California Riding Magazine • June, 2013

Horse Of The Month:
Treasure Chest
Retired Thoroughbred repays
trainers' faith and patience.

by Duncan McIntosh

Sheri Moser and Treasure Chest

When my wife, Sheri Moser and I started our training business together and went looking for prospects, we were aghast at the prices. A friend and fellow trainer had just gotten one in, perhaps the last from an ailing master horseman from back East. We had both grown up riding Thoroughbreds and, while our ears did not light up when hearing about this prospect, ours eyes certainly did when we saw this almost porcelain-perfect golden chestnut with all the bling. Treasure Chest came to us in 2005. He was a stunner and fun. A natural jumping athlete, his form and his looks and willingness convinced us to take the horse home and see what more he could do.

"Chester" was a happy sort with the kind of energy that required lots of liberty. While his ability never faltered, neither did a certain "over-response" to tractors, car doors and other frequent distractions. He had a characteristic groan that preceded either a scoot or a very large buck. His energy level made him challenging but we progressed nicely and earned a few ribbons in a Pre-Green Championship late in 2005.

There were bigger challenges ahead.

Chester came off the racetrack with a tendon injury from overreaching in his huge stride. As he continued to progress up the levels, we learned it had not quite healed properly. Thus began three years of starts and stops, during which he proved to be a dream horse in every way, but one with a fragile leg.

Finally, we decided on an extended lay-up at the farm of our gracious colleague Sharon Bonfield, located at a 6,500-foot elevation in the mountains above Frazier Park. When we visited him during the first of his two winters there, he was standing in snow. We felt bad and that we were neglecting him and it was almost too much for Sheri to bear.
An older horseman told me that the snow and a long lay-up was the best cure, even over all the modern miracles. Lo and behold, come April, Chester was as sound, and tight on his injury, as we had ever seen. Better, actually.

Back he came to a long, slow and careful reconditioning. Not only was he responding well to the work, but his concentration and willingness to tolerate the neighboring tractors and car doors without a groan had increased markedly. We had a call from a new student, not experienced, but with the kind of natural affinity that made her a possible fit, even for this advanced horse.

Two more obstacles were soon to rush at the pair.

At a high school horse show that rivals any "A" show in the country, in a crowded schooling ring, Chester and a stout Warmblood met headlong. Chester was knocked to the ground. I've never run so fast as to his side, to see him stagger up, filled with pain for the fate that this horse -- why this horse? -- was the one to receive this blow.

He gradually recovered, and while the horse and rider grew together and gathered confidence, Sheri and I could not really turn them loose to take the kind of risks necessary to continue. We had another horse for our student, and we resignedly accepted that our healed horse needed our protection and skills.

Derby Dreams

His health improved, and so did our hopes for him with the popularity of a new division that perhaps he would do very well in: the Hunter Derbies.

Sheri took over the ride again, even though at this point in his career, he wasn't likely to be a re-sale horse, and not likely to win any major events. But we tried our first Derby and, with two scores in the 80s, we thought maybe there was a career ahead for this unlikely hero of his breed. The HITS Desert Circuit was coming up, and they had a high dollar, medium height class that was custom made for Chester, so the prep began.

Sheri continued to ride him accurately, beautifully, but carefully. I tried to tell her she was going to need to gallop more for the lines in the big rings, but she didn't like to "light him up" and she jumped beautiful jump after beautiful jump. I had my own preference for more pressure, but how could I argue with how he looked and performed? Other trainers told me to "lighten up. Your wife rides great." Off we went to the next big class.

We did a few prep classes, and he was good, if still a little hot. Sheri is never one to skimp on prep, and she lunged and hacked him the morning of the big day. Three perfect jumps and then a pretty serious "miss." Sheri has a fantastic eye for a fence and she saw a beautiful flowing take-off from a bit farther away. Perhaps due to the extra morning work, Chester didn't quite get there. He chipped so badly that Sheri came off: a rarity.

"Oh well," I thought, "dreams of glory dashed for the day."

But then I saw it. A bright stripe of spreading blood on the back of his re-healed leg. We bandaged it and walked him ever-so-gingerly to the nearby vet clinic. "I can stitch him up, but he's probably done," said the accomplished vet who saw the deep cut. The same injury, the same place that had taken him off the track, and when the vet said done, he meant "career-ending." The drive home was full of tears and guilt and "what-ifs." The vet suggested a follow-up with our home vet in three weeks, to take out the stitches, but there wasn't much hope offered.

Our vet Neil Gray took a look and said, "I don't want to get your hopes up, but do you mind if I ultrasound this, just to really see where we are?" We braced ourselves for the reality of how limited Chester's life might be, and whether or not we could save him for a comfortable retirement.

"There's a funny thing about this happening again in the same spot," Neil said. "If I had not known this horse, I would have come to the same conclusion as the famous vet at the show. But…" He waited a moment, and then blurted, "All he injured was the scar tissue! He should be fine in a few weeks!" We jumped up and down and literally ran around the barn telling our clients and fellow trainers that he was going to be OK!

Tara Spencer at the Hunter Challenge Finals.

The Universe Answers

And he did get better. He continued to jump beautifully for Sheri and occasionally with the better students. We loved him, and as we walked by him each day, it was with the mixture of a grin at his antics in the stall, his sweet eyes and penchant for looking over the top of his stall on all sides for a little attention, and with sadness for the potential career that never was. In a poignant online moment Sheri "asked the universe for a little girl to come ride this horse who can really appreciate all he has to offer." We both giggled about it, knowing he had a place with us forever no matter what. But as they say, if you put it "out there" you never know what may come back.

