The new horse floated across the pasture, shining like a copper penny in the sun. He was sleek and athletic, just off the racetrack after a four-year career. The farm’s owner intended to sell him as a show horse or pet. But he had a warrior name — War Feather.
He was wild-eyed and easily spooked, a thousand pounds of muscle ready to explode in any direction if you flinched the wrong way. He couldn’t stay at this Bradenton lesson barn, where pony-loving girls learned to ride.
The last thing I needed was another horse. I had trained my beloved thoroughbred gelding Mikey, another retired racehorse, to compete in equestrian events. Dozens of ribbons Mikey had earned hung in my home office in St. Petersburg.
But Mikey’s career was clouded by a brutal ligament injury below his ankle. It gutted me. Mikey and I worked in a way that is almost impossible to describe. I’m a journalist, not a professional rider. Mikey made me feel like anything was possible.
There was a good chance I’d never again capture that feeling, and it sent me into a yearlong funk.
Now in the barn on a crisp winter day, here was this enormous challenge, staring at me with suspicion. War Feather needed to be blindfolded before anyone would dare mount him.
When he reared back on his hind quarters, I sensed his power, and his vulnerability.
His hooves were in dire shape — dried goops of tan-colored glue licked all the way up them. And his brain needed a reset. Training this animal would test all my years of horsemanship. But I found myself drawn to him. So without telling my husband, I bought War Feather for $2,500.
The minute I got into my truck to drive away, I worried I was in way over my head.
Bred with aspirations of glory, only a few of these animals become stars. War Feather was born in Florida horse country. At 4 years old, he made his debut on a racetrack.
It didn’t go well. In a field of horses that had never won, he finished 13th. Soon after that, War Feather ran exclusively in claiming races, meaning he could be bought outright by anyone. No one ever claimed him.
He managed one win in 2019. The next year, he earned $470. The cost-benefit analysis catches up quickly to horses like War Feather. In early December, almost exactly a year ago, he languished at the back of the pack, finishing sixth at South Florida’s Gulfstream Park. It marked the end of an unremarkable racing career. Not long after, War Feather ended up at the Bradenton farm. If there were any consolation, he had escaped the worst possible fates.
From 2018 through 2022, the years that War Feather ran, nearly 2,000 thoroughbreds died due to racing-related injuries or illnesses, according to The Jockey Club, which maintains the national breed registry. In 2019, 42 horses died at Santa Anita Park in California, sparking industrywide reform. While the rate of fatal injury has declined over the last four years, racehorse deaths made headlines again this year when 12 died in a single month at Churchill Downs. At Gulfstream Park, 77 horses died during War Feather’s years on the track, and a trainer was indicted in a major doping scandal.
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Subpar racers are sometimes abandoned, left for nonprofit animal sanctuaries to recover and rescue. The unluckiest ones, even with sparkling pedigrees, are led up ramps onto cramped trailers bound for slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada. These horses can be denied food and water for more than a day, as they are hauled to their deaths.
While it’s illegal to sell horse meat across state lines, about 20,000 horses were sent from the United States to Mexico and Canada last year to be slaughtered, according to a report by a collection of animal welfare nonprofits.
Horses like War Feather, who don’t win, who can be difficult to handle or unsafe to ride, are often the types that wind up on the wrong side of the border.
A new start for War Feather meant he needed a new name. My husband, Alex, suggested Wyatt. My equestrian friends joke that I like people names. My first pony was Roy. My first thoroughbred, Max. I had a mare named Belinda. Then Mikey. Now Wyatt.
I signed him up for the 2023 Thoroughbred Makeover, designed to find safe homes and second careers for retired racehorses. This year, professional and amateur riders prepared 536 horses to compete in sports like show jumping, polo, barrel racing or fox hunting. I had 10 months to train him. He’d still compete as War Feather, but around the barn, he was Wyatt.
His instinct to flee made him perilous to be around. He would bolt through or over people if he felt like it would get him to safety. Sometimes he’d turn and run when he saw me. Other times he’d raise his head high, showing the whites of his eyes. He wouldn’t relax until touched — softly, slowly. I felt his neck and chest muscles physically retract and release. He didn’t trust people.
In the wild, horses are hunted as prey by mountain lions, wolves, coyotes and bears. They can scan the ground and horizon at the same time. They have a field of vision so wide they can see in front and behind them. They can bolt at sounds we can’t even hear. They can pick up motion we don’t perceive. They sense our anxiety or fear or self-doubt, our confidence, our calm. It goes against all their instincts to trust us, to let us crawl on their backs, to carry us around an area of colorful jumps or into the woods, over ditches, into water, in a stadium filled with noise and people. It’s the ultimate privilege, when they give you that trust.
