As I headed south to Harrisburg last October, I knew I had five hours on the road to think about the five minutes I would spend in the ring with Louie, my 4-year-old Standardbred traveling companion. Our destination: the 2014 Pennsylvania National Horse Show. Our event: the Equine Comeback Challenge—a competition designed to showcase the talents of rescue horses awaiting adoption.
For 90 days, I had worked with Louie, a gelding who had been seized in a cruelty case in 2013. He was far from the emaciated creature he had been when he arrived at Lollypop Farm, the Humane Society of Greater Rochester, New York. Willing and intelligent, he had given his all as I started him under saddle and then taught him skills to demonstrate his versatility. At the outset, I’d had doubts that I was experienced enough at age 19 to train him for the competition. I’d shown hunters and jumpers, adopted and retrained my own rescue horse and worked with Dave Minteer, a trainer from Bloomfield, New York, whose motto is “training through trust and confidence.” Time spent with him had convinced me that I wanted to dedicate my life to training horses. Still, I wondered how I would hold up in the National arena with Louie.
We were welcomed to the showgrounds by Mariah Hammerschmidt, project coordinator for A Home for Every Horse—a program that assists rescue organizations’ efforts to place unwanted horses in new homes and sponsor of the Equine Comeback Challenge. I was overwhelmed by the gifts she delivered from generous sponsors: a blanket for Louie and a trainer’s jacket for me. Everyone involved in the Challenge rolled out the red carpet to showcase the 10 horses and trainers. I spent the rest of the afternoon meeting the other trainers, exploring the horse show and watching hunter trips ringside.
Once the competition was finished for the day, I tacked up Louie and we made our way to the arena where we would compete the following night. As we entered, I was struck by the thought of the greats who had ridden here, and I all but had to pinch myself to get back to the task at hand: accustoming Louie to the arena and schooling him for his moment in the spotlight.
The next day was filled with activity. All of the trainers involved in the Challenge were interviewed about the event, the rescue horses and our experiences with them. I didn’t have much time to get nervous or overthink my preparation for the competition. As it neared, I finished memorizing my trail pattern, tidied my handsome partner and outfitted him in English tack. When we walked through the in-gate, I saw Louie grab the attention of the spectators at ringside. He noticed them, too, and was slightly distracted as we started the trail course. But he responded to every request I made. He put down a round that would be tough to beat. More important, it was an excellent representation of what he had accomplished in 90 days of training. And we weren’t finished yet.
For the freestyle portion of the class, we quickly switched to Western tack then headed back into the ring. This time I had Louie’s full attention, and he performed as if we were schooling at home, demonstrating his skill at long-lining, side-passing and flag-waving. Only our final stunt remained. As I took a deep breath, he turned an attentive ear toward me and gave me his vote of confidence. So I took one foot out of the stirrup and placed it on the seat of my saddle. I did the same with the other foot and then rose to stand tall on my friend. I was on top of the world and Louie was right there with me.
We finished second behind Red, a Quarter Horse-cross, and his trainer, Todd Feaser, of Newville, Pennsylvania. But I couldn’t have been more pleased by Louie’s performance. He had truly become my partner—the ultimate joy for a trainer. Plus, he got a forever home that night. The owners of Moriah Farms, in Canandaigua, New York, adopted him. I am certain that Louie will be happy there. It happens to be where I train horses.
To learn more about A Home for Every Horse and see horses available for adoption, go to ahomeforeveryhorse.com. Listen to Courtney discuss her relationship with Louie in a video at www.Practical Horseman Mag.com.
This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.