Two days before the $25,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby at HITS Chicago, Keely McIntosh looked at the prize list and thought, “Why not?”
She hadn’t shown her longtime partner Hilton II in an international derby since 2020, before both of their respective injuries. Her new lease on horse showing centered around a somewhat-Marie Kondo mentality of “Does this spark joy?” And her 16-year-old Belgian Warmblood gelding always did.
“He’s so good in amateur hunterland, and I am so competitive, that I thought if we’re going to win the amateur hunters, I’m going to leave him in the amateur hunters, and I’m not really going to push him because of his previous injury,” she said. “When we decided last minute to come to Chicago, and I saw that there was an international derby, he was not entered until two days before. And I thought, ‘I don’t have another hunter. I don’t have another derby horse. Why not just go in there and have fun and use it as a warm-up class for the amateurs?’ ”
Though Hilton’s pre-showing morning ritual got derailed due to a scheduling miscommunication, with half a mane of jumper braids meeting half a mane of hunter ones and no Beamer blanket quiet time, he and McIntosh rose to second in the classic round on June 24. And with his mane fixed, they entered the ring for the handy.
“Every jump just came out, and I was like, ‘It’s still perfect. It’s still happening,’ ” she said. “After the last jump, I could care less what my scores were. I was so happy that he walked in and laid down an amazing handy. I was going to go home knowing that from the chaos of the morning to finishing on such a high note, there’s nothing that can bring me down. I was already on cloud nine.”
The pair ended up topping the class above Haylie Rolfe and Daydream. But the seven-year journey that took them from their beginning together as a grand prix jumper and a Texas A&M senior, through three rehabilitation stints, to that moment meant the win carried more weight than normal.
“It honestly means the world to me for him,” said the 29-year-old from Georgetown, Kentucky. “Because I think he deserves the world. If every magazine that had a horse on the front of it, if it could be his face, I think he deserves that.
“For that to just be another class that he won I was like, ‘Wow, you just continue to take my breath away with how amazing of a horse you are,’ ” she added. “The fact that I could sit up there and give him the best opportunity that I could and ride well, I think it was again something else to take home after last year [with my traumatic accident]… like, ‘Yes, I can do this. I deserve to be here, and I’m really happy to be here on top of all of that.’ ”
Grand Prix Jumper To Hunter
A red bow wrapped around Hilton’s neck as he unloaded at the Pin Oak Charity Horse Show (Texas) in spring 2016. McIntosh’s mother Jenny Booth and Juan Ortiz had purchased the gelding (Clinton I—Onieke, Peter Pan) in a partnership from McLain Ward before Booth gave him to McIntosh. By that summer the pair were jumping in a U25 grand prix class and the high amateur-owner jumpers.
But while McIntosh showed another horse that fall at the 2016 Pennsylvania National Horse Show, Hilton rolled under a fence at home and injured his hock. McIntosh’s veterinarian Andrea O’Connor, DVM, kept him throughout the rehab process and administered stem cell treatments. Six months later, McIntosh tried to bring him back to the show ring, but he still wasn’t right, so she sent him home, which at the time was Texas, to live in a field for a year and a half.
“If you try to bring them back, and they’re either not ready to come back or they reinjure something, in the back of your mind [you wonder] whether or not the horse is going to come back,” she said. “I learned a lot from Hilton, [and] if that happens to me now, I will just throw a horse out in the pasture and leave them there and check back in every six months. And so, that’s kind of what we did.”
At the beginning of the 2019 show season, McIntosh got the green light to try again.
“I was so careful with him, just thinking that it wasn’t going to last,” McIntosh said. “And I personally have not had any issues with that horse being unsound since then. My secret to him is the more fit the horse is, the more sound they are. And he is incredibly fit.”
On O’Connor’s recommendation, McIntosh entered Hilton in amateur-owner hunter classes at HITS Ocala (Florida) instead of starting him back in the land of striped rails and timers.
“She told me that I could take him back into the jumpers, but I would get one year, if at all, if I tried to jump that big again,” she said. “My initial plan was to take him into the hunters to get him jumping again and then try the jumpers if we thought he might be strong enough. But our plans changed once he won his first amateur classic with me. I was like, ‘Well, I guess this is where you’re staying.’
“He was definitely, at first, a little excited.,” she continued. “But once he figured out that being slow and fat and pretty was the job—he’s one of those horses. I tell everyone who helps me or is around me that if you tell that horse that he’s really, really pretty every time you see him—you’re at the horse show, and he’s most handsome horse at the horse show—I swear that it does something to him.”
After campaigning him in the amateur-owner hunters for two years, McIntosh decided to lease him out for the 2021 season. But in the summer, he sustained another injury. He spent six months rehabbing with O’Connor again before he joined McIntosh in Florida for the 2022 winter circuit.
“It took me about three months before I was comfortable with his fitness and his soundness because he still wasn’t 100% sound when he got to Florida,” she said. “But I don’t think that was because of the injury; I think [that was from] being unfit and needing some shoes and stuff. And then it took me three more months to get him to where I wanted him before we walked into the ring.”
The pair returned by the summer of 2022, but that reemergence would only last two shows.
