From Rescue To Ribbons: This Joe Is Anything But Average

Jun 10, 2022 - 7:55 AM

In spring 2016, lifelong equestrian Tara Meyers was scrolling casually through social media when she paused on a video shared by a local equine rescue. In the video, a herd of rough-looking geldings, mares and stallions crowded together in a stockyard pen southwest of Wichita, Kansas. The video’s caption indicated that most of the animals were unhandled, and they were scheduled for a one-way trip to the Mexican border.

Meyers’ attention was drawn to one horse in particular. The stocky bay’s ribs were obvious and his hips protruded. But he looked well-built, had two flashy white socks and appeared sound. Impulsively, Meyers jumped in her car and made the two-hour trip south from her home outside Kansas City, Kansas, to see the horse in person.

When Meyers arrived, she learned that the horse in the video was a completely unhandled 2-year-old colt with a large, raw scar running down the front of his nose. But despite the stressful environment and being an intact stud, he had a kind eye and didn’t behave aggressively in the group. Noting these things, Meyers found herself handing over $850 and walking back to the pen with a bill of sale for a colt that neither she nor the employees knew anything about. Handlers had to make a chute and herd the colt onto a trailer; no one could get close enough to put on a halter. And with the injury to his nose, Meyers imagined that a halter wouldn’t be very comfortable anyway. She named him Joey, after the titular character in the movie War Horse.”

Meyers knew that she had just taken on a huge project. She didn’t yet know that Joe’s facial wound was covering up a much more serious injury.

Joe as a 2-year-old, shortly after he was purchased from a Kansas kill pen by Tara Meyers. Photo Courtesy Of Stina Thakor

En route to the quarantine facility, Joe started to act “not quite right,” so he was taken to Meyers’ veterinarian instead. There, it became apparent that Joe had suffered a serious trauma—likely a hard kick to the face. Upon closer examination, the veterinarian discovered that all of Joe’s front teeth were smashed; some were broken off completely and shards of others remained embedded in his infected gumline.

Due to his lack of handling and the severity of the injury, surgery was the only reasonable option to safely extract Joe’s damaged teeth. By the time the procedure was over, the veterinarian had removed nearly all of Joe’s upper incisors, leaving him with a gummy smile, and gelded him. Meyers took Joe home to mature and to recover mentally and physically from his ordeal.

For the next two and a half years, she gradually introduced the youngster to the fundamentals of being a civilized horse. He learned to tie, how to walk politely on a lead rope, and eventually, how to be ridden.

By December 2019, Meyers realized that as much as she loved Joe, he was not a perfect fit for her. He was happiest working five or six days a week, but her full schedule did not allow her to do that. In addition, he was a nice mover with the potential to perform advanced work—but to do so, he would need to be in a more structured training program than what she was able to offer. With a heavy heart, she reached out to her friend Alice White at Vermillion Valley Equestrian Center in Belvue, Kansas, to find Joe a better long-term match.

* * *

At the end of 2019, Kristina “Stina” Thakor knew the time was coming to retire her long-time partner, Columbo. For over 16 years, the two had competed in everything from hunters to equitation to the 1.30-meter jumpers. Columbo had seen Thakor through college, her first jobs, her marriage and the births of her two children, and she planned to take care of him until the end. She found Columbo a retirement barn where she could visit him regularly, just 15 minutes away from where she trains with Mia Forbes at Dandelion Farm in Orono, Minnesota, outside of Minneapolis. But the decision to keep Columbo left her with a limited budget to find a new equine partner.

Stina Thakor, who purchased Joe from Meyers, said of her first ride on the horse: “We walked around a bit and then I trotted about five steps. I’m one of those people, when I know I know. And I knew this was going to be my next horse.” Photo Courtesy Of Stina Thakor

After getting Columbo settled into his new facility, Thakor was just thinking about starting her horse search when COVID-19 hit.

