We're honoring the deep bond between horse and rider in our series, A Letter to My Horse. After reading touching tributes from professionals like Lainey Ashker and Beezie Madden, we launched a contest to read about YOUR horse of a lifetime. Now we're thrilled to share the stories from our three winners.
We were both kids when we met, 16 years ago. I was 15 and you were 4. You were born in Florida and traveled to Illinois, racing 12 times as a 2- and 3-year-old. This was right before OTTBs surged in popularity, and I remember people thinking I was crazy for considering you as my first horse. Looking at your race records, the comments from one of the last races you did says it all – ran away pre-loading. I will never forget when I first saw you, in your stall with your head hung low, probably hurting a bit from ulcers. I rudely questioned whether I was too big for you – that you seemed like a large pony. All it took was one ride, you hopped over every little jump so graciously with me and I was hooked.
Our first real ride together went a little differently. I was well aware you had a wilder reputation than your sweet stable nature indicated, as I was told the chain might need to be put over your lip to bring you in from turn-out. However, on this ride, I made the very first rider error of our relationship and didn’t lunge you. Once I was on your back and in the outdoor arena, you were off. We galloped the fastest I had ever gone on a horse for about four laps, me balancing on top just along for the ride. Each time we passed my mom she yelled – “Pull back!” And I said “I am trying!” Our trainer ran over and asked if you were stung by a bee. That was my first taste of your joyous, exuberant gallop, and 16 years later it still feels just as thrilling.
In high school before I got my driver’s license, my mom would pick me up and bring me straight to you. Those earliest days were what solidified our partnership. We played in the hunter ring, but probably had no business doing so, as you took off and bucked with glee around the turns. Relatively quickly we transitioned to jumpers together and you were so brave and agile. We had quick success in the jumper ring, having a year-end award show up in the mail. Our partnership was never about chasing the success, but rather learning as much as we could from one another and competing in what we found fun. You were very curious about me and my unusual human attachment behaviors toward you. You would sniff my boots and snort when I would sit in your paddock – doing my homework and eating dinner with you.
Then we went to college together, and poor Baylee, you had to survive my first time trailering you a longer distance. I demanded to take back roads believing they were safer, and I think it added an hour to the trip. I will never forget the first morning waking up in my dorm room, feeling very lonely. Your face popped into my mind, bringing concern for how you felt waking up in the similarly new strange place. Having you with me gave me purpose in college, kept me out of trouble, and gave us our best human and horse friends to this day. You were so patient with my crazy schedule and the emotional ups and downs. A few years later, we graduated together and moved back to the Chicago suburbs.
I realized I wanted to take my future career in a slightly different direction and was interested in law school, so I started studying for the LSAT. At this same time, we had the opportunity to take your career in a slightly different direction and tried eventing. We made the right decision on both of those career choices, and probably only wish we had realized them sooner. You thrived being encouraged to gallop on grass and over solid fences. Of course, all career changes come with a certain amount of challenge. I know you remember our first year of dressage lessons and the horrors of me having no idea what I was asking you to do. In the early days learning the ropes, you were so brave on cross country, and show jumping you could have done with your eyes closed.
Baylee and mom.
During this time, you helped my family in ways we couldn’t have imagined. While my mom was picking your hooves, you jerked back and bumped her. After that, she felt a somewhat painful lump on her chest. My mom, your human grandma, ultimately found out the worst news of our lives, that she had breast cancer. She credited that bump with her taking action on it and she went through all the rough treatments and, at that time, defeated it. You were the greatest friend to me during this and I could never repay you for the silent ways in which you supported me and my mom, and the ways in which learning the new sport of eventing provided us all a welcome distraction for brief moments of time.
"I could never repay you for the silent ways in which you supported me"
Then you and I moved to Madison, Wisconsin where I went to law school. You had to trade the thrill of eventing for me coming out only during nights again, like in college, and this time often not to ride. Still, you patiently stood as I leaned on your shoulder for brief respites of peace and paid attention to me practicing oral arguments in front of you. I still remember calling you, Mr. Chief Justice, you bumping me searching for carrots, and the million selfies I took of us on my laptop while “studying.”
Baylee graduating law school.
You graduated law school with me. We worked harder at dressage. You walked me down the aisle at my wedding, and we moved across Wisconsin again for one year while I did a clerkship in Milwaukee. Unfortunately, at the same time we just arrived at the perfect barn with opportunities for lessons and competing again, you started showing blood in your urine. No one believed me, because it only showed up after exercise or turn out. It took multiple vet trips, and finally a vet who had me ride you right before he took the urine sample, to make them agree that yes, a tremendous amount of blood was coming out with your urine. I trailered you to a larger equine hospital, and they found a large bladder stone. You went through surgery to remove the bladder stone, at 18 years old, and came out like the champ you have always been.
We then moved to Springfield, Illinois, we continued to force ourselves to both stay active and fit, that being more important now at 31- and 20-years-old. Knowing you have thrived after two colic surgeries and one bladder stone surgery, I have no doubt that you are the toughest of the tough, and take after your human grandma, the one who brought us together and enabled our partnership from the very beginning. Now, we both appreciate the smallest moments, nailing a beautifully balanced transition, and competing in jumpers and beginner novice eventing. I want to do whatever it will take to keep you as healthy and fit for as long as possible, because you have been the most special horse and my best friend for 16 years. Your joy is my joy.
Photo by Xpress Photo.
At 15 and 4 we had no idea all of the directions life would take us. Every decision I have made in life has been made based on you, my high school sweetheart horse, and for that I thank you and give you all the credit. You took me from crazy horse girl to crazy horse environmental enforcement attorney, moving around with me to college, grad school, and law school. You walked me down the aisle. And you kept me going by keeping me focused on the good in my life – you - when I suffered my greatest loss, losing my mom.
You taught me more about horses than I ever could have imagined. More importantly, you taught me the importance of being patient, working hard towards goals, staying humble, and facing fear head on and shoulders back with preparation and confidence. Our lifelong partnership has led to a connection between a horse and a girl that can’t adequately be put into words, but is felt by a gallop that no longer leads to people yelling, “can’t you pull back on him,” but people seeing a confident and silent partnership, created by our time spent growing up together.
To another 16 years.
Read this next: Dear Shutterfly, You Are The Horse of a Lifetime
Feature photo by George Street Photo and Video.
Written by Tina Nannini
Tina is an environmental enforcement attorney in Illinois living with her husband, two cats, and a dog. She any Baylee currently enjoy eventing and a good gallop.