Courtney Sendak wasn’t looking to add another horse to her barn seven years ago, especially a 5-year-old, plain bay Thoroughbred mare with a “quirky”—read “dangerous” personality.
Sendak had made a business of flipping off-the-track Thoroughbreds. She was hoping to save enough money to buy a purpose-bred event horse after her advanced Connemara Wil‘Ya Love Me retired. But an older, difficult mare would be a tough sell. She saw a photo and jog video at the track of the mare called Kiss Prints and passed.
A few days later, Sendak’s friend and fellow upper-level eventer Sabrina Morris left her a voicemail.
“It starts off, ‘Don’t be mad, but…’ It goes on to say that she left the filly in an open stall in my barn and that I would thank her a couple of years from now when I’m jumping around big courses,” recalled Sendak. “That afternoon I walked into the barn and saw this little bay mare, with not even one speck of white, and she’s cribbing and weaving at the same time!”
Throughout the years, “KP” has tried Sendak’s patience, made her question her life and financial choices, and forced her to become a more effective rider, but they’ve forged a bond along the way. Last fall, they completed their first intermediate horse trial together at the Maryland Horse Trials, but it’s taken years, and several near career-ending injuries, to get there.
After 21 starts and $43,880 in earnings, KP’s time at the track was done. Her connections were desperate to find a home for her since her owner was considering euthanasia.
“Sabrina and Jessica Lindsey, who was her exercise rider, knew she was special and deserved an opportunity,” said Sendak. “[And] I just have ‘sucker’ written all over my face and an empty stall!”
Sendak gently pleaded with Morris to take KP back, but in the end, she took a chance on the mare.
“She was so bad,” Sendak remembered. “You couldn’t get on her. She loves to rear whenever something doesn’t meet her fancy. She has the great trick of bolting backwards in crossties, so that was really fun. If you tried to put your leg on her for the first couple of years she would just drop a shoulder and buck and take off until next Sunday. She was awful; I hated her. I cursed Sabrina every day I had to ride this horse! You couldn’t even longe her because she was so psychotic on the longe line. I was at the point where I was like, ‘Well this is what I have to ride. What else am I going to do?’ I guess I was just a little more stubborn than she was.”
With a lot of patience Sendak finally got KP rideable and to the point where she could make public appearances without going crazy. Eventually, they started eventing.
“She’s a Storm Cat through and through. This has been my first venture with that,” Sendak said. “I’ve learned a lot. I’ve never had a horse rear in the middle of a free walk because she didn’t want to change direction, but this horse has done it. She’s gone from an 8 to a 1 in the middle of a dressage test, so it’s been quite a ride.”
Not only is KP (Prints Of Peace—Kissin Lainie, Kissin Kris) strong-willed under saddle, but she can also be socially awkward with other horses. It’s led to a string of injuries including a pair of puncture wounds on her hock, which infected the joint. She sliced her ankle open at one point, and then she was kicked by a foxhunter with road studs in the field and sliced her hamstring muscle in half. That took nine months of recovery.
“They just got her in the right spot, halfway down her hindquarters,” Sendak said. “She had a dent in the back of her butt. We ended up injecting it a couple of times, and she ended up going to do [the Aquatred]. It was just slowly and carefully rehabbing to let the muscle fibers grow back correctly.”
Each time Sendak brought KP back from a bizarre injury, she seemed to get injured again. But those months of rehabilitation served as an opportunity to grow their relationship.
“I had to up my riding,” Sendak said. “I thought I was patient dealing with taking this rogue pony to advanced, but I really learned with this mare what patience is and how to have quiet and supportive aids. Once I figured out that I had to be very tactful in how I was asking her to do things, slowly but surely things started to fall into place. With each injury we’d have to go all the way back to square one with walking. Eventually, we did that so many times it just really reinforced those basics. We were able to start progressing up the levels.”
Two years ago, Sendak and her veterinarian, Alicia Sorum, discovered that some of KP’s issues stemmed from hind suspensory pain, and she was diagnosed with bilateral torn hind suspensories, which likely happened on the track.
Gary and Shauna Spurlock of Spurlock Equine Associates in Lovettsville, Virginia, performed a neurectomy and fasciotomy, giving KP a 50-50 shot of returning to competition after a year spent rehabbing.
“That really was the breaking point, where now she was finally comfortable with all the ground work and the basic training we’d put on her after dealing with all those injuries at the walk and the trot,” said Sendak. “She was finally more rideable and really enjoying her job.”
Sendak admits she’s done some soul searching to decide whether she should keep pressing on with KP. While she’s still a professional rider, she’s transitioned into a “pseudo-amateur” lifestyle, working full time as a seventh-grade history teacher and teaching and riding in her spare time.
“I don’t get to go out and jump every day and compete every weekend anymore,” she said. “I don’t have 20 horses in the barn that I can ride. It’s been helpful to have a horse that is so incredibly bold and so incredibly confident in herself that she just sees the questions cross-country, and she’s like, ‘I got this.’ I’ve ridden a lot of horses cross-country, and I’ve never quite had a ride like her where you have the utmost confidence in the fact that she is very quick and very catlike and is really light on her feet. She can just spring up and over these jumps, and she doesn’t care. I haven’t found a jump that has even made her question. It seems like the harder the jump, the more technical the combination, the more width of the fence, the better she goes and the more focused she is.”
Sendak, Sykesville, Maryland, completed the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International CCI3*-L (Maryland) on another OTTB, TheManInTheGlass (Malibu Moon—Valid Tenet, Valid Appeal) last fall, but she says he’s the opposite of KP.
“She takes you to the jumps, and you get to actually breathe and smile in the middle of the course,” she said. “Usually I have to wait to cross the finish line to do that. You just can’t help it. This is a horse that loves her job so much that it’s made all the injuries and all the difficult rides worth it. But even so, I know there are days when I know it’s better to not even push the canter because she’s so wound up or she’s in a mood. She’s very much a mare. She’s always going to be a tough ride, but when that starter counts you down, you just know this is what she lives for. You can’t help but feel her enthusiasm for the sport.”
Sendak hopes to compete KP, now 12, at the Fair Hill CCI3*-L in the fall, but she realizes there may be limits to how much the mare can do after her suspensory surgery, so she’s letting KP tell her how far they’ll go.
“Mentally she’s ready to go around [the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day] yesterday, but physically I do think she’ll have some limitations,” she said. “We’re just kind of enjoying the journey and taking it day by day, and hopefully with the bigger jumps she’ll let me throw in a half-halt or two!”
Do you know a horse or rider who returned to the competition ring after what should have been a life-threatening or career-ending injury or illness? Email Kimberly at firstname.lastname@example.org with their story.