The plight of this former international jumper highlights the needs of all retired show horses.
Early in January, a discussion thread in the hunter/jumper forum of The Chronicle of the Horse caught the attention of the online community. The first post had a link to an ad of a skinny horse: “Dundee is a handsome chestnut 18 yr old Australian thoroughbred gelding. Retired Olympic Jumper.” Price was $500.
Although many readers doubted that the horse was a former Olympic jumper, the ad elicited sympathy for him. Regardless of his past, how did he get to this condition?
A veterinarian in Orange County, N.Y., read the thread and thought this horse might suit her friend, Colleen Segarra, who had just endured a nine-month battle against colon cancer.
On Jan. 14, Segarra and her veterinarian drove to a farm in northwest Pennsylvania where Segarra handed over a money order for the “Olympic horse.”
Thus unfolded the rescue of November Rain, actually 22, a World Equestrian Games competitor. His story has ended happily, as Segarra, 38, plans to keep him for the rest of his life. But his ordeal has also brought attention to how show hunters and jumpers live out their retirement years.
Many owners and trainers find comfortable retirement homes for horses that have given so much joy. Yet some horses, like November Rain, slip through the cracks.
Piecing Together The Clues
Belinda Lloyd, an Australian who now lives in Virginia, recognized November Rain at his last show at Keswick (Va.) in May 2008 and wrote on the thread: “He was a wonderfully brave and careful horse right from the start, and we other riders always dreaded seeing him on the draw (posted order), and we knew we’d have to bring our best to the ring.”
Lloyd had recognized him by his distinctive Australian shoulder freeze brand. “He is a magical horse,” she wrote.
Segarra loves hearing about her horse’s past, and each story will go in his scrapbook. She believes he was born in Argentina in 1987 as Doctor Newton, sired by Country Doctor (Dr. Fager) out of a mare named Tisha (which was later changed to Tasha on his registration). She has been told he was exported to Australia after winning some races in Argentina. She has tried without success to contact Deon Williams, who showed him internationally. His name could have come from the 1991 Guns N’ Roses song or because November is often rainy in Australia.
In 1998, November Rain went to Rome for the World Equestrian Games. Unfortunately, he was sick and finished 62nd. He was sold and seems to have stayed in Europe for the next five years, until Cara Cheska, who loves Australian Thoroughbred jumpers, asked a Belgium dealer to find her one.
“He had traveled the world over a few times,” said Cheska, who showed him in amateur-owners. Her husband Donald rode him when she was pregnant and finished third in a World Cup qualifier in Kentucky with only a time fault. A woman from Virginia then bought him, but Cheska always stayed in touch.
But 2008 seems to have been a year of missed opportunities and missed connections for November Rain. The Virginia woman sold him, and his new owner had traded him to her trainer. When the trainer contacted Cheska, she placed him, through a trainer friend, at Meadowbrook Stables, a nonprofit lesson and boarding stable in Chevy Chase, Md., which accepts about 10 donated horses a year.
Their horses are treated like kings and queens, and dozens of kids have the thrill of riding a former star. Among those is Toy Story, the legendary pony who was rescued from slaughter and went on to be grand champion at Devon (Pa.). This would have been a wonderful home for November Rain, but he didn’t suit his prospective rider.
Cheska’s friend was leaving Meadowbrook, so she placed him with a trainer in Maryland. Kacey McCann, who had been second in the 2005 ASPCA Maclay, was riding there. Cheska thought November Rain might suit her, and he went to live at the McCann’s farm near Harrisburg, Pa., where her mother, Beth McCann, has run a lesson and therapy program for 24 years. They tried a few shows, including the last at Keswick, but then everyone decided it was time for him to retire.
Cheska said she assumed he was being cared for. She would have taken him back and retired him, but the McCanns didn’t realize that. When Cheska’s friends alerted her to the Chronicle thread, she was horrified.
Beth had tried November Rain in her lesson program, but he didn’t fit, she said. Though she maintains several retirees, she couldn’t afford another and placed him at a farm in northwest Pennsylvania, with the assurance, she said, that he would be retired comfortably. She emphasized she never gives up ownership of retired horses she places and makes it clear she will take them back if necessary.
