The Most Unlikely Horse Of A Lifetime

Feb 24, 2017 - 9:45 AM

Summing up a relationship that has outlasted any other relationship that I’ve ever had in one brief post is really difficult.

The relationship between me and my best friend is not only my longest, but also has taught me just about everything I know about being a professional, having patience, loving unconditionally, and perspective.

To introduce you to the better half of my relationship, meet Novelle: a 15-year-old, 15.3-hand dark bay Thoroughbred mare. She is of fairly unexciting Kentucky breeding and was bred by a man named Jim Plemmons, who I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting.

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Novelle and I. Photo by Kasey Mueller

Like many long-term relationships, there have been some ups and downs, starting with how Novelle came to be mine. My friend, Alec Kennedy, was given Novelle from the breeding farm where she resided. She hadn’t been picked to be anything special and as there are many young Thoroughbreds born in Lexington, Ky., every year, she was given to him to be a sport horse prospect.

Alec asked me to ride her some, and I’d like to say it was love at first ride, but I’d be lying. She was very athletic, there’s no doubt about that, and she displayed it regularly in both her jumping and her bucking. But from Day 1, she had a serious disdain for all things dressage.

Over the first three months however, she and I came to a truce of sorts, and I started to think she might be a good eventing partner. To this point, I had only competed up to the preliminary level, and I thought she might be the one who could take me to the next level. When I went to purchase her, she did not pass the pre-purchase exam when the veterinarian found OCD lesions in four of her joints.

I was very disappointed, and ended up moving home to Texas to try and make a go of being a professional rider. The Lord works in mysterious ways however, and several months later Alec called me to tell me he was moving home to Ireland. He offered to give Novelle to me and even drove her across the country for me.

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Novelle and I at the 2015 Nutrena/USEA American Eventing Championships, where we were fifth in the advanced. Photo by Lindsay Berreth

The end of our competitive career together was even more unconventional than the beginning. In 105 cross-country starts, Novelle and I always had a ritual. In my last-minute nerves, I would reach down and pat her and say “you take care of me and I’ll take care of you,” and somehow that always eased my nerves and allowed me to focus on the task at hand.

In our entire career together, she never once let me down. If you look at her record, you will see it dotted with 20s, a few Es and Rs as we moved up the levels, but you won’t see a single RF or MR.

The reason for this is that she always held up her end of the bargain. She never failed to keep me safe. Novelle, to this day, is the best jumping horse I’ve ever ridden, not because she has a perfect record, but because she is perfectly safe. The imperfections you see on her record are times she didn’t understand the question, or I presented it wrong, or it was above her level of training at that time.

Our last time out of the box together was at the 2017 Land Rover Wellington Eventing Showcase (Fla.). I went through our pre-round ritual at the box and as per the usual, she set out great guns giving me 150 percent at every fence.

But after the first seven fences, something went wrong. She ran by a simple table, which was not at all like her, and I was immediately concerned. We went on a few fences more before calling it a day, and I knew right away that as hard as this moment was, it was time for me to hold up my end of the bargain and keep her safe.

She told me it was time, and it is my duty as her partner to listen. In that moment, I told her she would never jump a blue number again and would spend the rest of her life doing whatever she wants to.

Selfishly, it was the most heartbreaking moment of my life, but as this incredible horse’s caregiver it is my duty.

Novelle has touched so many people, and I think if you asked any of them they would say her speed, carefulness, and sheer love for jumping highly outweighed the difficulty she faced in the dressage. Captain Mark Phillips was the first to try and tame the beast’s dressage and after 30 minutes of riding her he decided he had bitten off more than he could chew, but to this day he has supported me through making her the best in the dressage that she could be.

Tim Price catch-rode Novelle at Wellington in 2016 and I begged him just to be patient through the dressage so that her jumping skills would shine through on Day 2. Not only was he patient, but he also rode her so tactfully and taught me a lot about how I could help her be her best on the first day.

Tamie Smith helped me get qualified for the Rolex Ketucky CCI**** and helped me understand that it is OK to demand more of myself in the jumping phases even though those are Novelle’s strengths. Mike Huber saw Novelle from the beginning and never once insulted Novelle’s dressage as he saw what a valuable partner she would be in my long-term career.

To try and pick one moment that stands out in our 11-year friendship as my favorite is difficult but two that stand out are: 1. crossing the finish line at my first Rolex. Sure I had two run-outs and was about 2 minutes over the time, but my free horse had carted a terrified new four-star rider around in the mud and pouring rain and had as always kept me safe.

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Novelle and I jumped around the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** in 2015 and 2016. Photo by Lindsay Berreth

2. watching Novelle cross the finish line last weekend at Rocking Horse 2 (Fla.) with her new jockey Kalli—who is one of my working students—at Kalli’s first preliminary. You see, as far as Novelle was concerned, she had just completed Rolex for a third time and the smiles on both of their faces makes the disappointment of our upper-level career ending fade away.

Novelle and Kalli at the finish line. Photo by Cindy Lawler
Novelle and Kalli at the finish line. Photo by J.J. Silliman

My goal now is for Novelle to have a long life competing at the lower levels for as long as she’s happy, she will then life her life out in a big grass field at our farm in Texas. I want her to bring as much joy to all that get to ride her as she has to me. She is responsible for the rider, coach, and person I am today. I am so grateful for her team of farriers, veterinarians, coaches, grooms, and sponsors and I hope they enjoy watching her joyfully gallop around as much as I do.

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I’ll always have the memories of our amazing rides on course. Photo by Lindsay Berreth

They say that all good things must come to an end, but for me I never in my lifetime imagined I would be blessed enough to win national titles, be named to developing riders, place in grand prix jumper competitions, complete Rolex twice, and own my own farm.

Novelle is singlehandedly responsible for all of these accomplishments and I pray that her legacy lives on in Tempus Eventing and each rider that ever saw my free horse gallop around cross-country and felt inspired. Because my most unlikely horse of a lifetime certainly has inspired many.

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