Training a horse requires time, silence and stillness. At our little Odessa farm, where I had moved him in January, Wyatt and I spent weeks understanding touch, without saying a word.
I tried to win him over with cookies. He spit them out. But he rooted around my pockets with his nose in search of an apple or carrot, breathing in deeply. I wanted him to associate my presence with safety and comfort. We were about eight weeks in when I stood at the pasture fence, and he lifted his head and walked slowly toward me.
Standing at his side, I taught Wyatt to respond to my cues. I added poles on the ground for him to move over, to focus on where he put his feet. Then we progressed to jumps. I put a bit in his mouth and we practiced the same exercises, so he could learn that the pressure from the bit was not meant to hurt him. We had so much basic work to do, he still wasn’t ready to ride.
There are plenty of “horse girl” tropes on the internet these days. We were the strange ones in class who could recite breeds in alphabetical order. (Andalusian, Appaloosa, Arabian …) I picked horse shows over homecomings. Over boyfriends. Over school. I doodled horses in all my textbooks. I lugged my saddle to my brother’s ice hockey team practices, where I would clean it in the parking lot. To be a horsewoman, you’ve got to have passion and grit.
I was fortunate to have parents who bought me a pony, and then a horse, and paid for that horse to come with me to college. When we sold him before I graduated, it hit as hard as a death in the family. For years I searched to fill that galloping void. I worked for professional trainers and at barns on the weekends and evenings for any chance to ride. It took years as a 20-something newspaper reporter before I could afford a horse of my own again.
I bought Mikey, a goofy racetrack flunky, from a friend in 2017. Horse girls talk a lot about “heart horses.” These are the special ones that come into our lives and leave an unforgettable mark. That’s Mikey. I bought him just after getting married, thinking I would train him to be a sport horse and sell him. Six years later he’s still around, fat and happy, but unable to be ridden as his injury slowly heals.
In the early days of training for the Thoroughbred Makeover, Wyatt was stressed and confused. But boy, was he athletic. He struck the earth with strong, definitive hind legs. We took our time getting to know each other. Wyatt settled into a routine, flourishing in a pasture with other horses. At the track, racehorses live in 12-by-12-foot stalls most of the time. I wanted Wyatt to experience being a horse.
Eventually, his playful personality showed. He buried his head in my lap and bumped me softly with his nose, his nostrils flaring, taking in my scent. I figured he was testing my pockets for carrots. But he’d press his head into my chest and close his eyes, waiting for me to rub his ears. Not a lot of horses like their ears being touched, let alone the sensitive inside part. When he relaxed, his bottom lip drooped like a cartoon character. He’d let me play with that lip — drumming it, as it hung loose.
Yet he was afraid of simple things — fly spray, brushes. When I put a winter blanket on him, he tore off through a small paddock with the blanket trailing around his neck. I had to roll out under a fence to avoid being trampled.
Wyatt was nervous anytime I stood on the plastic mounting block. He wanted to run. Over the course of a few weeks, he learned to be still and let me stroke him on his back and sides. He began to tolerate my torso draped over his back. We repeated these exercises with a saddle on.
By the end of February, I moved him to the mounting block in the middle of the arena and stepped up. I rubbed his neck and back with my hands, like I had for weeks. He cocked a hind ankle, folding it to rest under his hip. He chewed on the bit with his eyes half-closed and took a big sigh. It felt like he was ready to be lulled to sleep. But when I got on the block, it toppled, and I crumpled to the ground. Wyatt took a sudden step back. I worried this would ruin everything. But I got up and put the block in place. I took a minute to let my racing heart slow. “OK, let’s try that again.”
I slipped my left boot into the stirrup and swung my right leg over his back. I smiled and patted his neck eagerly. “Good boy, Wyatt.” He chewed on the bit some more, anticipating what came next.
He was still, then, as I stroked his neck and willed myself to relax, to find this moment unconcerning, even mundane.
And then when I asked him, with a slight pressure from my legs, he carried me off for the first time.
An April competition at the Florida Horse Park in Ocala would be a chance to take stock of where Wyatt stood.
It was a disaster from the moment he stomped off the trailer like a fire-breathing dragon.
While practicing, he wanted to run hard and fast at obstacles or slide to a stop. I was mortified. I couldn’t control him. I felt a thousand disapproving stares from every rider, every official, every spectator.
By the end of the day, my back ached, and my arms burned from fighting him in the saddle. It didn’t get much better the next day. We scored near the bottom in one phase and knocked down poles in another. In the cross-country portion, I braced for Wyatt to hit the brakes in front of obstacles, like he had the day before.
