Nick Novak almost didn’t even go to try Malone. He was in the process of buying a house, and he didn’t really have the time. But there was something about the way trainer Renee Lenkart described Malone that piqued his interest. “She called me and said that she had a horse that was kind of neurotic, so she thought he'd be just my type!” Novak recalled.
And neurotic was an understatement. Malone, then a slightly built 6-year-old Thoroughbred fresh off the track, wasn’t all that promising on first impression. “He was totally out of control and pulled like a freight train, but he felt like he could jump big jumps so I bought him. I figured that if I could figure out his brain, he'd be a good horse,” said Novak, of Hastings, Minn.
That was 16 years ago, and today Novak and Malone are fast friends and consistent winners at Midwest grand prixs. “He's not a World Cup horse, but he's definitely my horse of a lifetime,” Novak said. “I'll never have another horse like him. I could have the best grand prix horse in the entire world, and they'll never be what he's been to me. He's my buddy.”
Donald Cheska had bought Malone off the track in Kentucky, and while the bay gelding had an athletic look, his mind was fragile. “He was kind of frantic and spooky and just crazy,” Novak said. Malone hadn’t done much after coming off the track—just jumped a few jumps and bounced around to a few different trainers. Novak put him out in a field for a while to regroup, then picked up the reins again.
“I tried him in the first year green hunters, and he jumped higher than the standards. I figured 'This isn't going to work,' so I went ahead and put him in the jumper ring. I think he did eight horse shows, and then he went in an open welcome stake,” Novak said. “The higher I jumped him, the more relaxed he got. So, as a 7-year-old, I started him in the prixs, and he's done them ever since.”
As they got to know each other, Novak even overlooked a little bodily harm. “When he was younger, he bit the tip of my finger off, so he got the name 'Chopper.' I had to get my finger sewn back on,” he said.
Malone is lucky he found Novak, since his nervous ways made him difficult to work with. “I think basically, if he hadn’t come to me, he might have fallen through the cracks and had a very bad life. He was very tough,” Novak said.
Now 22, Malone has mellowed in his attitude, but that big jump is still there. He and Novak started 2012 by winning the $15,000 Grand Prix at Lake St. Louis Hunter Jumper I (Mo.) on Jan. 8, adding yet another accolade to their résumé. Malone and Novak found their niche in the $10,000 to $25,000 classes in the Midwest, showing mostly in Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri. “He certainly could jump around a huge track easily, but I just didn’t always get to go to those venues,” Novak said.
As an 8-year-old, Malone was third in a $50,000 grand prix in Colorado. “I think he would have won it, but I think I was so wowed by him in the middle of the jump-off that I forgot to make a turn!” Novak said.
Malone doesn’t bowl crowds over with impressive looks when he trots into the ring. “He looks like he can’t stack up to these big powerful warmbloods, and then, all of a sudden, he’s a foot and a half over the jumps and faster than everyone,” said Novak. And he’s got quite a fan following at shows where he competes. “Everybody seems to know him. He's always one of the crowd favorites whether he does well or not, just because he's been out there so long. Everybody seems to know him, and it's fun. Random people always come up and tell me they were rooting for him. He's the little under-dog.”
Like An Old Pair Of Gloves
Unfortunately, Novak doesn't know Malone’s Jockey Club name or pedigree. His tattoo is unreadable, and his papers got lost in the shuffle after he came off the track. “I would have loved to have found something like a full brother that had never raced or a relative. But unfortunately not,” he said.
Novak has ridden Thoroughbreds before, and he’s always keeping an eye out for another Malone, but he hasn’t found one to follow in the little bay’s footsteps. “I've had multiple horses since I've owned him, thinking that he's on his way out, and they ended up being done before he did. So, I decided to stop buying horses until he's totally done,” Novak said. And when Malone is ready to retire, there’s a stall and a field waiting for him at Novak’s brother’s farm.
But in the meantime, Malone will keep delighting crowds and defying stereotypes. He accompanies Novak to every horse show, and Novak decides whether to show him or not based on how Malone feels. He makes sure to incorporate lots of slow warm-up to Malone’s routine to let him loosen up. Even though he’s become a veteran campaigner, though, Malone hasn’t gotten routine to ride.
“I still don’t know what I have until I’ve jumped three jumps. I think for years, I could only ride him the way he wanted to be ridden. Now he’ll kind of work with me, but he definitely has modes. He’s either a little up and cranky, or a little sulky, or in between and perfect. Those are his three zones, and the medium is the best zone. But when he’s in a good mood and we’re in sync, it’s like an old pair of gloves,” Novak said.
“He's just got a heart of gold. I don't really believe in the horse communicators, but one told me once that's he's the most emphatic horse she'd ever met when it comes to jumping. She said it's such a complete high for him that he doesn't even know how to contain himself. It shows—I think if he had one good leg, he'd try to get around the course. He's just so committed to jumping.”
If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. The original version of "Malone Has Been An Unlikely Horse Of A Lifetime" ran in the Feb. 20, 2012, Show Jumping issue. Other great stories in that issue include a look at the challenges young professionals face when trying to break into the grand prix ranks, a behind-the-scenes look at McLain Ward's historic Castle Hill Farm in New York, a look at the evolution of the water jump, and many more great articles.