It was cold and dark as she walked quietly beside the stranger who led her to an outdoor arena edged by tall trees that swayed just a little in the November night.
The filly had grown thin since leaving the racetrack, and it was now feeding time when she was led away from her hay and the familiarity of her barn, and into a riding ring in the middle of the woods.
Although the 3-year-old ex-racehorse did not understand the signals Kate Taylor was trying to send as she rode her for the first time, the untrained Thoroughbred was quite willing and quiet, despite the strangeness of the setting, and the lateness of the hour.
“It was about 6 o’clock and it was dark when we went into the ring; and the other horses were getting fed,” Taylor says. “Not only didn’t she do anything bad, but all she did was try her little heart out to figure out what I was asking her for.”
She made an offer on the horse that night.
“It all came down to the fact that I couldn’t leave her there. I didn’t know if she was the right horse for me … but it felt like I had a chance to turn this horse’s life around,” she says.
The way she saw it, the Thoroughbred had “worked her butt off” trying to win at Suffolk Downs — she only won one of 15 starts— and the least she could do was give her a chance. Although her new owners had taken care of her after getting her from the track, Taylor felt she could take her to the next level.
On Nov. 7, 2009, the scrawny filly, renamed Lucy, was shipped from to her new stall at Spring Hill Farm in Rhode Island.
Race name: Iwanbegeorgiesgal
Show name: Honolulu
Barn name: Lucy
Dam: Star Mountain
Foal date: 2006After she arrived, the next six months were spent getting her into better physical and mental shape, and teaching her how to behave on the ground, as well as under saddle.
She was placed on a diet of hay stretchers, low-sugar foods, and given as much hay as she could eat. Her grain was adjusted with care, allowing her to regain her energy without getting too much.
As her body filled out and her coat began to shine, feet and teeth problems were also treated and resolved by a farrier and a dentist.
“Her feet looked like a bomb had gone off underneath them,” she says.
A massage therapist and chiropractor also treated Lucy for soreness issues and for alignment. And in addition, Lucy was treated for stomach ulcers, and attended by a professional saddle fitter.
At points along the way, her “non-horsey family and friends” were astounded by what it took to address the horse’s needs.
“A lot of people didn’t understand, but if you take on a horse like this, you can’t cut corners,” Taylor says. “It’s all about making the commitment and doing it right.”
But the rewards for taking good care of her first horse were eventually repaid with oh-so wonderful rides. Lucy was up for anything—trail rides, dressage lessons, as well as a variety of exercises designed to desensitize her from potentially spooky situations.
“One of my best memories was of the day I worked with her and a tarp,” Taylor says. “I set it up and she walked right over it. At one point, I put it on her head.
“She just stood there with a tarp on her head. I know she never had one her head at the track.”
On trail rides, Lucy seemed confident.
“She was very happy at this point. Happy with her routine and happy with the barn,” Taylor says, noting that she also grew so comfortable with her horse that she frequently rode her alone, at night. Nothing bad ever happened.
Until it did.
During the winter of 2010, Lucy’s easy going personality changed. She started bucking often, and fighting the lessons.
“There was a point when she was a dangerous horse. She bucked a lot and I did hit the dirt a couple of times,” Taylor says. “I learned to develop a Velcro seat by sitting back and putting my heels down.”
Despite the bad behavior, Taylor refused to give up. She rode Lucy everyday, even when she was secretly asking herself if she was making a mistake.
“There were times I couldn’t believe I was going to get back in the saddle on her,” she says.
In fact, the saddle she started out was replaced with a new Stübben after a saddle fitter pointed out that the old one was pinching and creating great discomfort.
Although the new saddle fit horse and rider perfectly, it didn’t magically cure the behaviorial issues.
Taylor isn’t sure what ultimately did the trick. Perhaps it was a combination of a new saddle, along with her ulcer treatment, medical attention, and Taylor’s continued belief in her.
Whatever it was, the 25-year-old graphic designer felt she couldn’t give up on Lucy. “I made a commitment to her,” she says.
And then, almost as suddenly as the storm began, it ended.
Lucy emerged this spring with her personality restored, and Taylor feels it was all worth it.
Horses have always been an important stabilizing force for the Rhode Island woman who spent her childhood traveling the world as the daughter of a British government worker.
Whether she lived in Hong Kong, England, or the U.S., the constant in her life was the horse.
“We lived all around the world,” she says. “I learned to ride in England when I was 3, and after that, no matter where I was tossed in the world, I always made sure I had riding lessons.”
Trying to offer Lucy the stability of a home has brought many lessons as well, which she writes about in her blog, Lucy’s Quest.
This is where the victories and the difficult days are documented in her ongoing work to retrain an ex-racehorse.
On the website are pages of photos of Lucy when she first arrived. “She was skin and bones and as dull as a geriatric Quarter Horse,” she says.
But photos of Lucy’s most recent lessons show a horse transformed: she is reaching into the contact of the bit and making a very pretty picture, as horse and rider achieve a stretchy trot and lovely canter.
It’s hard for Taylor to believe Lucy is the same horse she felt sorry for in the winter of 2009.
“When you get a horse like this, they look terrible at first. But by springtime they’re fat, shiny and dappled, she says. “The transformation is like unwrapping a present.”
“And, I think Lucy knows she got dealt a good hand.”
To see Kate and Lucy in action, please click here.