Janice Norwesh yanked a red “Saratoga” cap down over her bald head, swung her cancer-weary body into the saddle of a New Holland rescue horse, and set off to help the mare move on with her life, unafraid.
After completing successful chemotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer, the long-retired gallop girl, who rode many greats in her heyday including a Belmont Stakes winner, decided to return to the saddle to help OTTB mare Sunny Emblem.
Sunny, whose nickname is Emma, was rescued in 2011 from the New Holland Auction by Izzy’s Love Equine Rescue in Maryland, and adopted eight months later by Elizabeth De Smet of Westford, Mass. And while the mare has thrived as a pet, it wasn’t until last month that her Thoroughbred mind was unlocked by a woman known in her racetrack days for having the magic touch.
Race name: Sunny Emblem
Sire: Our Emblem
Dam: Sunny Runner, by Root Boy
Foal date: April 6, 2003“The biggest thing in my background is that I was really good with bad horses,” says Norwesh. That and the fact that she rode some of racing’s stars, including Belmont Stakes winner Colonial Affair and Cryptoclearance in her 16-year career. “I was different than the other riders, who the first thing they did was crank up the stirrups. I always dropped my irons and the reins because I knew that no matter what they did, they could buck, they could prop, I wasn’t going to come off.”
That kind of confidence translates easily to a flight animal like a horse. And if the rider is unafraid, they’re also unafraid, she says.
“If a horse senses fear, they’re looking for whatever it is you’re afraid of,” she says, noting that the key to unlocking the horses she has ridden is to use firm corrective aids to alter bad behavior, and to reassure them with her own confidence.
Using riding techniques to redirect the OTTB’s mind—circling, dropping her reins, and walking forward—Norwesh has used what she knows of race training to understand Emma’s mindset, and determine what her bad behavior is saying.
“Emma has a habit of lugging-in when she canters. So, her head will point out, and the left side of her body tries to hit the rail. This can be a symptom of soreness. And since Emma broke her pelvis while breezing, I think she’s a little weak on the back, right,” she says. To help the mare build strength and balance, she incorporated side-reins into lunging exercises, helping her use her body weight evenly.”
In a short time, the mare’s topline and crest has developed beautifully, and she becomes more balanced everyday, she says.
And the consistency of work and confidence is helping Emma develop into the riding horse that De Smet has always dreamed of.
Watching Norwesh sit on Emma one recent day, De Smet was brought to tears.
The women have been friends since the 1980’s and 90’s when De Smet worked for Centennial Farms and Norwesh was riding great horses. Though they left the racing business, their friendship endured.
Last month, De Smet watched in awe as her talented friend settled herself on the back of her dearly loved horse. Breathing in the crisp afternoon air, the ladies giggled as Emma put up an initial fuss before walking forward.
The pair had come so far. And here they were once again, absorbing the good feeling that comes of being with a horse.
“When Janice had almost finished with her chemo, she let me know that she wanted to start working with my ‘filly’ because she wanted to get her life back. I was all for it. I’d always known Janice would get along great with Emma because of her background breaking babies and galloping horses,” De Smet says. “She has galloped so many wonderful horses—Cryptoclearance, Aurora, (the dam of ArchArchArch’s sire Arch), Rubiano, Colonial Affair—and was a fantastic horsewoman. I’d been trying for years to get Janice to come down from New Hampshire to meet my Emma.”
And when it finally happened, De Smet says she “hit the jackpot.” She adds, “Seeing Janice healthy again and up on Emma, a friend and a horse I love dearly, made me cry.”