Galloping toward the first obstacle at the 2010 Rolex Three-Day, each stride put emotional distance between the young rider and the devastating accident that claimed the life of her horse Frodo Baggins, two years earlier. The black New Zealand Thoroughbred, who was lovely enough to appear in the movie Lord of the Rings, was euthanized, and Ashker was airlifted to a hospital with multiple broken bones, two collapsed lungs, and a severely fractured jaw.
For two months, after the fall, Ashker remained hospitalized. She slept sitting up, with her jaw wired shut, but slowly and arduously rebuilt her physical strength.
And by the time she returned, almost against the odds, to Rolex last April with ex-racehorse Anthony Patch, it was to “defeat the demons” that had pursued her since her fall, and to seize a victory on several levels.
Not only did she win ribbons—8th nationally, 14th internationally, and champion, among owner/horse competitor teams—but Ashker and the ex-racehorse she calls Alex demonstrated their prowess under the worst pressure, and came up winners against the world’s best riders.
“Even if I go on to win gold medals one day, that ride will always be my single biggest accomplishment,” Ashker says. “Defeating those demons and coming back to Kentucky … was a really hard struggle.
Race name: Alex’s Castledream
New name: Anthony Patch
Barn name: Alex
Dam: Aimee Alexis
Age: 12“It wound up being one of the best days of my life.”
The four-star rider who began her equestrian career at age 2 had achieved much in the horse world by the time she rode in the ill-fated Rolex at age 24. Among the highlights, she represented the United States in the Junior Olympics, where she took home two silver and three bronze medals. In addition, she also participated in a test Eventing exercise in Hong Kong in 2007.
But when she wound up on a ventilator in the Intensive Care Unit of a Kentucky hospital, her thoughts carried her off, far from the joys of winning rides under the tutelage of greats like Buck Davidson and Kim Severson.
She had to go deep within herself to face this next chapter. And while she struggled with the physical pain, she simultaneously coped with the loss of a horse she describes simply as the love of her life.
“Frodo and I had a really special bond. I believed in him, and he believed in me. Literally, up to the end, he gave me all of himself,” she says. “Frodo was a star.”
When finally it came time to find another horse to ride, Ashker did not need to look further than her mother’s stable of off-track Thoroughbreds.
Anthony Patch (called Alex around the barn) had raced a short time at the Charles Town racetrack before winding up with the Ashkers when he was 4. And although Ashker and Buck Davidson had competed him in preliminary level, he hadn’t yet earned four-star credentials.
But when Ashker turned to him, he was ready and willing to do his new job.
“When Frodo passed away, he was right there to back him up,” she recalls. “When push came to shove, he stepped up to the plate.”
Over the months, Alex and Ashker worked a six-day weekly schedule, which included five highly intensive workouts. They practiced dressage for two days, and on the others, worked on 40-50 minute trot sets and canters. And on his day off, she left him alone to “go be a horse.”
As they worked, Ashker’s confidence returned.
“He’s such a safe and careful jumper. He rarely touches a jump on cross country, so, if we make a mistake, it’s my fault,” she says. “He gave me a ton of confidence, this was something he was able to instill in me.”
And she knew this horse had the “mind, talent and ability to take the pressure,” traits that would carry her safely across the Kentucky cross-country field.
“When we arrived in Kentucky last year, I felt a little like it was me against the world,” she says.
Her resolve waivered a bit the night before, when jitters started to creep in. But after a pep talk from her mother, and a good night’s sleep, the anxiety lifted as they entered the start box.
“The hardest part is leaving the start box,” she says. “Once you’re out of the box, everything that has happened just leaves you, and your only thought is on the task at hand.”
When she plunged through the “lake” obstacles on her way to the finish line, about a thousand people had turned out to cheer her comeback. With Anthony Patch under saddle, and Frodo in her heart, the demon was extinguished and the world was again opened up for the spirited, young equestrian.
He proved himself at Rolex, and so did Ashker. Now they are ready to take on bigger challenges.
She is planning to ride again at Rolex this spring, and hopes also to compete at the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials in England this September. And next year too perhaps in the London Olympics!
“As far as goals, the Olympics is our biggest one,” she says. “But I’ve already been so lucky. Alex will go down in my history as being on the nicest horses I’ve ever sat on, and the day we crossed the finish line at Rolex was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had.
“I’m not an emotional person, but when I crossed the finish line I was crying.”