On the morning of April 2, Michelle Craig and her 5-year-old son Carter geared up for the Virginia Horse Festival in Doswell. They were excited to show off their new horse, WestWind’s Rorschach, in a retired race horse demonstration.
While Michelle, a professional rider and horse trainer in Upperville, Va., had plenty of experience with off-the-track Thoroughbreds, this one, 5-year-old “Rory,” was special. Despite being little more than 90 days into training, he was easy and willing. He was levelheaded, rarely spooking, with an even, rhythmic canter. And even though he was in the early stages of his re-training, Michelle trusted him enough to carry her young son around in the leadline.
Michelle, Carter and Rory were 20 minutes into their drive when a U-Haul truck accelerated to make a turn and rammed into the rig, breaking the horse trailer off the hitch.
“It was one of the scariest moments of my life, watching this truck accelerate into me, knowing I couldn’t avoid being hit by him,” Michelle recounted on her blog.
The whole front of the trailer broke apart, coming detached from the truck.
“The people behind us said that Rory went straight forward and then to the right, into the ceiling,” said Michelle. “So he broke the chest bar, the head divider, and when we opened up the door, he was jammed up into the ceiling.”
Coupled with this horrifying scene was the sight of Rory bleeding profusely from his mouth. He’d broken his upper jaw, beginning straight through his front teeth and traveling up through his jaw before ending towards the left. Michelle had no choice but to unload him on the side of the road and try to get him to a veterinarian as fast as possible. Rory remained calm in spite of his gruesome injury, allowing many different people to hold him amidst the chaos.
“He just stood there like, ‘Whatever,’ ” Michelle said.
When another trailer arrived to take him to the veterinarian, he loaded easily with no fear.
“He is very trusting,” said Michelle, as she explained that he has loaded onto every trailer since the accident willingly. “I don’t know if I would be as trusting.”
An Impulse Buy
Michelle purchased Rory on Nov. 20, 2015, after her friend and Ohio race trainer Jen Ruberto sent her pictures and a video. It was Michelle’s 41st birthday. But instead of being a day filled with cake and celebration, she spent it in the hospital with Carter as he underwent yet another MRI. He was diagnosed with a tumor on his brain stem in May of 2015. Surgery isn’t an option, as it would leave him unable to walk or eat, and he’s too young for radiation treatment. So for the past year, Carter has received regular MRIs to monitor the tumor.
Completely trusting Ruberto, Michelle seized the opportunity to buy herself a birthday present.
“It was kind of like an impulsive decision, buying him sight unseen,” said Michelle. “It was solely because I needed an outlet, I guess.”
Rory was bred in Louisiana, racing five times under the name Youmightbearedneck. Renaming him WestWind’s Rorschach after the famous inkblot test that mimics his endearing facial markings, Michelle envisioned entering him in the Retired Racehorse Project Makeover and then reselling him.
She’d wanted to participate in the Makeover, which takes place in Lexington, Ky., in October, before she purchased Rory, but a major shoulder injury last year put that plan on hold. So she thought the 2016 Makeover would be a good goal. Prior to the accident, she’d been training Rory for the dressage and field hunter classes.
But Rory’s jaw fracture changed everything. On April 11, Dr. Sarah Dukti, DVM, DACVS, performed surgery at the Piedmont Equine Practice (Va.) to stabilize his mouth with wires. Like a teenager, Rory donned braces to reshape his jaw. He was prescribed stall rest and a specific diet with the hope that the wires could be removed around the end of June, if all continued correctly. And he wouldn’t be able to wear a bridle or bit until fall.
“I was really upset, you know, because I just really like this horse,” Michelle said. “And I was so looking forward to [the Makeover]. A lot of great clients were like, ‘You can have this horse,’ or ‘We’ll buy you this horse,’ or whatever. I was like, ‘I really only want to do it on Rory.’ ”
Although they’d only had a few months together, Michelle had witnessed this once nervous horse blossom into a gentle personality, willing and eager to please. He was green, sure, but he’d learned the basics quickly and seemed game for anything. And he was the special horse she’d bought on her birthday during a difficult, emotionally draining time.
