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

His black mane was streaked with white, and his neck was not the steel grey that it had been when I met him. His racing-fit days were in the past, and he was now taking on a different shape; a different form. He was a few inches taller, but with less of a hind end. 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, nor mucked a stall. But the owner of the farm gave me a chance and called me into the office to watch on the television as a certain 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 17.2h 3-year-old colt up and down the driveway, allowing him to stretch his legs as he took it all in.

“7” – The first time I said goodbye to him as he left the farm to head back to the races. He was glistening, and with his throat repaired, he was ready to run. This young horse who impressed the racing world 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, and would always be safe.

“6” – The first time I watched him win a graded stakes race. I was standing in my boyfriend’s family home. He was now 6, and it had been two years since I 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 looked on helplessly as the workouts stopped showing up and the race entries ceased. I wondered if I would ever get him home; if I would ever keep him safe like I promised him. I began to call the listed trainers and 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 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. It was 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 start box as the nerves dissipated and an eerie calmness came over my body. I realized this was not a race for the ribbons, nor 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. 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, heartbreak 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 once defied so many rivals on the track. 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.

©Xpress Photo

This horse owes me nothing, but I owe him everything. I made a promise to him almost nine years ago, when 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 my life. On that day that I first 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.

We finished his first recognized event on our dressage score in 3rd place. An unreal result for a horse many might have dismissed; a horse who is running his first Beginner Novice at the age of 11. And while many firsts have now been tackled, it is evident that we have many firsts to come.

Photo by Claire Seals

The first time I met this horse, 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. 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.

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.