A year ago today, I loaded the love of my life onto a trailer bound for his new home. He was off to the hunter world where he would help develop the next generation, and I thought it would make him happier. I matched him with a kid I thought would always love him and told myself it was the right thing to do. My gut instinct told me these were good people, but 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. At the end of the conversation they asked if I would 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. He simply took the phone from my hand and pointedly stated that we would be at their farm the next day. I was devastated.

Had I somehow falsely advertised him? Was he actually harder to ride than I thought?

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

I felt betrayed by the 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.

I felt disgust, at 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 came back from Virginia relatively unfazed. He was a couple of pounds lighter and bursting with skin disease, with thrush in all four feet. But mentally, he was unchanged. I knew I could fix the weight, the hooves and the skin, but his brain was the most important thing, and his was still intact.

Mak returning home.

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 opinion that this horse was sound and ready.

I was to carry on. So carry on I did.

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

Carrying on. ©JJ Sillman photo

And on Sunday, in front of the largest crowd he will ever see, Mak walked into Rolex Stadium 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 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event for closing ceremonies, and they needed to look like Rolex ponies themselves.

©JJ Sillman photo

I sat in the stall while chatting with a tiny redhead standing on the other side of the door. She was in charge of this herd of Pony Clubbers and their ponies, and over the past year we had become good friends. It just so happened that she was the agent for the sale of my heart horse.

Courtney had heard about Mak and reached out to her husband’s family to come try him. She acted as agent during the PPE and consoled me as I watched him load up and leave.

And then, three weeks later, she held my hand as I sorted out his retrieval. Courtney had watched the sale fall apart and offered to help me go get him. Since then, she’s watched the last year unfold as we regrouped. She knew I had been honest. She knew I sold a good horse. And, at the end of the day, she knew she’d met a good person. A horse sale may have failed, but a friendship blossomed in its place.

As I braided we chatted, giggled about random barn gossip and awed as we watched videos of the cross-country rides from Saturday. 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, leaving one of the Pony Clubbers was in a pinch. I thought about it for no more then 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”.

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 be trained to the flag, the 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 as 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.

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

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

Mak and Keely heading to the big ring!

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

©Smith Equine Media

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” OTTB, just held his head high and continued his strut. It was one of my proudest moments as an owner—a horse mom. I wasn’t even in the tack but I was so proud of my horse.

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 part 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.

My friend Courtney.

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 my doctorate. He showed his true colors in a stressful situation and threw everything aside to help me and my horse.

©JJ Sillman photo

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 Rolex Stadium with a flag flapping over his head. Sane enough to trust to put a young rider on him that he has never met.

I am so blessed.

©Taylor Pence/US Equestrian

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 and strong.

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

©JJ Sillman photo

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.

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.

About the Author

Carleigh Fedorka holds a Ph.D. in Veterinary Science from 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.