Sitting astride a stallion on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, Cherie Chauvin began to think: What am I waiting for?
All around she saw suffering people in a ravaged land. Yet somehow life went as it did back in the United States; people shopped in malls, made time for recreation, and simply lived.
“I realized that you never know what might happen later today or next week that could change everything,” she says. “So, it was then that I thought that if you’re waiting to do what you really want in life—don’t! That time may never come.”
The insight came while she had the unique pleasure of watching a tumult of galloping horses and riders battling like warriors in a match of buzkhasi, the country’s national pastime. And the expression of passion and raw power of a sport that looked, to her western eye, like rugby on horseback, somehow crystallized her own desires.
Race name: Sportin’ Merle
New name: Katchi Kapshi
Sire: Le Merle Blanc
Dam: Sportin’ Jane, out of Sportin’ Life
Foal date: March 30, 2001Later on, after the match had ended, something even more unexpected occurred.
She became the first female in anyone’s memory to receive an invitation by these rugged Afghan equestrians to ride a beautiful stallion.
As she swung her leg into the saddle, as deftly as any male rider, she gathered up her reins and with her considerable equestrian talent, impressed the heck out of all who watched.
“Going through an experience like being in Afghanistan makes you aware of what’s important in your life. I realized when I was riding that day that I wanted to have the kind of life you can look back on and be happy with what you’ve accomplished.”
Previously horses had taken a back seat to her professional life. She had left her family’s Texas farm, where she’d grown up with horses, to get an education. Earning a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science from University of California—San Diego, and a master’s in international relations at Syracuse University, she went to work in Washington, D.C. on security matters. She did continue riding lessons, but put ownership on the back burner.
“My friends would say, ‘Owning a horse would be a nice thing to do when you retire.’ But I realized I didn’t want to wait until I was 65.”
With a new lease on life, and an exciting plan to buy a horse, she returned to the United States in the spring of 2006, and immediately set about looking. And it wasn’t long before a lightly raced Thoroughbred with the cringe-worthy name Sportin’ Merle caught her eye.
On her first ride, he was completely unsure of everything she asked. And his once sleek, racehorse look had morphed into something closer to “fat and flabby.”
But he tried.
“He wanted so badly to figure it out. He kept trying something different and if he didn’t get a positive reaction from me, he’d try something else,” she says.
“It was clear to me that he was a pretty special horse. I didn’t know if he could jump, or if we’d ever get to a cross-country field. I just fell in love with his mind.”
She purchased the former Penn National racehorse and renamed him Katchi Kapshi, which in Korean means, “We go together.” Chauvin, also a veteran of an assignment in Korea, found the words emblazoned on a coin she saw there.
The name was the easy part. A little harder was training Katchi to leap obstacles on a cross-country field.
Chauvin’s own bravery and dedication was tested repeatedly early on, as her “exceptionally careful” horse questioned her instructions to leap down ditches and over immovable logs, and showed his alarm by rearing into the air.
“A couple of years before I went to Afghanistan I had a Warmblood rear up and flip over on top of me. He flipped over backwards and broke my leg. After that, I thought I wouldn’t have anything to be afraid of,” she says.
“Then one day Katchi just popped up into the air and my heart went into my throat.”
She persevered however, by enlisting some of the best training possible; Maryland exercise rider and racehorse trainer Kimberly Clark taught her strategies to stop the meltdowns.
And she also took Katchi to lessons and clinics with some of the finest equestrians around, including top-level riders Phillip Dutton, James Wofford and Silva Martin.
Under their watchful gaze, Chauvin and Katchi began to build trust and confidence.
“I have been so fortunate to have Jim Wofford coach me. I knew that he would never send me at a jump unless he knew with 150 percent certainty that we could do it,” she says. “It taught me that even if you’re scared, you have to fight through it.”
Things have gone so well for so long with Katchi that the early training episodes make her laugh. She even made a video of all their bloopers to show how far they’ve come together.
“Today, he’s an absolute dream to ride cross country. He loves it. And he’s also the easiest horse to ride,” she says. “People tell me that I’ve given them hope with what we’ve achieved.”
One of the biggest victories came at the end of October.
Chauvin and Katchi were the second-place finishers at the Hagyard MidSouth Training Three-Day Event, being edged out from first by another off-track Thoroughbred.
Horse and rider blazed through a classic long format, which included road and track and a steeplechase over brush jumps.
After spending over an hour in the saddle, riding up to all types of obstacles, Chauvin and Katchi bested a field of over 30 to take second place.
They have also moved up to Preliminary Level and are quite ready for the next course, the next challenge. That’s just how it is now; she and Katchi meeting each new obstacle with courage and confidence. Living life now, not in the imagined future.