Weary racehorse comes home to tears, a hug

Megan Kerford searched for Lost Tribute for four years, losing track of him after his last race at Thisteldown. Photo courtesy Morgan Chapman

Megan Kerford searched for Lost Tribute for four years, losing track of him after his last race at Thisteldown. Photo courtesy Morgan Chapman

Goosebumps of pride and peals of laughter celebrated the moment as cameras flashed, and the winning photo was taken. And then all was blighted by the presentation of an ugly red claiming tag, which sucked the breath from Megan Kerford, and dissolved her to tears.

“I went from feeling like we’d won the Kentucky Derby to feeling like I was going to barf,” Kerford says. “Even just thinking back on it now makes me feel horrible. I remember that day like it was yesterday, and how I went into the bathroom at Woodbine (Race Track) and I lied down on the floor and cried.”

And as suddenly as the temperamental chestnut had entered her life, he was gone. Just like that. And from July 2009 until the year 2013, Kerford tried to buy the horse back, followed his every move on a virtual stable, and prayed that he would be OK.

Kerford and Last Tribute blew into Woodbine the previous year. She was recovering from a badly broken hip sustained galloping horses the year before, and he was nursing a sore attitude, snapping at just about everybody.

Last Tribute
Barn name: Alfie
Sire: Tribunal
Dam: M.S. Secret
Foal date: April 12, 2006
Earnings: $76,000, in 38 starts
“I think our story is that same old story you hear about people adopting pets because they need to feel loved and wanted, they need to take care of somebody,” she says. “I’d been an exercise rider and living independently for 10 years. But after my accident, I was taken in by my mother.”

When the chestnut gelding arrived at the shedrow, he was intimidating on the ground, and walked his legs off pacing his confined stall. Nobody else bonded with him, so Kerford offered to play groom.

Ever so slowly, Last Tribute stopped stall walking and pinning his ears, and gratefully accepted her ministrations. “It took about three months before I could (work on) his legs, but over time he calmed down and gained some weight,” she says.

The pair became so tight that when Kerford was cleared to return to riding, he was the first horse she galloped. “He was phenomenal!”

It was no small feat for her to get back in the irons. The year before, in 2008, Kerford sustained a serious injury exercising horses. She was catapulted off a Quarter Horse so fast and so hard that her femur was driven up into her torso. Fortunately it missed her organs, and caused only minor internal bleeding. But her hip sustained a serious break.

In fact, Kerford had a brief brush with him when her trainer tried to claim him back for her, just before he embarked on a four-year campaign of claiming races.

Last Tribute ended a long campaign in the arms of an exercise rider who couldn’t forget him.

Last Tribute ended a long campaign in the arms of an exercise rider who couldn’t forget him.

By the time she got back in the saddle as Final Tribute’s exercise rider, she had developed such a deep bond with the horse that from the time he got claimed away after that tearful moment in the winner’s circle in July 2009, and for years after, she pined for and tracked the animal’s whereabouts.

“I was cleaning his stall and getting it ready for him to come back. It was August 2009 and I was listening to the race on the radio before I walked out to meet him after he came off the track,” she says. “On my way, I got a call on my cell telling me we’d been out shook.”

After that, Kerford carried his memory with her for four years. During that time, she entered and graduated from veterinarian school. Her life was full. She groomed great horses, including Canadian Sprinter Hollywood Hits. But she never forgot that one horse. She watched him drop in class on her virtual stable, and she talked about him to all who would listen.

Then last November; the horse mysteriously disappeared from her virtual stable.

And reappeared in a Woodbine shedrow where Kerford’s boyfriend Mike Mehak would surprise her.

“Hey, Megan, I need some help with a horse!” Mehak yelled. And as she rounded the corner and saw the thin, worn horse, she threw her arms around the animal’s neck, and sobbed tears of joy and promised to take care of him. This story was originally published in June

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Q&A: How to train fire-breathing T-breds

Vicki Zacharias, 14, on her first OTTB Scarlet Topi. This horse started her on the journey to teach others to ride hot Thoroughbreds.

