Last February, my friend Anne sent Willie to me. First let me tell you a bit about Anne. She and I were bound to find each other because we share the exact same love of ottb’s. She also galloped before returning to the show world. She does hunters, you know the really expensive ones, and then takes all the money she makes and saves the horses that can’t be expensive hunters. I’ve never met her face to face, but believe me when I tell you she is my sister and there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for her. It’s always easy to take the big good looking horse, but Anne notices the horse in the back of the field with the caved in face and sees his all of his finer qualities. She takes him and now with my help we get him into the right hands for a great life.
Now let’s talk about Willie. When Anne met him he was a 9 year old racehorse who had funneled down the ranks to the bottom at Finger Lakes. I don’t have to tell most people that the bottom at Finger Lakes is just before the kill pen. Willie had given up, he wasn’t going to try any more. He’d had enough and that was that. Anne saw that great looking guy with the silver tail and tracked down the trainer. It wasn’t long before he was bound for her farm in Pennsylvania. He was turned out for some r and r. Anne knew he was not a resale project because of his age. No one wants to give the old class horses a second look.
After a year, she sent him to a good hunter trainer to learn to jump. At some point during this time, Anne and I started working together. She contacted me about horses on my site and got quite a few through Leighton Farm. Over time she realized I could help her move some of the horses she was rescuing or that would not make top level hunters. In February, she sent several horses to be sold or find homes, one of them was Willie.
Willie had lost his pride. I could tell that at one time he was the Big Horse in the barn, but as his performance went down hill, he lost favor and was robbed of all his self respect. He had also lost his confidence in humans. He’d given his all and we had repaid him by betraying him. Anne and I talked about how people don’t want to give the old class horses a chance and what a good example Willie could be. Obviously he was sound, you don’t race 58 times and until the age of 9 if you’re not a durable type. More than that, Willie was a consummate athlete, fantastic mover and smarter than smart. He had changed hands five times during his career and that meant he could deal with pressure. These kinds of horses come along much faster than you can imagine.
So the training began. I took him over to Sam Allan to see what she thought. She noticed the beautiful silver tail, and then she proceeded to tell me I should keep him. Not because of the tail, because of the potential and talent. I told her I have a rule that I can only keep four horses and to keep him I would have to get rid of one of mine. Graycie? No way. Birdie? Can’t even talk about that. Punk? If I could only have one horse, it would be him. Bear? It would break his heart.
So the retraining proceeded and he progressed so quickly I started looking toward competing him. Glennwood seemed like a good goal. It was in June, and I knew he would be able to stick his toe in the proverbial eventing pond by then. Mind you, I was looking at taking a horse who had never shown to a horse trial and I had never ridden in a horse trial either. By May I was telling Elizabeth she really needed to see this horse. He had a real knack for the dressage. Elizabeth only had eyes for the Bird and I just couldn’t get time scheduled for Willie. We did do Glennwood and he was as classy as a horse could be. You can go back and read about some of it. I talked about it in this blog, so I won’t rehash it here.
My friend Ruth made a visit to Maryland just to see Willie. She was considering him for herself. She wanted a low level horse to have fun with. She’d been a dressage Diva most of her life, but now wanted to event. She loved Willie and his magic tail, but she recognized immediately his upper level potential. She said, this guy is going places. You should keep him. Once again I went through the four horse limit and told myself this was how it had to be.
Sam suggested Fair Hill in July for our next outing. Me, Bird, Willie and friends would do our first overnighter. Willie handled it in stride. Bird handled it in Bird style and I was kept down to a dull roar by Samantha. She’s really good at that. She’s sort of like having a martini when you can’t have one, but really need one. She’s got really great coaching skills. I guess I should inject a Bird update here. He was more upset than ever about the dressage and tanked in usual Bird style. I choked in the show jumping, but didn’t go off course. As usual, the cross country was a dream. He even attacked the ditch without hesitation. I worried a little about it because there was a jump before it, so you couldn’t see the ditch on approach, but Bird didn’t care. He just jumped. It was fun, but I decided to give him a break after this and probably not show him again until next year. We needed to work on the dressage. It wasn’t fair to keep on this way.
