Almost everyone who has gone horse shopping online has some horror story of sale ads gone wrong: the 17-hand Thoroughbred who turned out to be 15 hands, or the allegedly beginner-friendly pony with a bad buck. Nina Theofiles is pretty sure she has the story that tops them.
About three years ago, longtime amateur hunter/jumper rider Theofiles got a call from her cousin, who was looking for a kind, trail ride-ready horse at a modest price. Theofiles offered to help her look and put some miles on an inexpensive horse. She was surprised to find an ad with one photo, a face shot only, of an off-track Thoroughbred just outside Baltimore.
“He was in Linthicum Heights, which is right near BWI, the Beltway. I didn’t even think people rode around there, but whatever,” said Theofiles. “It said that he liked to trail ride and was really sweet. It didn’t have his tattoo number or his racing name, it just said his name was Luscious. My mom and I were like, ‘Yeah, why not?’ ”
Theofiles started to wonder what she’d gotten herself into as she approached the address from the ad, where she’d been told there was a lighted outdoor arena she could ride as autumn darkness fell. Houses were boarded up, broken-down cars sat in the street. She pulled into a driveway near a single field full of horses in poor condition. Then, she met the person who placed the ad.
“He was an odd guy. He obviously had some dependency issues,” Theofiles remembered. “There was just this open wood stove outside with all these people gathered around it. He had tomahawks on the wall. I’m thinking, ‘OK, let’s just mind our Ps and Qs … because no one knows we’re here.’ ”
Luscious turned out to be a dangerously thin gelding with a raging case of thrush, worms, and rainrot in a sheet over his body and face.
“The guy kept saying ‘I ran him today,’ and I’m thinking, ‘What speed is that? A canter?’ and he said, ‘No I ran him. I took him to Patapsco [State Park], and I ran him. I gallop him on the rocks and everything for four or five hours a day,’ ” said Theofiles. “I thought ‘I’ll sit on him, because if he’s three-legged lame, the conversation’s over.’ So I got on him, and I go to post, and they had given me a track saddle that was brittle, and the stirrup breaks from under me, and I almost fall. The horse just looks at me like, ‘Whatever.’ ”
Despite the horse’s condition, Theofiles could see (in the “lighted arena,” also known as a rocky pasture with painter’s lights illuminating a few feet at one end) he was kind—and desperate. She knew he wouldn’t be a good match for her cousin, and Theofiles didn’t have the ability to board another horse. But she also knew Luscious needed a new home.
“I told the guy, ‘I think I have someone for him. I don’t want you to sell him. I’m going to come back, but I can’t pay more than $500 for him,’ ” she said. “So we get in the car and my mom’s like, ‘So! Who do you have for this horse?’ and I said, ‘No one, but let’s keep an open mind. I’m sure I can find a field.’ There was this intense desperation in his eyes, like ‘Get me out of here. Please.’ ”
Theofiles tried her best to encourage the man to gradually begin feeding Luscious, and she went back home and started calling everyone she could think of. She called one rescue organization after another, all of which offered to help her remove the horse or provide feed but were too full to take on another animal themselves. Past negative experience with animal control discouraged her from turning to law enforcement for help. She even surveyed her neighbors on their feelings about horses.
“I have, I don’t know, a third of an acre fenced in for my dog,” she said. “I was like, ‘How would you feel if you looked out there and there was a horse out there? Could you just turn the other way for a couple of days?’ ”
In his racing days, Luscious had been Dancing Roman, a former winner of $170,000 that had dropped through the claiming levels in Kentucky and on the East Coast. Theofiles found his old racing videos and found herself crying at her desk at work. She was sure that in his condition, he wouldn’t survive the winter.
Then Theofiles got a call from her farrier, Davey Belt, who was looking for a horse for his 12-year-old daughter Hannah, who had recently outgrown her first pony. She explained the situation, and that she was willing to put up half the $500 for Luscious. Belt’s wife Holly agreed to bring Hannah out to look at the horse and decided to bring her trailer, just in case.
The group piled into cars and headed back to Linthicum Heights, back to the woodstove, the sketchy characters and loose, aggressive dogs. Theofiles gave Hannah a leg up in the saddle (the same one from weeks before with the snapped stirrup leather) and cautioned her to take it easy with Luscious.
“When my daughter tried him out, she tried him out like that, with all the scabs and everything, and he didn’t try anything bad,” said Holly Belt. “I was like, ‘I can’t leave him here now.’ ”
After a prolonged period of loading the skinny gelding into their trailer in the dark, with the aid of a bystander wielding a pitchfork, they were off. Theofiles followed the trailer on the interstate, wondering if Luscious would survive the haul.
It was a long, slow rehabilitation. The worms Luscious had were hookworms, and somewhere during the re-feeding process, the gelding colicked.
“Then, one morning I came out and he had a big bump right in the middle of his forehead,” Holly said. “I had the vet out, and the vet thinks he ran into a post in the middle of the run-in shed entrance. He fractured his skull. We had to deal with that for a while, wondering if the lump would go down. Eventually it did; it went back to normal. There was nothing we could do for it, really. The vet said it might abscess, but it never did, thank God.”
Like something straight out of the Saddle Club books, Hannah was with the gelding, who she renamed Winston, every step of the way. As a result, she and Holly say Winston treats her unlike anyone else.
“He couldn’t trust anyone,” she said. “Even though my mom fed him, he still only liked me to brush him. When my grandmother would go into brush him, he’d bite her. He’s really attached to me. When he’s in the stall he’ll get a grumpy face with everyone else. When I walk up, he’ll perk his ears.
“When I first got him I tried to teach him to give kisses with his top lip and instead of that, he takes his whole nose and shoves it against my face. That’s what he thinks a kiss is. In the beginning I thought he was being rough, but apparently that’s just how he kisses.”
Once he was strong enough, Hannah worked with a nearby trainer to give Winston a good knowledge base, but the gelding was unruly for everyone but the teenager—even more impressive since Winston was her first horse.
“I was still an advanced beginner rider,” Hannah said. “I’d just gotten off a little pony and I was riding a green ex-racehorse. Once he got his energy back he was completely different from how he was in the paddock where we got him.”
Hannah and Winston enjoy long trail rides in the woods near their home, where Holly and Hannah agree Winston seems happiest riding out solo. The pair have begun jumping and went to their first hunter pace in 2017, as well as a few local shows.
Theofiles dropped by to see the pair at a children’s race during the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup (they didn’t end up starting after, ironically, Hannah’s stirrup leather broke).
“I was just crying because he was fat, which is something I never thought I’d see. She’s grazing him in a lot, and he’s just following her like a puppy,” Theofiles said. “It’s a huge testament to all the work they put into him.”
Hannah still thinks back to the first moment she laid eyes on Winston, three years and several hundred pounds ago.
“I don’t know how to explain it. From all the other horses and ponies I looked at before him, it wasn’t the same look,” she said. “My parents kept asking me, ‘Are you sure you want him?’ I kept saying yes. I could just tell. I’m glad that I did, because he’s perfect, and I could never get rid of him.”