Rogue red mare tamed by love, a champion

The pair competes at the pair this year in Thermal CA at HITS High Desert Classic V in March.

The pair competes at Thermal CA at HITS High Desert Classic V in March. Photo courtesy Jorji McEllrath

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.

Holiday Cat
Nickname: Holly
Sire: Pyramid Peak
Dam: One Hot Lady
Foal date: April 1, 2004
So 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.

On their very first ride, Holiday Cat wore a halter, a bridle and a chain, and was led around at the walk.

On their very first ride, Holiday Cat wore a halter, a bridle and a chain, and was led around at the walk.

“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!

After the two competed at the USHJA regional championships in Sacramento – 2013.

After the two competed at the USHJA regional championships in Sacramento – 2013.

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.’ ”

12 responses to “Rogue red mare tamed by love, a champion”

  1. Jan Berman

    Truly wonderful story. If you take notice, all these stories have one common factor, a human who can see past the obvious and sense the true heart underneath, a human who is willing to give unconditional love to an animal and who is consequently rewarded with the same. Brayle saw a “frightened animal who could be tamed and loved”. Looking with that perspective of what we can do for the horse instead of what that horse can do for us usually creates the bond and leads to great success! Well done Brayle!

  2. Louise Martin

    Hi Susan,

    Yet another wonderful TB story! Congratulations to Brayle and Holly!! Also, congratulations Mom on having the trust and insight to allow your daughter to persue her dream.

    As everyone knows these beautiful, intelligent creatures are often abused or at the least misunderstood. Almost 30 years ago I got my mare off the racetrack at 2. All I heard was you should be buying a chestnut, thoroughbred, mare off the racetrack…you are green and so is she…it will never work…At 32yrs and still with a lot of oomph left, we proved everyone wrong! The best thing that ever happened to me and although we were not in competition and just pleasure, this fiery redhead is the sweetest mare ever…

    I am so happy for the two of you! You certainly prove to those naysayers that Thoroughbred horses are the very best, especially the redheads!! Good luck and wishing you love and happiness with your very special horse!!

    Susan, I love reading your stories of the thoroughbred! I don’t usually get a chance to comment at often but this so hit home…Hope you and Dave are well!! Love you and miss you!

  3. Bonnie MacRaith

    Wonderful story, so glad you hung in there with this horse…that alone gave him confidence.
    I wondering if this horse is related to the successful race horse “Storm Cat”. See his info below, for more info google “Storm Cat” go to wikipedia.
    Storm Cat- Overbrook Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. In 1999 and 2000, he was the leading sire in North America. As of April 2013, he has sired 35 grade/group one winners, eight champions, 108 winners of group or graded stakes races, and 180 stakes winners worldwide, which have earnings in excess of $128 million.[5] He was the leading sire of stakes winners in North America in 2005. The best of his progeny included Aljabr, Bluegrass Cat, Cat Thief, Forestry, Giant’s Causeway, Hennessy,Hold That Tiger, Jalil, Life Is Sweet, One Cool Cat, Storm Flag Flying and Tabasco Cat.The best of his progeny included Aljabr, Bluegrass Cat, Cat Thief, Forestry, Giant’s Causeway, Hennessy,Hold That Tiger, Jalil, Life Is Sweet, One Cool Cat, Storm Flag Flying and Tabasco Cat.

  4. Mary S.

    I have worked with too many of these horses who are usually the smartest and have either been abused or are bored or both. They just need patience and love. So good to read these stories.

  5. Delrene Sims

    Congratulations to all on this amazing gorgeous thoroughbred. Beautiful photos. Enjoy many wonderful years together.

  6. "Aunt" Sheila

    As we have all said many times….CONGRATS Brayle & Holly. We are all so proud of all you have accomplished, and for what you 2 saw in each other years ago.

  7. cheri vaughan

    A profound example of how perception is everything. As I always say, although we will never meet in person, we at House of Vaughan LOVE young Brayle and Holiday Cat. Brayle did not take the easy job and Holiday Cat has her true, forever person in her. It doesn’t get any better in our opinion…. Truly and sincerely, we say ALL THE BEST to this pair.

  8. Michelle Y.

    I love this story! So awesome Brayle saw through the issues and her mom gave them a chance together. Holiday Cat is a beautiful horse and a beautiful jumper (I can’t believe someone called her ugly, what an ugly person to have said that). Congratulations to Brayle for how far she has come with Holiday Cat.

  9. TBDancer

    Sometimes “sour” and “impossible to work with” are due to injury or just plain body sore. That’s why time off is so important. Some horses need a few days, some a few weeks and others a bit longer, but like the kid cleaning the dirty stall, “there’s got to be a ‘pony’ in there somewhere” and often tincture of time and lots of calm, patient handling work wonders. My OTTB is high maintenance–he is very stoic and problems aren’t apparent until he’s tired of “over-riding the pain”–but in our 16+ years together, I can honestly say it has all been worth it. I bet Holiday Cat’s connections are saying the same thing :o)

  10. Colmel

    Love stories like this! I remember before I got into thoroughbreds that everyone said to NEVER get a horse “off the track.” They were either “sour,” “injured,” or “impossible to work with.” Found out – as readers are of this blog that sometimes the naysayers were right, but mostly they were not. All that human time and hands on can make for an exceptional second career. You just have to be able to get the horse to focus on his/her new job and have the patience and love to show the way.

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