Horse of a Lifetime: The Gentleman Pirate

Learn how an off-the-track Thoroughbred event horse overcame a devastating injury and returned to the top levels of his sport.
Kelsey Briggs and The Gentleman Pirate at The Fork in April 2014 | © Jamey Price

The Gentleman Pirate is Kelsey Briggs’ horse of a lifetime. She bought him for $600 as a 3-year-old at River Downs Race Track in Cincinnati, Ohio, a failed racehorse due to a minor wind problem. “I liked the way he was put together,” Kelsey said. “Underneath the big head, scrawny neck and long legs, I could see the potential there. I also loved his personality. He was hanging his head over the stall door and begging for treats.”

Pirate proved the Charlotte, North Carolina, resident right, effortlessly adapting to his new career as an event horse. He was competing at the Intermediate level by the time he turned 7. “It was so easy for him,” Kelsey said. 

But then came January 5, 2013, when she spotted Pirate standing still in his field. “He didn’t want to put weight on his left front leg, so initially we thought it was a leg or hoof injury,” she said. She took him to Statesville Equine Clinic in North Carolina for X-rays, which revealed a severe displaced fracture in his C4 vertebra. The fracture’s displacement put pressure on his spinal cord, which is why Pirate was struggling to walk.

“My vet, Dr. Travis Blackwelder, sent the X-rays to NC State, where the head surgeon asked if we had put the horse down yet,” Kelsey said. “That was never an option in my mind, but my vet had to break the news to me that Pirate could never be ridden again.”

The diagnosis sent Kelsey reeling. “For him to not be able to be ridden again, that was devastating to me.” Pirate’s new routine revolved around keeping him as comfortable as possible while the fracture healed. 

Serendipity arrived two days later in the form of Francis Whittington, a British upper-level eventer whom Kelsey had scheduled to teach a series of clinics in the area. “I told Francis that my upper-level dreams were done, and he said, ‘I’m not going to let you do that. I understand the prognosis, but you don’t have to accept it. Let’s treat him like he’s going to get better,’” Kelsey remembers. 

Francis introduced her to ArcEquine, which emits minute sub-sensory sequences of electrical currents to aid in the equine healing process for injuries ranging from broken bones to kissing spine. “We started putting the ArcEquine unit on Pirate overnight, and within a couple of days, he started to look brighter and was moving a bit more in his stall.”

ArcEquine owner Ian Thirkell sent Kelsey her own unit to continue treating Pirate. Two months after the injury, Pirate was sound at the walk. “That was definitely never supposed to happen,” Kelsey said. “We did more X-rays, and my vet was shocked. The fracture was healing beautifully.”

By May Pirate was being turned out again, soundly trotting in his field. “My vet came out and X-rayed him in July. It was completely healed with nothing pressing on the spinal cord,” Kelsey said. Dr. Blackwelder said she could get back on him and gave her a leg up. She hacked Pirate bareback up the road to his favorite field, crying tears of joy. 

Kelsey was just happy to sit on her horse again, but Pirate had other ideas. “We started trot sets, then cantering. It kept progressing the way you would bring any horse back from an injury,” Kelsey said. “By September, he jumped his first crossrail.”

Pirate completed a Training-level event 13 months after breaking his neck, and he was back competing at the Intermediate level at The Fork in North Carolina two months later in April, where he jumped clear around the cross-country course with just a few time penalties. “I’m always emotional when I finish cross country with this horse,” Kelsey said. 

Their adventure is far from over. Last May, Kelsey and Pirate completed their first CCI** event at Jersey Fresh International Horse Trials, and now she is working toward her lifelong goal of competing at the Advanced level and ultimately at an event overseas.

“I would never want him to go through the broken neck again, but it’s giving me a new outlook on life,” Kelsey said. “We are so lucky that we get to put tack on these animals and that they willingly gallop up to these fences for us. No one should ever forget that.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.

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