Johnny's Journey

A rescued Thoroughbred gets a happy ending even though the adventure has not gone exactly to plan.

As assistant rider for Olympic gold medalist Beezie Madden and her husband John, Becky Huestis works with remarkable horses every day. None, however, quite like the off-the-track Thoroughbred who’s gone from “nearly dead” early in 2020 to being readied for the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium October 11-17, 2021.

Huestis bought Johnny for $1,500 from her friend Abby Revoir who owns Starfish Equine Rescue. Andrea Elliott

Huestis was just about to buy a more typical hunter/jumper breed for herself when COVID-19 nixed the possibility of importing the horse she had her eye on. Scrolling through friend Abby Revoir’s Facebook feed around the same time, she saw an intriguing horse.

Revoir has her own farm in southern New Jersey, where she also operates Starfish Equine Rescue. Through the informal rescue network, Revoir got wind of an OTTB in dire straits at a kill pen in Louisiana. She arranged for Starfish to purchase that horse, then for a shipper to pick him up. On arrival at the kill pen in early February of 2020, the shipper alerted Revoir to two more OTTBs in equally bad shape. The rescue bought one more, and Revoir personally bought the third—You’ll Seeintime, aka Johnny, was the worst off.

“When Johnny got to New Jersey, he was so weak from muscle wasting, he almost didn’t make the trip,” Revoir explains. “When the vet came to see him, his legs were swollen, he was starving to death. One of his hooves had a crack running all the way up to the coronary band.” Initially, the farrier could not start to address it because Johnny was too weak to stand on three legs.

Johnny after he arrived at Starfish from a kill pen in Louisiana in February of 2020 Courtesy, Starfish Equine Rescue

A Transformation Begins

After the care at Starfish over nearly six months, Johnny became the shiny subject of the before-and-after photos that caught Huestis’ attention. After a few conversations with Revoir, Huestis realized she could help the rescue and get herself a horse at the same time.

“Abby had saved his life, so I thought maybe I could contribute by taking him on and training him,” says Huestis of the $1,500 decision. “It was a risk, of course, because I didn’t know anything about him other than seeing a video of him in a paddock.”

Johnny is a 2015 Thoroughbred gelding by Lion Tamer, out of Michelles Crackin. In October of 2020, he arrived at Spruce Valley Stable near the Maddens’ in Cazenovia, New York.

Shortly after Johnny arrived, Huestis’ friend and Madden Mountain co-worker Megan Maloney suggested the Thoroughbred Makeover. Held in Lexington, Kentucky, the event features competition in 10 disciplines ranging from hunters and jumpers to barrel racing and cutting. Johnny’s status as having raced within the past two years and having no more than 15 training rides, met the competition’s eligibility requirements.

Huestis applied to be trainer at the 2021’s “Mega” Makeover, so named because it will be the largest ever with entrants from this year and last year’s COVID-canceled event. The application requires demonstrated ability to train a Thoroughbred likely to find a good home in a second career. The Retired Racehorse Project’s mission is promoting ex-racers as suitable for several disciplines and promoting their adoption.

Early this year, Huestis got word that she’d been accepted.

Huestis was accepted into the 2021 Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover with Johnny. Andrea Elliott

Unsurprising Makeover Acceptance

Given Huestis’ résumé, that’s not surprising.

Exposed for the first time to horses and riding at Virginia Confer’s Forest Lake sleepaway camp in New York at about 10, Huestis came home inspired to have horses in her life one way or another. She earned every chance to ride or be around horses. Lessons and any other chance to ride were traded for labor and the self-described life of a “barn rat” through her pre-teens and teens.

“My parents didn’t always understand,” she reflects. “I did a lot of sports and I was interested in all kinds of things, but I just loved horses.”

At 15, Huestis began working at Dunkin’ Donuts, which enabled her to pay for lessons and gear. Riding a neighbor’s Appendix Quarter Horse turned into a free lease. Eventually, her folks caved in to the years-long pleading for a horse of her own, so long as Huestis paid his expenses.

Through the classifieds, she found a horse advertised as suitable for dressage. “When I went to try him, I fell off twice because he stopped at the jumps,” Huestis says. She bought him nonetheless and spent two years learning how to ride him. “He was a terrible horse for me because he was too much horse, but he taught me a lot.”

College was a Huestis family must-do Huestis dreaded until she learned that “I could do horses for college” at Centenary College (now University). Riding on Centenary’s Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association team kept Huestis in the saddle while immersing her in a more intense level of hunter/jumper horsemanship and competition. She was team captain sophomore through senior year, while earning a bachelor’s degree in Equine Studies with a concentration on riding instruction and training.

