How a dangerous horse pulled her from despair

Tabula Rasa and Jenn Shaffer enjoy a lighthearted moment at the Pimlico Totally Thoroughbred Show. Photo by Annette Merson

Tabula Rasa and Jenn Shaffer enjoy a lighthearted moment at the Pimlico Totally Thoroughbred Show. Photo by Annette Merson

Over four short weeks in December 2009 Jenn Shaffer had become unmoored. The breakup with her boyfriend and the loss of the home they shared, the sudden loss of her job, and then the death of her beloved horse; now she sat in a friend’s apartment feeling shipwrecked.

So devastated, so dazed, while contemplating where to turn next, she suddenly understood why people contemplate and sometimes even do the worst thing imaginable. To themselves! “I wouldn’t have done it myself. But I understood it in those moments why people commit suicide,” she says.

That’s when her friends, her really good friends, threw her a life raft, and encouraged her to do something a little nutty.

“They had found a horse being given away, his name was Tabula Rasa, and I Googled his name and discovered the Latin translation is ‘clean slate.’ It was crazy. I needed another horse like a hole in the head, but I decided to go for it,” she says.

Tabula Rasa
Barn name: Rusty
Sire: More than Ready
Dam: Silent Academy
Foal date: March 24, 2006
She and her friends scraped together $200 to buy a horse trailer on Craig’s List, and set out to the Maryland Farm where the chestnut gelding deemed “dangerous” was waiting, and maybe shipwrecked himself.

“He was tied to the back wall of his stall when I met him, and on his Jockey Club papers, he was listed as dangerous,” she says. “Nobody would take him.”

So against all logic, Shaffer loaded him into the bargain-basement trailer in March 2010, and drove him to a horse farm where she had arranged to trade farm work for his room and board.

But things were going to be a little rough before they got a little better.

Tabula Rasa, who is better known as Rusty, had a violent temper and tested Shaffer’s resolve almost daily.

A simple walk to the paddock was fraught with anxiety as he reared over the top of her, bit and kicked her. “He was horrible on the ground!” she admits. “I still have a welt on my butt from where he bit me once.”

Jenn admits she stopped riding 15 strides away from some jumps, but Tabula Rasa never let her down.

Jenn admits she stopped riding 15 strides away from some jumps, but Tabula Rasa never let her down.

Recalling the day he took a healthy chunk out of her backside, she says she sat down in defeat, on a bucket in the field. “I just cried. But then he walked over and put his head on my shoulder,” she says, noting that his brief gesture of affection was all she needed to get back up, dust herself off, and face her difficult mount, and even her life itself, head on.

Her plan for Rusty was simple. She would ride him until she fell off. In January 2013, after a two-week break in their training routine, she saddled him up on a brisk, cold day and rode to the top of a hill. “When we got to the top, he reared up and threw me so hard he cracked my helmet,” she says, adding that she suffered a concussion from the incident, and suffered balance issues for a brief time.

Then in mid-January, Rusty injured his right, rear leg in a pasture battle with another horse. His injuries healed after two weeks of stall rest, and 30 days of light work, and by July last year, the bruised and weary horse and rider managed to pull it together in time to compete in the Totally Thoroughbred Show at the Pimlico Race Course.

On the field, facing down jumps as high as 3-foot-7, nothing fazed Rusty.

“I was scared at the show. In order to get through it, I pretended it was a dream, like nothing was real. I actually stopped riding about 15 strides out from one jump thinking there’s no way he’d go over it,” she says. “But he took me right to it and sailed over the top of it.”

If the jumps were metaphor for troubles in life, Rusty cleared them all. And he carried his indomitable rider with him.

The improbably pair has conquered hard times together. Photo by

The improbable pair has conquered hard times together. Photo by Annette Merson

“I was never afraid of him. I thought of him as my horse, my ‘clean slate’ right from the beginning,” she says.

“When you’re unemployed for a long time, you need a reason to wake up everyday and get going. He gave me that reason. He got me out of bed everyday, because I had to take care of him.”

Their lives might not be perfect, but together, they weather the storms and disappointments. And when leaping over obstacles, like trees in the backfield, felled by storms, she feels a little bit invincible.

On a horse who scared so many, she found her chance to start over, and he found the same—a fresh start.