This was the day I found the “key” to Willie. This was the day he got his self respect back. As we warmed up in dressage there are a ton of horses in a very small area. Willie scowled at every one of them that got in what he decided was his space. I know it’s wrong, but I laughed. He didn’t kick at them or anything, but you knew he was disgusted with all of them. When it was our turn to go, we headed for the dressage arena. You ride up a small hill to the arena at Fair Hill. As we walked into the area, I felt Willie stand tall and proud. He knew he was there to be seen and he had his pride back. He was wonderful, although he did scowl at the horse in the arena beside ours as it passed by during the test. I know I’m not supposed to, but I laughed. He got eliminated at the water on cross country, but I’d only schooled him to water once, so I don’t blame him. He did go through it and I have to say, he was a perfect gentleman about it.
We raised Willie’s price, because we weren’t ready to let him go. He had taken a real liking to me and when people came out to try him, he wasn’t bad, but I could tell he didn’t like it. He remained a consummate gentleman about it though. After Fair Hill, I really started to nag Elizabeth. I decided to give Bird a month off so I showed up with Willie at a lesson in July. I guess you could say it was love at first sight. Elizabeth loved him. It wasn’t long before she told me I should keep him, he was my third level horse. I told her I have a four horse limit – da, da, da.
Jimmy got back in town and I took Willie to a couple lessons with him. This was the first time I rode a different horse other than Birdie for Jimmy. I laid in bed that night thinking why did I do this. Jimmy is going to yell at me when he stops or does something green. The day was great, when Willie was green, Jimmy said, he’s green we expect this. Jimmy liked him.
I started to notice that Willie knew he was for sale and he didn’t want to be sold. Every time we went somewhere, he got nervous. Not ratty nervous, just concerned. You could tell. I knew in my heart he didn’t want to be sold and I felt bad about it. He wanted to stay here at Leighton Farm and be one of my dysfunctional kids, although Willie really isn’t dysfunctional at all. He was nice and easy to ride and I have to admit, I did enjoy having a horse that wasn’t so hard. I just knew I couldn’t keep five, but I did feel bad about it. Willie had always been a good horse and despite this he had been passed around like an object. So much so, that he expected and accepted it. I think it had been a long time since he had let himself want anything. He wanted to stay, and I couldn’t find a way to make it happen.
I needed to find a place to compete Willie, but scheduling conflicts kept happening. Sam said another Fair Hill was coming up and I should enter that. I did, but I knew I better get out there and school him over some water. We went to Win Green and then just before, Frying Pan Park. During this time, his dressage was coming along at an incredible rate. Willie loved dressage and he was better than good at it. He was a star again, he had his pride back. Willie is a very proud horse and it comes through in his performance. Still there were moments when he had that look in his eye where he kept a void between himself and me because he knew I would someday sell him. I know I sound like a nut, but they know, they really know. Most of the horses that come here know they will be sold and are fine with it. Willie wanted to stay.
I talked to Elizabeth about how bad I felt about selling Willie and she reiterated that I should keep him. I next did a gymnastics clinic with Jimmy at AOPF and Willie was a star. Jimmy commented that Bird better watch out. He thought Willie was “quite nice”. I’d never get rid of Bird, but it was true, Willie is quite nice. After the clinic I went down to their water jump and schooled Willie to it. He didn’t go right in and I worried he would be eliminated at Fair Hill again.
By now I was calling him Wonky. All of my horses have stupid names that just come out of me one day. Punky is Punkasaurus. Graycie is Beautiful Girl or Pearl Girl. Grandy is Bear, well you know him as Bear. Bird, well he is a Bird, so that hasn’t changed much except I do call him that Crazy Bird. One day Willie was Willie Wonky and then he was Wonky. Anne and I talked about the upcoming competition and I told her how Willie knew he was for sale and how sad it made him. Anne had told me again I could keep Willie. The only thing Anne wants for these horses is a good life. I get attached to every horse that comes through Leighton Farm and even a lot of them that just end up on my site, but Willie and I have more than that. We have a connection. I couldn’t stand it any longer and I told Anne I would keep Willie. I know I sound like kook and in many ways I am one, but Willie figured out rather quickly that he was going to be staying at Leighton Farm. I called Sam and Elizabeth and told them I was keeping him. They were happy about this decision. Sam had been telling me for over six months to keep that horse.
