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April 8, 2013

The Things That Time Steals

When a horse jumps with the enthusiasm and joy that Trance does, it's hard for Kristin Carpenter to ponder retirement. Photo by Shannon Brinkman

If you are lucky, once in your life you will have a once-in-a-lifetime horse. Just be aware that with that blessing comes a monumental responsibility—knowing when to say when on their career.

I stumbled upon my once-in-a-lifetime horse, Trance, on Valentine’s Day in 2002. I was a baby at 17 years old, and he was remarkably used at 4. I had aspired to be an eventer my whole life, but in reality I was a hunter show outcast and queen of beginner novice eliminations. Trance was a rejected race horse and failed barrel racer.

I guess we just both wanted a partner who cared and a job we were good at. So I bought him for pocket change and worked off board and lessons. Eleven years later I can’t help but be in awe that our odd pairing has survived longer than many marriages.

For better or worse, we have stood by each other. Some dreams have come true against all odds, such as getting a medal at the North American Young Riders Championships. Others, like going advanced, continually elude us due to last-minute soundness issues.

In the time I have had Trance I have moved four times around the country, lost my father, gotten married, gone to and finished undergrad, and gotten my master's degree. In short, I have grown up. Trance has been my longest relationship, and we have both gone from nobodies to real die-hard eventers.

When I see his head over the stall every day, I notice that he is older. His topline and coat don’t scream out “youth” like they used to. He is easy to handle around the barn, a feat that only took five years to achieve and still has temporary lapses. In the stall next door is Lizzie, my 4-year-old OTTB mare who embodies the vigor and athleticism of an athlete on the way up. Trance doesn’t see himself as past his peak, but I sit each day and debate if I do.

I have friends who have produced lots of upper-level horses. I not only admire their talent, but I also admire the way that retirement came to their mounts. I am told that at some point they start holding off to the bigger fences. Or they just aren’t willing to work through the aches and pains that they used to. The stops start coming, or the time is too hard to make, or the horses just lose that look in their eyes of raw passion and fury.

Despite multiple injuries, Trance is 
always ready to go to work.

But when I stare at Trance I still see that hungry look. He shoves his head in the halter each day hoping to be tacked up. He gets frustrated when I take Lizzie out to ride and he is left in the stall. He paces when I load her up on the trailer and leave him at home.

I sent in my first advanced entry more than a year ago. Trance got a bone bruise so we scratched, and that bruise took three months to heal. We then came out that summer at intermediate, and he breezed around it like it was boring. We were gearing up for our second time at the American Eventing Championships at intermediate then a move up to advanced, when in his last check-up we noticed a small bump above his knee. Upon investigation it was a stress fracture, so there went the fall.

This year, with the stress fracture healed, we did a preliminary in January, and he was fabulous. Then we did the intermediate in February in Aiken. He was great in dressage and stadium, but something felt off, so I brought him home. He came up lame and had tweaked a tendon in his foot—more time off. So he sits around every day, looking at me with pleading eyes to get back to work.

I don’t know what to do. He is 15, which can be really young. His bone scan looks amazing, and he has had really random injuries that aren’t age related. On the other hand, how many rehabs do I go through before I consider that his body just isn’t holding up?

I always thought this decision would come naturally, but then I should have never underestimated Trance. He loves eventing more than anyone or any horse I know. Really. Every time I have pulled him from a show or given him down time, that was my decision. He is very rarely lame; I just know when something feels off and have a vet with a penchant for finding the problem. He would go do an advanced tomorrow with this hoof injury and not even think of stopping. He doesn’t care if it hurts. It is what he wants to do, and I am along for the ride. But isn’t my job to protect him from the dangers of the sport, and in this case himself?

So I look at him each day and know soon he will be cleared for work. Will I try again to get him to advanced? What if he has two whole seasons left and will do a three-star, and this has just been a bout of bad luck and bad timing? What if I take him out, and he gets really injured on course? I don’t have any definitive answers.

It isn’t a debate over whether he will continue to event, because even after I give up the ride he will take some lucky young rider around. Then when that is too hard for him, he will take some kid through training. And then in his last year of life, you will probably see him at 28 packing some kid with pegs for legs around their first beginner novice. He will be the one rearing in the start box. I will still own him and will be cheering around the course.

It has been a life journey with this horse, and I don’t know what is best for him or for us. If I send him on to a young rider sooner than later, he will feel cheated. He skips around intermediate and finishes cross-country wanting to go bigger, faster and harder. He shows up every day willing to work and leaves his heart in the ring.

Trance is the older guy at the boxing studio, the one long past his prime in appearance, perhaps never the perfect build even in his youth, the one that shows up every day and trains harder and longer than everyone else. He appreciates it in a way the younger ones don’t. His body has the laundry list of injuries of any good athlete. He wants to be in the ring with the young guys, and he is willing to take the beating of the match with head high and no complaints.

This sport is tough mentally and physically. The training is brutal, the traveling for competitions exhausting, the rewards few and far between. But for Trance and I, this lifestyle was the home that we were looking for when we were nothing more than young misfits. For now I will give him a pat each day and appreciate his crooked blaze over the stall. As for tomorrow, who knows? Maybe the old man deserves one more shot at the big time.

One of the Chronicle's newest bloggers, Kristin Carpenter juggles her riding with running her own company, Linder Educational Coaching, running the shows and events at Morningside Training Farm in The Plains, Va., and riding her two horses, In A Trance and Lizzie. She grew up in Louisiana and bought "Trance," a green off-the-track Thoroughbred, as a teenager. Together, they ended up competing at the North American Young Riders Championships and the Bromont CCI**. She's now bringing another OTTB, Lizzie, up through the ranks. 

Read Kristin's first blog, Looking The Part Versus Living The Part: Thoughts For The Struggling Working Students Of The World

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