Sheri Thornley never meant to keep the good-looking gelding.
From the moment she scoped him out and walked him onto her trailer, not even taking time to see if he trotted soundly, she felt the horse exuded potential as a big-ticket show horse.
She was right and she was wrong.
Ticket to Saratoga did in fact develop into a brave, talented jumper, competing in Florida and attracting potential buyers. Twice in fact, Thornley came close to selling Toga, but something always happened, sending the horse ambling back onto the trailer, and heading home with her.
Thornley could not foresee in the “pretty face” that attracted her the first time she saw Toga—she jokes she was a “sucker for his face”—the underlying medical issues that would eventually crop up.
A veterinary check revealed that Toga had OCD in both hocks, a fairly common abnormality that can occur in the limbs. Although the condition was not serious enough to make him lame, Thornley had it surgically corrected right away.
Also in their early years together, Toga dropped weight and “crashed” after his racetrack life, mostly spent running at Charles Town Race Track.
Ticket to Saratoga
But after six or seven months of recovery, Toga was better than ever, and the pair went to work once again, training over jumps. As a passenger on the beautifully rounded horse, Thornley recalls how light and fluid Toga was as he floated off the ground.
“He’s so graceful that you don’t even feel him lift off, or hit the ground on the other side,” she says. “From the beginning, he was a really good jumper—he jumped so high he practically cleared the standards.”
As the pair hit the heights, the longtime equestrian who worked retraining Thoroughbreds for next careers, started to see Toga as a valuable prospect.
“There was a point when I felt I couldn’t afford to keep him, and that I really needed the money,” she says. “I knew he had so much talent, and although everyone in my barn tried to talk me out of selling him, I felt I had to.”
The first potential buyer approached when Toga was five. He’d been in Florida learning eventing when he was spotted.
But the sale was not to be.
A veterinarian check revealed there a problem with his left eye, possibly a detached retina that was thought to be causing vision difficulty. Although Thornley wasn’t convinced of the diagnosis — he was performing too well, and did not exhibit the spooky behavior of a horse with vision problems— the buyer walked away.
And Toga came home.
In time, a second offer came. Toga had continued to do well at shows in Ocala, Fla., and when once again, he caught someone’s attention, it was back to the veternarian for another checkup. “We told the prospective buyer about the eye thing so we had it rechecked. It turns out that it wasn’t a detached retina at all. It was a minor flaw that can cause some peripheral issues, but nothing serious,” she says.
But, the second buyer backed off when Toga’s heart murmur was reported.
Again, Toga came home.
Now 10, Toga has so thoroughly wormed his way into Thornley’s heart that he has a permanent home at her farm in Damascus, Md.
“I’ve come to admire him so much. Besides his talent, he has an amazing work ethic. When you get on his back, he tries so hard. And he’s saved me from my own mistakes so many times.”
As Toga has moved up in class, Thornley has been privileged to ride at higher and higher levels, an opportunity she’s never had before because she has always sold her horses when they achieve a certain level of competitiveness.
At 50, she admits she’s a “little behind in my experience” as a rider, but she hopes to compete this year at the Fair Hill International Three-Day Event this October.
Although Toga’s career isn’t what she envisioned, she could say the same about herself. Thornley once thought she’d work in an office doing importing and exporting. She earned an international business degree from a Massachusetts university in 1982, and for a short time, worked at a desk job.
But office work left her cold.
Thornley returned to the horse world after college, working at a friend’s farm in the mid-Atlantic.
Over time, she worked her way up to own her own stable, and like Toga, found her greatest success far afield from her original career track.
(To follow Toga’s progress, please read Sheri Thornley’s blog entries on The Surrey Saddlery blog.)