Huestis spent the summers working for various Northeast horsemen and after graduating spent the equivalent of equestrian graduate school in Ireland riding young horses for a breeding operation. After four years at a jumper barn in Florida, she became the barn manager and an adjunct professor at Centenary College and earned an MBA. After three years, she left to run her own stable, Hop Hue Farm in New Jersey, when she interviewed for a rider position with John and Beezie Madden.

It was 2013. Beezie was already a two-time Olympic gold medalist and had just won her first World Cup Final. “It was all terrifying,” recalls Huestis of the two-day interview in Florida. She rode a few of their horses, filled in at the barn and got acquainted over meals.

The remarkable horsemanship opportunity came with a regular salary, a retirement plan and benefits, like the “real job” Huestis’ parents, now deceased, had always hoped she’d get.

Nearly a decade in, Huestis still gives the sense that she’s pinching herself about the life she wakes up to every day. “I see myself as this nobody who learned to ride at a summer camp,” she reflects. “The first horse I had was terrible for me, and yet, here I am with this cool, kind of weird story.”

She wears several hats in her assistant rider position with the Maddens. Show grooming and exercise riding are sometimes on the agenda, but mostly Huestis is based at Madden Mountain. She breaks and brings along the young horses, oversees the retirees and helps manage a small breeding program that varies from one to four broodmares in foal. She appreciates the Maddens’ tips on her riding whenever they’re home and was just thinking about getting a horse of her own when COVID hit in early 2020.

Which brings us back to Johnny.

Johnny’s Journey

This article started as the story of Johnny’s journey to the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover. In mid-summer, however, it became a story with an unknown ending when Johnny was diagnosed with pedal osteitis, inflammation of the coffin bone.

Johnny was diagnosed with inflammation of the coffin bone, putting his Makeover appearance in question. Andrea Elliott

Given his history of neglect and kill-pen life prior to rescue, Huestis surmises the source was a long-ago puncture wound that became infected and was never treated. It’s on the same left front leg that had a hoof crack up to the coronary band and a swollen fetlock and knee when Johnny arrived at Starfish. Later X-rays revealed a now-healed bone chip in that fetlock, the likely finalé of his racing days.

Johnny’s diagnosis came in early July, around the same time that Team Madden decided to withdraw Garant from Olympic consideration for what would have been Beezie Madden’s fifth Games.

While Johnny’s treatment may be effective enough to get back on the Makeover track, the modus operandi will be the same as it is for Garant: doing what’s best for the horse.

Whether he makes it to the Makeover or not, Johnny is already a great source of pride for Starfish Equine Rescue. Since launching Starfish in 2016, Abby Revoir had not seen a horse “so depressed, so sad, so defeated,” she recalls of his demeanor on arrival. “He would let you do anything to him; he just had nothing left in him.”

Horses that have been malnourished and starved need a gradual return to normal nutrition. Revoir fed Johnny “small, tiny meals all day,” consisting of high-fiber Purina Senior and hay. Within a month, his pleasant, engaged personality began to emerge. Within three months, the glistening handsome chestnut starred in the before-and-after Facebook post that started his next life chapter. His Quarter Horse-like, short-coupled conformation contributed to a naturally uphill conformation and canter that also appealed to Huestis.

“Withing a few minutes of posting those pictures, Huestis called and said, ‘Tell me about that horse!’” Revoir was proud of Starfish’s work and excited for Johnny. “Of all the horses, nobody deserves Huestis more than Johnny!”

Temperament-wise, Johnny was already a winner when he came into Huestis’ care. “He is the nicest, easiest project horse,” Huestis says. Although he had been ridden without issue at Starfish, she started from scratch. “I didn’t want him to associate me with anything from his past, and I wanted him to understand what I expect from him on the ground and in the cross-ties.”

Trust and bond-building were priorities from day one.

On hand-walks around the property, Johnny was not shy or spooky. Being handled in the barn, he was a little reluctant to have his ears touched. In gentle ways, he made it clear on occasion that he preferred not to be fussed over too much. Both issues lessened as he and Huestis became better acquainted.

Clarity Counts

Teaching Johnny to “stay out of my space” and to give to pressure were early lesson focuses.

Johnny’s initial response to Huestis’ hand pressure on his side, just behind the girth line, was to lean into it. Compared to the young warmbloods she works with, Johnny responded with a stronger initial push back. Clarity in the application of any aid is a principle of John and Beezie’s Madden Method in training. Huestis applied that with a firm reprimand that Johnny quickly understood. “John always says that if you are not crystal clear, the horse learns to be dull,” she says.

When Johnny moved away from her pressure, Huestis immediately released it. “I let him think about that, and the next time I touched his side, he moved away. That lesson really only took one session.” Later, he remembered it when she applied leg pressure from the saddle.

