This road to recovery has two lanes, mine and Katie's. Mine, as you might have read in previous columns, has been a twisty, mountainous route full of switchbacks and delays. Katie's, on the other hand, has been a straight, slow slog across Kansas.
Katie is my 9-year old Hanoverian mare. I bought her almost four years ago. She was going to be my next Brenda Starr—the star of my Nattie Gold equine mystery series and the star of my equine life. Brenda died giving birth to her son, Roy, and I dedicated my last book, “In Colt Blood,” to her. “If you're lucky,” I wrote on the dedication page, “you get one great horse in a lifetime.”
I’d been extremely lucky. This was the kindest, most big-hearted horse ever. And I have empirical evidence to prove it: She carted me over the 3'6" fences in the ammy-owner division with great generosity. I have always been a timid rider over fences—that I even got around a 3'6" course without circling or otherwise second-guessing myself and horse is a miracle. I rode this wonder mare for more than 10 years, and she never refused a fence regardless of how I got her there. That alone should land her in the Hunter Hall of Fame next to Rox Dene.
I was heartbroken when she died, nearly catatonic with grief. My father, the prototype for Lou in my books (a new-age manic depressive), thought a chat with Brenda from the beyond would snap me out of it. He bought me an hour with a horse communicator who specialized in animals that had “crossed over.” Apparently Brenda was not happy that I’d bred her. “Not the best idea in the world,” were her exact words. So now I was not only struck by grief, but guilt as well.
But at least I had Roy, her progeny. He would be my next adult hunter. I buried my ammy-owner aspirations along with Brenda. Then Roy developed an alphabet of problems. At seven months, he started limping. An OCD lesion in his shoulder. I sent him to Barbaro's surgeon. The prognosis was grim, but this doctor is a rock star, and he made Roy sound.
Roy was the whole package. Unlike his mother, who could only get a hack ribbon if there were fewer than seven in the class, Roy had that shoulder swinging, toe flipping, hunter movement judges loved. Plus he’d inherited his mother’s gorgeous jump along with her wonderful mind and gentle soul. This boy came out of the womb with a balanced-on-the buckle canter. And he was kick-quiet. In other words, the second horse of my dreams.
Every day I rode him was a gift for which I was profoundly grateful, given his original prognosis. Then he stopped picking up his right lead. It was EPM. Two rounds of Marquis did nothing except empty my bank account. But the daily suspension of sulfadiazine and pyrimethamine worked. So we were back on our way to the adult hunters. Then he tripped with me twice, badly, as in a nose dive. I took him to Virginia Tech for a neuro workup. “This horse is a disaster,” the vet said. “Be careful how you lead him. He could fall on you.” Roy’s vertebral channel had narrowed, probably from an OCD lesion.
So Roy is retired. He’s spent the last seven years happily cavorting in his field, never taking a bad step. I started searching for another Sir Thomson horse. Brenda had been the great red Thoroughbred stallion’s first foal. But Sir Thomson was long gone, and I couldn’t find any of his offspring.
I branched out. I’d been a Thoroughbred girl all my riding life, but the hunter world had changed. The same horses that hunter people used to sniff about as “cart horses,” were now unbeatable in the hunter ring. Plus, I wasn’t getting any younger or more talented as a rider. I needed a horse with a big sense of humor. You can find a Thoroughbred like that, (as in Brenda Starr, Roy and Woody), but they are fewer and farther in between than the warmbloods.
I started looking at horses named after places in Germany, spending more than a year searching for the next Brenda Starr. I’ve never done Internet dating, but I’m guessing the two are similar. To call the descriptions in horse ads euphemistic is a euphemism itself. How about: outright, bald-faced lies? Horse dealers have a bad name because so many of them deserve it. Stupidly, I did the horse search on my own, so I didn’t have a trainer filtering out the crazy, lame and crazy. I would never do this again. That I survived unharmed means my guardian angels worked overtime and then some.
After seeing too many inappropriate horses, I realized you buy the seller along with the horse. Two horse friends independently suggested Ali Shackelford. They told me she was honest, had a barnful of lovely horses and cared more about the right match than making the sale. So my husband and I headed down to Bahama, N.C.
