USDF is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year! In November & December, we are shining the spotlight on riders who have also reached this milestone. Follow along all through November and December for inspiring and heartwarming stories of trials and triumphs, and fabulous photo galleries!
Here, a Region 2 rider shares the story of the two milk mare babies she adopted from Last Chance Corral, and how they saved her in return.
By Karen Suit
When we set off for Equine Affaire in Columbus, Ohio, in 2010, it never occurred to me that we would be bringing home another horse, let alone horses, but that’s exactly what happened. While going through all the different vendor and association booths, we came across the Last Chance Corral booth, an Ohio-based horse rescue, and their group of milk mare babies. It didn’t take long to spot one that was especially cute and inquisitive. After inquiring about the baby, we were informed that due to her young age (two weeks), if we wanted her, we would have to take two foals home.
And so the journey began. Nugget, age three weeks, and Sofi, age two weeks, came home with us that weekend. Sofi is half Thoroughbred, half Spotted Draft Horse. Nugget is half Thoroughbred, one-quarter Quarter Horse, and one-quarter Belgian Draft Horse.
When we drove back home from Columbus, they could barely see out of the lowest slat on the trailer. I was required to mix up a concoction of special powdered milk for foals, yogurt, and Uckele’s GUT™ (gastric ulcer trans-nutrients) twice daily in a five-gallon bucket. They also had free access to milk pellets and water. I turned them out daily in a special section of a paddock where they could see the other horses on the farm and try to nibble a little grass.
At first, they shared a stall, so taking them out and bringing them in required two people and two 15-foot lead ropes, which allowed us to lead and pull them along with a loop around their behinds (until they learned how to follow along properly). They were adorable, so enlisting assistance from neighbors and friends in those early days wasn’t hard. Once they were bigger, I could separate them so they each had a stall, and by then, they were fairly consistent when leading to and from the paddock. I had never been around foals much, let alone basically orphaned foals, so it was a learning experience. When they were about four months old, they were so large that I was able to turn them out with the other horses, making life so much easier.
All the growing up experiences – hoof trimming, grooming, bathing, general manners, veterinary care, et cetera – each presented their own obstacles, and help was needed. We had to find a farrier willing to work with babies. General baby wrestling experiences are not as easily taken on by the older crowd, but we all survived it in one piece. Riding and handling all those green-broke horses and off-the-track prospects in my youth did help me a lot. I actually backed my first young horse, Sofi, when I was 63 years old without incident. Both babies were sent off to be started because, at the time, all I had was a round pen in a field.
The horses were put on hold when my father came to live with me, and I had to help manage my mother’s care at an assisted living facility. I started working with the girls on a more regular basis after I was able to put up an indoor arena. It was difficult to find a trainer willing to come out and work with us on a regular basis at the time. In the spring of 2021, Sofi, shown as Just So, was put back into regular work, and I was able to take her to three schooling shows at my then-trainer’s facility, where we started in Introductory and Training Level dressage. She managed this well and ended up being the 2021 Open Introductory Champion for the Midwest Dressage Association (MDA) Year-End Awards, recipient of the 2021 Rosemary Herman Trophy for high-scoring horse shown by riders over the age of 50, and Open Introductory Reserve Champion for the 2021 Catherine B. Jacob Region 2 Schooling Show Awards.
Last year I started riding with Will Davis, and Nugget, shown as Penny’s Worth after a favorite childhood novel, went to his new stable for the summer. We were able to attend multiple clinics with Rebecca Stromatt held at his facility, as well as three schooling shows and a trail ride at a local park. We ended up as the 2022 Reserve Champion Novice Horse at Training Level for the MDA, which was a nice surprise. With Will’s help, Nugget has overcome her resistance to trailer loading, although she still prefers his trailer to my own.
This year, we are working on Second Level at home and have moved up to showing First Level. In our first-ever recognized show at Waterloo in Grass Lake, Michigan, I received my first score toward my USDF Bronze Medal. It was the first time Nugget experienced loudspeakers and music, and she handled it well. To date, my proudest accomplishment with this mare was at our second recognized show, also at Waterloo. I received my second First Level score toward my Bronze Medal, scoring 67.037% under judge Lilo Fore. In addition, we ended up as Champion at First Level in the Open division.
We were able to ride in a clinic at Will’s with Roz Kinstler, which was really fun and educational. I was also able to take a lesson with Eddy Dewolff van Westerrode at Robb van Wesson’s facility, which was a great opportunity to ride in another very different arena. Eddy was, of course, wonderful.
My original plan for the girls was to train them into solid citizens so they could be placed in good homes. I wanted to use this experience of saving two foals to give something back to horses because they have given so much to me in my lifetime. I have met so many interesting and inspirational people, like Violet Hopkins, whom I rode with for many years, and Sally Swift, who took me under her wing and helped me overcome my scoliosis handicap. Of course, I have been able to connect and become friends with many others and their families, whom I have been fortunate to watch grow over the years as well. I’m afraid Sofi and Nugget may have a home with me for life, as they have both worked out so well here.
To other senior riders, I would say: first, find a good trainer willing to work with you. That was the hardest thing for me. I found people who wanted to work with my horse, Nugget, but not bother with me. Will has been terrific in this respect. Because he believes we can do it, we can do it! There are a lot of older riders at his barn, and they’re all improving. It’s so encouraging to see and be a part of this rider growth.
I don’t think you’re ever too old to learn new things. Maybe you won’t go to the Olympics, but just learning and improving is a victory. Going to a schooling show when you haven’t been in a ring for nearly 20 years is a big event. Once you’ve found your trainer, the number one thing to look for in your new prospect is temperament, temperament, temperament, then suitability; are they comfortable for you to ride size-, width-, and gait-wise? It is absolutely no use to own a horse with such big, expressive movement that you are unable to ride it, nor a horse so wide or so narrow that you require pain medication to survive the ride. This may be different from the horses you rode when you were younger, but that’s okay. Once you’ve found the right prospect, you and your trainer will have to forge a bond with this horse, and that’s where the fun begins.
If you’re interested in finding a baby horse, I can’t recommend Last Chance Corral enough. They are great to work with and can assist in steering you toward a suitable prospect through their years of experience dealing with foals. They take in a lot of half-Thoroughbred foals and have even had warmblood cross foals as well. Last Chance Corral also has adult horses from time. Sometimes, when you rescue a horse, they rescue you in return, as mine have done with me. Here I am, showing again at a ripe old age and achieving things I was unable to do in my younger days.
When someone asks me about learning to ride, especially older people, I recommend finding a good riding school with good school horses to start with. There’s a lot to be learned, even at the walk. As someone who rode with Violet Hopkins for years, I can assure you that I have spent many, many hours mastering various assignments at the walk. Who knows what you might become.
I would love it if USDF would open up an even older senior division, or perhaps they could introduce a Master’s Challenge with distinction for people, say, over 75 years, or with scores over 67%, for example. There has been a lot offered for junior riders, and the amateur division has been great. The Century Club is another lovely option, but I’ve seen a lot of people use this as a last hurrah. What about those of us not ready for a hurrah yet? Queen Elizabeth still rode her pony in her final year of life. Ulla Hakanson, age 83, rode a Grand Prix test, scoring 64% this year. Age is just a number, and it doesn’t necessarily define who you are or what you might do. You never know what you are able to do unless you get out there and try. You might just surprise yourself and others as well!