By Lauren R. Giannini
Horses give us wings. In return, we take care of magnificent creatures that are prone to injury, illness and balky attitudes. The extreme ups and downs of partnership with horses demand bottomless reserves of optimism and strength of spirit; even so, we keep coming back for more because we’re horse-crazy and proud of it. A good example is Susan MacRae and her passion for ex-racehorses because “Thoroughbreds try their hearts out for you.” What Susan didn’t mention is her heartfelt commitment to reciprocate.
Susan’s an adult amateur rider who, in 2017, was one of three out of more than 50 applicants to be awarded a $500 CANTER-Pennsylvania Becky Julian scholarship. The application required video of Susan and her latest off-the-track Thoroughbred (OTTB), Impromptu (registered as Mo’s Secret Heart with the Jockey Club), and a reference from an equine professional.
“This was the first time I heard of the scholarship and the first time I applied,” said Susan. “It all happened about a week before the deadline. My husband, Duncan, had videotaped our dressage and show jumping tests at a little unrecognized horse trial and I asked Carole Kozlowski [current president of U.S. Eventing Association] to write my letter of recommendation. Carole’s a staunch supporter of adult amateurs, and I train with her whenever I can. She also supports the long format three-day. I’m really passionate about that.”
The MacRaes are “senior” event riders and very active in the USEA. Susan’s a member of the Safety and Equine Welfare Committee. Duncan served as USEA Area 2 chairman for six years. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and keep their horses at Elm Brook Farm, about 30 minutes east in New Jersey, where they train with Maureen Ferris. They’re also involved with the Bucks County Horse Park, and Susan’s on the board of trustees.
Married for 38 years with no human offspring, Susan said, “All our children have four legs and lots of hair. Duncan didn’t start riding until he was 18, right before he met me, but it’s something we’ve done together, which is nice. Eventing takes so much time if you’re competing on any level. It’s nice if you can do it together so you’re not apart so much.”
Pony Club and Racing
Susan joined Pony Club and acquired her first horse when she was 11. Her childhood was unusual as her family loved Thoroughbred racing.
“I’ve always been hooked on Thoroughbred racing as a fan,” said Susan. “My family went a lot back in the 1970s – the ‘Decade of Champions,’ according to a great book by Richard Stone Reeves. I was at the match race between Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure and at the Belmont Stakes when Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown. We go up to Saratoga for a long weekend of racing every summer.”
When Susan went to college, she sold her first horse, a Morgan. “I couldn’t afford to have my own horse, so I rode friends’ horses and catch-rode in the hunter-jumper world,” she said. “For many years, I rode with Jack Benson at Briarwood Farm in New Jersey. In 1982, I was riding with Gretchen Randolph when I did the preliminary adult equitation division, jumping 2’9” — I was State Champion for New Jersey Horse Shows Association, one of my minor claims to fame. I learned how competitive I was that year and chased points in order to win. It really did surprise me how very competitive I was.”
That competitive streak found its outlet in the early 1990s when a little Quarter Horse mare named Sadie carried Susan into eventing. Duncan spotted the mare in a stall at her breeder’s farm, about to go to the auction.
“I took Sadie to school cross-country at Bucks County Horse Park where they have horse trials and she jumped everything. She was green, but took to it like a fish to water,” recalled Susan. “My friend said, ‘You have to event her.’ Sadie and I learned together and went up to Training Level. She had a tendon injury in 1998 and was laid up. In 2000, I bought my first Thoroughbred. I had always been fascinated with them and I love them as sport horses. I worked at horse shows in the ’70s when Thoroughbreds were all you had in the hunter ring. I watched the shift to warmbloods — the Thoroughbreds got a raw deal.”
Susan evented that first Thoroughbred, a chestnut mare called Paris Blues, up to Preliminary where they competed for about three years.
“The highest I jumped was 4’9” with that mare in a Bruce Davidson clinic,” said Susan. “It was a single fence in the middle of the indoor and we did it more than once to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. I took Paris Blues to do the long format training three-day event at Waredaca in Maryland. We were sitting in second place going into show jumping and I went off course. As competitive as I am, I’m also really good at going off course. I’ve done it many times.”
One In A Million
One very special MacRae equine raced as Royal Hattab with two starts on the flat and three on the national steeplechase circuit. Bought as a 4-year-old and renamed Flashpoint (aka Tip), he found his niche as an event horse with Duncan, who trained and competed him to Intermediate. They completed three long format three-days, including Radnor’s last CCI2* long format where they finished in the top third of a large entry. In 2012, Tip stepped up to the plate for Susan.
“I lost a young horse that I got from the CANTER organization when he was injured in a pasture accident and ended up having to be euthanized,” said Susan. “My husband had purchased another horse to bring along, so he had two at the time and, to fill in the gap for me, he let me start riding Tip.”
That was in mid-2012. Susan and Tip established their partnership by starting out at Training, then moving up to Preliminary where they both had mileage. On April 21, 2013, at Fair Hill Horse Trials, Susan and Duncan were devastated when Tip succumbed to a massive cardiac event after a brilliant double clear cross-country.
Sometimes the best therapy for that horse-shaped hole in your heart is another horse. In November 2015, Susan bought Riley from a woman who had sold her two other OTTBs.
“I saw Riley when she posted him on Facebook and I went to her farm, believing he would be the first of 25 horses I would look at,” said Susan. “I liked him. Maureen, my trainer, went with me and got on him. She came over after riding him for about 5 minutes and said, ‘Write a check.’ Maureen’s not the kind of person who says those things lightly. She also said, ‘He’s a very nice horse. He’s kind. He wants to please.’ So I did. I wrote a check.”
Riley arrived with some bad habits, which Susan continues to address with patience. Now 10, he still gets a little nervous, so she’s sticking to unrecognized horse trials and schooling shows until he’s very comfortable with the atmosphere. She’s happy with how Riley gets better each time out.
“This horse loves his job and is giving me back my confidence,” said Susan. “Eventing is hard, and it can be dangerous. When the horse has heart, it makes all the difference in the world.”