When Merrilyn Ratliff rapped her knuckles against the paddock fence, the last thing she wanted was the horse who came running to answer her call.
Mad with grief over the sudden death of her beautiful bay mare a few weeks earlier, Ratliff had all she could do to keep from crying when she let her riding coach Monica Fiss drag her out to look at an unbroken, unregistered, chestnut Thoroughbred. The prospect of even considering another to fill the void made her feel guilty, and besides, this particular equine had in spades everything she did not want in a new horse.
“My coach Monica had seen a video of this unbroken chestnut gelding she wanted me to try, and I knew I didn’t want a gelding, I didn’t want unbroken, and I certainly didn’t want a chestnut,” Ratliff said. “She had an answer to all of my objections. When I pointed out he was unbroken, she’d say, ‘He’s a blank slate!’ But I certainly didn’t want a chestnut, because I always had an aversion to them.”
But when Brando sashayed over to greet them at the fence line on July 12, 2014, all objections started to fade in the face of a truly magnificent animal who pranced around as though connected to them by an invisible lunge line.
“We were about 20 minutes late for our appointment to see him, so his owner had put him in a field with other horses. But as soon as I rapped on the fence, he came galloping over, and then he trotted around us like we were lunging him,” she said. “Then he cantered and showed off, and I just took a leap. I didn’t know what his gaits were like or if he even if he liked to jump!”
About a month after losing her OTTB mare Pollywog to a sudden, severe bout of colic, Ratliff took a deep breath, set aside her grief, and agreed to take another chance on the crushingly fragile, beautifully majestic Thoroughbred.
“The horses couldn’t be more different in some ways. But in other ways, the experiences I’ve shared with them are the same. I learned a lot from Pollywog, and this helped me be better educated and prepared to help (train) Brando,” she said.
Her trainer started Brando (Fantasticat x Makin Mani, by Makin) under saddle and soon discovered, much to everyone’s amazement, that along with a kind, sweet temperament, Brando possessed a strong work ethic and a natural aptitude for dressage!
“To say that my gamble worked out would be a vast understatement,” Ratliff said. “He has learned incredibly quickly and despite his youth, he was six when we got him, and inexperience, he’s calm and tolerant of the many situations I put him in, and of the many mistakes I make. There’ve been so many times in the last year I’ve thought that Pollywog must have sent him to me to continue my training.”
That feeling of coming full circle was especially strong during a recent event at Olde Hope Farms in Earleville, Md., the site of a ride she’d taken with her mare the year before.
After putting in a stellar dressage test and leading their division going into cross-country, a refusal on course dropped them back to 7th place. Though it wasn’t the result she was hoping for, she caught her breath and smiled when she picked up her purple ribbon and recalled an earlier time.
“I rode Pollywog in purple because the regal shade seemed to suit her,” she said. “When I went into the event on Brando I was thinking that my horse is perfect and we’re going to win the blue ribbon. But, after we had the refusal, I wasn’t upset with him; I was thrilled to finish.”
Clutching her purple ribbon, she smiled “from ear to ear” remembering her mare, and seizing the moment with the chestnut gelding who came running last year to answer her call.