Out Of The Saddle
On June 10, 2022, McIntosh rode her La Perla VD Barbierbeek to a 1.50-meter vertical in the Split Rock Hunter Jumper Classic (Kentucky) three-star welcome classic. The mare took off as usual, but somewhere in her flight, she got caught in the overreach boot. She never put her feet down on the other side.
“I was lawn darted and flipped over, and [the force] shoved me back up, and I kind of slid on my butt,” McIntosh said. “And I remember turning around, and the mare was still laying on the ground. Don’t ask me how I got up, but I got up and ran to her, and my groom [and] barn manager [Ariel Gladney], got to her pretty quickly after I did. I put my hand on her neck, and she saw me, and she stood up.”
The mare walked away safely, but as the adrenaline subsided, McIntosh realized her own injuries.
“I ended up having a TBI, a traumatic brain injury,” she said. “My collarbone was sticking out the back of my shoulder, and my AC [acromioclavicular] joint was torn; all the muscles in my neck and my back were torn; and my left shoulder was dislocated.”
For three or four months, McIntosh suffered partial paralysis and couldn’t move her right arm. She underwent two surgeries, one to rebuild her shoulder and arm, and another to remove the metal so she could regain more mobility.
“The bone was completely gone,” she said. “They said my arm was holding on just from muscle and skin, and they went to emergency surgery, and they built it back together; they pulled it back together with a bunch of metal and stuff. They said, ‘We think [the right-side paralysis] was a combination with the break and then the torn joint.’
“It’s such a strange feeling because you think you’re going to wake up the next day and your arm’s going to move. And it doesn’t,” she added. “I would tell it to go forward, and it wouldn’t. You could push me over, and my arm would not have caught me; there was no feeling. There was nothing. But I went to physical therapy in Georgetown [Kentucky]; it was hard, and it hurt. But to this day, all the doctors that saw me are amazed with the amount of mobility that I that I have in my arm today. I don’t have 100% of it, but I have 85% of it, and that’s more than what I thought I was going to have.”
The Trusted Old-Timers
Though she wasn’t completely recovered, McIntosh found a way to see between the ears, thanks to two of her most trusted horses, Hilton and Inne Van De Plataan. With Gladney holding “Inne” and McIntosh’s boyfriend Zac Minturn hoisting her up, McIntosh walked around. By December she was officially cleared and decided to try horse showing again at World Equestrian Center—Ocala December II (Florida) with her two long-time buddies.
But it wasn’t a serene start mentally.
“I have never experienced anxiety about horse showing like I did when I came back,” she said. “I had my friend Kady [Abrahamson] showing all my jumpers besides Inne. So, I had Inne and Hilton to myself—my two older ones—and she was showing the rest of my horses. And I just remember I showed Inne first, and my heart beating out of my chest, thinking ‘I’m going to flip over the first jump. What am I doing? I’m just so scared that this is happen again.’ ”
On Hilton, she started to feel more secure in herself.
“I was a little too fast the first time I went in,” she remembered. “I was like, ‘OK, take a deep breath,’ and the next round we scored an 87. In the back of my mind I thought, ‘I can do this. I haven’t shown in six months, and even if I only show Hilton and Inne for the rest of my life, I can do this.’
“Hilton and Inne were the two horses that I definitely leaned on in the meantime to get me around before I was able to ride [the others] again,” she added.
Though she is back to showing in national standard grand prix classes with her jumpers—in addition to winning with Hilton in the derby and amateur ring—McIntosh has a new perspective on horse showing. She tries to simply enjoy the opportunity and not put pressure on herself to do more than she feels comfortable with. Instead of having her whole year planned out, she decides a couple weeks in advance of a show whether she and her horses feel physically and emotionally ready to compete.
“In the back of my mind, it wasn’t a goal to get to the top of the sport,” she added. “It was more of, ‘I’m happy to be here. I’m happy to be at the horse show. I’m happy to spend time with my horses.’ Every day is a great day as long as I am in the saddle or I can give a horse a cookie. If the horses weren’t a part of my life, it wouldn’t be worth it at that point. I don’t know what else I would do. So, the goal was just to be able to be in the ring and be on a horse.”
In hindsight, she sees the silver lining of her forced break in the way it allowed her to reflect on her journey and her progress.
“There’s always someone out there who’s winning a grand prix or winning a derby, and you always look at them saying, ‘I want to do that,’ or ‘Why can’t that be me?’ rather than just being, ‘Where was I 10 years ago?’ ” she said. “That was my first international derby win. He’s won national derbies with me, but that was my first international derby win.”
The accomplishment helps her appreciate her progress amongst the setbacks.
“I know it’s a little bit sort of a broken record, you hear it all the time, ‘Don’t compare yourself to others,’ ” she said. “But, if you compare yourself to who you were 10 years ago, just look at all the improvements that you’ve made.
“It almost gives you more of an appreciation for the sport and for being with the horses that you have,” she added. “It’s not about the next biggest thing, the next biggest horse show or the next nicest horse you can buy. It’s about what you have right now in the present. If good things come in the present, be thankful for them. And if there’s good things in the future you will be ready for them, but then don’t always expect that because there’s no guarantee.”