By Katie Navarra
It was the day before Valentine’s Day when Stacey Sheley, founder of Open Door Equine in McCordsville, Indiana, received a phone call from an acquaintance who worked to save horses from slaughter. The woman had arranged a deal with a kill buyer that allowed her an opportunity to rehome a handful of horses each time a new shipment arrived at the kill pen.
Insistent that Stacey see one particular horse, the woman sent a picture of the horse’s pedigree. “The horse’s sire was Cryptoclearance,” Stacey said. An avid horse racing fan since childhood, Stacey remembered the athletic stallion who won the 1987 Florida Derby. That same year he finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby, third in the Preakness Stakes and second in the Belmont Stakes.
“This mare was out of his last batch of babies. Never in my life did I think I’d have the opportunity to own a horse of that caliber of breeding,” Stacey said.
With only 24 hours to decide whether or not to buy the dapple-gray mare, named Alice Faye, Stacey scrambled to find $400 and a friend with a truck and trailer willing to travel 45 minutes to the kill pen to collect the mare.
When Stacey arrived, she was uncertain the mare would survive. She estimated the mare’s body condition to be a 1.5. It was the worst she’d ever seen a horse. Shortly after arriving, she learned that this was the mare’s second trip to the kill buyer’s pen.
The first time she ended up there, the buyer recognized the mare’s pedigree. He contacted a friend in the racing industry and asked if he’d like to buy the mare and race her. Alice Faye returned to the track, ran until she stopped winning and when the trainer was finished with her, he sent her back to the same kill pen he bought her from.
A Second Chance
Starved and barely clinging to life, Alice Faye seized her chance at a better life. “As I was about to turn down the offer, Alice staggered towards me, touched me on the elbow and looked me in the eye,” Stacey said.
That was it — Stacey knew she couldn’t leave her.
“After I got her home we body clipped her to see what was going on. You could feel every nook and cranny of her shoulder and spine,” Stacey said. A chart on her stall door tracked how much she ate and drank on an hourly basis.
By late March/early April, she started to turn around. “We did some lungeing exercises with her to get her brain working and she stayed calm the whole time,” Stacey said.
Seeing promise in the mare, Stacey decided that when Alice was strong enough she’d begin training her for dressage. As training progressed, it became clear that Alice was a quick learner. Supporters who watched the mare’s progress encouraged Stacey to enter her in the 2015 Thoroughbred Makeover event sponsored by the Retired Racehorse Project.
Designed to encourage and support the transition of off-the-track Thoroughbreds (OTTB) into a second career, the Thoroughbred Makeover is one part of a weekend-long event celebrating off-the-track Thoroughbreds.
The event, scheduled for October 23–25, 2015, at the Kentucky Horse Park, will feature 350 Thoroughbreds who began their careers as racehorses and have since been retrained in one of 10 disciplines ranging from dressage and show jumping to hunter, eventing, competitive trail, barrel racing, fox hunting, polo, ranch work and freestyle.
Once entered, Stacey met Anna Frensemeyer, founder of Crytpo Aero (a wholefood horse feed made with all-natural, non-GMO products and includes ingredients like papaya, rosehips and more). “Anna heard we entered the Thoroughbred Makeover and called to ask if she could be our feed sponsor,” Stacey said. The sponsorship was a perfect fit, as Alice Faye and Crypto Aero, the feed’s namesake, are half-siblings. “After Crypto Aero passed away, Anna made it her mission to feed all his brothers and sisters,” she added.
Not only was the feed a connection to other owners of Cryptoclearance offspring, it was a game changer for Alice Faye. “Now that she’s on the feed, she’s more relaxed and even though she’s outside, her coat is a darker gray,” Stacey said.
Well-fed and ready for a warm-up show, Stacey entered Alice into her first dressage competition on May 17, 2015. “She was cantering backwards in the warm-up arena and I thought we’d never get through the test,” she said.
Once Alice passed through the in-gate she settled down and earned a 56, enough for a first place finish. Back at the stall, Alice was quick to destroy the evidence of her winning performance. “She pulled the first place rosette off her stall, chewed it up and spit it out,” Stacey laughed.
Through her participation in the Thoroughbred Makeover event, Stacey hopes that her story will inspire others to take on retraining off-the-track Thoroughbreds. “A lot of race horse owners truly care what happens to their horses after racing. My first Thoroughbred was given to me simply because he wasn’t working for his owners and they wanted him to have a good home,” she said.
Offering horses and people alike a second chance has been Stacey’s mission since 2011 when she established Open Door Equine with $1,000.
Since then, the facility has expanded and is now home to 23 horses. Open Door Equine offers boarding, lessons, rescue and retraining to a devoted following of clients and Stacey is currently in the process of starting a program to benefit the physical, emotional and mental well-being of the people who come to the barn for lessons.
“We work with veterans, we have a PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) instructor here and I am EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) certified to serve individuals with mental health and human development needs,” Stacey said.
The facility is a not-for-profit, all-volunteer barn. “We have a pretty awesome gaggle of folks who want to be a part of this. I couldn’t do it without their help,” Stacey concluded.
To learn more about Stacey and Open Door Equine, visit www.opendoorequine.com. For additional information about the Retired Racehorse Project and updates on the Thoroughbred Makeover event, visit www.retiredracehorseproject.org.
About the writer: Katie Navarra has worked as a freelancer since 2001. She has been a lifelong horse lover and owns a dun Quarter Horse mare she competes.
Photos courtesy of Stacey Sheley, unless noted otherwise