Longe line work came next to establish another Madden Method must: “making sure that they understand to go when you cluck and stop or slow down when you say ‘whoa,’” Huestis explains. For young horses in the Madden system, longeing is all about simple yet critical lessons in voice commands. Next came long-line training. “You need to be able to go behind the horse, having them trust you and be able to drive them from behind,” Huestis says.

Even though Johnny’s a calm character, Huestis took him through basic desensitizing paces. Most OTTBs, for example, have never seen a mounting block: Jockeys are typically boosted up into the saddle by a groom. Huestis began by walking Johnny past, then standing him near, the mounting block. Next, she stood atop the block with him standing alongside.

They hung out a lot, often from the arena center, with Huestis sitting on Johnny while lessons went on around them. There were treats throughout. Perhaps because he went hungry for so long, Johnny is highly food motivated. Carrots are favorites and “we haven’t really found anything he doesn’t like,” Huestis says.

Above all, there was patience. “The whole point of groundwork is so that it’s non-eventful when you get on their back,” Huestis explains. “If you skip steps or rush things, that’s when you have problems.” Johnny’s even temperament and intelligence has made every training step relatively easy, Huestis says.

The Makeover training timeline was on track until late June. That’s when trouble keeping a shoe on his poor-quality front left hoof turned into lameness. Huestis first suspected and treated it as an abscess, but continued unsoundness led to X-rays that revealed an advanced case of pedal osteitis.

Hoof trimming for the right balance is Johnny’s prescription for the foreseeable future. Huestis can ride him lightly to keep him in shape, but participating in October’s Thoroughbred Makeover looked unlikely as of early August. Longer term, Huestis is optimistic about his recovery and the likelihood that he’ll make somebody—likely a kid—a terrific riding horse.

Show barns don’t get bigger or more successful than the Maddens’, and Huestis is grateful to have John and Beezie’s blessing in taking on Johnny. Wherever his journey goes from here, Johnny’s story illustrates what’s possible when compassionate people and expert horsemen walk their talk about doing what’s best for the horse.

Trainers: A Bridge Between Worlds

“I totally wish more people like Becky [Huestis] would reach out to local rescues because they are so beneficial to the rescue in so many ways,” says Starfish Equine Rescue owner Abby Revoir. “If I had a local trainer who could foster some of our rescues, put a little training on them and help spread the word, that would do so much to help the horses themselves and the overall rescue effort.”

The ability to prep horses for a successful adoption is a make-it-or-break-it issue for any rescue, Revoir explains. “You don’t want the horse to get into another bad situation or for the adopter to be hurt. Most of these horses have some quirks that need working through, and people like Becky know how to work the horse through them.”

Beyond her work with Johnny, Huestis has helped Revoir with horse or training-related questions or challenges.

Revoir counts herself doubly lucky to be working with a second top hunter/jumper professional: World Champion hunter rider Louise Serio at Derbydown in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Their project is Fish, a small OTTB rescued alongside Johnny.

After being nursed back to health, the coming 4-year-old began to show some signs of hunter potential. Revoir entered him in the 2021 Thoroughbred Makeover and has been working with Serio with the Makeover’s hunter division in mind.

“He’s in this amazing show barn and he fits right in,” says Revoir, who periodically travels the 90 minutes to take lessons on Fish at Serio’s stable. “Louise does not treat me any different than her other clients. That’s what I wish: that these big show barns would see the potential in these horses.” With Serio’s help, Fish is nailing his flying lead changes and has soared over his first jump with a flower-filled box at its base. 

A Home For Every Horse

Abby Revoir’s Starfish Equine Rescue in Cape May, New Jersey, is a member of A Home For Every Horse, a resource for nonprofit rescues, sanctuaries and care facilities. Its mission is to provide support for these organizations through the program’s sponsors and the resources of the Equine Network, Practical Horseman’s parent company.

By partnering with the United Horse Coalition, A Home For Every Horse is dedicated to bridging the gap between rescue organizations and those who can assist them. The organization’s sponsors include Purina, WeatherBeeta, Absorbine and Tractor Supply. For more information, go to ahomeforeveryhorse.com.  

Postscript: Shortly before this issue went to press, Huestis tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) when she took a wrong step while leading a horse in the pasture. Although the certified CrossFit trainer is in great shape, the injury will sideline her long enough to nix any hope of campaigning Johnny in the Makeover. As of early August, Makeover organizers were going to allow Revoir to take Huestis’ spot with Johnny if he recovers enough to compete. Asserts the positive horsewoman, the upside is that Johnny’s journey is “going back full circle!”

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Practical Horseman.

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