A psychologist friend once told me that people get married not because they’re so crazy in love with that person, but because it’s the right time in their lives. That certainly explains my first, but not my second marriage. But it does raise the question: Did I buy Katie because I was so in love with her or because I was tired of looking?
Ali showed me what she had for sale, each one more gorgeous than the next—for a cart horse (my heart will always be with the sleek Thoroughbred). Budget and riding ability narrowed it down to Katie, a quiet 6-year-old Hanoverian mare who lived to be petted. That she yanked her knees up to her ears when she jumped and was a beautiful mover also helped. “Wow,” I said as Katie floated us around the ring in a trot, “so this is what one of these good-moving horses feels like.” It felt like I was riding a cloud.
I fell in love and the time was right. While inexpensive compared to say the Spielbergs’ latest equine purchase, Katie cost a bundle for a freelance journalist. My mother had recently died and unexpectedly left me some money. She never got my horse addiction, but as a mother myself, I have to believe she’s smiling somewhere when she sees how much joy Katie brings me, thanks to her. In fact, Katie’s show name was originally “Thanks Mom,” but that seemed a little juvenile.
So I changed it to “Extra!Extra!” because as an old newspaper reporter, I’ve got a newspaper theme going. Brenda Starr, for all of you born after people stopped reading newspapers, was the redheaded reporter of the eponymous comic strip of the same name. And Nellie, Nattie Gold’s daughter and star of my upcoming book, “Whoa Nellie,” is for Nellie Bly, one of the original investigative reporters.
The only way I could afford a fancy horse was to go greener than I could show myself. The trainer I chose cleaned up with Katie in the local green division, ostensibly getting her ready for me to show. Unfortunately, he didn’t think much of my riding ability, so I never jumped her. Then she blew a suspensory. She had stem cell therapy, PRP, three rounds of shock wave, combined with six months of stall rest, followed by a year of gradual rehab. Remember that long, slow slog through Kansas? It took me almost two years to get back on her.
I started training with the uber-supportive Gordon Reistrup, who believes his job as a trainer is to get me on my horse in the show ring. Then life got in my way. A series of health issues for both myself and my husband kept me off horses from October through the end of January, while Gordon trained Katie in my riding absence.
A Very Long Time Coming
February came, and it was an early spring both metaphorically and literally. The crocuses weren’t the only things being reborn. I was finally back on my horse, and we were headed to the Stonewall Country Horse Show. Gordon rode her over fences and I hacked her to the blue ribbon. She was champion of her division.
Still, I’d now owned this mare for almost four years and had only cantered two jumps with her. And that had been two years ago. It was time for this dream to come true.
Gordon had just ridden her in two over fences classes in the schooling division at the recent Virginia Intermont show. The next morning was the eensy-weensie hopeful hunter division. I told Gordon I wanted to ride Katie in it, and he gallantly hid the shock from his face. Up until then, I’d been nervous about jumping a green horse. But fighting the hospital on my husband’s behalf had unleashed the beast in me. I wasn’t going to let anything cow me anymore, especially my fear. I could get a horse over a 2’3” course.
That night Gordon schooled me over the jumps or, more accurately, bumps. Katie was perfect. I was vibrating with happiness—I’d finally jumped my horse over more than two fences.
And then the next morning, Katie and I did our first course together. It was a dream four years in the making. Finally our paths had merged.
Oh yeah, we were reserve champions!
Jody Jaffe is the author of "Horse of a Different Killer," "Chestnut Mare, Beware," and "In Colt Blood," which have been featured in People Magazine and translated into German, Japanese and Czech. She is also the co-author of the novels, "Thief of Words," and "Shenandoah Summer." She is a journalist who was on a team at the Charlotte Observer that won the Pulitzer Prize. Her articles have been published in many major newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Washingtonian and Practical Horseman. In addition, she teaches journalism at Hollins University. She lives on a farm in Lexington, Va., with her husband, John Muncie, and their eight horses. She attempts to ride hunters with her trainer, the ever-patient, Gordon Reistrup.