By Sara Webb
I have loved horses my whole life. My dad played the coach horn for my uncle’s four-in-hand while we were growing up, and the first photo of me on a horse is at six months old, perched on the back of one of his foxhunters. While my dad gifted me with a kitten in sixth grade “to shut me up about getting a pony,” I kept riding here and there, a week of pony camp, the occasional lesson when babysitting money could afford it, and the more regular trail rides on said uncle’s string of foxhunters and carriage horses as I grew big enough for them.
I rode on an IHSA team for West Chester University as an undergrad, which is where I met a homely little chestnut Thoroughbred, skinny and fresh off the track. Za Missile – Homer – had just failed his fourth and final race, and the sister of my college trainer brought him home to restart. I had ridden young OTTBs before and was not super excited about trying this one, but persistence (on my trainer’s sister’s part) paid off. I discovered that his favorite speed was standing still, and worked out a lease-to-own plan. He was finally mine in April 2007, and he was five. My little kid self was cheering! My dad was less than thrilled.
Homer and I have led an exciting life – we’ve paper chased, competed in hunters, won in adult leadline class (note that this was our first blue ribbon), foxhunted, trail ridden, and when I decided that we needed a formal program (he had just turned 8), I leveraged a working student position for a local dressage trainer during my summers and holidays off as a school librarian. We ‘commuted’ from where I boarded to the dressage trainer’s facility, and I became very skilled at hacking with a coffee in one hand. At the time, Homer and I were struggling with breaking into the canter – he thought that it required a huge buck, and I strongly disagreed. We had hit an impasse.
Homer is not an ideal dressage prospect. He is built downhill, is a varsity level cribber and very skilled at bracing his neck, and still thinks that being on the bit is entirely too much work. We had to restart him learning dressage basics, and for a few years worked on the bottom few rungs of the dressage training pyramid.
When the assistant trainer where I’d been working started her own business in 2012, I followed her. I loved her manner with horses, and we’d become very good friends. Under USDF Gold medalist Kymberly Pullen’s tutelage, we progressed to First Level, got our scores in two shows, then full of bravado, we hit Second Level and stalled. Second Level is hard! For unmotivated and downhill Homer, it was particularly challenging. We ended up spending two years (and nine rated shows) mired in canter-walk-canter transitions. Nothing in Second Level was easy for him, and we maintained a depressingly steady show record in the high 50s. We gained a deep and personal relationship with failure, but over those two years, we learned a lot about one another. Kymmy gave us a few breakthroughs, mainly that Homer thrives on cross training! And so, his eventing career was born.
Their first year, they qualified for American Eventing Championships in Novice Rider. While they killed it in dressage and cross country, two stadium rails kept them out of the ribbons, but the entire experience was great! We’d love to get back there again (we refer to it as our favorite horse vacation).
Eventually, Homer and I made our scores in Second Level (my first score above 60% was one of the BEST DAYS EVER), and finally, this summer, we conquered Third Level in three shows! Even though my Bronze medal certificate arrived just a few days ago and I am staring at it as I write, it still feels like I’m working toward it, we were at it for so long.
Homer is an incredible horse. He is smart, and kind, and tries really hard to understand what you want him to do. He is scared of dairy cows, loves trail rides, and works for ice pops. He takes amazing care of my kid when we warm up by walking the hilly driveway, and yet is hot enough to finish under time in cross country. He’ll bust out two tempis but stand completely naked in the wash stall waiting for ice pops. He has turned out to be so much more than I could have possibly dreamed when I first sat on his back.
Homer is 17 now, and while he needs a little extra TLC, he is still perfect. He has introduced me to some amazing people and given me some great opportunities – and now our USDF Bronze medal! If you had told me in 2007 that my homely little chestnut OTTB would be competing at Training level in Eventing, Fourth Level in Dressage, and toting my 5-year-old daughter around, I would have had to sit down. Hard. Especially the daughter part.