From a dark stall corner to the spotlight at Devon

Fiumes at Devon this week. Photo by Nancy Fay

Fiumes at Devon this week. Photo by Nancy Fay

The handsome chestnut Thoroughbred hung his head and turned his back on people who peered into his stall.

Seeming to wish they would just go away, he stood in the furthest corner, in the dark, as an aura of sadness appeared to roll off his well-muscled body with every breath.

But Marylou Neilson took a second look.

The sharp-eyed Pennsylvania equestrian was visiting the stables across from Penn National to find a project horse. She saw many beauties on that trip, but the little horse named Fiumes was the one she couldn’t forget, couldn’t stop thinking about.

“I went home and I had nightmares about this horse,” says Neilson, president of Shannondell Farm. “He seemed so unhappy with his life, so I went back, pointed to him, and said, ‘This is the one I want.’ ”

In a Cinderella story, horse and rider would have pranced off into the sunset at this point. But Fiumes was a little too ungainly to prance. And his personality and demeanor were standoffish at best. Though it was impossible to know why, in his emotional world, he appeared so sad, Neilson vowed to make him happy.

“At our farm we’re very quiet people, and we have nice fields for turnout and kind people working there. He was exposed to all that. And in about two or three months, he started coming to the front of his stall,” Neilson says.

Sire: Macho Uno
Dam: Relaxing Rhythm, by Easy Goer
Foal date: Feb. 20, 2005
Earnings: $85,456
From that slow beginning four years ago, Neilson put the horse who’d earned $85,000 in his racing career onto a path to reboot his brain and re-make his skills under saddle.

Pairing him with rider Jennifer Brennan and seasoned Thoroughbred trainer Beth Spatz, Neilsen figured the duo just might be able to bring a new career to the Thoroughbred, and bring him out of his full-time funk. But even Spatz, a former jockey turned hunter and equitation expert, as well as judge and schooling supervisor, was stymied by Fiumes at first.

“He was a big, huge train wreck,” Spatz says. “I used to call my mother, who is also a horse person, and tell her that they keep telling me how much they love this horse, but that he’s such a bad jumper.”

He ran without stopping, hung his feet over jumps and didn’t understand what everyone wanted of him.

After bombing at his first show, Spatz and Brennan went back to square one. Fitted with a new bit, a jointed Pelham, which she admits looks like a “monster bit” but was one he felt comfortable in, they started him in lunging exercises designed to help him figure out “what to do with his legs.”

“He needed to learn some of it on his own, without us teaching him,” she says. “And I realized that he’s circus-horse smart and cutting-horse fast.”

As Fiumes and his new handlers became more accustomed with one another, Spatz tapped her knowledge of racehorse training to strike a perfect balance in the OTTB’s schooling schedule.

Fiumes at Blue Rock Classic prior to Devon

Fiumes at Blue Rock Classic prior to Devon

Recognizing that racehorses tend to be more “up” in the morning and lazier in the afternoon, Spatz built his day around a similar routine: In the morning, he had a light workout, after which, he returned to his stall for a bit, and then was turned out in a big field. In the afternoon, after he’d settled into a quieter frame of mind, she worked him a little more.

And he thrived.

“Once he started to know his job, he started to think he was Superman,” she says. “Before, he went around in a thoughtless, frantic way. Now he goes around with ears up, showing interest.”

And this was precisely the picture Fiumes made earlier this month at the fabled Devon show grounds, as Brennan guided him with ease over water jumps that spooked a couple of pretty impressive competitors.

“He didn’t start jumping at this level, in the meter 10 and meter 15 until April,” Brennan says. “And with all that competition, he marched right around while ex-Grand Prix horses were stopping at the water.”

Although they had a couple of rails down, and left without ribbons, on balance, the effort at Devon was a smashing success.

“Fiumes hadn’t done a lot of bigger shows before we got to Devon. He got the points to qualify at smaller shows in New Jersey,” she adds. “To get him ready, we only took him to four or five shows beforehand, and he had just come off a winter break.”

Says his owner: “Jen and Beth have done a great job with him. He has really turned over a new leaf.”

Not too shabby for a woebegone animal who didn’t want to leave his stall!

9 responses to “From a dark stall corner to the spotlight at Devon”

  1. Sandy Gage

    All it took was someone to take the time to discover what Fiumes was all about and what he wanted and needed. Someone with time and patience. This story brought me to tears,Horses are so good for ones soul and this is an amazing story. Well done!!!!!

  2. beth spatz

    the bit that fiumes wears is a jointed mikmar pellham.these bits look harsh yet quite the opposite is true and they play a key role in relaxing the back.i have never liked the straight mikmar mouthpiece and was happy when they finally offered this style.

  3. NorthStar326

    Horses are all just like individual children, who need a parent that loves them, believes in them and is willing to do what it takes to help them be their best–whatever that turns out to be!

    An angry horse is generally a physically hurting horse, forced to perform thru pain and then stuck in a stall, where it can’t even stretch or roll comfortably. A sad horse is generally one who knows he can’t do what is asked of him (horses live to please), but is forced to keep trying–always disappointing.

    Owner of 13 OTTB’s–8 of them rescued!

    Great story–great job giving him the balance he needs so he can do his best for those who gave him the chance. And even with all of that–I would encourage reading this article ***Study Evaluates A Horse’s Desire To Work***, to understand just how much horses “give”, when they’d really rather be doing something else.

  4. Jon

    This proved that sometimes an OTTB will challenge your horsemanship skills and reward you for the extra time and effort that you put out. He looks like a wonderful jumper.
    I also have a big weakness for chestnuts with big white faces. Go chestnut OTTB’s!

  5. Susan Crane-Sundell

    Its all about just being noticed, paying attention and patience. Fiumes needed someone to believe in him too. It’s good to see that his chances didn’t go up in smoke and instead he may very well soon leave them in a trail of smoke out on the hunter/jumper course. Way to go Fiumes, Marylou, Jennifer and Beth!

  6. Esther Douglas

    I too find that a two per-day workout suites Cam. (An OTTB that now resides in Bermuda. YOu can read his story in this Blog. Just type in From Feedlot to Bermuda in the search box.)

    While he has been on light work and trail rides with his two kids these past two months he will be going back into his regular workout schedule. In the AM with one of two experienced riders for a proper school. Then again in a lesson with one of his two kids in the afternoon. One is a walk/trot kid and the other jumps around 2.3 hunters.

    We also mix it up with Trail rides. And swimming when we think we can get away with it.

    I have found that he is at his happiest when his kids come see him every day. He loves them and for the most part, (as long as THEY try for him) he baby sits them like a mother hen.

    Love hearing about all the success stories.

  7. Katherine Abatti

    Wonderful ending.

  8. TBDancer

    Handsome chestnut ;o)

    This story starts not unlike my beginnings with the OTTB in my barn–the moving away from the front of the pen when people came to see him. Took me eight days after I bought him for him to realize that “this lady” was there for HIM and that she always had kind words and cookies.

    TBs are a very sensitive breed and it takes someone with a “seeing heart” to figure that out and reach out to them, especially ones like Fiumes that has been rejected. Whatever happened to him from “last race” to “dark stall” made his journey very sad. Once he got with people willing to see what needed to be done (“back to the basics”–a place my horse and I visit often ;o), he bloomed. Good story!

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