16 responses to “How a dangerous horse pulled her from despair”

  1. Debra Nemeth

    On my previous comment – sorry – I meant mid-May…, not mid-March…

  2. Debra Nemeth

    I never experienced anything like you did. Although my OTTB – and my first horse – was a bit much for me to handle in the beginning. She was pushy, and she was a bit full of herself. She had raced in late February that year. I got her in mid-March. When she came off the trailer, I thought she was beautiful. Magnificent. The driver and his wife gave me the lead rope like here is your horse, and she practically dragged me to the gate of the stable. The owner came over and said let me take her. I obliged. No reason to get killed. He put her in her stall. I was with the transport driver and his wife; nice couple, and paid them cash and got my receipt. As I walked back towards her stall where my mom was watching her from outside, I was thinking what the heck did I get myself into. I wanted a riding horse; a trail horse. This horse was a bit more than I bargained for. When you have to wait until you are 54 to get your first horse, well, money was tight and I had to buy a horse I could afford. She cost me $750.00 and the ride down on the transport was $535. It seemed very reasonable to me. She challenged me often. In the beginning I groomed her in her stall. I was a bit afraid to walk her around the place because she would walk fast and spook. I must say my confidence was greatly shaken. I’ve fallen off of her twice, and made one trip to Quickcare. I was a mess for 8 weeks the first time. The second time it was more like 3-4. I’ve had her 6 years now, and everyone who meets her loves her. She loves people. She can be feisty, no doubt, but she is a very sweet and loving horse. I don’t think anyone ever considered her “dangerous”, but to me she was crazy – in the beginning. Now she walks so nice with me. And we hug, and I give her carrots for kisses (nose bumps), and she’s pretty mellow. She was 4 years old when I got her off the track. She just turned 10 in February. I love that horse with all my heart. As I’m sure you do too. Your story is very inspiring and I’m so happy you were there for each other. Heart warming! God bless you both.

  3. Cynthia Raebiger

    I also am the proud owner/rider of a OTTB & completely can relate to the ups & downs of a horse “deemed dangerous”. My beautiful boy was saved from slaughter & has overcome many issues. He tests me every day but, I feel so fortunate to have him in my life! Way to go to Jenn & her beautiful boy, may they enjoy many amazing rides together!!

  4. Phillipa

    We often get the horse we need and he often mirrors us and we often don’t realize until much later. My first horse saved my life. But to get there he ran me at walls forcing me to have to jump off. Then we learned from each other.

  5. LYNNE w

    Inspiring story…it is amazing how horse and their humans can lift and inspire each other. I also think there is a ‘hazing’ period that horses make us go thru to see if we are really committed. I love Rusty’s attitude…brave and bold…good luck to this great pair!

  6. Jean

    Such a great story. Their first day together was the first day of the rest of their lives.

  7. edna

    how interesting….I can relate to many of the comments here. My mare tested me for a couple years off and on when I first got her. We both managed to survive each other and are now a great pair and have quite the bond. She’s worth it and I am too but it was touch and go for a while there.

  8. Colmel

    Congratulations on all your hard work and your fortitude. I note that Tabula Rasa is a great-grandson of Halo. Halo was mercurial as they come. Poor guy had to wear a full basket “muzzle” because he would have spells where he would literally go after anyone who walked by. He almost killed his groom. No one could tell when his switch would turn – or what set him off. His groom told me that Halo’s eyes would turn “blood red” and he’d be very dangerous. Other times, he was as mild as could be. They just couldn’t take a chance with him. So maybe Rusty just has a little too much “Halo.” So glad you could get past that part of him and get down to the horse that lives to please.

  9. Susan Crane-Sundell

    You kept going Jenn. And Tabula Rasa picked up the slack when you couldn’t. The perfect horse who came along at the perfect time.You’re smiling again! Together you are winning!

  10. Desirea Herrera

    Our most challenging horses usually become our best horses because we put so much more effort into them.

  11. Cynthia Minchillo

    Congrats Jenn. I hope at some point in my life I have the same success with my “dangerous” OTTB.

  12. Linda Scruton

    I have no words to describe how I love this story!

  13. SpotOn

    “He got me out of bed everyday, because I had to take care of him”

    I rough board. And the above statement is exactly why I do, even now with the severe fatigue and other issues that my condition has thrown at me.
    My boy needs me. And I now need him even more. He is keeping me going. My grandfather once told me that the second you stop, you begin to die. I am not planning on stopping. No matter what.

  14. Kathy Barrett


  15. Wendy Scott

    I love it, bold horse, bold rider, what more could you want.

  16. Raisa Stone

    I understand Jenn Shaffer’s resolve completely. After years of successful interactions with horses, a “dangerous” colt seemed to totally defeat me.

    A trainer myself, I enlisted three three other trainers for help. It wasn’t till after I healed from cancer on my own terms, refusing multiple organ removals, that I realized my persistence with this violent animal gave me the skill and determination to claim 100% control over how my body was treated, and command victory over my illness.

    I love Jenn’s statement, “He got me out of bed everyday, because I had to take care of him.”

    My colt’s obstreperous character made a peaceful warrior out of me.

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