The scrape of hooves against metal, the profuse sweat of a terrified horse and over-heated owner, and a bleeding cut on the fine horse’s face set the ugly scene of a fierce battle that waged at the sleepy New Jersey horse farm.
Neither side would yield. For two hours, the fight dragged on. Nancy Richards, a kindly horse owner, simply wanted to load her beautiful but squirrely racemare Spicer onto a trailer.
But Spicer clearly thought something terrible was about to happen. Looking back on that awful July day in 2010, Richards wonders if the off-track Thoroughbred had a terrifying memory of the starting gate, and somehow transferred those feelings to being loaded into a trailer.
The day stands out in Richards’ mind as the kind that makes you want to throw in the towel, and forget you ever owned a horse you wanted to show.
Race name: Spicer
Dam: Spicy Sweet
Foal date: March 14, 1998 “I have some of my worst memories about that day,” Richards says. “She hadn’t been off the farm in nine years, and I don’t know if something happened to her in a starting gate when she raced, but every time she got near the trailer she started rearing and kicking.
“She jumped off the sides of the ramp. We even put a chain over her nose, which I never, ever do, and it ended up cutting her nose. She was bleeding, and it was horrible.”
Feeling deflated and grimy, Richards tended to her mare’s facial injuries and called it a day.
Then she retrenched.
Everyday after that, without fail, Richards hitched up her trailer, opened the back ramp, and plunked herself down with a bucket of feed.
As if waiting for a twitchy, nervous squirrel to get close enough to feed, she called to Spicer. Her patience had paid off before; when Spicer was so ill tempered she’d flatten her ears and kick at those who got too close.
But months of kindness eventually won the recalcitrant racehorse over, and Richards was able to ride and train her to step beautifully under saddle, and even begin jumping. She was so good, in fact that the next step was getting on the trailer so she could haul her off to a horse show.
But first, the waiting game.
“It took months, and I was so frustrated sometimes I’d be in tears,” Richards recalls. “But she started inching closer and closer to me, and one day, she got on. At another point, I was able to close the ramp up behind her, with her in there, and I couldn’t believe it!
“I had been studying Monty Roberts videos and I did the join-up exercises with her first, and then I started to train her by rewarding the smallest progress.”
In this way, Spicer soon learned to please Richards. So well did she adapt to walking on and off the trailer, that she followed Richards like an obliging dog, right into the cavernous contraption she once feared.
It was now September 2011. The show was about to go on!
Although she only managed to get to a single show that year before Spicer injured herself in a paddock accident, tearing a tendon and pulling up lame, this past spring, all the hard work, the tears, and the fighting was forgotten as Spicer and Richards entered the Gleneayre Hunter Series show ring in Lumberton, N.J. this past April 7.
On the same date back in 2001, Richards had shown her first OTTB, Elmo, to good result, and before Elmo died, she promised the gelding she would take good care of Spicer, his “girl” whom he adored.
So when Spicer and Richards won the Pleasure Championship on that same date, three years later, Richards had tears in her eyes as she reveled in victory.
She never gave up on her mare. And her mare, a little careworn and world weary, proved in the end to be worth every second of effort.
“One of my favorite quotes is from the Seabiscuit movie, which is, ‘You don’t throw a whole life away just because it’s banged up a little.’ I always think of that quote when I think about Spicer.”
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