Rustic Ridge dies in barn fire, his spirit lives on


At the final 9 p.m. barn check, all was well.

By 9:59 p.m., all was catastrophically wrong.

A fire so hot it melted a piece of farm equipment spread like wildfire through the gorgeous Michigan stabling facility, claiming the lives of nine horses in its wake, including a Thoroughbred ex-racehorse that nobody much believed in at first, but who, under his owner’s patient tutelage, was becoming quite the Sporthorse.

Since the Aug. 10 blaze at the WinterSpring Dressage facility in Carson City, Mich., Kimberly Bench has been coping with the loss of her cherished ex-racehorse Rustic Ridge.

Memories of the tall, aloof gelding who “popped out at her” on the sale-horse directory of New Vocations Racehorse Adoption, which she perused daily, cling to everything in her barn in Holland, Mich. His scent still permeates his blanket, neatly folded by his stall door. She still half expects to see him there when she walks in.

“I rode him the day before the fire, and it was probably one of the best rides we’d ever had,” Bench says. “He was light, very responsive, relaxed and happy. It felt so harmonious; we were just right there, together.”

Gone now, Bench has returned three times since the fire, to the barn where she was temporarily stabling him, always hoping to see his face one last time, but the remains were not recognizable.

Race name: Rustic Ridge
Barn: Rusty
Sire: Touch Gold
Dam: Banatyne
Foal date: May 9, 2003
“From what I understand, the fire was very hot, and it all happened very quickly. Even the manure spreader, which was in the area, partially melted,” Bench says. “The fire department was on the scene in four minutes, but by that point, the roof was starting to go down.

I just hope and pray that Rusty didn’t suffer.”

Theirs had been a prized relationship. Despite mishaps and pitfalls, the horse-rider team was just hitting their stride when the fire broke out.

“Rusty was one of those horses that nobody ever expected a whole lot out of. Our sport was dominated by Warmbloods, and we always had to get past that glass ceiling,” she says. “And we were! People were starting to realize that he had some real talent, and some real potential.”

At his very first horse show in 2009, which Bench entered after nursing him through seven months of tendon injury rehabilitation, Rusty was able to stay cool and win.

“We won all three classes and had high-percentage for the day,” she recalls. “After our first show, the judge called us over at the end of the day, and I thought, ‘Oh no.’. But she only wanted to say that she really liked what we were doing, and really liked the horse. She said she was excited to see how he had progressed in his career.”

Kimberly Bench and Rusty

They finished 2009 with a 73.6 average ranking!

The  satisfaction she felt however, about seizing victory after a year spent rehabilitating her horse from a tendon injury, didn’t last.

In 2010, the flashy chestnut became somehow entangled in the fencing of a nearby boarding facility, opening up deep gashes in critical areas. “He had cuts so bad that parts of his canon bone was exposed,” Bench says. “But, somehow, the accident spared his tendons.”

Although her veterinarian was skeptical that Rusty would ever recover well enough to be competitive, Bench was not to be deterred. “I cold-hosed him and pressure-wrapped him everyday for three months while he was on antibiotics, painkillers, and stall rest.”

It worked. Even her veterinarian was shocked.

“He came out to visit and, my vet’s a funny man, he slapped his forehead, takes a step back and says, ‘Kimberly, it’s a miracle! He’s sound!’ ”

After that, the pair went on to school at second level, displaying his “above average movement and conformation” to its best advantage, and earning Bench’s everlasting respect.

Rusty, left, with friend

“That horse just never gave up.”

When, in the end, fate claimed his life this month, Bench vowed to keep that horse’s spirit at the heart of her future endeavors.

Bench and her husband will press on with their plans to close on their own horse farm in Hudsonville, Mich., and, although the stall that was supposed to be Rusty’s will have another’s nameplate on the door, the flashy horse has forever left his mark.

“I’ve owned horses for a long time, and there have been several very special ones,” she says. “But, I enjoyed Rusty every time I sat on him, for four years. People always said there was a special bond between us, and there really was.”

In honor of his memory, Bench went back to New Vocations to adopt another Thoroughbred. It was nothing she planned. In fact, the last thing on her mind, as she read notes of condolences on Facebook, was a new horse.

But, contained in all the notes of sympathy about the barn fire, was a picture of ex-race mare Call Me Evelyn.