Boldly Going Bridleless
As Michelle shared her sadness and frustration with Ruberto, her friend suggested riding him bridleless.
“I called our vet, Dr. Jen Jordan, and I said, ‘What do you think about this?’ ” Michelle said. “And she’s like, ‘Well I don’t know how that is going to go, but as long as nothing is in his mouth and nothing is touching the break.’ ”
A hackamore or a bitless bridle weren’t options since a noseband would put pressure on Rory’s injuries. Michelle had never trained a horse to go bridleless, and this was, “Nothing I would have done on my own.” But for Rory, she was willing to try.
“I just started him in the ring, trying to teach him to half-halt with my seat and my body,” Michelle said. “So I figured that as long as I could stop, I was ahead of the game. And then it went from there.”
Michelle Craig riding Rory bridleless. Photo by Laura Lemon
She quickly discovered the extra physical strength that bridleless riding required. This forced her to not only focus on retraining Rory, but also to change her own body to better help the gelding understand what she was asking. Throughout the process, Rory continued to gamely face every obstacle and training challenge.
“His attitude is so good,” said Michelle. “I’m sure from his perspective, this is all crazy. But whatever I ask him to do, he’s like ‘OK, let’s try it.’ ”
She’s still planning to compete at the Makeover, although now with a different focus. Because she can’t use a bridle, dressage is out. She’s no longer doing field hunter because she worried that the discipline was too traditional for him to score well in his unorthodox tack. So Michelle is now aiming for the show jumping competition, as she teaches Rory to stay straight and balanced over fences using nothing but a wired rope around his neck and her seat and leg for guidance.
She also decided to try the freestyle competition and started teaching Rory tricks. Willing to do anything for a treat, Rory has mastered the art of “kissing” and bowing. Without prompting, Rory now sticks out his left front leg and curls his neck down, bowing, hoping his chivalry will earn him a treat. Quickly learning how to entertain, Rory also bows on a mounting block, with his front legs perched up.
Michelle getting Rory to bow. Photo by Laura Lemon
Rory now comes when Michelle calls, freely following her around at whatever speed she’s walking. Furthermore, he’s become quite the artist, learning to write his name with a paint brush, or more like “scribbling with a paint brush,” Michelle joked.
“I’m in the process of teaching him how to sit down,” Michelle said. “But that’s going a little slow.”
Since the accident, Michelle has taken Rory to several shows, both dressage and jumping. While she makes sure he’s not over-faced, Michelle is excited about the progress Rory has made in his form.
“The really cool thing is when you see him jumping, he uses his whole shoulders, neck and head,” she said. “And he is learning to balance himself without any help from me. I just sit back. I’m really curious to see what he is like in six months in that bridle again. Because he is going to learn how to find his distances, how to take care of himself without me interfering at all.”
Even though Rory could potentially be cleared for a bridle before the October competition, Michelle plans on continuing her bridleless training. After the Makeover, she’ll introduce the bit but will let Rory tell her which method he prefers.
“I’m just going to see what he wants to do and what he is happy doing,” she said.
While Michelle originally bought Rory with the intention to resell him, the sweet gelding has now earned a permanent spot in the Craig residence. He receives special attention from Carter, who picks buckets of grass for the Thoroughbred since he’s unable to graze. Ellie, 3, hand-walks him. Michelle said she can see her two children graduating to Rory after they outgrow their ponies.
Ellie leading Rory. Photo courtesy of Michelle Craig
Rory with Carter. Photo courtesy of Michelle Craig
“We obviously have a lot of horses, and we see a lot of horses,” she said. “He’s just really special. And he just kind of decided that I was his person, and I think he trusts me, and I completely trust him, obviously, to go out and do this.”
While the accident was a horrific experience, the outcome gave Michelle the opportunity to appreciate Rory as more than a project horse.
“I’m a professional, so I like to have goals, like the Makeover, and I was going to go and try and win this and that,” Michelle said. “And all of a sudden this accident took it all away. And now any day I get to ride him is a good day. I’m not so goal focused. I’m just enjoying riding him every day.”