The first time I got myself back in the saddle after a year was the day I recorded my Thoroughbred Makeover trainer application video. The second was the same night on a different horse. The third? The day I rode Finnick the Fierce for the first time 2 ½ months later.
On each occasion I was coached by my dear friend Carleigh Fedorka. I have known Carleigh for 10 years now. For more than a third of my life she has been my mentor; throughout my college career, starting with my interning under her at University of Kentucky’s Maine Chance farm, assisting with equine reproductive research projects, continuing through my departure to work with Warmbloods at Hilltop Farm in Maryland and my eventual return to Lexington in 2017.
Once I had said yes to Finnick, I knew I needed to talk to her. She is my off-the-track Thoroughbred guru, having retrained countless OTTBs herself and creating an incredible business out of it in Sewickley Stables. When I told her about Finn, she was excited for me on one condition: that she could sit on him first and make sure he was safe enough for me to retrain.
More than one person had expressed concern to me about retraining stake horses. It seems to be well-known that any horse who can run at the level Finnick has usually holds a fire inside them which propels them forward. Carleigh had won the dressage division of the Thoroughbred Makeover herself on her own stakes runner called to serve, and she knew all too well the challenges a horse of that athletic caliber could present.
Application video shoot day arrived and Carleigh gave me a full lesson on her main man Mak, or Dynamaker. Mak had done everything he needed to for me, but we didn’t think we had quite what we needed. That’s when Carleigh suggested I get on her unicorn of a sales horse, another OTTB named Funnymaker, appropriately shortened to Farley. Within 15 minutes we had everything we needed. Walk, trot, canter in both directions, all while Farley held himself together with little effort from me. Even before my riding hiatus, I had never ridden a horse that was so willing and easy. I was in love and hoped against hope that Finn might have some of Farley’s characteristics.
Carleigh had my first TikTok and a three-minute video edited together for me before I laid down that night. And so, my application was complete. I hit send and immediately updated all of Finn’s connections to let them know we were officially on the journey! Finn was promptly booked in with the chiropractor and placed on all of the supplements I hoped would help ease the skin disease we were adamantly fighting.
Less than a month later, I was in a very different place in my life. I was in Connecticut. Myself, along with all of my cousins were summoned home to say goodbye to my grandfather who had entered hospice due to a long battle with cancer. Paul Barr was an incredible man. A firefighter, a husband, a great-grandfather, and everything in between. He was a rock that I never imagined leaving my life. Most special to me was our connection over horses. It was our topic of every discussion and he had a way of making me feel special by asking who I thought would win the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup races each year.
Just before his funeral, when my cousin Alexis pointed out “Tiz the Law” (a horse Finnick had once beaten by a nose) and “Authentic” (the eventual Kentucky Derby winner that year) scrawled in his handwriting in the notes of his calendar , the wind was knocked out of me.
On a Sunday morning, we received the call that my grandfather had passed away. I like to think he was waiting for us to leave his side so he could go in peace. We woke up that day to heavy snowfall, which I hadn’t seen in years, and though my entire family was wrought with grief, we, too, were able to feel some semblance of peace know-ing my grandfather’s suffering was over.
One of the most valuable lessons I have learned from Carleigh over the years is the part horses can play in healing from the aftermath of unparalleled grief. So, when two days later I received my acceptance into the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover, it forever tied my grandfather to my journey with Finnick the Fierce.
Finn’s first post-track ride with Carleigh went so well it turned into his first ride with me. He showed himself to be a good citizen with solid gaits and even a lovely automatic lead change. The rub came when Carleigh asked him to use his body in a way racehorses just aren’t normally asked to. So, a week at Sewickley Stables did him good. He started shedding out the winter coat that was so stubbornly hanging onto him, and new fur began growing in the spots that had previously been patchy.
When Carleigh hopped on Finn to show me what he’d learned over the week’s time, it was night and day from the trouble he had on his second ride. Carleigh had simply re-phrased the questions she was asking him and he began to answer them correctly, albeit inconsistently.
So where does that leave us? Carleigh sent us home with some homework, a shopping list, and a jumping off point I was incredibly happy with and we left her with an open stall ready to be filled by the next sound, sane OTTB that needs retraining.
Since being back to our home farm, I’ve done some ground work with Finnick, he’s had his teeth done, and he had his first real bath of the season. Saturday will be our first ride, just he and I. Stay tuned to hear how that goes!