In autumn 2018, 17-year-old Ting Oliver donated $250 of her own money to Helping Equines Regain Dignity, a North Carolina-based equine rescue organization, to support the purchase of a young pony at risk. A lifelong animal lover, Oliver had demonstrated a passion for rescuing horses, birds and dogs—any animal in need, really. But little did she or her parents, Kim and Christian Oliver, realize that this time, Ting’s efforts would lead the family in an unexpected direction.
Ting wanted to help the young pony in part because, despite being ungelded and of undetermined breeding, he also had an eye-catching black-bay coat, three white socks and a jaw-dropping trot. HERD founder Heather Freeman—whose friends credit her for being able to spot a good horse, even when the animal is in deplorable circumstances—had noticed the pony in a local kill buyer’s pen and shared his photo online. HERD raises funds to purchase and rehabilitate animals with a reasonable probability of full recovery, relying on a network of foster homes and trainers to assist with their healing and placement.
With Ting’s financial contribution making the pony’s rescue possible, Freeman asked her neighbors, the Olivers, to take him in.
“We have this ‘extra’ barn that wasn’t really being used for anything,” Kim said. “It turned out we couldn’t just rescue the black pony. He had a pen buddy, a little palomino filly with one blue eye and one brown eye. So, we rescued both of them.”
The Olivers were no strangers to the equine world or to equine rescue. They had previously lived in Ocala, Florida, where Ting began taking lessons, but they had some negative experiences in the industry.
After relocating from Ocala to Campobello, South Carolina, about five years ago, the Olivers sought to find healthier connections within the equine world. They supported philanthropic projects: a group offering riding opportunities to underprivileged girls and HERD.
“My husband was a silent partner in a company called Edge Brewing Barcelona; it was the first American craft brewery in Europe,” Kim said. “This is a huge brewery area, and we did a jumper series where monies raised helped rescue more horses. Our tagline was ‘Saving horses one beer at a time.’ It was about bringing awareness to the plight of rescue horses, and that is what HERD does.”
When the ponies arrived, the young colt was quite a handful, and getting him gelded became a top priority. After watching his behavior and interactions with other horses, Kim named the colt Stanley, after her late father.
“Just knowing my dad, his dream of heaven would be hanging out in a barn of pretty girls, and so that is how Stanley got named Stanley,” says Kim. “He was quite full of himself and confident.”
Though the brewery had since been sold, in a nod to their former business, they decided the pony’s formal name would be Take The Edge Off.
Though neither young horse was in terrible condition, both were barely handled, and Stanley in particular had become quite food-aggressive. With patience and consistency, his food aggression lessened, but his slightly cocky, “ready for anything” personality remained. The Olivers gave Stanley, who was estimated to be somewhere between 1 and 2 years old, plenty of time to grow, mature and recover from his time in the auction pipeline.
Ting eventually backed Stanley and played with him under saddle, but college was calling. Kim soon found herself with an untrained 3-year-old pony and no rider.
However, she had an idea about how to change that.
* * *
A few years before meeting Stanley, the Olivers had attended the premier for the movie “Harry and Snowman” at the Tryon Film Festival in North Carolina. The inspirational story of a hard-working trainer who took a diamond in the rough off a slaughter-bound truck and turned him into a champion made an impression on Kim. Considering what to do with Stanley, she found herself reflecting on Snowman’s story.
“I decided we’ll develop this horse, we’ll get a documentary crew, and they could follow his story all the way to Pony Finals,” Kim said. “Instead of just getting on the $100,000 pony and winning the blue ribbon, I wanted to tell the story of a different route you could pursue as a parent, that might teach your kids some other things—that with patience, hard work and some ups and downs, you can make your own pony.
“It’s just a different way,” Kim added. “It gives people an option and opens up the sport to those who maybe don’t have the means to go get a made pony.”
Kim emailed the film’s director, Ron Davis, to see if he had any interest. To her surprise, he replied.
“He was very polite,” Kim recalled with a laugh. “He asked whether we had any funding, and of course the answer was no, it was just an idea at that point. That’s as far as it went.”