I’ve been schooling with Elizabeth for two years and I’ve never ridden through a test with her. I love the Bird, but it’s just never been useful since he wasn’t ready to compete dressage yet, (we’ve competed anyway), so I guess Elizabeth elected to work on the Bird “problem of the week” instead of riding a test. I’ve seen her go through tests with people and it reminds me of being before a firing squad. Elizabeth is “in it to win it” and she’s going to get you as close to perfect as possible, even if it kills you. If you don’t want perfect, you don’t want Elizabeth. I was told to bring my Fair Hill test to the next lesson. This was the day before the competition. I was ready to be BBQed. Instead, Willie and I pretty much earned an A+. No pressure. Elizabeth remarked about the difference in Willie’s eye. He was secure, he wasn’t worried any longer about traveling. He knew he’d be going home after the lesson to Leighton Farm. Willie had a home, for the first time in many years.
Bernadette, volunteer extraordinaire, came with me to Fair Hill. It’s the best feeling in the world to have someone help you that knows what you’re capable of. It’s amazing that one person can be an army of support, but that’s what Bernadette is. She’s a natural with horses and loves them as much as I do. The weather was lousy this day. It basically rained all day and I worried about how Willie would handle yucky, greasy, muddy, cross country. He got studs to help with the traction issues he was sure to have.
When we went to warm up for dressage, I felt that incredible pride come over Willie. To tell you the truth, I choked up. I fought off the urge to cry. Not tears of sadness, but those of a proud mom. He was right where he belonged at that moment. When we went up the hill to do our test, I felt his stature change as he strutted his stuff. Every mistake that was made in that test was mine. Willie was perfect. After the salute, the judge smiled and asked if he had a grey tail. I smiled back and said it’s silver. She said how pretty, what breed is he? I beamed as I told her he was an 11 year old thoroughbred off the track. “He raced until he was 9.” She said he’s got an amazing temperament. I smiled even bigger and I knew we’d aced it. Willie you are a star. Willie, said “of course I am.”
They were requiring us to take a trail through the woods to get to the stadium and cross country. Guess what you have to cross to get there? Water – a stream. I left early, just in case. Bernadette offered to walk with me, but I looked at this as the last schooling of water before cross country. As we approached Willie saw the water and hit reverse into the trees. This was humiliating because someone was approaching from the other direction and saw us. They asked “do you want a lead?” I thought, this is my opportunity to look like an idiot if I want. All I have to do is say no. I accepted the lead and Willie went right through. I thanked the girl who said, “Good Luck” as she rode away. I wouldn’t blame her if she thought to herself “You’re going to need it”. I thought it as I thanked her. I decided to table the water issue, because I’ve already made the mistake of riding the cross country course during show jumping and it’s a great way to go off course. Show jumping first then cross country. One problem at a time.
Stadium jumping was clean. I have to admit, Willie started out fairly sticky and I had to ride him. I do get credit for doing a good job there. I think he was concerned about the footing and needed proof it would be okay. With the studs he didn’t slip and by the end of the course he was freely jumping. If I haven’t mentioned it, Willie can really jump.
Cross country started out great. He was eager and willing. It was fun and then we turned the corner and they had dumped a ton of stone dust in front of a fence to help with the footing. Willie had never seen the likes of this and stopped, but circled around and jumped easily after inspection. I don’t blame him, he’s still learning. Fair enough. We had great jumps from there and now the water was coming up. Would he go? I had a plan that I would approach it and not kick or make a big deal, that just makes him stop for sure. Willie hates to be kicked. I would sit there and let him sort it out. By the half way point in the water I had to be jogging to make the jump just out of the water. I knew if he went into the water, I’d be excited and lose site of the jump out, if I wasn’t careful. He went right in, but as we started jogging he reacted to the water hitting him in the tummy and refused the jump after the water because he wasn’t ready. I circled round and he went. His excuse was greenness and I understood. He only stopped at one other fence and we were sliding down the hill to it so I didn’t make a fuss. Jimmy once told me that when Jack LeGoff was his coach, they had a horse that would “jump anything”. They made him a dressage horse because he was dangerous. Inotherwords, you want a brave horse, but not a reckless horse. Willie and I had never dealt with bad footing before and this was an education in itself.
Willie walked into the barn at home and told Birdie “I won the dressage”. Birdie said “Yeah, but you stopped on the cross country course.” My boys are competing with each other, but I love them both. (Okay, crazy lady)
Willie won the dressage, jumped clean in show jumping and made a few mistakes in cross country. He finished 6th overall. I am excited to go to the next competition because he’s gaining confidence and learning how to deal with the factors presented in eventing. Willie has a home and doesn’t have to worry when he leaves Leighton Farm. He’s coming back to stall 7, where he gets to stick his head out.