It’s never a good thing when your working student calls you at 5 a.m. We’re a texting people. Phone calls are reserved for the elderly and emergencies. And as I groggily answered the phone I could hear the alarm in her voice before I understood the words. One of the horses was injured, badly, and she needed my help. Bra-less and sleep still in my eyes, I smashed my glasses on to my face and hurried downstairs.
There’s something about walking through the paddock before dawn, wet grass soaking through shoes and clinging to bare legs, that feels like entering a foreign world ruled by animals and nighttime that as humans, we aren’t a party to. As soon as I crested the hill and saw that neither the girl nor the horses had made any progress toward the gate from the back of the paddock, I knew. Having been a life long horsewoman, I’ve seen my fair share of blood, broken things and any number of ways our beloved animals try to maim themselves. And thankfully, my mother, an amazing horsewoman herself, taught me when I was very little never to panic and always to work towards a solution. Even when there isn’t one.
But this isn’t a story about a black morning and a broken leg. This is story about the horse of a lifetime that I was lucky enough to know. It started with another phone call I received more than two years ago. I was standing in the hospitality tent at the Warrenton Horse and Pony Show (Virginia) trying to eat my feelings after a dismal morning in hunter pony-land. If it could go wrong, it had gone wrong that day. One of our ponies rolled in the model. Another spooked at a puddle and lost his child mid-course. And to top it all off it was raining, but the temperature still somehow hovered around 90 degrees. When my phone rang, and I glanced down to see a number I didn’t recognize, I was not optimistic about who might be on the other end, probably a telemarketer who was about to receive a disproportionate amount of my frustration.
A teenage girl spoke softly; she was calling because her trainer (a friend of mine) had recommended she reach out to me for help selling her horse. She described the horse as a 15.3-hand, 14-year-old mare with a previous injury. ::face palm:: I took a deep breath and asked if the horse was sound and quiet, and she said she was. In spite of some reservations about my ability to sell the horse she described, I thought, ‘What was the kind thing to do? How could I help her?’ So I invited her to bring the mare over to the farm the following week for an evaluation.
Vilexa was beautiful in every sense of the word. It did not take an expert to see this mare exuded quality and class. A dark bay, four white socks and a unique blaze that roaned out on the left side of her face, she had the perfect paint job for the hunter ring. I watched her owner ride her around my arena, and saw quiet, composed, 10-mover, great expression—a classic example of what a hunter should be. I told her I didn’t have a customer for her immediately but to leave the horse with us for a few weeks, and I would see what I could come up with. I think having only heard her described over the phone, many trainers would have politely turned her owner away or suggested that she donate the horse. But after seeing the mare in person, I was so glad I had done the kind thing and offered to help a stranger. I knew Vilexa was the real deal and old injuries, size, age and gender were irrelevant.
Ashley Clark has always been more than just a customer. She believed in me and my program from the beginning, and though she denies it, I know she must have encouraged Antares Sellier to sponsor me before I was really a big enough deal to sponsor. She is a kind and loyal friend and a hardworking amateur rider. Ashley had her share of bad luck in the past and was looking to find her perfect partner on a modest budget. One of the great joys of my career is matching horses and riders. I love getting to know a customer and carefully selecting the best possible partner for them within their budget. When I met Vilexa I had Ashley in mind, but I wanted to make sure that she was really the right one. Ashley had some nerves in the show ring. That’s putting it gently; she was so nervous she vibrated at the in-gate. I’ll never forget her hand trembling as she pointed to the course sheet at one of our first shows together. It was very important that she had the right horse not just at home but also at shows.
Vilexa did not disappoint. And never has. She and Ashley forged a bond rarely seen in today’s show ring. In two years and with more tricolors than we can count, Vilexa took Ashley from a timid 2’6″ pre-adult rider to VHSA Medal Finals, hunter derbies and the adult amateur hunter, 18-35, championship at Warrenton this spring. I’ve heard it said that great horses make great riders, and Vilexa embodied that. Her consistent, quiet, gentle demeanor and uncanny ability to cover a rider’s mistake helped Ashley to reach her potential as a hunter and equitation rider.
But ribbons and trophies aside, theirs was a love story between horse and rider. Ashley came to ride five days a week, very early, making the hour-long drive to the barn in the dark before she went to work, displaying a level of dedication and discipline I admire. She often texted me to let me know when she was leaving her house, so I would be awake when she arrived at the barn. I always tell people that at the heart of everything I do is a fundamental love for horses. And I see that in my customers. Rain or shine, show or trail ride, they simply love their animals and enjoy sharing their lives with them.
There aren’t many silver linings on a day like today. I can try to find solace in the fact that our day started two hours earlier than usual because we were planning to go to a show, so my working student found her at 5 a.m. instead of 7 a.m. Or perhaps I can be grateful for the disturbing clarity that a severe fracture gives to the decision-making process. But I’m left with the stark reminder of just how fragile these great creatures are. Even in a level, large, grassy paddock with the same pasturemate she’s gone out with for two years, that on a very average summer night something tragic can happen. I thought now, at 31, this would get easier, that I wouldn’t choke back sobs when Vilexa and her pasture mate nickered to each other one last time as we put her down. I’ll tell you now, it doesn’t. When the good ones go it stings just as much now as it did when I was 11 years old.
But I am grateful. Grateful to have had Vilexa in my barn these last two years. Grateful to have shared in Ashley’s joy and watched her transform as a rider. Grateful to the Alexander family for bringing Vilexa into our lives. Grateful to my vet, Dr. Sallie Hyman, who always picks up the phone. Grateful to my working student for her quick thinking and compassion on the worst of days. I will miss Vilexa as if she were one of my own. Looking to her empty stall now feels surreal; she must be out for hack or a hand graze under the apple tree. My eye searches down the row of eager ears and outstretched noses as I mix feed; her impatient foot tapping and throaty whicker is conspicuously absent at feeding time today and will be for a long time to come.
Chronicle blogger and up-and-coming hunter/jumper trainer Paige Cade spent most of the 2015 FTI Winter Equestrian Festival working for Margie Engle’s Gladewinds Farm, and in 2015 made the decision to return to Virginia to start her own riding and training business, Country Fox Farm, Inc., in Middleburg. Paige would like to thank Antares, Purina, Dr. Sallie Hyman and Total Equine Veterinary Associates for their continued support.