“All the barns shut down. We weren’t even riding at our barn, and the thought of going to try horses—it kind of went from this really clear path where I go to the barn every day, I ride, I have a program, I know what my goals are, to we’re retiring your horse, COVID’s happening, barns are shut down,” Thakor said. “Just like everyone was at that point, my world was a bit of chaos.”

But the self-reflection prompted by COVID helped Thakor to decide that, after nearly two decades of riding an extremely well-schooled horse, for her next mount she was interested in purchasing a young horse to bring along herself.

With most barns closed or on restricted access, 2020 was not an easy time to be horse shopping. Forbes spent hours online and on the phone on Thakor’s behalf, reaching out to her friends and business contacts for leads on green horses for sale in the north-central region.

“We had found a couple of videos of different horses, Joe being one of them,” Thakor remembered. “At the time, I didn’t know any of the story behind him, just that he was a super green horse in Kansas. He looked really cute on the video, but he didn’t have changes and was only jumping little crossrails in that ‘whoa, that’s a jump’ kind of way.”

But just as had happened with Meyers, something about the solidly built bay caught Thakor’s eye. After discussing the options with her trainer, they decided to inquire whether Joe could be shipped up to Minnesota for an extended trial. White agreed, figuring that if nothing else the experience would provide Joe with much-needed mileage. In May 2020, Joe arrived at Forbes’ farm in Minnesota.

“I hopped on him the first day,” Thakor said. “We were going to keep it super light. We were outside, and we walked around a bit and then I trotted about five steps. I’m one of those people, when I know I know. And I knew this was going to be my next horse.”

Forbes reminded Thakor that they had several weeks to try Joe before making a final decision.

“I told her, ‘Yeah, we can do that. But this will be my next horse,’ ” Thakor said with a laugh. “Sure enough, the more we got to know him, the more we fell in love with him.”

In June 2020, Joe officially became part of the Thakor family. They spent the rest of the year concentrating on establishing a solid foundation at home, building strength and balance while gradually introducing Joe to filler and other jumping questions. Showing under the name Walking In Memphis, Joe and Thakor made their competitive debut at the Mid-States Summer Fest in Mason City, Iowa, in June 2021.

“Nothing really fazed him,” Thakor said. “He made some baby mistakes here and there, but overall, he handled it like a pro.”

In 2021, his first year showing, Joe earned enough points in 2021 to capture the year-end championship in the low adult hunter division for the Minnesota Hunter Jumper Association, and ranked third in the same division for the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Zone 6. Andrew Ryback Photo
In 2021, his first year showing, Joe earned enough points to capture the year-end championship in the low adult hunter division for the Minnesota Hunter Jumper Association, and ranked third in the same division for the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Zone 6. Andrew Ryback Photography Photo

But at the end of two weeks of showing, the pair’s bond was put to the test. A serious thunderstorm interrupted their performance in the final classes on the very last day of competition.

“I’m on a green horse, it’s his first show, and I’m watching the clouds come in,” Thakor said. “We go to jump the first fence [in warm-up], and it starts raining—really raining. And I think, ‘I don’t think this horse has ever had to go in the rain. I don’t know what he will think about this.’ ”

Moments later, the show was shut down, and the remaining competitors took shelter in a small indoor. Outside, it began to hail; wind drove heavy rain against the sides of the building while thunder rattled the doors. Everyone—horses and riders—were soaked through.

“And then someone asks, ‘Can we run the flat class in here?’ ” Thakor recalled, laughing. “My poor horse has never even been in this arena, and it’s lightning and rain is coming in the sides, and they decided to run this flat class. The judge drove her car into the arena. I just thought, this could go really well or really badly.”

Not only did Joe win that class, but once the storm passed, he also performed confidently over fences in the now-flooded outdoor ring.

“He’s such a trier and such a pleaser,” Thakor said. “If you believe it, he believes it. He picks up on that confidence. We asked a lot of him that day, but he rose to the occasion on every single test.”

