know I had room in my 4-horse trailer to bring back horses if anyone wanted an ex-racehorse. The rest is history. We pulled 19 horses off-the-track in 2001, and since then Bits & Bytes Farm has found homes for almost 300 Thoroughbreds.
I have had the blessing to ride many wonderful Thoroughbreds through the years. While it’s sad to see them come and go, it is comforting to know they are going to great people who love them who have can give them the time and attention they need. Each Thoroughbred I have owned has been special and unique. There is nothing like a Thoroughbred if you want a horse who loves you back like a Golden Retriever.
That brings me to my Dream Ride
I love to watch Thoroughbreds working out in the morning at the track. The sound of galloping hoofs stirs up a strong desire to be the exercise rider and feel the wind in my face and the power of the Thoroughbred underneath me. What a rush it must be knowing the track goes on forever so you don’t have to worry about stopping, not to mention the outriders to catch your horse if it does get away from you.
My dream took root watching movies like National Velvet and The Black Stallion. As a child, I galloped across fields but could never really go too fast because I’d run out of space to run. Eventing was close to my dream but you can only go so fast because you need to set up to jump. There are time penalties for being too fast. Galloping while fox hunting was controlled by the speed of the field master (although sometimes we outran them!). So through the decades the dream has burned strong but the opportunity never presented itself…until the In Unison Farm Hunter Pace on March 12, 2016.
Another white/grey horse comes into my life
There are usually lots of Bits & Bytes Farm horses at the hunter pace. We use it as an excuse to get together and enjoy riding our Thoroughbreds. I was looking forward to taking my newest OTTB, Rocky Bear, to his first hunter pace. He is sensible and learning to jump so this was the perfect venue to get him more experience. Rocky Bear is a big white/grey Thoroughbred, not unlike my first horse Cheyenne. There is something really special about Rocky Bear and he just makes me smile from the inside out. It was as if he was my first horse all over again.
I feel invincible on Rocky Bear. He is 16.3 hands, yet light as a feather in my hands. He is sensible, sane and a joy to ride. He does not get spooked when other horses spook. He is thoughtful if something is new and does not overreact. Rocky Bear gives me the confidence I had as a teenager, and I was looking forward to introducing him to my friends and the other Thoroughbreds we had found homes for.
The ride begins…
Rocky Bear and Call Me Ferdie (with his mom Andie) began the ride at a brisk trot to work off some of the energy we were all feeling. Soon we were cantering and enjoying the ride through the woods and across the open fields. We took some extra time at a stone wall to take photos and video as we jumped it a couple of times. Rocky Bear ate up the wall and I couldn’t contain my grin. We were having a great ride.
A passion for racing…
Soon we came out of the woods to the top of the hill overlooking the Atlanta Steeplechase Race Course. Rocky Bear stopped and looked down at it. He knew it was a track, even if it was all turf. If only we could ride on the track my dream could come true. Unfortunately, the course went around next to the track, not on it.
Andie and I decided to canter our horses around the outside of the track. I was imagining that I was on the other side of the fence living my dream. I thought this would be a great time to do a video. As I reached down to pull my camera out, Rocky Bear thought I said “let’s go!” Just a subtle shifting of the jockey’s hands or body will signal a racehorse that it is time to move out.
If you have never been to the Atlanta Steeplechase you might not know that it is unlike your traditional track. For one thing, it is entirely turf, and there is a wide area of Bermuda grass all the way around the track where on race day the party tents are set up for the sponsors. Thank goodness for this…
As I brought my camera up, Rocky Bear took off. Clearly, he missed his old job. He raced 105 times and retired sound at 7-years old. If there ever was a horse to carry me to my dream, this was the one.
I quickly put my camera back into its holder and took a hold of Rocky to slow him down. At this point I thought my dream was about to turn into my worst nightmare.
“I’ve got this, just hang on!”
Rocky Bear was having no part of my hesitation.
“I’ve got this, just hang on!”
Rocky’s stride lengthened and he flattened out into a full gallop. The strides were the rhythmical sounds I had heard watching the workouts in the morning at the track. Rocky Bear was not bolting, he was doing his job. And he loved his job. He knew how to rate himself to make it all the way to the finish. Rocky Bear was taking me faster than I have EVER ridden a horse and he still had more to give. We were flying. I was not Elizabeth Wood, owner of Bits & Bytes Farm any longer. I was Elizabeth Taylor riding The Pie in the Grand National.
Rocky Bear’s stride was huge and I was feeling the wind in my face like those exercise riders I envied. My attempts to slow him down went unheeded, but still, I was not afraid. My only fear was that the outside of the track might not be totally clear of obstacles and Rocky Bear might have to suddenly change course and slip in the mud.
I could see the steward’s stand ahead on the backstretch and Rocky Bear moved slightly to the right to avoid it. I worried that he might spook at the change of footing with a dirt roadway to the the steward’s stand across our path. But Rocky Bear’s stride never altered as we flew past the stand and across the roadway.
Now we were cruising on the beautiful Bermuda grass, headed into the clubhouse turn. The footing was perfect even with the previous week’s rain. Rocky Bear kept on with the same unwavering pace of a racehorse stalking the leader.
As I looked further around the turn I spotted possible problems but Rocky Bear was in charge and we were not stopping. I yelled out to a group of rider who were stopped on the turn, right where we were headed. “Heads Up! HEADS UP!” I yelled. Fortunately, there was room on the rail to get by the group of riders.
Headed for home!
As we came around the clubhouse turn and headed for home I was praying the terraced grandstand area was not fenced off. We were in luck as the lane along the track was still open. Rocky Bear and I galloped to the finish line. In my mind, and I imagine his too, the crowd roared. WE WON!
Rocky Bear knows his job and he knows when it’s done. All my pulling and attempts to stop him did not work as we were racing. But, sure enough, once we reached the finish line he pulled himself up. We turned and trotted back to Call Me Ferdie and Andie who were just now coming around the turn. Rocky Bear was once again the same quiet horse I rode at home. My heart was racing. I wish I had been more prepared, but I did not need to be. Rocky Bear took care of me.
I later spoke with a trainer who knew him well at the track and he told me how Rocky Bear would really cut loose on the backside, which is right where we did. I mentioned that I worried our path might be blocked and it could have ended badly since I was unable to slow him down. He said that Rocky Bear was a really smart horse and knew how to take care of himself while racing. If Rocky Bear had seen a problem, he would have pulled himself up just as he did when we crossed the finish line.
A dream comes true
So after waiting more than five decades, my dream has come true. I galloped a racehorse and flew like the wind…and I survived!
Today I feel more alive than ever. We finished the hunter pace on the buckle at a quiet walk as other horses trotted past and danced behind us.
You are never too old to give up on your dreams, you just need a horse you can believe in. My dream was worth the wait.