On a sunny summer day in 2022, 10-year-old Ryleigh Schofield and her 10-year-old leased horse, Gimmie A Chance, laid down a fast, clean round in a schooling jumper class at Hunt Club Farms in Berryville, Virginia. They were about to exit the arena when the announcer called them over to speak to the judge. Initially, Schofield thought she had done something wrong, but as she rode “Chance” over to the judge’s podium, she saw his owner, Talia Czapski, standing there with Hunt Club Farms owner Tracy Zack.
As horse and rider approached, the announcer shared a little bit of Chance’s story with the spectators on the rail—how two years earlier, Czapski had pulled the skinny young “hony” from a Pennsylvania kill pen; how, once healthy, he had proven to be far spicier than originally expected; and how he had chosen Schofield to be “his” human during their first ride together.
Schofield and Chance’s journey hadn’t been easy, and they had worked through numerous challenging setbacks. But Schofield’s reward was a special partnership with the barely 15-hand gelding that tried to buck everyone off. On this early summer afternoon, Czapski was ready to make it official: She handed Schofield a certificate declaring that she was now Chance’s official owner. Schofield left the ring in tears, not quite believing it was true.
“She came out of the ring and says, ‘I don’t know why I’m crying, because I’m so happy,’ ” recalled Hannah Schofield, Ryleigh’s mother and a professional horsewoman with an admitted soft spot for rescues. “He was very shut down when we first got him, and at first, he had this ten-mile stare. I think it was his coping mechanism for whatever he’d been through earlier on in his life.
“Now, he has the biggest personality of any of the horses here,” Hannah continued. “It was his bond with Ryleigh that brought out who he is.”
“I think he was always meant to be her pony,” Czapski agreed. “Sometimes, ponies just pick their people.”
‘This Horse Has A Story Left To Tell’
As a full-time employee with the Division of Animal Services in Loudoun County, Virginia, Czapski has seen more than her share of animals in need of help. But when a friend sent her a screenshot of a small, thin 8-year-old horse in a kill pen early in 2020, something made her pause. Czapski shared the photo with another friend, commenting that he looked like a cute project; the next morning, on a whim, they headed up to Pennsylvania, horse trailer in tow.
“They pulled him out, and he was so skinny,” Czapski said. “His hooves were a mess, and he had green snot pouring out of his nose. He had these big, wide eyes, but you could tell he didn’t have the energy to protest. I said, ‘Sure, put him on my trailer.’ ”
Chance wasn’t the first horse Czapski has acquired from unfortunate circumstances.
“I know there is a lot of controversy there,” Czapski said about purchasing horses from “kill pen” businesses that hold horses before shipping to slaughter and try to resell them at a profit, ultimately funding the purchase of more slaughter-bound horses. “But looking at him, I thought, ‘This horse has a story left to tell, and it shouldn’t and doesn’t end here for him.’
“Someone told me once, ‘You’ve learned things, and now it’s your turn to teach horses things so they can go on in their lives and do other things,” Czapski continued. “We have been given the gift to be taught horsemanship, and how to teach them to be good citizens, so they can be successful in their lives. If they have decent ground manners, if they are polite, if they have some sort of basic knowledge, they have a greater chance of success and being safe. If I can give that to a horse, I should.”
Czapski has a dedicated quarantine area set up on her farm, and that is where Chance stayed for several weeks as they worked to restore his health.
“He was everything you’d expect, health-wise, and just super shut-down and unsure,” she said. “Of course, he had to get antibiotics, and it took us a while to kick the snot. He was scared of going in the barn, scared of the wash rack. The first time the farrier worked on him, he had to do it on the lawn.”
One morning a few weeks into his stay, Chance nickered to Czapski as she came out to feed.
“It was sort of heartwarming,” says Czapski. “Here was this scared, shut-down, skinny little pony, just trying to survive. Most horses, you step out of the house, they scream because they’re going to have breakfast. He’d just started finally figuring it out and lets out this little ‘huh, huh, huh’. It just melted [my] heart.”
With the help of veterinarian Dr. Sallie Hyman, VMD, DACVIM-LA, CVA, CVTP, MBA, from Total Equine Veterinary Associates, and farrier Matt Gonzales, Chance began to show improved hoof health, gained weight and had a brighter look in his eye. Czapski introduced him to basic groundwork, leading him over bridges and poles, and ponied him around her property. After sitting on him a handful of times, Czapski sent Chance to Hunt Club Farms for a 30-day “pony boot camp” to further his training.
“I wasn’t sure what he wanted to do,” she said. “I thought maybe we could find a small adult who wanted to do some fun stuff, or find him a lesson program, because he was the right size for it.”
But to convince buyers that Chance might make a suitable lesson horse, Czapski needed a child to ride him in his sales video—so she reached out to her friend Hannah to see if Ryleigh, who was 8 at the time, was available. For most of her life, Ryleigh’s main mount had been a “challenging” and somewhat infamous 12-hand pony named Victor, who had earned a reputation for bucking off riders and having a general disdain for any type of contact with his mouth. Compared to Victor, Ryleigh thought the idea of riding Chance, regardless how green he might be, seemed pretty exciting.
“She shows up in these cute little leggings, and she was all ready to go,” Czapski recalled with a laugh. “They were trotting poles, then trotting crossrails. There’s steering, and they’re doing all the things. It was so cute, and I just thought, ‘This is gold.’ ”
But when potential buyers came to try Chance, it was a different story: He tried to run away with one little girl; an adult rider couldn’t get him to steer. Czapski had to tell one coach to pull her student off him before he bucked them off.