“I still feel guilty to be going on with my life, but it was like God threw this mare right in front of me,” she says. “I’ll never be able to replace Rusty, but, maybe she can help ease my grief a little.”


Like Rusty, she is a big horse, already 16.2 hands, and strikingly beautiful. Also like him, she is a retired racehorse who needed someone.

“I don’t know if you’re familiar with Greek mythology, but, we decided to name her Phoenix” as a symbol of rebirth.

“The fire was just so terrible. Rusty was up there to get some time with my coach, and he was supposed to be home in a couple of weeks,” she says. “He can’t come with us, but Phoenix will be there.”

Donations may be sent to “WinterSpring Fire Relief” c/o
Chemical Bank
10795 East Carson City Rd.,
Carson City, Michigan, 48811

9 responses to “Rustic Ridge dies in barn fire, his spirit lives on”

  1. Lisa

    This is such a heart breaking story, my daughter has rustic fire( one of rustic ambers sons) .
    Like your rusty ours has battled like a Trojan . His racing career ended with a horrific barrier fall where he was kicked in the head and left with his face open. That day at the last minute his trainer decided not to put him down but o try and rehabilitate him. With little success once again he seemed destined to go to the “dog truck” , but lucky for him his track worker had taken a shine to him. She spent 12 months working on his basic flat work, and that’s when we bought him. He is now eventing and showjumping at 1.15 m . My daughter is 15 now and we’ve had him for 3 years , they have just found that special partnership and all being well “the sky is the limit”. I whisper to him before every event ” look after Jess” and he always does. Rest assured that rustys spirit lives on, and time will heal your broken heart.

  2. Leslie M. Kuretzky

    RIP beautiful Rusty.

  3. Lisa Melone

    Such tragedy is always hard to read about–I just can’t imagine living through a barn fire. I hope Phoenix brings Kimberly as much joy, despite the sad loss or Rusty.

  4. Sandy

    We went through a barn fire at our facility in March of 2006; we lost 5 horses and saved 11. I didn’t own the farm at the time, but we were the boarder with the most horses and I was best friends with the owner. My horses were in another barn on the property we’d built a year earlier, so none of them were affected. The owner/trainer died on the six month anniversary. I wish I could say you get over it, but you don’t. All of us who were there that night have some degree of PTSD. My daughter, who was 10 at the time, is not the same person she would have been had that not happened. We rebuilt the barn when we bought the farm from the estate, and put as many fire precautions as possible into the construction. Every night when I leave the barn, though, I worry about fire. Every night. My heart goes out to the people of WinterSpring.

  5. Christy

    I can’t begin to describe the goosebumps. Barn fires are ALWAYS tragic, but for me, this one hit home. I have a 2004 gelding by Touch Gold who is also the most phenomenal horse I’ve ever known. While I know realistically that my boy has probably hundreds of siblings, the fact that he lost a brother in this fire is so very sad to me. Phoenix is beautiful and I wish you the best with her. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

  6. Joanne McLaurin

    “I am so sorry for your loss” is so inadequate at this time. I can only feel a small portion of the pain you must be feeling. Maybe by putting your energy into Phoenix will help to ease your pain, which in time will fade and leave you with the memories you have of Rusty. Just know that he must have been a happy horse, and enjoyed your company and working with you as much as you enjoyed him. May God bless you for all of the work you do for these horses and providing them a home as well. We need more people like you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  7. Sarah V.

    Oh this brings me to tears everytime I hear about the fire at Sue Thome’s place. I just can’t imagine what everyone involved with WinterSpring is going through but I know it must be so very hard on all of them if even I have a hard time not tearing up. I know Kim loved Rusty DEARLY and obviously proved it by doing whatever she had to a few times to make sure he was perfectly healthy. I know there were hard times too but her love for Rusty was what what won her over everytime. My heart breaks for you Kim (and all the others with WinterSpring) but in time, wounds will heal… Just like Rusty’s… But I am SO GLAD you are taking the next step in your recovery with your grief and adopted Phoenix! Like you said, “it was like God threw this mare right in front of me (you)”… Now that you’re closer, I look forward to meeting Phoenix in the near future! 🙂

  8. Grace M Summers

    This is a sad but happy story, it is always so hard to hear of barn fires and that horses were lost, just breaks my heart. Rusty will always be with his forever family in spirit and will lead Phoenix the right way and Kimberly will feel his spirit all the time. Good luck with your new horse look forward now and know that you three will be together in body, mind and spirit.

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