“But, this is the last one,” I reasoned with both my fiancé but mostly with myself.
“Kennedy is tucked safely in the barn, Sail Maker is over at Lee’s, and the rest are accounted for. This would be the last one.”
My fiancé Luke stares at me and rolls his eyes, fully knowing that I am more so rationalizing what I am about to do than asking for permission from him. He of all people knows that once I set my mind to something, there is no stopping me, including his opinion.
I am staring at my cell phone, watching over and over the short 11-second video that the owner has sent. I hit pause and zoom in on each leg, looking for blemishes. I wind the video forward and backward, noticing every time any of his legs bobbles or mis-steps.
I took a deep breath in, looked up at my fiancé, shrug, and smile nervously. He shakes his head at me but doesn’t try to stop me.
“You’re a sucker, you know.”
“Yes. But this is the last one,” I mumble as I hit send on Facebook messenger, offering the hard earned money I had saved to secure him back.
Five years ago, I would have never been able to do this. Five years ago, I went to the Subway near my school and watched my credit card get declined for a $6 turkey sub. Five years ago, my mother listened as I told her that I simply couldn’t afford my horse and was to put him up for sale. And five years ago, she offered to cover my board for six months while I got myself back on my feet.
But five years ago, I made the mistake of doing it again. Five years ago, broke and in graduate school, I let myself fall. Because five years ago, for the millionth time in my life, I fell in love with a bay thoroughbred. He came in with a tumble, but he came in strong. And just like that, I lost my heart to Bode.
People have asked me what it was about this one that made him different. What made him special? Unique from the other 500 that either I or my fiancé has brought into this world. And I have to pause before answering.
Was he the most well put together? No.
Was he the biggest mover? Probably not.
Was he the most well bred? Definitely not.
But what he lacked in pedigree and paper, he made up for with personality. He made up for with spunk. He was just, quite simply, different.
He was born on a cold February night, and stuck in his mother’s birth canal for over two hours. I was the first to see his nose, clinging to the aluminum walls of a trailer that I rode with his mother, attempting to hold her 1,400lbs up with my measly 140. I watched as they pulled him out of her and carried him away at the clinic, sure he was dead after being oxygen deprived for so long. I stared with a slack jaw as the technician came back into the room to say that he was too wild to place a catheter in. And I giggled as I watched him stand within 15 minutes of being born.
I knew at that moment that I could let out the breath that I had been holding, and replaced it with the love of a foal that became known as Bode.
Bode was a monster of a foal, and with his immense size of frame came an immense personality. He was born at 165lbs, and towered over the rest of the herd.
And like many clinic babies, his first friends were humans, and his love of a scratch on his back or a rub on his star quickly became known.
But as he grew for the next few months, the excitement of his arrival quieted and things on the farm returned to the status quo. I was working on my doctorate in equine reproduction while my significant other managed the farm that bred Bode. It was a small operation, and because of this, I got to be actively involved in the daily routine whenever I had a spare moment.
And Bode thrived on the extra attention, quickly becoming a ham. It was to be known that he was the prince. The one that made the grooms and interns roll their eyes, while Luke chuckled at his antics.
And I would go to Bode’s stall and give him just a little bit of extra love; some extra attention. A good curry or a good snuggle. In July, I even offered to clip off his baby fuzz, but with the manfriend busy mowing and his groom mucking stalls, it was just me, Bode, the clippers, and a lead rope. And the massive foal stood there ground tied, unsedated, as I ran the ridiculously loud clippers over his body. Luke was befuddled. Mario was amused.
And it was done. I was hooked.
But as is life, things changed.
Luke accepted a job on a larger farm as their broodmare manager, and we moved across town. I no longer had unlimited access to this now short yearling that I had become too attached to. Occasionally we would drive back to that cozy little farm and swing by to say hello to the staff, and on those days, I would swing an arm around Bode and nuzzle my face into his neck.
But I knew that the time was coming when I would lose even that limited access to this lovable colt, and that it was coming quickly. Bode was entered in the Keeneland September sale, and secured a good spot in Book 2. I drove out there the day he shipped in to put an eye on what had become of this affectionate foal, and was pleasantly surprised. He was a stunning colt—still big, and now quite strong. His legs were clean and straight, his topline glistening in the sun. I knew he would sell well, and sell well he did, coming out of the ring for $150,000.
But then I lost my control. I lost my input. I lost my horse.
I knew that with the fall of the gavel, it was like rolling the dice as to where he would go. Who had bought him, and how open they would be with me staying in contact with the foal that I had fallen too hard for. I knew that with him selling for six figures that he was likely to go to a good home, and also that they would most likely give him a solid go in training.
