Before Grady, there was another special Thoroughbred who influenced my life a long time ago.
On March 30, 1983, a twelve-year-old girl received a most precious gift. R.W. was honest and forgiving, quirky and lovable….and he was my very first horse.
I had outgrown ponies and R.W. was going to help me make the transition to horses, although my mother distinctly remembers the day we went to try him and feeling that he definitely was not the one for me. I don’t remember this, but apparently just after I got on, he trotted off into the traffic of the busy indoor arena. My mom thought “no way, this is not the horse for my little girl….”. Well, in this case, the first impression was misleading. The small black Thoroughbred was all business and knew his job well. He had just been ready to get to work. Ultimately, he did end up being the one for me and a beautiful partnership began.
Being a young teenager in junior high school, I crafted pillows in Home Economics class in the shape of the letters R and W, one black and one white. I needle pointed another black and white pillow with the name “Pooky” (my pet name for my new BFF) on it and I often wore the visor I made that said “I ‘heart’ R.W.”. Needless to say, I was smitten!
But my relationship with R.W. was more than a fleeting teen crush. Through caring for him, I learned a sense of responsibility. Through riding him, I learned how to win and how to lose, and how to work hard for what I wanted to achieve. Together we achieved more than I think anyone ever expected. By the time I was thirteen, R.W. had brought me to the highest level of junior equitation when we competed in the ASPCA Maclay Finals at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Madison Square Garden November 1984
Over the next few years, we competed both locally and at prestigious venues such as Devon, The Pennsylvania National Horse Show and once more at the Garden. I grew up with R.W. and he became an important mentor, shaping who I was going to be as a person and as a horsewoman.
1985 Pennsylvania National Horse Show – copyright Action Video
copyright Pennington 1987
R.W. didn’t have the biggest stride or the most scope but he had tons of heart. He always tried his very best, but as the ’80s rolled on and the larger warmblood horses started to come on the scene, R.W. began to struggle with the increasing difficulty of the courses. It seemed that I would need to move on to a younger, bigger horse to finish out my last two years as a junior rider.
When that time came, my mom took over the ride on R.W. with a focus on her passion – dressage. After I graduated high school and my mom realized her lifelong dream of having horses at home, R.W. moved with us. She enjoyed riding him for another ten years after I stopped showing him.
Mom and R.W. at home – photo by Dad
In 1997, after a brief illness, R.W. died at our farm at age 27. I was 26. He was part of our family. He was my partner, my teacher, my friend. He will always be with me.
How fitting that now, all these years later, there is another small Thoroughbred who has stolen my heart. I may not craft pillows with Grady’s name, but I am smitten nonetheless. Similar in many ways, R.W. and Grady impacted two very different stages of my life and for that, I am truly grateful.
“Time it was And what a time it was, it was A time of innocence A time of confidences
Long ago it must be I have a photograph Preserve your memories They’re all that’s left you”
It was a chilly February day and the small, bay thoroughbred stood on the crossties with a sweet expression. He was thin, with not much muscle and he sported a deep brown winter coat with rubbed spots on his shoulders from his blankets, but his face is what drew me in. I had responded to an ad on a website and decided that he would be worth looking at. After some recent changes in my life, I thought that it might be a fun challenge to buy an off-the-track thoroughbred to retrain and sell and Grady was the first horse I was trying.
I had spent years on the horse show scene, first competing as a junior rider, then as an amateur and finally as a professional showing mostly hunters for 13 years. I had always loved competing but was feeling a little burned out and in need of a change. I left my current position with a successful show stable thinking I was taking a break from horses, but fate intervened and took me in another direction.
I would still ride and help take care of my own two horses at my parents’ farm. My mom took care of Toby & Chauncey and I was looking forward to spending more time there, especially since Chauncey had been going through a mysterious illness for quite a while. I had been on the road so much that I hadn’t been able to see them a lot and for that I felt guilty. I was especially grateful for this new found time because Chauncey succumbed to his illness about two weeks after I left my job. This left Toby all alone and we knew we would have to decide pretty soon what our next step was going to be.
My mom, Judy, with Toby (left) and Chauncey (right) in 1998
My mom was getting older and the barn work was getting more difficult for her so it was really up to her to decide whether she still wanted to have horses at home. With winter coming, we decided to look for a barn with an indoor ring and board Toby for a few months while my mom gave some thought to the future.
As the winter rolled on, my mom came to the conclusion that she still wanted horses at home. She wasn’t quite ready to give that up. The next question was what to do next. I had picked up some freelance riding over the last few months and some of the horses were thoroughbreds. I realized I hadn’t ridden many thoroughbreds over the past few years and was really enjoying their intelligence and work ethic. I had grown up riding a thoroughbred and my mom’s first horse was a thoroughbred so I had the idea that it would be fun to buy one to train and resell. My mom liked that idea and the search began.
We hadn’t “shopped” for a horse in years and now with the availability of the internet, it was easy to find lots of possibilities. I browsed through many websites, replied to a number of ads, made some phone calls. Some people never got back to me, some did but the horse didn’t end up being quite what I was looking for. Then one day I saw the ad for Grady. He was a good looking little horse that was advertised as being good for a junior or amateur (with more miles) and very level headed. After speaking with one of the trainers involved in his sale, we decided to go take a look.
