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
Sire: Touch Gold
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.”
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.
“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
10795 East Carson City Rd.,
Carson City, Michigan, 48811