For years, I waited in the wings. I contacted first his original buyer, and then the trainer. I mentioned my affiliation with the foal every time I bumped into the bloodstock agent who had bought him at the sales.
And I told each—if and when he is ready for retirement, I will take him, no questions asked.
Because he sold again, and again. Once through auction, and once privately. I reached out to each and offered my same sound bite of a comment, and yet my messages fell on deaf ears. I never heard back from who I believed to be the last owner, and just hung my head, believing there was nothing else I could do.
And then he stopped racing.
And then he stopped working.
And then I lost him.
I have written numerous times about how hard it is to track horses that you don’t own. To the outside, this industry looks like a million people who don’t care. And yet to the inside, we all know not only how much we do care, but also how hard that love of the horse can be on an empathetic soul.
There are no GPS trackers on the horses that we love. There is no online search tool to let you know if they are well. And sometimes, even if you find the horse, there is nothing you can do to force anyone to do what you believe is best for it.
So a few months ago, during a conversation lamenting all of this to a friend, she asked about Bode. My inner circle knew how much he meant to me, and that he was the last on the list to be found. I try not to get too attached to too many, but when one gets into my heart, I will go to the ends of the earth to secure him a peaceful landing.
And I told her that I knew nothing. He hadn’t raced in almost a year, and there were no current works. His last listed owner had never responded to my message, and although the trainer had added me on Facebook, my message to him had also gone unread.
He was gone. There were no other options.
But Meghan didn’t take my defeat quietly. A true professional at internet digging, when I admitted failure, she took the torch from me and began her own investigation. An hour later, she told me she had found another connection. Minutes later, she had found his owner on Facebook. And with that one tiny thread of information, I felt the slightest reawakening of hope. But knowing how few responses I had received, I tried not to get excited.
So I sent the same cliche message, and I waited.
I watched the picture pop up that showed it had been read, and I sat on my hands.
And then I saw the bubble appear saying that a response was coming, and I grabbed Luke’s arm.
And then it happened. He not only responded, but he said that he thought that the horse was ready to retire. And more importantly, he was going to put him up for sale.
Which led me to this place.
Could I justify not only buying a horse, but also spending the thousands of dollars to ship him across the country? Could I justify spending money on a horse that I wasn’t putting my own two eyes on, and not even knowing any level of soundness or health? Could I justify dropping almost all of my savings account on a horse that I was buying with my heart instead of my brain?
This past year I sold four beautiful Thoroughbreds, and quite luckily, I sold them easily. I hadn’t spent much of the money that I had profited, and was sitting on my first savings account in many years, if not for the first time in my life. These Thoroughbreds had been exceptional in all ways. True athletes, sound in mind and body, and easy to be around. And with that, they had gone to amazing homes for good prices.
So here I was. Sitting on a nest egg. Something I could have invested into my stocks, or set up into a true savings. I could have utilized it for a more extravagant wedding, or even to benefit the three horses I already owned.
But then what was the point of it all?
These Thoroughbreds had saved my life in more ways than one. They had picked me up in the severe depression after losing my father. They had gotten me through the loss of my uncle. They had held me up as I lost relationships, and they had caught my tears countless times as pain dissipated from my body.
And they asked for so little in return.
To be fed. To have hands ran down their legs and hooves picked. A break in the wind on the blistery days, and a break in the sun on the hot.
And also, simply to be loved.
It was time to pay it forward.
I already loved Bode. That in itself was true. And I was finally, at the age of 32, in a position where I could provide for the rest.
So I messaged the owner back, offered him the money I could afford, and signed on the dotted line. I purchased a horse I hadn’t laid eyes on in four years, and made the decision with my heart instead of my head.
This morning Bode stepped off the trailer, back into the state in which he first drew breath. He looked up at the same two faces that were the first he ever saw. And as if no time had passed, he gently butted my hand, looking for a treat or two.
I do not know what will lie in store for this colt who stole my heart. If he is sound, then I hope to do what I do best—to retrain him into a second career and then find him a forever home that will love him just as much as I do. If he is pasture sound, then we will find him a herd of his own babies to watch over and supervise. And if there ever comes a time when he is neither, then the decision will be made by me, and that is all that I can ever ask for.
But as of now, he is with me and Luke. He is back in the safety of our arms, our eyes, and our care. For four years now we have been forced into the shadows and been merely bystanders. We watched from afar, through television sets, databases, and cell phones, knowing our opinion mattered the least.
And today that changes. Today he is ours and we are his. We can’t control the past, but we can control the future. And that is all that truly matters.
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.