Gripping the wheel of her car one-handed, she wiped away tears that ran down her face, and concentrated through watery vision on the bolted doors and departing taillights in front of her.
This was not how it was supposed to end for Melissa Skillings and her prized chestnut filly Molinaro Precious.
A few years earlier, Skillings was full of hope and excitement when she purchased the unlikely mount after first seeing her burst from her stall, with a skilled rider doing his level best to steady her.
So frisky and headstrong, the 17-hand girl with “a very big opinion” could only be saddled and mounted from within her stall before venturing forth.
But to Skillings, the rearing, powerful creature was a beautiful challenge she was eager to take.
For months following the spontaneous purchase in 2005, and on many occasions, Skillings would lose her grip on the tack and be flung to the ground. But still she clung to her vision of the perfectly behaved mount.
“She bucked me off pretty much every ride we had for three months straight,” Skillings recalls with a chuckle. “But she ended up being a quiet enough horse with great potential.”
New name: Precious or P
Sire: Whisky Wisdom
Dam: Miss Molinaro
Foal date: 2002Strikingly pretty with a flashy chestnut coat and two white socks, Precious was readying for entry-level shows in the Ontario area where Skillings lived. But in the spring of 2007, life for Skillings took an unfortunate turn.
She was laid off from her job, and financial realities soon ended her dreams of horses and horse shows. She sold her house and some other possessions in a bid to raise the funds needed to keep her chestnut. But it wasn’t long before Skillings was forced to make the only decision she could reasonably make; she sold her prized mount.
“When I sold Precious it meant far more to me than it might have to others who sell a horse. My pets are my support group, and she was my best friend. I wasn’t just watching a horse leave on a trailer; I was watching the last positive bit of my life disappear” she says. “The day I sold her I drove behind the trailer for an hour.”
She cried and drove that day, staring at the back of the trailer and wondering what the future held, for Precious and for herself. “I was in a very low place; I felt like a complete failure.”
But over the next two years, her life would regain balance, and better days emerged. Skillings started working again, enrolled in nursing school, and she also maintained a frequent exchange of emails with Precious’ new owner.
Together they discussed the horse’s life, from the development of a lameness issue to the happy news of a successful foaling with a Warmblood.
Then, unexpectedly, Skillings was offered the chance to take her old girl home in late 2009. The owner was moving away, and knew Skillings had the deepest of soft spots for the horse.
Like a movie with a happy ending, the trailer that had taken her horse away two years earlier, returned. And as the doors unbolted, Precious immediately caught sight of his old owner, and let out a hearty whinny.
“When she saw me she whinnied right at me,” Skillings says. “I took her back to the barn and it felt like we’d never been apart. In a lot of ways, she was the exact same horse I’d sold.”
But this new beginning was not to have the storybook ending.
Diagnosed in February 2010 with a form of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Skillings would undergo months of treatment and was forced to interrupt her studies and career path as she concentrated on getting well.
But no matter what, this time she was determined to keep her horse.
“I was probably the worst cancer patient because I was advised” by doctors “that I probably shouldn’t be around horses, cats or dogs while I underwent chemotherapy and radiation,” she says.
As a nursing student, she understood the admonition, but her heart just wouldn’t let her follow the professional advice.
In fact, she attributes her ability to endure the months of treatments so well to the fact that she kept her pets so close.
“I live in apartment above my barn and it brought me tremendous comfort knowing Precious was downstairs.
“I think having my horse made me more healthy throughout my treatment because I was able to maintain my muscle tone and endurance by doing chores and caring for her,” she adds.
Today, working as an ambulance communications officer, Skillings divides her time between helping those facing medical emergencies and providing care for Precious, now retired, and a second chestnut Thoroughbred filly who is the spitting image of her first.
She swears she wasn’t even looking for a second horse, when she heard about a fabulous, chestnut filly for sale.
Autumn’s Reign, is a quieter, more petite version of the 17-hand powerhouse to whom Skillings was first drawn. She purchased her this past fall only to hack on trails, and is planning to have her trained as a hunter.
“She is a textbook hunter who goes around long and low and slow,” she says. “She has helped me achieve one of my biggest goals since getting Precious back, and that is to have a horse who is sound, sane and quiet.”
As Skillings looks forward to the New Year, she feels grateful.
Her health is stable, her job rewarding, and she has two beautiful chestnuts in the yard.
“I think I’ve always had an affinity with the Thoroughbreds. It’s rewarding to take a chance on a horse that nobody wants and give him or her a home,” she says. “All of my animals, my dog and my cat as well, are animals people didn’t want anymore.”
Stronger from her battles, Skillings now lives with renewed appreciation for the gifts of her life, and a deep determination to weather any storms that blow her way.
Her inspiration, she says, are the sleek, bright Thoroughbreds in her field. Her newest filly has taught her to relax and enjoy herself on a hack through the country. And Precious has taught her to be strong.
“She taught me how to get back in the saddle no matter how many times I fell.”