Colleen Rutledge has a slightly different relationship with her four-star mount than most riders—he’s not just an important part of her life, he’s her sanity and stability.
Because Rutledge, 34, isn’t just a rider, teacher and trainer. She’s also a mother of three children, including a severely handicapped 6-year-old son who’s confined to a wheelchair and a 3-year-old daughter who’s had cancer since birth.
So Shiraz, an incredibly talented Thoroughbred gelding who finished 12th in the pair’s first four-star, has inspired Rutledge to keep going through some of life’s greatest challenges.
“He gave me something stable—I could take a tough horse and work with him and see a little improvement,” said Rutledge, Mt. Airy, Md. “When you have sick kids, there’s nothing you can do about it, just support that child. You can’t do the surgery; you can’t make them better. It’s a huge loss of control. My horses and kids both taught me to let go, to allow things to happen, and you see micro-improvements. Horses and kids are similar, and I’m lucky to have them both.”
Rutledge said the challenges she’s faced as the parent of a sick child have only inspired her to be better as a rider. “I have an absolute belief that I want to live every part of my life to the fullest, to savor every moment,” she said. “I’ve been through my worst nightmare—I was told my son wasn’t going to live in his first week, and my youngest has just finished another round of chemo. Horses are my sanity, my relief. I have a real life. Everyone who gets upset over a bad dressage test or a rail—I just say, ‘It’s OK, I’ll work harder at it next time.’ I’ve learned not to sweat the small stuff because there’s so much more going on. It’s just about enjoying the ride and living life to the fullest.”
And she certainly did that at Rolex, incurring just 6.8 cross-country time penalties to vault up the leaderboard from 37th after dressage. “I had the most fun the entire weekend. My cheeks still hurt from smiling,” she said. “I’d never been to Rolex even to watch, and I had a blast in everything. I think I would’ve had just as much fun if I came home in last place. It was just an amazing experience.”
She especially enjoyed participating in the awards ceremony with her idols. “I was sitting next to Karen [O’Connor], and these people are my heroes–William [Fox-Pitt], Mary [King], I was BLOWN away!” she said. “I kept looking down to make sure I was on my horse, not floating on a pink elephant.”
Rutledge bought “Luke” in October of 2007. Since she was nine months pregnant at the time, she didn’t even ride him before buying him, but “I knew him,” she said. “I could tell you what he was thinking.”
Their partnership has only improved over the years, with the help of coach Jimmy Wofford, who told Rutledge there was nothing on the course at Kentucky she hadn’t done before—she just had to put all the fences together in one round.
“I didn’t think about my placing, I was just going to ride the course, ride for the ride,” said Rutledge. “I made some mistakes, and my horse picked up and took care of them for me. I got off a line here and there, but I thought fast enough to fix it, and he was genuine enough. It was the most fun I’ve ever had. I came off cross-country and wanted to do it again. It was an 11:10 rollercoaster ride.”
Rutledge benefited from the support of her family, especially her mother, who was “my rock, my anchor, my groom, babysitter, held everything together” since her husband Brian was home with their son. “My daughters are the best peanut gallery ever—they whoop and cheer and holler louder than anyone else for me,” said Rutledge. “They always believe I can do it. It gives me a little extra confidence.”
As for Luke, Rutledge isn’t sure where they’ll go next, but she does believe he can do “anything, anywhere, anytime. I’m absolutely so blessed to have him in my life. He’s fantastic.”
If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing . "Rutledge Savored Every Moment At Rolex Kentucky" ran as part of a larger article in the May 9, 2011 issue. Check out the table of contents  to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.