Over four short weeks in December 2009 Jenn Shaffer had become unmoored. The breakup with her boyfriend and the loss of the home they shared, the sudden loss of her job, and then the death of her beloved horse; now she sat in a friend’s apartment feeling shipwrecked.
So devastated, so dazed, while contemplating where to turn next, she suddenly understood why people contemplate and sometimes even do the worst thing imaginable. To themselves! “I wouldn’t have done it myself. But I understood it in those moments why people commit suicide,” she says.
That’s when her friends, her really good friends, threw her a life raft, and encouraged her to do something a little nutty.
“They had found a horse being given away, his name was Tabula Rasa, and I Googled his name and discovered the Latin translation is ‘clean slate.’ It was crazy. I needed another horse like a hole in the head, but I decided to go for it,” she says.
Barn name: Rusty
Sire: More than Ready
Dam: Silent Academy
Foal date: March 24, 2006She and her friends scraped together $200 to buy a horse trailer on Craig’s List, and set out to the Maryland Farm where the chestnut gelding deemed “dangerous” was waiting, and maybe shipwrecked himself.
“He was tied to the back wall of his stall when I met him, and on his Jockey Club papers, he was listed as dangerous,” she says. “Nobody would take him.”
So against all logic, Shaffer loaded him into the bargain-basement trailer in March 2010, and drove him to a horse farm where she had arranged to trade farm work for his room and board.
But things were going to be a little rough before they got a little better.
Tabula Rasa, who is better known as Rusty, had a violent temper and tested Shaffer’s resolve almost daily.
A simple walk to the paddock was fraught with anxiety as he reared over the top of her, bit and kicked her. “He was horrible on the ground!” she admits. “I still have a welt on my butt from where he bit me once.”
Recalling the day he took a healthy chunk out of her backside, she says she sat down in defeat, on a bucket in the field. “I just cried. But then he walked over and put his head on my shoulder,” she says, noting that his brief gesture of affection was all she needed to get back up, dust herself off, and face her difficult mount, and even her life itself, head on.
Her plan for Rusty was simple. She would ride him until she fell off. In January 2013, after a two-week break in their training routine, she saddled him up on a brisk, cold day and rode to the top of a hill. “When we got to the top, he reared up and threw me so hard he cracked my helmet,” she says, adding that she suffered a concussion from the incident, and suffered balance issues for a brief time.
Then in mid-January, Rusty injured his right, rear leg in a pasture battle with another horse. His injuries healed after two weeks of stall rest, and 30 days of light work, and by July last year, the bruised and weary horse and rider managed to pull it together in time to compete in the Totally Thoroughbred Show at the Pimlico Race Course.
On the field, facing down jumps as high as 3-foot-7, nothing fazed Rusty.
“I was scared at the show. In order to get through it, I pretended it was a dream, like nothing was real. I actually stopped riding about 15 strides out from one jump thinking there’s no way he’d go over it,” she says. “But he took me right to it and sailed over the top of it.”
If the jumps were metaphor for troubles in life, Rusty cleared them all. And he carried his indomitable rider with him.
“I was never afraid of him. I thought of him as my horse, my ‘clean slate’ right from the beginning,” she says.
“When you’re unemployed for a long time, you need a reason to wake up everyday and get going. He gave me that reason. He got me out of bed everyday, because I had to take care of him.”
Their lives might not be perfect, but together, they weather the storms and disappointments. And when leaping over obstacles, like trees in the backfield, felled by storms, she feels a little bit invincible.
On a horse who scared so many, she found her chance to start over, and he found the same—a fresh start.