Meanwhile, Ryleigh was rapidly outgrowing Victor, both height and skill wise, and she and her mother were looking for a new mount on a budget. Leasing seemed like the best option, and one day, Ryleigh mentioned Chance as a possibility.
Hannah wasn’t sold on the idea.
“I said—not to be mean—but don’t you want something better?” she recalled with a chuckle. “I wouldn’t have called him easy. He didn’t steer very well. I reminded her he was falling over crossrails, he doesn’t really canter, and you want to do something more than what you can do with Victor? I don’t know that he’s really a step up.”
But Ryleigh was undeterred, and with Czapski unable to sell Chance, Hannah agreed that a lease was worth a try. If nothing else, with Ryleigh in the tack, the horse would gain more “kid miles.”
“The idea was we’d take him on a free lease and see how it went,” Hannah said. “Well, it went way south before it got better.”
‘He’d Just Run And Buck’
When Chance arrived at the Schofield’s Milestone Sport Horses in Lovettsville, Virginia, in July 2020, Ryleigh was instantly smitten.
“He is the cutest chestnut thing, with a white bald face, flaxen mane, and a beautiful tail with all the colors of the horsey rainbow,” Ryleigh said. “And his ears are like little elf ears; he holds them flattened out to the side.”
But Chance hadn’t been with the Schofields very long before they started experiencing some challenges with him under saddle. In particular, Chance had a tendency to buck, especially on the landing side of a fence. Ryleigh came off him more times than she could count.
“He’d just run and buck, and off she’d fly,” Hannah said.
The Schofields were still navigating that issue when, a few months later, Chance experienced what their veterinarian called an “atypical” case of founder, with no clear trigger.
“My veterinarian thought [the founder] was potentially due to his starvation issues and refeeding,” Hannah said. “When I took him on, my two requirements were that I didn’t want to shoe him, and he needed to live out. Now he wears therapeutic shoes, which is kind of a funny joke. Fortunately, he is back on grass now.”
As Chance recovered from his founder, Hannah had a full work up done to look for potential physical causes for his bucking. They learned that Chance had a mild case of kissing spine, and with an expertly fitted saddle and other supportive care, Chance’s bucking issues resolved—mostly.
“Now, it’s more of a pony bunny-hop, and he does it if you are kicking him too much,” Ryleigh said. “But I don’t usually come off any more.”
“Luckily, he wasn’t out for an extended period of time, but it was a slow rebuild of getting his feet straight,” Hannah added. “It was like peeling the layers of an onion, figuring out why he was like this, and then teaching him he could land from a jump and not have a celebration.”
It was a nearly a year before Chance began to turn around under saddle. During that time, Ryleigh did the majority of Chance’s training herself, with occasional support from her mother and U.S. Pony Club instructors. The Schofields credit Victor for teaching Ryleigh how to persevere through a challenge like Chance.
“All she knew was if you get thrown off, you dust yourself off and get back on,” Hannah said. “She knew how to tough it out.”
Ryleigh also persevered because she felt she and Chance had a special connection.
“He’d do pretty much anything for me, whether on the ground or on his back,” she said. “I’m a really emotional person when it comes to the people and animals I love. He was just the sweetest guy, and you could tell he loved me. Knowing where he came from, I would feel so terrible to just give up on him. I knew he had potential—and even if he didn’t, he could be a capable trail horse, and I love trails.”
‘He Does It Because He Loves Her’
Chance soon made it clear that he prefers when Ryleigh is in the saddle.
“I had a good friend take him around elementary level at his first full horse trial,” Hannah said. “He tried to buck her off in dressage, on cross-country and in show jumping.”
But with Ryleigh aboard, Chance is virtually unstoppable. Ryleigh’s main passion is eventing, and the two have progressed from elementary to novice level, frequenting schooling competitions at venues like Loch Moy Farm (Maryland) and Red Gate Farm (Virginia). They also love foxhunting; last year, the pair made their debut with the Snickersville Hounds, a farmer’s pack based in Middleburg, Virginia, and moved up to second field by the end of the season.
“People will joke, ‘Did she really do it all herself? You’re a trainer,’ ” Hannah said. “But I don’t need to ride him—and if you think he’d go around novice with me, you are crazy. I know he wouldn’t at all. He does it because he loves her.”
This summer, Ryleigh and Chance proudly represented Loudoun Hunt Pony Club in the show jumping competition at the USPC Championships-East, held in Tryon, North Carolina, in July. At 11 years old, she was the youngest rider on her team but competed in the modified novice division, with fences to 2’11”. Over three rounds, they dropped only two rails, both of which Ryleigh takes the blame for.
“He was perfect,” said Ryleigh, who holds her C-1 horse management and D-3 eventing certifications with USPC. “The last round was the biggest thing I’ve ever jumped.”
Although dressage remains their most challenging phase, Ryleigh is hoping to qualify Chance for the 2024 USPC National Championships in eventing, and to complete the riding component of her C-1 certification.
“But I just like doing things with him,” she said. “You’ve got to trust the process.”
Ryleigh’s Instagram account now is dedicated to all things Chance, including videos of liberty work and bridleless jumping. She admits that he probably humors her due to the tack locker full of treats she shares with him. But every day, Ryleigh is reminded of the horsemanship lessons Chance has taught her.
“The ugliest cake can be the best cake you have ever eaten,” Ryleigh said. “As in, Chance didn’t look so good when we first met him. But you have to dig a littler deeper, and here he is, flying around novice.”
Do you know a horse or pony who has been rescued from a dangerous situation to become a healthy, trusted competition partner today? If you think you have a good candidate for “From Rescue To Ribbons,” let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.