Thoroughbred Makeover Diary: Inspired by Sound Horse With Big Heart

You have been following Mr. Park’s journey to the 2021 Thoroughbred Makeover, but this week I’d love to spotlight his big brother, Slew the Zodiac. He has quite the amazing journey himself.

A little background on Zodi and me. I have had him his entire post-racetrack career, although I didn’t actually own him at first. It’s a pretty cool story and I’ll give you the brief version. He had been purchased by one of my best clients, Steven Thomas, who is the huntsman for Fort Leavenworth Hunt. Zodi was the fourth Thoroughbred I had hand-selected for him as a huntsman’s mount. His horses continually rotate through my training program for conditioning and tune-ups. Zodi quickly proved that what I saw in him the day I met him was accurate. He started hunting two weeks after leaving the track and was hunting the hounds by 2 ½ months. He was as honest as they come about jumping, was excellent with the hounds, and had that quiet, calm, and brave demeanor required to be a huntsman’s mount. In addition to being a superstar in the hunt field, he was also excelling in the background with dressage training. 

I think it’s really important to cross-train Thoroughbreds in as many disciplines as you can. The more they see, the better they get! I realized quickly how bonded I had become to this horse, to a level I refused to ever let myself go to for a horse that is for sale or not my own. I cried after one of my dressage lessons on him because I was heartbroken this horse was not mine. Zodi continued to hunt and excel and was wonderful for Steve — however, Steve let me know Zodi just wasn’t quite as confident with him as he was with me. When I would pony him up to Steve just before the hunt and hand him off, Zodi started calling to me and jigging. My heart sank. I feared for the day Steve would call and say, “Zodi is a great horse, but not quite what I want as a huntsman’s horse.”

The phone rang on my way Kansas City one day. Steve started with “Hey, we need to talk about Zodi.” Instantly, the knot in my throat grew and I got a sick feeling in my gut … except what followed still brings me to tears to this day. I feel it’s also important to state here that he had gotten a $30,000 offer on this horse when I took him to Georgia to hunt two months prior. He follows up with, “He’s yours, just replace him for me.” These are the moments the true character of people shines through. Instead of making a fortune on this horse, he simply GAVE him to me, with the only request of me purchasing him a new horse and training it in the field to replace him. I’m still in disbelief to this day.

Fast-fast forward to late September 2018. I once again was traveling with Zodi to Kansas City for a horse show. There was a wreck right in front of me on the interstate which forced me to drive my truck and trailer right into the ditch going 70 miles an hour. Zodi fell and suffered blunt force trauma to his face, ultimately losing the vision in his left eye after a detached retina and torn optic nerve. I feared our Eventing career was over, but more importantly was just grateful my horse was OK.

Zodi shocked them all when he still competed in the Thoroughbred Makeover in Field Hunter and Eventing. He rode blindfolded up until the day before competition. He finished in the top 10 in field hunters despite all of his trauma, proving again just how big and trusting his heart was.

We had to take a few steps back jumping cross-country post injury as his depth perception had changed a lot. After months of adjustment, we were out competing again, and to my delight, he was still game to do his favorite job.

Now here we are in 2021, and he is competing at the FEI level, most recently finishing with a third-place finish in the Fox River Valley 2* Short. He ran the fastest cross-country time in his division with zero jumping penalties on what proved to be an extremely challenging footing after torrential rains. He was bold, honest, and insanely rideable. He had many blind left-hand turns, but if you watched him from the ground you would have never known he does not have vision in his left eye.

Horses are seriously the most incredible animals, and I try to take a lesson from them every ride. It doesn’t matter what the odds are stacked against you, the sky is the limit if you put the work in. Zodi doesn’t know or care about any other horse he competes against or that he has a disability that they do not. He just goes out, works really hard, and does his best to do his part of our team work. We all focus a bit too much on our competitors and what they have versus us. I go to the start box and only compete with myself with the goal of improving.  Sometimes that hard work shows at the end of the day with a ribbon, which is just the icing on the cake. 

At only 7 years old, this horse has accomplished many things few horses that event accomplish. Would this horse pass a pre-purchase exam that most horses get scrutinized over these days? Likely not — he’s missing vision in one eye, has some changes in his left hock after being hit by a car in a freak accident, has suffered an episode of Rhabdomyolysis that put him in the ICU for over a week among other little findings you’d probably discover.

What is the lesson here though? Horses don’t read their own X-rays or compare their disabilities. Choosing a sound horse with a big heart for the job is significantly more important.

Horses like Zodi are truly once in a lifetime. Every time I sit on him, I remind myself that no future rides are ever promised and I give him an extra pat … an extra cookie … five extra minutes rubbing his sweet face. I can’t imagine my life without him and will continue to thank every lucky star that twinkles that I get to own him.

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