Shayna Silcox and her little chestnut mare, Ferrari, finished firmly outside the top 10 in the senior novice amateur division at The Spring Event at Woodside, held May 23-25 in Woodside, Calif., which would not usually be a call for celebration.
But their gallop past the cross-country finish line signaled a win for off-the-track Thoroughbreds, neglected and abused animals, and young eventers determined to circumvent any obstacle.
Although Silcox, a 19-year-old from Shingle Springs, Calif., has been riding since she was 5 and eventing competitively since she was 10 years old, she took on a new challenge when she found Ferrari almost two years ago.
Ferrari, now 5, failed as a racehorse, despite tracing her lineage to racing legend Secretariat. As a 3-year-old, the mare was placed in a backyard with a group of horses and neglected and abused.
“When animal control was finally called, a few of the horses on the scene were already deceased and decomposing on the property,” Silcox explained. “She definitely has some physical scars. Someone did not treat her well. She’s really nervous around men; she’s getting better, but there’s definitely a past there.”
Ferrari, whose Jockey Club name is Tahoe Treasure (Benchmark—Secret R.N., Gulch), went into the care of Horses Healing Hearts, a rescue organization based in Danville, Calif.
Silcox, then just barely 18 years old, happened to see an email about Ferrari and decided to take a chance and go look at the mare even though she wasn’t in the market for a horse—she was then competing on a leased gelding under the guidance of Earl and Jennifer McFall at Dragonfire Farm in Wilton, Calif.
But when Silcox saw Ferrari move, she was hooked.“Her movement was so striking and beautiful and had so much fluidity to it. I could just picture her collected and in a dressage test in a few years and how gorgeous her extended trot was going to be. All this stuff went through my brain,” she said.
A single ride on the mare sealed the deal. Although the mare had about three weeks of post-racetrack training, she hadn’t been asked to accept contact or leg pressure, but by the end of Silcox’s test ride, it was clear the mare was willing and smart, with a little attitude to boot.
“She really likes to have a job and likes to be challenges, and I liked that about her. She also was kind of sassy, which I loved,” Silcox said. “I never thought I’d own a mare, and I never thought I’d own a red-headed mare on top of that, and that’s what I got.”
Although it was love at first ride, Silcox wasn’t financially prepared to buy a horse. Luckily for both Silcox and Ferrari, help was waiting in the wings.
Michelle Wenell, Silcox’s boss and a “second mom,” agreed to help pay the deposit to ensure Ferrari’s move to her new home in Shingle Springs. As a trade-off, Silcox now works off Ferrrari’s board as well as payments by giving lessons to young girls after her duties working with autistic adults at Opportunity Acres, which Wenell owns.
Opportunity Acres is a boarding facility maintained by adults with autism; Wenell looks to promote the talents of autistic adults with her facility, which also hosts an organic farm. Silcox also attends college classes in the evening with the hopes of getting a degree in psychology.
Once Ferrari arrived home, the real work began.
“She had a really hard time adjusting for a few months. She would buck me off all the time. I thought, ‘Oh God, what did I do?’” Silcox said.
But she got help from the McFalls. “Shayna’s a good rider, and she certainly could have dedicated herself to an easier project, something that would have paid off a little faster,” Jennifer McFall said. “You have to admire that she would wait and take the time, not only for the mare to be healthy but also to go through all the retraining.”
Despite Ferrari’s sharp mind and generally willing attitude, it took much patience to get through some of her fiery quirks, like learning to accept the weight of a rider, a skill Silcox said took months of slowly putting more weight on her back, bit by bit, ride by ride.
“I think with the relationship with Shayna, she’s melted into a real sweet personality and understands what’s expected of her,” Jennifer said. “She’s actually a nice, quiet mare now and a happy partner.”
Finally, once they had developed a stronger base, they experimented with jumping and discovered a clear talent. “It was pretty obvious she had the heart for it and loved to jump. I never would have asked her to do this sport unless I thought she loved it. After [Woodside], she definitely proved she loved this sport,” Silcox said.
Earl and Jennifer took Ferrari into full training for just a month during the summer of 2013 to get her started over fences, but then she returned to Silcox, who continues to take weekly lessons at Dragonfire and putting in plenty of hours at home.
“Shayna’s really done all the work herself,” Jennifer said. “She’s just done a fabulous job.”
Finally, Silcox and Ferrari were ready to tackle their first event at Woodside. Although bobbles abounded—Ferrari wasn’t a fan of the warm up, and she got a bit distracted in show jumping—their cross-country couldn’t have gone better.
“She just wasn’t paying attention [in dressage]—she was paying attention to the audience. She’s such a ham. She loves when people clap at her—she’s really proud of herself,” Silcox joked. “Cross-country she went double clear, just ate it up and absolutely loved it. That’s definitely her favorite.”
“Ferrari was a little distracted and had some rails [in show jumping], but Shayna still brought her through and rode really well,” Jennifer said. “Then she just killed the cross-country. They just had a beautiful, textbook round.”
Although they ended up 12th with 54.2 penalties—a fair cry behind the winning score of 33.5 penalties—there’s a lot that this California girl and her redheaded mare can be proud of.
“She’s tiny—barely 15 hands—but she’s got a big ego and a lot of heart, and now she has a girl who adores her,” Jennifer said. “I know Shayna will bring her along slowly and steadily. She’s not in a rush to do anything. You’re not going to see her going up those levels too quickly, but I do think you’ll see her moving up and doing it well.”
As for Shayna, she doesn’t care whether they stop at novice or one day complete a four-star event.
“Personally, I don’t really care if we go super far, but I know she has the heart to do it. As long as she’s healthy and happy and still loving what we’re doing, then we’re going to see how far we can go together,” Silcox said. “She continues to surprise me every day.”