Instead, without Beth’s knowledge, he was traded to a woman who had started a rescue. Beth said she has realized that in the future she must put all retirement agreements in writing.
“I’m very grateful to November Rain because, if his story can be used to bring this out and get people really thinking, then that’s great,” she said. “The care and financial responsibility for all horses is in all our hands. It is not just the old good show horses; it is the ones that go lame, the ones that don’t make it. We can rise to the occasion, learn from the past and move toward a solution of giving back to the horses what they have given to us.”
Honoring A Lifetime Of Memories
Trainers often have networks where they can find retirement farms for clients’ horses. The Cheskas, for example, retire horses to a client’s farm in Kentucky.
Nick Novak, a trainer in Minnesota, knows of tucked away farms where the kids are grown but parents still love taking care of horses. His own grand prix jumper, Malone, Minnesota Hunter Jumper Association high modified jumper champion in 1999—and still winning—will retire to Novak’s brother’s farm.
In Arizona, Code Of Honor is living a luxurious retirement at a farm where he gets treats and plenty of pasture to roam, said Pat Carleton, whose daughter, Jennie, had shown him. He was the youngest horse, age 7 in 1998, to be American Horse Shows Association Horse of the Year in regular working and small junior hunters, 16-17, in the same year.
Code Of Honor retired at age 10. “He gave us a lifetime of memories,” Carleton said. “It is our obligation and honor to keep him as he is accustomed to.”
National and zone champions often move down the ladder as they age. Island Time, AHSA national champion amateur-owner hunter, 36 and over, in 1998, is teaching a 55-year-old woman in Florida.
“I try to find situations where horses can educate someone else,” said Gerald Camera, who rode him to the national title.
One of the most heartwarming stories of stepping down belongs to Winter Garden, now 22, who has 52 pages of show records. After a stellar career, the chestnut Thoroughbred was bought at age 13 by Woody Rainey and Jennifer Adler of New York City for their daughter, Nell. She showed him from 2000-02, with many championships, including Devon (Pa.) and Garden State (N.J.). However, his major show career ended after colic surgery in 2002.
When Nell went to college, Irene Reed, the trainer who had found him for her, placed him in a home in South Carolina, where she was based. But the horse, who could be temperamental, threw his new rider. Good fortune intervened when Reed heard Suzanne Stern’s older daughter was looking for a made show horse. After a couple years of showing over lower jumps, he retired at Stern’s farm in Georgia. Nell’s parents have paid his vet bills. They’ve also come to visit him.
“We are committed to his comfortable retirement because he was so good to Nell,” Rainey said. “And because we don’t know what else to do with such a wonderful animal.”
Slipping Through The Cracks
Unfortunately, even the best-intentioned owners have had horses slip through the cracks. When Lynne Cottrell of Colorado sold Winter Colors, 2000 AHSA Zone 8 adult amateur hunter, 36 and over, champion, she wrote on his papers a request for first refusal. For a while, his new owner, in the East, kept in touch. But when he was donated, Cottrell was not told. She thinks about him often but said she’s afraid to ask where he went.
Late in the 491 posts of November Rain’s online thread, someone spotted a similar thread on a Canadian discussion board. There was an “Olympic” horse in the barn that had been rescued from slaughter.
Within two days, posters had identified the horse through his Australian shoulder brand as Rolling Thunder, who had won the Acorn Hill Speed Challenge at the Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.) in February 2006 with Leslie Howard.
On the Chronicle thread a week later, Maggie Ferguson, his owner, asked: “Please can someone please get me in touch with whoever has the bay TB gelding with the brand on his shoulder??? I brought that horse over from Europe and retired him to Vermont and he is no longer at the farm there… I am so appreciative to the people who saved him at the auction and would just like to speak to them about him.”