When we arrived at Grady’s barn on that cold February morning, Katie was there to greet us and to ride him so we could see him go. Looking through his winter coat and blanket rubs we could tell he was very handsome. He had a beautiful eye even though it sometimes lacked expression.
Katie tacked him up and brought him into the attached indoor ring. She told us that he hadn’t been ridden very much lately and that he had his heavy winter shoes on so he wouldn’t move as nicely as he normally would. He went around the ring fine, not in a very hunter like way and a little tense but he did what he was asked and was very businesslike. Katie put him through his paces and then jumped a few little jumps. I was pleased with what I had seen so far so I decided it was time to get on and see how he felt.
When I first got on, I wanted to see how he responded to some simple exercises at the walk. He listened well and seemed to be trying to figure me out. We continued on with our ride, working at the walk, trot and canter. He was definitely quick and not very broke but I liked the fact that even when we were going faster than I wanted, he felt safe and sane. He hadn’t been off the track for that long so he was still in racehorse mode. He had been in training for a few months, doing flatwork and learning to jump, but he still had a lot to learn. That was a job for whoever bought him.
After we finished working on the flat, I decided to jump a few small jumps. I only trotted them since his canter was not really developed yet. His natural balance seemed good, but he was lacking the ability to adjust his stride so cantering jumps would probably have been difficult and wasn’t really necessary at this point. He did everything I asked so we decided to end on a good note.
I cooled him out and we brought him back into the barn. Katie put him in his stall to eat some hay and we talked a little more about him. Then, right as my mom and I were about to leave, we both turned and looked toward Grady in his stall. Right at that moment, Grady slowly lifted his head from his hay and looked at us. The expressionless eye was now soft and relaxed and he held our gaze for a few seconds. I knew my mom saw what I did and we looked at each other and smiled.
We went back a couple of weeks later to try Grady again and it went well. He hadn’t done too much in the time since we’d seen him last but he was pretty much the same as the first time. We really liked him but he was still the only horse we had tried. We decided to hold off and go see some more horses for comparison. We told Katie that we did like him a lot but we weren’t quite ready to move forward and we would be in touch. If it was meant to be, he would still be available when and if we decided he was the one.
Over the next few weeks, we did go to see a few more horses but Grady continued to be the frontrunner. Finally, I called Katie to find out if Grady was still available and was happy to hear that he was. We went to try him one more time. Patti, his usual rider who wasn’t able to be there for our first two visits, was there to greet us this time. Grady seemed to have lost a bit of weight since we saw him last but we weren’t too concerned.
Grady in March 2007
Patti had been doing more with him and with winter slowly coming to a close, we were able to ride in the outdoor ring. There was a nice course of jumps set up and Grady felt more relaxed so I did more jumping than we had the times before. He did great, really listening between the jumps and even giving me a few lead changes.
I felt like we were ready to make our decision, but there was one glitch…..I had to be away for the next two weeks and was leaving the next day. We couldn’t do anything until I got back so they agreed to take a deposit on him and keep him for the 2 weeks until I returned and we were able to set up the pre-purchase exam.
The exam was scheduled for two days after I got back from my trip. Patti would trailer him up to our farm and wait while the exam took place. Based on the results, we would either write a check and keep Grady, or he would go back with Patti.
Everything went smoothly and the vet went back to the office to develop the x-rays. We invited Patti inside and sat down around the kitchen table with some hot chocolate and waited. About an hour later, the phone rang. The x-rays looked ok although there was one little wing fracture in Grady’s left front hoof. This was probably an old racing injury and the vet didn’t anticipate it being a problem. My mom & I looked at each other, both of us knowing what the other was thinking. A few minutes later, Grady was ours and Patti headed back to New Jersey with an empty trailer.
When I was a little girl, I used to write short stories and they were usually about horses. I don’t really remember them vividly but I most likely still have them somewhere, probably in the basement of my parents’ house. I can see the pages; the script handwriting in pencil on the college ruled notebook paper. I can even see the light green folder I kept the stories in. Over time I seemed to get away from writing as life got busier, although the desire to write has always stayed with me.
All these years later, I’ve enjoyed a life full of horses and have been lucky enough to have made it my career. I’ve ridden hundreds of horses and have had meaningful relationships with a lot of them. But I never could have imagined that one horse would come along and change the course of my life. I started riding in a new discipline. I met many new people, some of whom became lifelong friends. I changed the way I looked at riding and at my relationship with horses. When I met Grady, I had no idea that this was what he had in store for me. I was going to train him and resell him and put a little money away. Haha. Grady had other plans….
Grady in February 2007 – The day we met
As I experienced many highs and lows during Grady’s training, I began keeping a journal about our progress (or lack thereof) and thought it would be fun to put it all together and share with others. I thought it might resonate with people going through similar situations. So here it goes…..I’m putting together my passions for horses and writing and have created this blog. Grady came into my life 12 years ago and we are still learning together every day. Feel free to follow this blog as I tell stories of the past, update you on the present and move into the future. I hope you enjoy the journey!