“If anybody had said to me a year ago that my 10-year-old daughter, who’s 4-foot 10, would be on a Thoroughbred right off the track, and that she’d be training him to jump cross-rails, I wouldn’t have believed them,” O’Brien says in a phone interview with Off Track Thoroughbreds.com.
She adds, “It’s amazing to me that horses like mine could be slaughtered. Horses that are really a throw-away for some people are, for our family, horses that we’ll have forever.”
The well known broadcast journalist and former television news anchor, with credits too numerous to mention, including stints at both NBC and CNN, did not set out to buy herself an ex-racehorse.
Acknowledging that she believed all the stereotypes about Thoroughbreds— that “they’re crazy, they’re hot” and maybe a little dangerous, O’Brien decided to return to her childhood love of riding with an imported Warmblood, which her husband bought her for her 45th birthday.
“She’s a great horse, but she was just too much horse for me,” she says.
On a windy, bitter day in October three years ago, her gorgeous Warmblood mare spooked, and O’Brien came off, catching a foot in the stirrup and tearing up her knee.
“I tore my A.C.L., P.C.L., L.C.L., M.C.L. and my meniscus,” she says. Worse than the surgery to Race name: Sedona Winds
Dam: Martha’s Spirit
Foal date: April 12, 2008
Race name: Aoja
Barn name: Joey
Sire: Lion Heart
Dam: Mandy Jud
Foal date: March 20, 2006
Earnings: $98,940reconstruct her knee and 10 months of recovery, she lost her nerve, she adds.
“My confidence was shot! I went from confident to oh-my-God-I-can’t-fall.”
The leap from that shaky mindset to the decision to buy an ex-racehorse Thoroughbred was not one she could have planned or would ever have imagined for herself.
But a good friend, who lives near Akindale, knew O’Brien was starting to put out feelers to find another riding horse (while her Warmblood is being leased); and suggested she stop by and simply “look” at the pretty prospects there.
It wasn’t long before she discovered Sedona, a delicate and lovely gray mare, only five years old, and already possessed of a nice gait, and kind disposition.
With encouragement from her coach Heather Carlsen, O’Brien bought the mare, settled her into a farm near her New York home, and started over.
“Just getting on was a big deal. I had to fight the urge to pitch off whenever something happened,” she says.
Not entirely over her fear, she finds that the only way to move through it is to ride as often as possible. “My challenge has been that I wasn’t consistent,” she says. “I traveled all the time with work, and it didn’t leave a lot of time for riding. But, I’ve come to realize the only way to get confident is to just do it.”
As she gained confidence in her own abilities to stay in the saddle, in her mare, and especially in her coach, O’Brien decided that her daughters Cecelia and Sophia should have the same riding opportunity that she enjoyed so much when growing up.
“As a child, I used to muck stalls to pay for my lessons, and I rode all the way through high school,” she says, explaining that she chose to return to Akindale for a second horse because her daughters wanted to follow in her footsteps.
Aoja, nicknamed Joey, arrived at Akindale after a moderately successful track career, and by February, had also found his home with O’Brien.
Although it was unusual for Akindale to re-home a horse so quickly, this was an unusual case, says Akindale manager Erin Chase Pfister. “Joey was so quiet, and Soledad has proven to be a great, patient owner with her mare, that we felt really good about sending him to his new home,” she says.
The docile bay, described as “bombproof” by O’Brien, has easily become a barn favorite with her children and their friends. He actually adapts his manner for whoever is riding him, she says.
“Sophia is a shy rider, with a long, beautiful leg. He goes much slower for her. And Cecelia is the gymnast who wants to go faster and is teaching him to jump cross-rails,” she says, adding that not only does he accommodate their styles, but also those of their friends. She even rides him herself from time to time.
An intrepid journalist who has scaled the heights of her profession, O’Brien plans to focus some of her newfound free time on her riding.
After recently concluding a full-time position at CNN, her goals now allow for riding everyday, and spending as much time as possible with her lovely Thoroughbreds.
“Horses teach you a lot,” O’Brien says.
“When you’re riding, you can’t do three things at once. You can’t be texting and emailing. All you can do is ride. It’s amazing. I like the idea of learning and focusing and figuring it out.”
And she will. Together. With her four legged pals from the track.