In every horse’s life there’s often a person who cares about its older years. But connecting the person with the horse after its many life journeys can be difficult. Christina Tretter-Herriger knows. She’s an amateur from New Jersey who tries to give race horses a second career by giving them first-class training. She then sells them so she can start with another. But she has lost touch with several.
“I would take any horse back,” she said. “If I couldn’t keep it, I would find it a home. If I can’t, I would put it down. But I can’t find them.”
Victoria Lowell, an amateur from Maryland and a senior vice president at “Animal Planet,” has worked hard to keep track of horses she has sold, one with an unusual outcome. She had leased Galileo in California, then sold him. The first buyer kept in touch, but when the horse was sold again, Lowell did not know the new owner—until she opened Vicky Moon’s book, Equestrian Style, and found a picture of Galileo, now owned by actor George Lopez’ daughter. She found where the horse is boarded and plans to visit.
“To me,” she said, “it’s personal accountability people need to have to these animals.”
Keeping Track Of Horses
Several online resources help people track former horses. The Chronicle opened an online forum for missing horses this spring. In addition, www.horsereunions.com, based in Washington and Tennessee, invites posts of lost horses. It also has a long list of breeders who will take their horses back if they need homes.
Many people support a universal identification system as a way to keep track of show horses in the United States. Technology could be developed to alert original owners when horses are sold. Australia now requires microchips, as does the European Union. Tretter-Herriger, frustrated by losing contact with her sold horses, has looked into microchips.
Eleanor Estes of Connecticut, who has been a steward at U.S. Equestrian Federation shows for more than three decades, said, “I would definitely support a universal ID system for the industry. We should have had one long ago.”
Another suggestion was that USEF horse registration include a place for owners to state willingness to take a horse back when it needs to be retired. That could have avoided the missed opportunity for communication over November Rain, Beth said.
For those owners looking for comfortable retirement homes, several options exist. Though not true retirement, riding programs at schools and colleges accept donated horses. Owners have them professionally appraised to calculate the amount of tax deduction. Many academic programs maintain horses beautifully. Often, students volunteer to take the horses home upon graduation or retire them when they can no longer be ridden. The programs differ on whether they give previous owners the option to take them back at the end of their careers.
The U.S. Hunter Jumper Association has a list of retirement farms and academic programs on its website. All were carefully reviewed before being listed by Shawna Dietrich, who has her own retirement farm in Kentucky.
“If you don’t have financial means to pay for a horse for the rest of its life,” she said, “there are ways, through networking, you can find: leasing, handicapped riding, psychotherapy programs. They are out there, but you have to dig deep.”
Perhaps, too deep, several owners said. “You’ve really got to look for good situations,” said Lowell.
To fill that need, Segarra has a dream: a fund to help keep show horses in the manner they are accustomed to. The fund could support model farms or horses in need.
Several owners endorsed the concept. Perhaps, said Stern, who cares for Winter Garden, a small fee could be added to those USEF already charges on show entries.
Her entire life with horses, Segarra has favored ones nobody wants. Her first equine was Tonka, a palomino pony, crippled with laminitis at a riding stable in the Bronx, N.Y. After working seven years in an administrative position in corporate affairs at Pepsi headquarters in Queens, N.Y., she and her family moved two hours from the city so she could start the rescue in 1999. Segarra is now chairman of the humane committee of the New York State Horse Council. Her volunteer network has rescued and placed several hundred horses and smaller animals.
November Rain has a new name, Yobbo Dux, which means top redneck in Australian. The term “redneck” comes from the red bandanas coal miners wore when they fought to unionize mines in 1921. Somehow it’s appropriate for a horse that has survived so much.
Never in her life has Segarra had the pretty blue-ribbon winner. Now she has much more. But what she enjoys most is brushing and caring for “Dux,” who boards at her veterinarian’s farm. Mannerly as an English gentleman, Dux stands quietly in the barn aisle as Segarra strokes soft reddish hair at the top of his rump. Pleased, she sees her efforts have already begun to erase a year of hardship, for both the horse and her.
Perhaps, their stories will inspire others to offer a place for elderly show horses to live in comfort, just because they deserve it.