May 17, 2010, was an ordinary day at Vancouver’s Hastings Racecourse until the eighth race when a chain-reaction accident brought three horses and their jockeys down hard. Two riders were shaken but otherwise okay; the other suffered multiple serious injuries. All three horses emerged physically unharmed, but the mishap shook the confidence of one of the young Thoroughbreds. Five-year-old Willie Katchem, described as a “hard-trying Thoroughbred,” and “an athletic type” by trainer Mike Heads, earned more than $50,000 in four racing seasons. But after that day in May, Willie wouldn’t break from the gate until the other horses were off.
With the horse’s racing career clearly finished, owner Lorne MacDougall sent Willie to New Stride Thoroughbred Adoption Society in Surrey, BC, a registered charity dedicated to finding a dignified retirement for former racehorses. Here, Willie was given a year or so to ‘just be a horse’ before being restarted lightly under saddle.
Time and Patience
In March of 2012, BC eventing enthusiast Sarah Clark, then in her early 20s, had outgrown her first horse and was seeking another, more forward mount to compete in horse trials. At a friend’s suggestion, she met Willie at New Stride. “There was something about him that clicked with me,” she says.
Clark adopted the 16.1-hand gelding, unaware of how much mental baggage he would bring to the partnership. “I didn’t have the chance to spend a lot of time with Willie when I went to try him out, so I didn’t really know what I’d gotten myself into until he came off the trailer,” explains Clark, now 27. “Willie was more horse than I was used to dealing with. He was big, strong, and opinionated.”
He was also extremely sensitive and lacked confidence, likely from his track scare a couple of years before. That meant a host of challenges for Clark and her coach, Nicole Gibby. “When we first started teaching Willie to jump, we weren’t sure what we were in for. He was convinced that poles on the ground were out to get him and would leap sideways over them,” recalls Clark. “Willie was a horse that required a great deal of time and patience. He doesn’t have a lot of belief in his own abilities and if you try to rush him, he shuts down.”
A Matter of Trust
Another stumbling block, particularly for an eventer, was Willie’s reticence when faced with cross-country fundamentals. “He was terrified of water and didn’t believe he could go over ditches or down banks,” she says. Nevertheless, only six months after the adoption, Clark and Willie took on their first horse trial. Now, five years later, she describes him a “brave and confident” mount. Competing at pre-training level, Willie was BC Horse Trials top-placed OTTB in the division last year.
“What I consider some of my biggest successes with Willie aren’t necessarily ribbons or awards, they are those moments when my big, nervous OTTB trusts me to bound straight into the water jump the first time or bound down the big double step,” Clark enthuses.
The pair currently schools 3’3” and second- and third-level dressage at the co-op boarding barn they call home – High Oaks Stables in Victoria. Clark hopes to eventually compete Willie at preliminary level.
While bringing Willie along has been a “rollercoaster of emotions” and a ton of hard work, Clark says, “I wouldn’t trade a single moment.”