Ride of a Lifetime

Photo © Christy Cumberworth


I have had an interesting life with horses. For most of my life, I did not have a trainer to assist me with improving my skills or training my horses. But every horse I ever handled taught me something about not only horses but myself. 

That being said, there is one horse to whom I feel indebted. If it weren’t for her, I would neither be the person nor the rider that I am today.  This is the story of my “Ride of a Lifetime.”

“I pressed the button that opened the gates. My husband, David, and I drove into the paradise of one of the richest families in the world. Up and up the steep, winding driveway we went, passing four magnificent barns: hunter, jumper, dressage, eventing barn—finally arriving at the fifth at the end of the drive. The trainer who was hosting us said that this barn was reserved for the horses who weren’t going to “make it” for their owners’ intended purposes.

I entered one of the poshest barns I had ever seen. I had little time to contemplate the luxurious decor because my attention was instantly drawn to the first stall on the left in which stood a massive and stunningly beautiful chestnut horse with a full white blaze and a head so big that it was almost level with the height of the grill bars on the closed stall gate.

A “Wowwwwww,” fell out of my open mouth. I wondered if this could be Zoe, the mare that I was here to try. I walked closer and raised my hand to pet her face through the bars. She lunged at me with mouth open, teeth bared, and ears pinned. Yes, this must be the one…

Gold Thread and Hershey’s Special

Before Zoe, there were several others. I grew up in a suburban neighborhood in upstate New York. In order to get in or out of the development we had to drive by a horse farm. Every time we passed that farm, I would beg my parents to allow me to ride. Every time they resisted; we were a family of medical professionals, not horse people. Not quite eight years old, they were also sure that I was too young to handle a horse safely or have any sense of responsibility. Besides, my father was deathly allergic to any fur-bearing creature.

Despite all of that, one of my presents for my eighth birthday was my first riding lesson at a hunter/jumper barn. I was elated and bitten instantly by the horse bug. I yearned to live in a barn, smell like a horse, and even be a horse. More lessons followed. I became so determined to quickly progress my skill level that my parents decided purchasing a “family horse” would be a good idea.

I wasn’t thrilled that I would have to share Gold Thread, nicknamed Spider, with my mother, father, and sister. Spider was a fancy, 16.2 hand, sixteen-year-old thoroughbred who had competed at the National Horse Show. He was in our price range because he was riddled with soundness problems, but since we were uneducated and inexperienced horse buyers we had no idea what soundness problems even were.

Our instructor/trainer told the veterinarian conducting the pre-purchase exam that we were only going to do small cross-rail jumps with him—which was not actually true—so on a misinformed basis, Spider passed his exam.  It wasn’t long after purchasing him that Spider became a violent stopper. His overused, painful body couldn’t handle the work. I fell off at some point in every single jumping lesson.

My mother, a recreational equestrian herself in the past, encouraged me with the classic theory, “You’re not a good rider until you can’t count the number of times you fell off.” I was determined to persevere. Even at this early age, I knew that I was meant to be with horses in some way. I fell off every week but somehow I never got hurt; I even managed to collect a few championships here and there on my fancy horse who did not prefer to jump.

Those early lessons would help me, decades later, when I met my horse of a lifetime.

Photo © Jess Kielman

One day in May 2010, a friend called to tell me she found a mare she wanted me to try. The horse was big and difficult. She had behavioral problems, but my friend, Amy, felt I could fix them. I graciously told her thanks, but no thanks. I had been very sick, wasn’t riding anymore, and was thinking of getting out of horses altogether. Amy encouraged me to call the handlers of this horse, which I did only out of respect and appreciation for her.

When I called the farm and spoke with the mare’s handlers, they were pretty blunt. They told me that she was horrible on the ground and was completely unsafe to deal with. I told them the same thing I told my friend; thanks for your honesty, but no thanks. Amy called again and basically said in her sweet and polite way that I owed it to her to just go try the horse once. “If you hate her you never have to go back again. But I’m so sure you two will be great for each other that you need to promise me you’ll go see her once.” I grudgingly promised.

Amy would turn out to be right about me and that problematic mare, Zoe. We formed an incredible bond, and ended up successfully competing up to Preliminary level eventing. Our first event at that level is sealed in my memory.

Photo © Christy Cumberworth

Zoe felt great for our cross-country warm-up on day two, so once again I thought we’d give it a go. I decided to let her tell me how fast she could go since she was not as fit as I planned for her to be two weeks ago. I wasn’t going to push her; my goal was just to “complete” our first event. We had to jump several obstacles we had never seen before in competition including a large jump up to fall into the water and a massive “Weldon’s Wall.” it had a very wide and deep ditch in front of it which honest-to-goodness had five trees growing out of it. Plus there was a drop jump which was at my shoulder height,  and a bounce combination of drop-steps, among other things. The only thing she hesitated about was the water complex. 

Although we were slow, about thirty seconds over the time allowed, we were the only pair to jump clean in the class.  This includes a horse who had been trained and ridden by an Olympian, including at the Rolex Kentucky 3 Day Event, who had three refusals. We won by 13 points! We had never ever won a recognized event before, so this was truly a special moment. To win at our first time out at this level really took me by surprise; in fact, I didn’t even check the leader board as I assumed I was out of the ribbons due to the 13 time faults. What an honor! 

I just loved this mare. She jumped all the jumps easily. The USEA omnibus—which is the online listing of all the USEA events for the year and gives readers info about each event, including how difficult the cross-country courses are for their respective levels—said that this place is “not a good move-up course” but I knew if Zoe was well, she could do it. And she did. In addition to our huge first place ribbon, we also won a saddle pad, mug, and a gift certificate for $100 to Littleton Equine, of all places!

Although we encountered more than our share of problems and setbacks, we went on to have many more experiences like this one, and shockingly won many horse and rider of the year titles.  Zoe was also named the best three-day event mare of her breed in the world, as she was the only purebred Irish Draught mare to have ever competed at the Preliminary level, let alone won at it.

Zoe was my horse of a lifetime and outperformed the capabilities of her breed, all because she loved me and thanked me in spades for giving her a good life.  She taught me more lessons than I could count about the game of life, and as a result of her competition prowess, took me to more places across the country than I ever imagined I would go.

Photo © Christy Cumberworth

As a lifelong equestrian for over 40 years, Tootie has been competitive in many different horse sports including Hunters, Jumpers, Equitation, Fox Hunting, Versatility, and Eventing. Professionally, she is a Physical Therapist who has been published many times in science research and has also written a column for the Equine Chronicle called “Physical Therapy For Riders and Their Horses.” Her biggest publication to date is her new book which is a true story and a memoir, “Ride of a Lifetime: How a $10 Horse Became an Eventing Champion” which can be bought on her website www.optimusfarm.com. You may also connect with her via her facebook business page, “Optimus Farm” or her personal Facebook page, Cynthia-Tootie Loffredo Anderson.