There are Cinderella stories, and then there’s “Ears.” The formerly slaughter-bound Thoroughbred just won reserve champion in the 5-year-old division at the U.S. Eventing Association Young Event Horse—East Coast Championships on Oct. 18 in Elkton, Maryland.
The bay mare’s story starts in a kill pen at a facility in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, where horses are weighed and tagged before getting on a truck bound for slaughter. The 3-year-old Thoroughbred (Cherokee’s Boy—Ketubah, Broken Vow) got lucky that day and instead went home with Kelly Smith, founder of Omega Horse Rescue in Airville, Pennsylvania.
“When we picked up Ears, we knew she was off the track, but that’s about it,” said Smith. “She was underweight and very young. But we saw potential in her. That’s how we ended up rescuing her.”
Founded in 1997, Omega rehabilitates, retrains and rehomes around 100 rescues a year, which range from OTTBs like Ears to Quarter Horse crosses, gaited ponies, even donkeys and mules.
Many arrive needing medical treatment, which is how volunteer Nikki Scherrer, DVM, DACVO, got involved with Omega two years ago. Scherrer performs medical evaluations on incoming rescues, so she was among the first to welcome Ears to the facility.
“She had arytenoid chondritis, which is basically a throat infection, and I assume that’s how she ended up in the kill pen,” Scherrer said. “They probably didn’t want to spend the money to fix it. We did the surgery and stall-rested her for four months.”
Scherrer, who works as the clinical assistant professor of ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, took an instant shine to Ears. She was thrilled when Smith asked her if she would ride her in the 2017 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover. Ears, who had raced under the name Small Batch, had seven starts and earned $12,000 during her short track career. The non-profit had yet to participate in the Makeover, and the big-moving mare seemed like the perfect candidate.
At least on paper.
“She was a little bit of a tough ride at the beginning,” Scherrer admitted. “She’s very sweet, and she always tried hard, but she didn’t have many miles under saddle, and she definitely could be a bit of a mare with a bit of a stubborn streak. Plus, we were both learning along the way.”
Formerly a hunter rider, Scherrer only started eventing in 2012 when she moved to Pennsylvania for her residency with New Bolton. She enlisted the help of her trainer, Erin Sylvester, who quickly spotted the mare’s raw talent.
“For a Thoroughbred, she’s very supple through her body and naturally balanced and uphill,” Sylvester explained. “We started out teaching her to jump, but she was still so young and really awkward and gangly. Even then, we could tell she was bold and athletic and super willing—she wanted to do everything 110 percent. She showed a lot of promise for eventing.”
Scherrer and Ears incurred refusals on cross-country at the Thoroughbred Makeover (Kentucky), but it was good exposure and an educational experience for the young mare.
And Ears won a far more important prize in the months leading up to the event.
“By the time we got through it all, there was no question for me,” Scherrer said. “I couldn’t see her going anywhere else. Ears belonged with us.”
Scherrer’s husband, Reed Scherrer, took a little more convincing, which is how Ears got the show name Not Ours. But Nikki prevailed, and they finalized the adoption.
By the start of 2019, Nikki knew she’d gotten even more than she bargained for with Ears.
“I’m very much an amateur, so once it became clear that she was going to be pretty talented, I asked Erin to take over the ride,” Nikki said. “We split rides on her at home, but Erin rides her for all her competitions.”
Ears has progressed by leaps and bounds over the past year. In addition to reserve champion 5-year-old at the YEH championships, she also won the Born in America Award, the American Thoroughbred Award and The Jockey Club Thoroughbred Incentive Program Award.
According to Sylvester, the weekend couldn’t have gone better.
“It was such a delight to see her not only show up and compete against some other really great horses, but to do so well,” said Sylvester, who also won the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International CCI4*-L. “This was really the best she’s shown up at a competition. She seemed to love the atmosphere and the challenge and everything going on. It really seemed to focus her. She’s just a lovely ride.”
On the ground, Nikki lovingly described her as “the laziest horse in the barn” and said she tends to look half asleep in the crossties.
“She comes out looking like she’s going to be kind of a clunker,” Nikki said. “She almost walks backward when you first get on, she’s so slow. But as soon as you pick up the reins, she gets to work.”
Ears has completed a couple of training level events, and Sylvester hopes the mare will do her first CCI2* sometime next year, although she joked that it’s dangerous to plan that far in advance. For now, Sylvester feels confident that Ears has the talent and the brains to go far.
“This is my first experience working with a slaughter case, and it really makes you think about how many of those horses are out there,” Sylvester said. “So many just end up in the wrong situation, and most of them aren’t lucky enough to have people like Kelly and Nikki to catch them before it’s too late.”