But Kim couldn’t get the idea of using Stanley’s story to educate others out of her mind. She thought about how the relationship between Harry de Leyer and Snowman went beyond ribbons and show ring accolades—that it had helped to define deLeyer’s entire career. Perhaps Stanley could help make a name for someone too, a trainer who shared Kim’s belief that equestrian sport should not be just for those with deep pockets.
* * *
Four years ago, Amelia Nowicki was a busy young professional, developing her Hidden Valley Farm in Inman, South Carolina. Originally from Atlanta and a graduate of the University of Georgia, Nowicki had trained and worked with some of the industry’s best: Sunny Stevens, Kat DeMas Mulkey, Kylee Johnson-Duberstein and Callan Solem, among others.
But perhaps most important to Kim, Nowicki remained committed to the care and well-being of her first pony, Bear, who was (and is) still teaching young riders. When Nowicki was introduced to Kim through their mutual friend Kelly Kocher, Kim knew she had found Stanley’s trainer.
“She was just starting up her business, and when I told her what I wanted to do, she loved the idea,” Kim said. “I told her this could be your story—your showcase for what you can do as a trainer, to take this raw talent all the way to the Pony Finals.”
Nowicki went to Kim’s farm to meet Stanley. Although he was still green, she knew he was special when she hopped on him for the first time.
“He didn’t really know what he was doing, but he was into it, which totally aligns with his personality,” Nowicki said. “Everything in life is super exciting for him; he is larger than life. I knew I would absolutely love to take on the challenge of training him.”
Stanley moved to Hidden Valley, and Nowicki worked to teach him his new job.
“It took us quite a long time to teach him ‘whoa,’ and that you can trot and canter slowly,” Nowicki said with a laugh. “He’s definitely more fresh than your average kid’s pony, but it comes from him being so excited about everything. Anything we do with him, he is like, ‘That was the best ever; let’s do it 100 times more!’ ”
Stanley’s enthusiasm was infectious, and the more he learned, the more he enjoyed showing off his new skills.
“He has the neatest personality,” Kim said. “He is just like, ‘Look what I can do.’ ”
While Nowicki and her younger sister, Molly, are petite enough to show Stanley (who stands 14.1 ¼ hands) in open classes, he would need a junior to pilot him in the pony divisions. Amelia thought she had just the person in her horse-less student, Grace Cashman.
“They have a special bond,” Amelia said. “When he first came, she groomed him and led him around. It took about eight months until she was able to sit on him and started doing walk and trot under saddle.”
Cashman also volunteered at a miniature horse rescue run by Kim’s farm manager, Lisa Culberson. Kim noticed that the young equestrian was willing to do nearly any chore simply to be around horses.
“I was like, here is another opportunity,” Kim said. “I could help this young girl have a horse to ride, and we could see how far she can go and how far Stanley goes. So, I pay for the board and the shows, and that leaves just the training for Grace. We have this team approach to get Stanley to Pony Finals and showcase what can be done.”
In 2020, Cashman began competing Stanley in the short stirrup division, and she’s worked up to the 2’6” children’s pony classes. This month, they will compete in the Kym K Smith/USHJA Young Hunter Pony Championships, being held Aug. 26-28 at the Virginia Horse Center in Lexington. While Amelia or Molly have shown Stanley in a few classes for experience, the majority of his show ring miles have been with Cashman, now 15.
“They are the perfect little pair, with identical personalities, which sometimes from a trainer perspective is not the most coachable,” Amelia noted with a laugh. “They are both really excited to do everything. She’s super confident; he’s super confident, and when they put it all together, it really works.
“We have been taking our time,” Amelia added. “We don’t want to make anything less exciting for him. He loves his job, and we are letting him decide when he is ready for the next thing.”
Kim couldn’t be happier watching Stanley and Cashman grow together under Amelia’s guidance.
“I’ve made T-shirts,” Kim said, laughing. “We’re just having so much fun.”
The Olivers are committed to financially supporting the team through the end of the 2023 season, at which time they will be signing Stanley’s ownership over to Amelia. But when they do, it will be with a special request.
“This is with the caveat that she keeps him in her program, and he takes the next young girl wherever she wants to go,” Kim said. “It is going to be his forever home.”
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.