Pittsburgh native Rachel Sowinski had come to Kentucky to fulfill a lifelong dream of working with horses. Employed by Reese Koffler-Stanfield's Maplecrest Farm, Rachel met a number of equestrians and equine professionals in and around the Lexington area, and their opinion of her had been unanimously positive.
That's why when her beloved horse, Jody, died in a freak pasture accident the week of Christmas in 2012, a group of local equestrians – some of whom she barely knew – came together to give Rachel a gift so great that two years later she is still in awe of their gesture.
“I grew up reading the Thoroughbred book series, buying my first one with a gift card I'd received for Barnes and Noble and over time acquiring dozens more. I was horse obsessed, which led me to attend Bethany College. Jody was a Thoroughbred I had ridden when I was in school, and when I graduated I begged and begged my parents to get her,” said Rachel. “I moved to Lexington and brought her with me. I loved that mare. When she died, I was absolutely devastated.”
One of the many people who reached out to Rachel in the days following her horse's passing was eventing rider and trainer Megan Moore, who operates Team CEO Eventing. Megan understood Rachel's pain all too well, as she too had experienced a tragic loss that year when her horse, The Grasshopper, collapsed and died on the cross country course at Pine Top that February.
Megan, who has a knack for helping people find the right off-the-track horses to suit their needs, told Rachel she would be happy to help her find her next horse whenever she was ready.
“I was a working student and young and I couldn't afford much, but we weren't finding what we were looking for in the ‘free' department,” said Rachel. “Megan suggested we visit Second Stride Thoroughbred Adoption and try a few horses there. I rode a few, and when they pulled out a three-year-old named Southern Awe, I said, ‘Nope, put him back. I don't want one that young and green.'”
Megan persisted and once Rachel saw how nicely he went under saddle, she decided to hop on.
“Once I was on his back, I wanted to ride him forever,” said Rachel. “It was 20 degrees outside, but he was a saint. He was so well behaved and just fun to ride. Then, when I hopped off, Megan suggested I take him back to his stall and spend some time with him. It was the weirdest, coolest feeling, like he was entertaining me in his stall and didn't want me to leave. I got this feeling that he was cool with me and knew I was cool with him.”
There was just one obstacle: the adoption fee.
Rachel loved the horse but could not afford the adoption fee for him. She tried thinking of ways she could work off his adoption fee or earn extra money with side jobs, and texted Megan almost daily about him. Megan thought they were a good fit too and told Rachel to be patient and save money.
“Then, one day I got a call from Dr. Chris Newton with the results of a vetting report on Southern Awe. I was like, ‘Why are we vetting a horse I can't afford? This is killing me,” Rachel said.
A few days later, Megan called and asked if I'd come out to her farm. There, waiting in the Team CEO barn, was Rachel's new horse, Southern Awe. Megan, Reese, Dr. Newton, Carroll Crowl, and others at Team CEO Farm – many of whom she didn't know – chipped in for the adoption fee.
“They said it was a late Christmas present. Words still cannot express what their combined gesture means to me,” said Rachel.
Together Rachel and Rebel, as he's now known around the barn, honed their skills. Rachel first took Rebel to Reese's Maplecrest Farm, where they focused on giving themselves a proper foundation through dressage with Reese as their trainer. Then, wanting to explore the sport of eventing, she and Rebel moved to Megan's farm to start learning how to jump.
This past year, the pair competed in two horse trials at the beginner novice level. Rachel hopes to move up to novice in 2015.
“In one year, we went from not jumping to participating in Team CEO's Puissance day, maxing out at four-feet-two-inches!” said Rachel. “Megan encourages each of us to have riding goals, and my goal for 2015 had been to jump the barrels set up vertically with a pole set over them. We ended up jumping those last week, so I guess I need to come up with a new goal for us.”
Rachel and Rebel have proven to be an outstanding pair, working off of each other's strengths and helping each other overcome their weaknesses. While Rachel loves dressage and describes herself as a “chicken” when it comes to cross country, Rebel loves to run cross country and soars over any obstacle put in front of him but tends to lose his focus with flatwork rather easily.
“Rebel has been so much more than I'd hoped for,” said Rachel. “He gives me confidence when I need it, and I help him focus when he needs to.”
This week marked the two year anniversary of Jody's passing. Rachel is still profoundly thankful to all of the people who made it possible for her to have Rebel. While she now works in the office at Grand Prix rider Derek Braun's Splitrock Farm, she still boards Rebel at Team CEO and takes regular lessons with both Megan and Reese.
“I so wanted to love another horse the way I loved my mare, but I honestly didn't know if it was even possible,” said Rachel. “He has become my horse of a lifetime. It's the best Christmas present I could have ever been given and the gesture just means so much to me. I'll keep him forever.”
Name: Southern Awe (a.k.a. “Rebel”)
Born: March 8, 2008
Sire: Southern Image
Dam: Belle Claire
Sale History: Sold at KEESEP in 2009 as a yearling for $17,000
Race Record: 0-0-0-0
Race Earnings: $0
If you have or know of a retired Thoroughbred with an interesting story to tell, we'd love to hear about it! Just email Jen Roytz ([email protected]) with the horse's Jockey Club name, background story, and a few photos.
Jen Roytz is a freelance writer and marketing and public relations consultant for various entities, both equine and non-equine. She can also still be found on the back of an OTTB most days.
Contact Jen on Facebook and Twitter.
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