Whirling ‘round her handler as if hellfire was licking her feet, the red Thoroughbred mare was barely held in check with a chain over her nose, and a well-muscled walker.
“Holiday Cat came out of the barn in a whirlwind, like the Tasmanian devil,” says Jorji McEllrath. “She wasn’t exactly a friendly horse. She tried to kick her handler in the head. But for whatever reason, my daughter Brayle walked up to her and said, ‘This is the horse I want.’ ”
“I remember thinking there was no way I was going to put my green daughter on a green horse like that,” McEllrath says. But her daughter, who is now 18, says she saw past the kicking and whirling, and to a frightened animal who could be tamed and loved.
Sire: Pyramid Peak
Dam: One Hot Lady
Foal date: April 1, 2004So on March 7, 2010 McEllrath purchased for her 13-year-old daughter a 6-year-old mare, bucking and kicking, and had to be ridden in both a halter and a bridle, so fierce was her nature.
“I wasn’t afraid of her because it just looked to me like she needed a good home to go to,” Brayle McEllrath says. “I saw her spinning circles, and when the guy who rode her got off, he had to duck to avoid getting kicked in the head. But, I thought she had a personality, a spark.”
Their first ride was fraught with anxiety.
The red steed’s head was high, her head harnessed in a halter, bridle and chain. Beside her walked a strong man, and a distance back, stood the pair’s trainer, arms crossed around his chest. The young rider clung to the mare’s neck as if the steed could launch at any second.
“Nobody would even take a lesson when my daughter and (Holiday Cat) were in the arena. Nobody wanted to get near them,” McEllrath says. “My daughter went over the top of her head a couple of times, and at their first show the mare was bucking with all four feet off the ground, and Brayle was doing everything she could to stay on and keep her horse from kicking the other horses.”
Almost immediately, the Washington-based pair signed up for lessons with well-known West Coast trainer Bill Miller, an expert in difficult horses.
“In our second lesson, he had us jump our first oxer,” Brayle McEllrath says. And suddenly, the busy brain of the fiery horse had something to focus on, something she loved. And it was clear that the mare who was difficult to ride on the track, and a hellion in a saddle, had the poise and precision over jumps of a fine European Warmblood. “She absolute loves her job!” Brayle McEllrath adds.
Adds her mother, “With Bill Miller, the bad behavior started to turn positive.”
The pair spent the first year-and-a-half doing Hunters in the short-stirrup A Circuit, and then decided at the two-year point to try Jumpers. And this is where the red-headed horse the McEllrath’s purchased via Second Chance Ranch, an animal absolutely nobody wanted, began to turn heads and win ribbons!
Before the mother and daughter took her, Katie Merwick, founding director of Washington-based Second Chance Ranch said the mare was passed up time and time again. “Somebody even said she was ugly,” Merwick says.
But in the competition ring, her tail tied with a red ribbon to warn other riders that she kicks, Holiday Cat is a thing of beauty. Confidently, precisely, with knees tucked high and squarely, she conquers jump after jump, and leaves the competition in the dust.
Last year the pair won the Northwest Circuit championships, and they also represented Washington in the USHJA’s West Coast Regional Championships!
“This horse just loves her job,” McEllrath says. “When they go into the competition ring, she prances around, and she knows it’s time to get to work. I’ve had so many people come up to me and say we have the best horse, and I say to them, ‘You have no idea what it took to get here.’ ”