Vicki Zacharias, 14, on her first OTTB Scarlet Topi. This horse started her on the journey to teach others to ride hot Thoroughbreds.

Some say Vicki Zacharias tames fire-breathing dragons.

The self-taught equestrian who learned how to conduct herself on the backs of some pretty hot Thoroughbreds at the tender age of 12 says what she really does is train “children.”

The proprietor of Rain Creek Farms in Oregon has seen not just a few break-through moments between difficult horse and frustrated rider, including the powerhouse duo Holiday Cat and Brayle McEllrath, a pair who worked through many bucking and kicking episodes before winning their armful of ribbons. (Please see an earlier story on Holiday Cat).

In this week’s Clubhouse Q&A, Zacharias shares her philosophy and methods for riding difficult horses.

Q: You started your lifelong love of Thoroughbreds clinging to one on a training track.

I got my first Thoroughbred when I was 12. His registered name was Scarlet Topi. And the first time I rode him was on a training track. I was scared to death. But I fell in love with the horse. He has chips in his ankles and had run until he was 9. And, I rode him myself. We didn’t have the money to pay someone to ride him for me at first. I got him into Eventing, and he was extremely successful. I eventually sold him to a kid who rode him until he was 25.

Q: You pride yourself on your ability to bring difficult T-breds along. What’s your approach?

Zacharias rides OTTB Nina's Choice, another early OTTB who helped sharpen her riding skills.

Zacharias rides OTTB Nina’s Choice, another early OTTB who helped sharpen her riding skills.

The number one thing you’ve got to remember is that they’re high-energy horses. They’ve been bred since the 1,700s to race. The other thing to remember is that they’re very smart. This makes them extremely fun to teach, but you have to be consistent in their training. If I choose something I want them to do, they need to understand it’s not okay if they don’t do it. It’s like raising children.

Q: For the naughty horse, you have what you term a Box of Discipline. What is that?

What this means is that I always make the punishment fit the crime. And I have certain basic rules of behavior they all must follow. For example, on the ground, I won’t let them walk on top of me and if I stop, they stop. When I ride them and I ask them to stop, go, or move off my leg, I expect them to at least try to understand to do that. If they shut me down, I will get a little cranky with them.

Q: Sometimes going in circles is good!

Turning them in a circle is an easy way to get them to learn to move off my right leg, like in a side pass. I try to keep things as simple as possible for them, again, like I would with a child.

Q: How do you channel the energy of a bucking horse into good behavior?

Holiday Cat was a difficult mare, but one who has blossomed under rider/owner Brayle McEllrath.

Holiday Cat was a difficult mare, but one who has blossomed under rider/owner Brayle McEllrath.

The first thing is, I don’t have fear. If a horse is bucking, I tend to channel my feelings into anger. I’ve been riding bad horses since I was a kid because we could never afford the good ones. And I’ve learned a few things. Like, if you’re on a bucking horse, you want to keep him moving forward because they’ll buck less hard if they’re going forward. I’ll also reach down and pull their head around and spank them with a stick.

I’ve found that if you can ride through a couple of bucks they’ll usually stop the behavior because it takes too much energy. Unless their bucks are due to pain-related reasons.

Another method I use, which I teach little kids, is the pull-rein. I teach them to plant one hand on the neck, and pull as hard as they can on the rein in the other hand. This should unbalance the horse enough to get their behavior to stop.

I had one who would bolt and then buck. If I thought he was going to do it, I’d lean as far back as I could and plant him on the ground like a flower. I learned how to use my core strength, and by planting my pelvis up against the pommel of my saddle, it was must harder for him to pull against me.

Q: Holiday Cat is one of your success stories. She was a temperamental mare who kicked and bucked. Please tell me about her. (Please see earlier article).

Holiday Cat and Brayle McEllrath are the next generation of great OTTB teams.

Holiday Cat and Brayle McEllrath are the next generation of great OTTB teams.

By the time I got Holiday Cat, her rider Brayle McEllrath had already worked with her a lot. She had no fear and she rode right through bad behavior. I watched this horse buck all the way up to the jumps.