A mother and daughter who had taken a few years' sabbatical from horses and riding were following Sheri's posts with a knowing smile. The one about Chester prompted them to call and ask about our program and come for a visit. Somewhere in their thinking was probably the same contrary streak that had gotten me back into riding after a seven-year break.

Into our lives came Tara Spencer and her mother Linda.

It took a few rides for them to click, mostly because he was an oddball horse, and Tara and her mom are both very sensitive to owners' and trainers' thoughts and feelings. Sheri loved the idea of a new rider for Chester, but she treated him like glass and was fiercely defensive of him. I took over the lessons, with a little more trust each day in both horse and rider. Sheri winced when I let Tara lunge Chester fast, or gallop in the warm-up, but it was her turn to not argue with the performance. Just three weeks after showing up at our barn, Chester and Tara joined Sheri and I at a good, competitive local show, not just to get the rust off, but to go in the biggest class of the show, the Derby!

Riding another horse, Sheri had done well before in the Derby, and was riding to win. Somehow, Tara and Chester got a score in the 80s and were poised to give Sheri a run for her money. We couldn't have been happier. An uncharacteristic knockdown in Tara and Chester's second round left us to speculate whether she might have beaten Sheri, who finished third, but that was a happy question!

Another month, another Derby, with a judge who was less favorable to the Thoroughbreds. Sheri won, but Tara was well down in the ribbons. We had, however, increased the trust level between them, and I grudgingly read between the lines of dismissive comments from colleagues about the judging and found some more to work on. I had to listen to "Aren't you working him too hard, jumping him too high?" from Sheri on drives home, but there was another goal in mind. There was a medal finals, something Chester had never done, as well as another big year-end hunter finals at a lovely horse show up the road. As I like to say before any jump up in competition, "We've got some work to do," I told Sheri.

"More collection, more lateral work, more pressure, for longer" were among the comments I made to Tara as we prepared. "Trust him, trust him, trust him, let the mistakes be his, not yours" were others. This is what I told Sheri on her way into the ring for a Grand Prix that she won, and it proved just as valuable to Tara.

With a few qualifying classes under our belts, even with a very late start to the season for the pair, I felt good about their prospects. "Great" was probably a better word, as the preliminary classes went by, and then the first medal finals round. A lot of strategizing gave way to a simple wish of "good luck" at the in in-gate. The pair was smooth and lovely over a technical course, and led after the first round!

New Tests

He was a bit uncertain in the unfamiliar flat phase that followed, which bumped Tara down in the standings. In the next day's second round, the pair flowed and let their solid partnership of skills show through, moving up five spots to sit fifth in what was only Chester's third equitation class and his first equitation final. There was another big class yet to go, though.

This was last fall's Hunter Challenge Finals, a year-end collection of 25 class winners throughout the season, and it was a solid group. It was also a testy course for many of the hunter specialists, a fact that would help us later. So far, in all of the over-fence classes, Tara had not gotten a score below 82, and her first round of the Challenge was no exception. Others rode aggressively and, amidst superb competition, Tara and Chester stood a close third after the first round.

Then came the second round, with its "design your own course" format. I've learned over the years that a solid strong performance is better than a particularly flashy one, especially when sitting on a Thoroughbred who tends to offer his own suggestions during the course. There were trot fences, a zig-zag through cones and opportunities to gallop and even pull a letter from a mailbox. Tara and I debated, designed and redesigned and, in the end, I trusted her judgment. She aimed for a variety of approaches that included some we had done in the medal finals the day before, and one risky element, topped with a finish at the mailbox, something that required standing very quietly. Oddly, Chester was very good at that.

The return to the ring was ordered by standing in the class so we watched a few who went early. Rider after rider made bold choices and were punished by sloppy results or stops. We second-guessed ourselves, but then became determined not to judge our plans by the others' performances. With a little grit in their teeth, Chester and Tara entered with a bold gallop to the first jump, followed by a quick turn and roll back to the trot fence; a fairly bold start. It was easy, and I began to relax. Too soon?

A quick ride up to an oxer, a bending line and then the zig-zag. As he sometimes does when confronted with a question, Chester raised his head quite high, questioning the presence of cones, close together, in the middle of a course. Tara smoothly and wisely adapted and gave him a critical few extra steps with a wider approach to re-assure him that, yes, this was where she wanted him to go. I was anxious that perhaps this would be judged harshly, but they picked up a soft gallop to another fence and a rollback to a bending line to the in-and-out, all lovely, followed by the stop at the mailbox to find the letter marked for them. Tara calmly found her letter and tucked it in her jacket, placed the others back, closed the box and asked Chester to canter off and pull up at the in-gate to light applause. (We always announced to hold applause until he left the arena). Because the cheers were faint, I wasn't sure what to think.

Then the scores went up and we were a good five points clear of the next horse and rider. Treasure Chest and Tara Spencer had won the Hunter Challenge Finals of Santa Barbara! Tears streamed down Sheri's and my face, and while the Spencers didn't know the long history, they were delighted by how everything had come together.

The path for each horse is different, and not written in stone, but with experience, commitment and a little spark inside that wouldn't be denied, Treasure Chest became the horse we all knew he could be. As long as we believed...

Author Duncan McIntosh and his wife Sheri Moser operate Edmonton Farms at the Hansen Dam Equestrian Center in Sylmar.