To the Horses Who Shaped Us, Loved Us, and Left Us Forever Changed
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. (Click to read from winners Tina, Isobella and Nicole). These stories touched our hearts and moved us to tears, so we couldn't resist another tribute to these animals who leave our lives forever changed.
I’ve been preparing myself to write this letter for more than three years. As I’ve quickly learned, it doesn’t make writing it any easier.
Over the course of the past few weeks, I’ve enjoyed reading letters from the likes of show jumping’s superstars—Beezie Madden, Margie Engle, Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, and Rich Fellers are just a few—to their incredible partners of championship medals, five-star victories, and World Cup triumphs.
You might not have been Cortes C, Royce, Shutterfly or Flexible—though you share that horse’s small stature—but you will undoubtedly remain my horse of a lifetime. In fact, you rewrote the book on the phrase.
I’ll never forget the day I met you, and to be honest, I have little recollection of my life before it. I was just six years old, a kindergarten student, and far from the sheltered confines of Wellington, FL, and the international show circuit. I looked through your gated stall door into a dark box and saw your expression—inquisitive yet doubtful.
You were one of a small shed-row of horses that were abandoned and left without food and water; only an unkempt stall. My mother and some other women from the large, multi-operation boarding facility pitched in to take care of you and your companions. We instantly fell in love with your kind face and dark dapples, hidden behind layers of manure. We rescued you shortly thereafter.
Dear Baylee, Your Gallop Gives Me Wings
With your small frame, my mother thought you’d be a perfect match for her and me to share, and at just four years old, she delighted in the sentiment that we could grow up together.
(Side note: I definitely would not recommend a recently gelded, neglected 4-year-old for a 6-year-old rider, but we were not educated horsemen at the time, with little guidance).
My mom would be right, as moms so often are. We would grow up together—and boy, was it a life.
You took off with me. A lot. You mistook my finger for a carrot and nearly left me with nine fingers. You were the first horse I fell off of. You were wild, unpredictable and flighty. You ate things you shouldn’t have—newspaper, Christmas bows, peppermint wrappers, and even someone’s BLT sandwich. In the second grade, I found you colicking and kept you walking until my mom could get a trailer to take you to the clinic. Your secum ruptured on the table during surgery, and I got another glimpse of your fighting spirit when you recovered stronger than ever.
You taught me everything.
As my riding progressed, along with my education in the sport, my mother got me to the right trainers. We quickly realized you were not meant for the show ring, but you were still part of our family, and we couldn’t let you go.
Boarding horses in Wellington was not financially viable for my family, so when I started training with Alan Korotkin and Susan Tuccinardi at Castlewood Farm, we moved you home, where I got my greatest education in care and barn management. You were the first one I saw every morning and last one I saw each night. I dropped grain and cleaned your stall before school, every day from the fourth grade through age 24. I did night check when I finished my homework. I sat with you every July 4th as our Boynton Beach neighbors set off enough fireworks to suit a brigade. We wrote papers, drafted stories, and took notes together as I progressed from nerdy student, to up-and-coming journalist, to FEI commentator.
You were my favorite hug, my most reliable shoulder on which to cry, and my oldest and very best friend. You were invincible, and you took care of me.
I was fortunate to ride and show some special horses over the years that helped me achieve many of my goals in the ring, but you were my one constant. Through middle school bullying, SATs, big eq finals, college applications, relationship woes, and climbing the professional ladder, you were always there. You became my rock. After a bad show day, we’d go for a trail ride. On Christmas morning, we went for what became a traditional bareback stroll. You had your way in the barn and let yourself into the tack room at your leisure for air conditioning and refrigerated carrots. You were my favorite hug, my most reliable shoulder on which to cry, and my oldest and very best friend. You were invincible, and you took care of me.
Three years ago, you gave me my greatest scare. The vets diagnosed you with terminal internal melanomas and gave you up to a year to live. I was devastated, and I vowed that day to treat each day as a gift. I did.
With my family’s farm sold, I made the hour drive to Palm City at least once a week to visit you at Karen Goodberlet’s wonderful retirement farm. After seeing you every morning, I wanted you to know that I wasn’t going anywhere. As my career advanced, along with my travel schedule, I made sure I saw you before going on a trip of any length. These days spent in that quiet wooden barn were my favorite. I spent hours just grooming and bathing you, grazing you, feeding you treats, and going for walks. I sang out of tune to you in the aisleway and took work calls while you dried under a fan. My heart swelled as Karen shared daily photos of you being pampered by her four young children. I’ve always wondered if it reminded you of me as a child.
Dear Breck, You Are My Freedom
A year went by, then two, then three in March. As always, you were tough as nails and defied your odds. But in April, we knew our days together were numbered. With horse shows on pause, I was home more often. I made the most of it.
Our final days together were simply glorious. You never ceased to make me smile and laugh. Your presence was calming. I made your snow-white coat shine and even trimmed your mane and tail. Minus the hay belly, you looked ready for the show ring. I gave you the biggest hug each day that I left and told you how much I loved you. You always made sure you told me you loved me back.
I was gifted more than 8,030 days with you over the course of 22 years. Yet, now that you’re gone, I know that no amount of days could have ever been enough.
I lost you earlier this month, something that I have a difficult time accepting. You defied every odd from the time I met you, and you fought until the very end. You let us know when it was time, and we’d never want you to be in pain.
You may not have won me a single ribbon, but I wouldn’t be the horsewoman I am today without you. You’re my horse of a lifetime, because you truly shaped my life. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for being my best friend and a constant reminder of why I pursue this sport—a love and a bond unlike any other I’ll ever experience.
Feature photo by Kathy Russell Photography.
Written by Catie Staszak
Catie Staszak can typically be found doing one of three things: talking about horses, writing about horses, or riding horses. A broadcast analyst and journalist at FEI competitions, she spends her time traveling to shows and getting behind the microphone to break down courses and get people excited about equestrian sport. Normally spotted with her dog Omaha nearby, she's grateful to be able to combine her greatest passions into a career she loves.