A moment in the sun comes for a prison horse

Nicki Wheeler had a stellar 30-year career in European racing circles before landing in the US as an equine instructor for a Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation program in Illinois.

Nicki Wheeler had a stellar 30-year career in European racing circles before landing in the US as an equine instructor for a Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation program in Illinois.

A horseman, who once enjoyed a glorious heyday working alongside famed Sir Henry Cecil, took a chance last year on a Thoroughbred who never had his moment in the sun.

There was just something about the 6-year-old “lead-locked” gelding with clicking stifles that charmed the heck out of seasoned Scottish horseman Nicki Wheeler. So when Silent Retreat was returned to the unglamorous stables at the Vandalia Correctional facility in Illinois, where Wheeler now works teaching inmates horsemanship skills, she threw caution to the wind.

“We had shipped him and three other horses to the Springfield State Fair as sale horses, but nobody wanted him. The other three sold, but for some reason he didn’t,” Wheeler says. “And as he walked back off the trailer” back at the prison “I took a better look at him and thought, my goodness, he’s beautiful.”

Silent Retreat
Barn name: Sammy
Sire: Eddington
Dam: Silver Lined
Foal date: May 20, 2009
No stranger to glitz and glamor of the Sport of Kings, the Scotland native worked for 30 years at the pinnacle of the sport before she relocated to the US, eventually landing as barn manager and equine instructor for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s inmate program at Second Chance Ranch in Illinois.

Though her career working as exercise rider and travel groom for legends such as Sir Henry Cecil, John Gosden and Henry Jones are well in her past, her practiced horsemen’s eye saw past the humble trappings of Silent Retreat, and to the good horse that he was.

“When he walked off that trailer after he failed to sell at the fair, I took a second look and thought he showed a lot of class,” she says. “He had a temperament and impeccable breeding, and I’d always had a soft spot for chestnuts.”

Silent Retreat schools for a new career with Nicki Wheeler, up,  and Barbara Jo Rubin.

Silent Retreat schools for a new career with Nicki Wheeler, up, and Barbara Jo Rubin.

A week later, she bought him. Two weeks after that, she hauled him to a local dressage show to try him out in new surroundings.

“Neither one of us knew what we were doing, but we came in 4th out of 14. I’ve spent 30 years riding with my knees up to my chin, so this was a real change for me.”

That first show whetted her appetite for competition, and she immediately sought the coaching talent of Barbra Jo Rubin, the first female jockey to win a recognized race, to train her and Silent Retreat for the dressage world. The former jockey and the one-time world-class exercise rider and groom soon teamed up to bring a little recognition to the overlooked OTTB.

“We went from not knowing anything in that first show to becoming High Point Award winners in an OTTB show in September sponsored by Thoroughbreds Helping Thoroughbreds,” an Illinois-based organization that helps re-home OTTBs. “We’ve only been to two shows so far, but our goal is to get to as many shows as we can this year, and win as many ribbons as we can!”

Her little chestnut Thoroughbred, such a far cry from the famous horses she once worked with—including Secretariat’s Tinners Way—is an undiscovered star who deserves to have a heyday like she once had.

9 responses to “A moment in the sun comes for a prison horse”

  1. Nicki Wheeler

    I read your article on Tinners that is so nice, I need to get there to get Helen my friend something like the bracelet for a keepsake she was his carer through his time at John Gosdens he was a star to ride , if you rode him up Warren Hill in his beginning days you would never have thought he was going to be anything he used to roar going up hills but on the flat clean as a whistle . It is truly a small world in Thoroughbreds , I came out here and was riding horses by Chester House here in Illinois, I rode Chester House at Henry Cecils and I rode his mother Toussaud at John Gosdens ,,
    Thank you

  2. Colmel

    Tinner’s Way is a special friend. Our first broodmare was bred to him, and I had a long (but not long enough) friendship with his dad.In one of my blogs https://colmel.wordpress.com/2014/02/18/old-friends-at-old-friends-the-most-anticipated-visit/
    I talked about visiting with TW at Old Friends.

    Terrific that Nikki is now riding OTTBs – especially that she’s rescued Sammy – and doing so well with him.

  3. Ruth Bordiss

    Go Nicki! One of life’s bubbliest and most positive people. You’re a star.

  4. cheri


  5. Stephanie Morse

    GET OUT!!! What a fabulous story; 2 ex-female race horse riders, one a jockey, one an exercise girl. This is the stuff of life. Congratulations to all, and thank you.

    1. Nicki Wheeler

      Thank you , even at 52 Im still so excited to be around horses, and try our new adventure together he is truly a sweetheart beautiful temperament and tries so willingly its wonderful. I have been with thoroughbreds since I was 15 years old, 😉

  6. SusanA

    Just a note….Sammy’s sire, Eddington once stood at Claiborne Farm (moved to Ballena Vista in CA in 2014) where I met him….he was in Secretariat’s old stall!
    Tinner’s Way is a Old Friends in Georgetown Ky!

    1. Nicki Wheeler

      That is awesome, my long time great friend Helen Murtagh looked after Tinners Way , when she comes over here one day to visit with my god child Lewis I will make a trip to Kentucky to visit with her old pal 😉

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