We’re all looking for a unicorn—that wonderful, and highly-specific, horse of our dreams. For Mellisa Davis Warden, that unicorn came in unexpected packaging.
In March 2016, Warden was working for a veterinarian near her home base in Aiken, South Carolina, when they got a call about a group of horses that had been largely abandoned in a field. The horses were headed to a local horse auction, where it was likely they’d enter the slaughter pipeline, and needed their Coggins paperwork done. While helping the vet pull blood, Warden noticed an awkward little chestnut tottering up to her. He wasn’t much to look at—in fact, he was quite the ugly duckling at first glance.
“He’s the horse you’d walk past in the field and be like, ‘Yeah… that’s not going to do anything,’ ” she said. “He’s straight through the hocks; he’s not really downhill but very flat through his topline; he has a little bit of a ewe neck. He doesn’t come at you with a lot of presence. He also cribs, of course.”
Standing just 15.2, the gelding was a polo barn reject. His legs were scarred, and he had a reputation for bolting.
Still, the little chestnut stuck with her. By the end of the day, Warden had called the owner and offered $400 for the horse she had named “Fred.”
Warden grew up outside Seattle, riding in Pony Club, before competing in jumpers and eventers in college. When she met her husband Steven Warden, he told her she could either have a horse or a wedding ring. With her previous mount set to retire, she picked the horse.
“That was the biggest mistake of his life,” she joked.
After that horse—a Thoroughbred filly she trained in dressage—she bought a runaway off-track Thoroughbred named Cantilator, who her father nicknamed Can’t Wait Til Later. He was wild and came with a freight train’s worth of baggage, but he also had potential. He brought her up to intermediate on the West Coast, and when they moved east she planned to move him up to advanced. But just before their first scheduled run, she lost “Tilly” at 9 to colic.
By the time she met Fred, Warden had begun pursuing her judge’s and technical delegate’s certifications and had gotten good at sizing up a new prospect. She had been chasing after the potential she felt aboard Tilly and had been excited about a lot of horses who ended up with some limitation—either they were unlucky and got hurt, or just didn’t have the heart to take her as far as Tilly had.
She wasn’t too excited about Fred at first. At best, she figured he could do ride-and-tie races, where a pair of competitors take turns running and riding over an endurance course. After a few rides on the new gelding, Warden decided he was a cute mover; he was kind, and he had surprisingly good brakes.
Then, Fred got called in to be a pinch-hitter. She was schooling her eventer when the horse fell into an armadillo hole, pitching her and leaving her with a concussion. She couldn’t ride in a previously-scheduled schooling, so she put her 11-year-old daughter Ainsley, who’d never ridden cross-country before, aboard Fred.
“He did the ditches and the banks and the water,” said Warden. “I have this video of her giggling as she goes around saying, ‘This is so much fun; I never want to stop.’ ”
Four months after he came home with Warden, Fred (Shot Of Gold—Lucky Brick Road) ran his first beginner novice horse trial. In two more months, he was competing at training. When Warden wasn’t aboard herself, Ainsley took him into the hunter ring and qualified for the National Hunter Trial Championships with him twice.
Now, Fred (whose show name is Deadpool) has been to Aiken Horse Show, evented through preliminary and gone to the Thoroughbred Incentive Program Championships in Kentucky.
“In my mind, he’s a 6 mover at best, but because he’s so willing you can assist his trot and get a 7.5 or an 8,” she said. “He’s scored in the 20s in dressage, which I never figured [would happen]. I thought he’d be a mid-30s horse for the rest of his life.
“My husband rides him—and my husband doesn’t ride,” she continued. “The only thing I’ve found that he won’t do, besides play polo, is he doesn’t like fox hunting because of the chaos. Ironically, he wasn’t ever going to be a ride-and-tie horse because he doesn’t like large groups of horses.”
Now, Fred is proving to be a comfort to Warden once again. While vacationing in Germany earlier this year, Warden broke her leg in five places in a serious bike accident. As she begins to work her way back, it’s Fred she turns to—the reliable, careful, willing partner.
So often, Warden says she sees people looking for unicorns in the wrong places. It’s a common refrain in the world of horse sales that if your choices are sound, sane or flashy, you can have two but not all three unless you’re willing to pay top dollar. She wonders how many good horses get overlooked because people want all three. In fact, Fred has been for sale on and off for much of the time Warden has owned him, but few were interested.
“I took him off the market officially this spring,” she said. “Initially, I thought he’d be a resale horse because he didn’t want to do what I wanted to do. Then, as he continued campaigning with decent placings and relatively good scores, the price went up. Still, nobody wanted him.
“People, they want this unicorn that will run around training, that’s under the age of 12, that doesn’t need any maintenance; it’ll take care of anyone, and they want it for like $15,000,” she said. “It’s got to be perfect. He’s not perfect. But he will do everything you ask; he’s a nice horse. he’s not going to be representing the U.S. anytime soon, but horses like him get passed over because they’re not special-looking. And that’s too bad.”