He was coming 4, big and slow and goofy. I brought him an apple from my hotel, and it took him about 20 minutes to eat it, turning it into mush in my hand. He had a huge tail and big eyes and was sweet as can be. I brought him home, got him in front of my leg and taking my hand, and he proceeded to be the most angry, hostile and fractious young man I’ve ever owned from 4.5 to 9, when he realized that if he just shut up and accepted his lot in life, he’d get a lot more cookies and work a lot less hard. But it took so, SO many hours of running backwards, gnashing his teeth and pinning his ears.
His name was Stratocaster, and he was one of the great horses of my career.
And now he’s gone.
Fender’s entire time with me is documented in this blog, actually. From the trip to his breeder in Kentucky in the winter of 2010, where I got to tour the Kentucky Horse Park as they frantically built for the World Equestrian Games, to the time we missed being national champion by .3 percent in 2015, with every up and down in between (though I think I undersold the downs; the version of my life presented to you all is, shall we say, heavily redacted).
There was never any doubt of his quality, but his rebellious streak was strong, and he firmly believed for many years that my leg was a torture device, and that engagement was a war crime. While Midge, Danny, Johnny and Hurricane were all scarier as kids, being vastly faster and more nimble in their disobedience, they were never angry; Fender’s poor decisions were fueled by a teenage anger management problem that freaked me out a bit, only because he really meant it when he told me to go to hell.
But then he grew up, as they do. It was one of those freaky overnight things: In January of 2010 he was still hissing and spitting, and in February of 2010 my grandmother could have ridden him safely. He rarely spooked. He was totally unfazed by even the biggest of shows. He self loaded. He hacked around at a show in Culpeper (Virginia) with 40 mph winds and leaping young horses, while I had the reins in one hand and my phone in the other. (Don’t tell show management.)
FEI Judge Janet Foy, at the USDF Finals (Kentucky) that year, wrote on my test that it was “about time you had a nice horse.” If only she knew.
Fender then entered his next phase of life: Professor. Fender earned two assistant trainers their USDF silver medals, and my mom, Judy, her bronze. He taught everyone how to ride changes. He taught everyone about a contact that thought forward instead of backwards (because if you pulled his hind legs flew into reverse, with a wee smile on Fender’s face). He made everyone feel like a genius, and whenever my mom rode him in clinics, I’d get a text from the clinician: “Your mom is cool. Fender is WONDERFUL.”
A month ago, Fender went from quietly eating his breakfast in the field at 6 a.m. to the operating table for colic at 11 a.m. It was the quickest decline I’ve ever seen; my assistant trainer Lauren rode in the back of the trailer with him as I drove to the clinic; she carried a buggy whip to keep him from going down, and he rocked the trailer so badly I almost pulled over twice on the 25-minute trip. I thought there was no way he’d survive surgery, and then I thought there was really no way he’d survive the second surgery six days later, between which he just refused to progress towards health.
He did, because Fender never was the biggest fan of doing as he was told. He came home. He had his good days and bad moments, but mostly good. And he fought like hell for his life, until he just couldn’t fight anymore.
As a juvenile delinquent kid, the general rule of thumb was to never ever give Fender what he wanted. But as an adult, he was mercilessly spoiled, given whatever he wanted, and he’d earned that privilege. At one of the bad times in the past month, we’d spoken to an animal communicator—yes, really—who had told us that Fender knew exactly how loved he was and how special. He had an ego the size of Texas, and he was proud of all he’d done. And he also told us that he was sad to leave us, but that it was time for him to go.
We gave him what he wanted, because that’s what we did for Fender. He’d earned it.
If you’ve got a young horse who’s talented but opinionated, stick it out. Keep calmly and quietly plugging away at it, even if he runs backwards from X in your outdoor, down one hill and up the next before finally accepting your leg. Keep going even if he exits the arena in Florida and runs backwards twice all the way around the barn while your new working student stares in horror. Keep going even if your coach won’t ride him because he makes him nervous, and keep going even if he thinks about being naughty with Steffen Peters in the saddle in an Olympic year (the scariest 10 minutes of my life, by the way), and keep going even if you can’t touch one step of remotely collected walk until he’s 8, and keep going even if you have to cross yourself before picking up the left lead canter every day of your first year at Prix St. Georges, because every single one of those days was worth the three years of absolute joy Fender gave to me, to his owner and to everyone in his life.
And if you’ve got any kind of horse, hold them close. Their time with us is always too brief.