It turned out that nobody had really said no. The first time she tried bucking to the jumps, I spanked her, and the first time she kicked at another horse, I spanked her for that too. After that, her behavior got a lot better as she understood that some behavior wasn’t acceptable.

All the mare wanted to do was jump the jumps—she loves it. So, if she acted up or bucked, I would back her up, smack her, and make her do things she didn’t necessarily want to do. I took all the emotion out of it. If she bucked or acted up, I’d say, ‘No, sorry, that’s not OK.’ And when she finally got it, I’d say, ‘That’s it! We can go jump now.’

But there are also some battles you don’t need to win. The mare always got excited going into the ring to do her job or coming out. So I told Brayle to step off, let her settle down, and then step back on. Rather than escalate the situation, it was better in this case to give her a moment to collect herself. And the mare soon figured it out.

I think with most difficult horses the most important thing is consistent discipline and work. They’ll come around eventually because horses like to follow the path of the least resistance. ♥

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A T-bred heads to Devon dressage, hard won

Kaytee Mountain and Sue Gallagher go Prix St. George, get the silver, head to Devon.

Kaytee Mountain and Sue Gallagher go Prix St. George, get the silver, head to Devon.

A green T-bred who came from out of a field in 2007 with not much going for him but his spunk and the pluck of an Australian owner, now dances at the heights of the Dressage world.

Kaytee Mountain has been transformed. When once the dark bay gelding could barely trot, and moved his gangly legs in an awkward up/down “sewing needle” gait, he now displays the extension and the form of a fluid, cooperative mover. And he has the points and winnings to prove it.

After beginning the show season at 4th level, the American Thoroughbred started training Prix St. George in July, competing in classes at Hawk Hollow Ranch in NJ against World Equestrian Games riders. Kaytee Mountain placed sixth of eight riders, a mighty achievement considering the competition, she says.

Kaytee Mountain
Sire: Deniro, by Gulch
Dam: Kara Mountain
Foal date: April 16, 2003
“We were in quite a serious class competing against some who are far more experienced than us,” she says. “I was so excited he could hold his own in a class like that.”

Not only did he hold his own in a class last week, performing 26 different movements, but also her little T-bred preformed better than she did! “I need to be quicker and better prepared—for him. I feel like he’s saying, ‘OK. I’ve got it, now have you got it?’ ”

Having amassed enough points in the USDF system to earn a silver medal, they are not resting on their laurels. The pair will compete at Devon on Sept. 27 and 28! “I’m sure our eyes will be sticking out of our heads like they were on sticks. It will be a wonderful experience, but terrifying,” Gallagher says. “I’ve only ever been to Devon as a spectator. It’s the main international horse show, the cream of the crop. There are beautiful horses, beautiful riders— you have to be at the top of your game to compete there.”

Kaytee Mountain performs with Sue Gallagher. Photo by Stacy Lynne Photo

Kaytee Mountain performs with Sue Gallagher. Photo by Stacy Lynne Photo

To those who see them now, it might look easy, as if bot horse and rider team were born with it. But Kaytee Mountain was living in a field in 2007 when Gallagher met an animal she found to be one of the friendliest horses she’d ever encountered. Though he was built all wrong for a dressage career, she felt so much joy just being in his company that she went for it. She bought him.

For years their training labored on together. Sometimes seeming as though they were pushing the proverbial rock up the mountain; in a rainstorm! He was tense. He was stiff as a board. And he possessed a weak topline. The list went on and on.

Unfazed, Gallagher pressed on through his temperamental outbursts and bit by bit, together, the got a little closer to the top of the hill.

In an earlier interview with Off-Track Thoroughbreds, she described the battles in the schooling ring, and the disappointing outcomes from the show ring, and the predictable judge’s comments that noted her horse was too tense. (Please see an earlier story about Kaytee Mountain).

But Gallagher never gave up on Kaytee. She ignored his bad behavior and rode it out until, after years of effort, she found herself sitting on a USDF silver medalist last week—a far cry from the horse she pulled out of the field.

“I know there are a bunch of people who have Thoroughbreds,” she says. “I just want them to know that they can do it. It can be done. They just need to stick with it.” ♥

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