Joe didn’t compete again until October, when he showed increased maturity by jumping back-to-back courses with steadiness and confidence. In just three shows, Joe earned enough points in 2021 to capture the year-end championship in the low adult hunter division for the Minnesota Hunter Jumper Association, and ranked third in the same division for the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Zone 6.

And while Thakor appreciates the early promise Joe has shown in the competitive arena, she is even more impressed by his willingness and loving personality.

“We joke all the time that he’s a dog,” Thakor said. “My mother comes out to watch, and he walks up to the edge of the chair she’s sitting in and throws his head in her lap. If anyone is standing in the ring, it’s like a gravitational force that pulls him—he can’t not go up to them. He will put his head in your arms, or on your shoulder, and just stay there.”

Joe’s missing teeth cause him little trouble today, though he perhaps drools a bit more than other horses and prefers a looser noseband. In fact, he has become quite adept at extracting every piece of hay from his stall and sometimes uses his rather prehensile lips to express his personality.

Joe’s missing teeth cause him little trouble today, though Thakor said he drools a bit more than other horses and prefers a looser noseband. Photo Courtesy Of Stina Thakor

“He knows how to unzip zippers, he tries to untie shoelaces, and he’s figured out how to unclip a lead rope across his stall door,” Thakor said, amused. “During COVID when we were all wearing masks, he figured out how to pull the mask down so he could see your face.”

The trusting relationship Thakor has developed with Joe transcends traditional horse show skills. The pair has played with bareback and bridleless work, he dresses up in costumes for Halloween, and Lily, Thakor’s 3-year-old daughter, rides him.

“It’s adorable because she is all of 30 pounds, and I don’t think he can even feel her up there,” Thakor said. “She thinks she’s steering and doing everything because I can, from the ground, ask him to stop, go or turn left or right if I just move in that direction.

Joe’s puppy-dog personality has made him an equally suitable mount for Thakor’s 3-year-old daughter, who has trotted him at home and ridden him in leadline classes. Photo Courtesy Of Stina Thakor
Joe’s puppy-dog personality has made him an equally suitable mount for Thakor’s 3-year-old daughter, who has trotted him at home and ridden him in leadline classes. Photo Courtesy Of Stina Thakor

“She had her very first trot on him—this little girl up in two-point on this 16.1-hand horse—just trotting down the long side, holding on and giggling and laughing the whole way,” Thakor continued. “He doesn’t put a step wrong with her.”

While Forbes hops on Joe once a week, Thakor remains committed to putting in the time toward the remainder of Joe’s training herself. She hopes to move him up into 3’ classes this season, but admits she can see him playing many different roles in the future.

“I look at how he is with my daughter now, and in five years I could see him carting her around short stirrup,” Thakor said. “Down the road, I could even see him being a therapy horse. He’s so good in so many situations and such a pleaser. He is young and still has his moments, but the number of things he handles so well—it’s amazing. He just has the best temperament and brain.”

Thakor didn’t learn Joe’s full story until after she purchased him, when she connected with Meyers directly.

“I’ve always looked at it as, a good horse is a good horse,” Thakor said. “To me, Joe’s story is remarkable, and it makes me appreciate him so much more. I look at the start he had and wonder, how could he have ended up in a situation like that? He is such a sweet, loving horse, a trier, a goofball—everything about him is special.

“It breaks my heart he almost didn’t make it out,” Thakor continued. “I know a lot of the horses he was with in the pen didn’t make it out. Tara said, ‘It was a fate-type thing that I was meant to find him, and then he was meant to end up with you.’ I’m a huge proponent of rescues. It’s important to show that these horses are remarkable and worth looking at. Don’t just write them off—they are special.”

After a successful first year of showing in 2021, Thakor hopes to move Joe, who shows as Walking in Memphis, up to 3’ classes this season. Photo Courtesy Of Stina Thakor
After a successful first year of showing in 2021, Thakor hopes to move Joe, who shows as Walking In Memphis, up to 3’ classes this season. Photo Courtesy Of Stina Thakor

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 mwright@coth.com.

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