I’ve been tossed off plenty of horses, though never this one. When the ride gets hard, instincts kick in. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to rewire my own instincts. It’s logical to want to pull up, yank on the reins when I feel like I’ve lost control. But on an anxious racehorse, the last thing you want to do is make a drastic, hard change with your body.
I tried to be cool and fluid, moving with him, even if it felt like I was riding a two-by-four from Home Depot. I sat as tall and balanced in the saddle as I could when I felt him pump the brakes. And Wyatt responded. His stride lengthened as we approached the water element, and he galloped boldly through it. We even picked up our first ribbon — a pink one for fifth place.
We kept at it. Every outing taught me something new about him. Slowly, his body began to loosen. His form and ability over jumps got better. A nervous, flighty nature gave way to a steadfast, confident one.
The best horses in these competitions “hunt” down the jumps. When they leap over one obstacle, they’re already searching for the next. Wyatt had that ability. He fixes his sights on the next jump and his stride lengthens. It’s my job to get him there safely and in control because once he sees what’s next he wants to gobble it up.
The competitive event called dressage — where the horse performs orchestrated movements — was another matter. It was hard to convince Wyatt to relax, and lift his back so he could take more elegant strides, and essentially “dance” with me. He’d grit his jaw and jerk his way around the ring. In moments of panic, he’d be off and sprinting.
Still, he was slowly improving. Judging critiques softened to the point where we were described as a “polished pair.” Shame began to give way to guarded pride.
As months passed, Wyatt earned more ribbons. But he could be unpredictable. At one of our last tune-up events at the Hillsborough County Fairgrounds, techno music band Odesza performed a sound check before their evening show at MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre next door. Thumping music rattled off the windows of the buildings around the horse show arenas. And that seemed to conjure up an earlier version of my horse — the wild, unresponsive War Feather.
My heart sank. Riders avoided us the same way they had in the spring. And I couldn’t blame them. We were a menace, and the makeover was less than 30 days away.
I wanted to load him into the trailer, go home and crawl into a hole. By now, I had considered giving up too many times to count. The next day, as I braced for more bad behavior, Wyatt emerged from the stalls a different horse. He marched around the courses like he remembered everything I’d taught him. We went home grand champions. Wyatt was beginning to look to me for answers instead of fleeing at the first sign of something new and strange.
At the Thoroughbred Makeover, we planned to compete in eventing — the triathlon of horse sports. Scores are tallied from three phases: dressage, show jumping and cross-country. Wyatt would have to prove himself supple and responsive in the dressage ring, careful and balanced in the show jumping ring and bold and fit during cross-country, which required jumping natural obstacles at a gallop, like logs and ditches.
We took weekly lessons with a dressage trainer and a show-jumping instructor. The pieces were starting to come together. Then, a week before the makeover, Wyatt limped gingerly across the pasture.
I knew from the second I saw his hooves in January that they were going to be one of my biggest challenges.
Thoroughbreds are notorious for having terrible feet. It’s something in their genetics and breeding that makes them brittle and prone to wear. And their hooves can be neglected and abused as racehorses.
All the goop and glue on his hooves was not normal. It was probably a last-ditch effort to keep those aluminum racing shoes stuck onto the bottom of his hooves. When they were removed early in the year, even slowly and carefully, his hooves chipped apart and a lot of the hoof wall came with it — chunks of hoof and glue sticking out like jagged edges. It revealed thin soles, which were prone to bruising.
Although Wyatt was not fit to ride, I kept packing for Kentucky. He stayed in the pasture to allow time to heal. I filled diapers with Epsom salts in jelly form and wrapped the diapers around his hooves like booties to reduce the inflammation. And I didn’t sleep.
Forty-eight hours before it was time to depart, Wyatt trotted off soundly in the field. He had rebounded. We were ready for the drive to Lexington.
Goosebumps dotted my arms when we pulled into the famed Kentucky Horse Park. It felt surreal to be there, in the autumn air and changing leaves, with a horse of my own.
The park buzzed with hundreds of thoroughbreds. The first day started early. I wore my hunter green show coat and put a matching green saddle pad on Wyatt. In the dark, I stenciled a gold, glittery feather on his rump. At sunrise, when it was just 38 degrees, we’d trot down centerline for our first test, the dressage event.
Wyatt was tense and anxious, but we worked things out quickly in the arena. About an hour later, it was time to show jump. He sailed over the fences effortlessly. Finally came the last leg, where we jump natural obstacles, like logs, tread through water and leap over ditches at a gallop. We were about to enter a course where some of the best riders in the world had run on their way to the Olympics or World Equestrian Games.
I walked him into the start box and looked ahead to the rolling terrain. The official started the countdown. “Have a great ride,” he said.
And off Wyatt went, hunting down every obstacle in his path.