Horses Gave Me Back My Daughter

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Heather Swicicki was only eight years old when her father died suddenly of a heart attack. Formerly a happy, talkative child who made friends easily, Heather shut down.

Missing from the Swicicki family residence were smiles, laughter, visiting friends. And Heather lost all interest in going anywhere.

“After her dad died it was like the spirit died inside her as well,” says Patricia, her mother. “She was fearful of being left alone, in fact she became terrified because she thought aliens came in space ships and took him away. And if they could take her Dad away then she also could be taken away.”

When summer came, Patricia was faced with a decision. As she was now working full time, she needed to find a summer camp for Heather to attend.

While dating Heather’s father Edward, Patricia often helped him with his catering jobs. They frequently worked horse shows, and one venue Patricia that stuck in Patricia’s mind was the Thomas School of Horsemanship in Huntington, New York. The kids at Thomases always seemed to be having so much fun! Perhaps, she thought, Heather might enjoy it there.

The camp was Heather’s first experience with horses, and it turned out to be just what she needed. It took a mere day for the change to begin. Heather came home from camp and told Patricia about the new friends she’d made.

“I knew I had made the right decision,” says Patricia. “She came home every day and bragged about brushing and cleaning every horse at the barn.”

Heather would come home and share stories about her interactions with the horses and with her new friends. The silent days were over; she was talking again. As the summer progressed, her excitement continued to grow. Skipping the non horse-related activities, she chose to focus on horses whether it be riding, grooming, mucking a stall or feeding hay. Often she would sneak out of crafts or swimming without the counselor’s permission, just to be with the horses.

One of Heather’s earliest favorites was Jasper, a grey gelding. Later Heather became attached to a sweet grey mare named Snafu. When Heather and her friends experimented by adding green food coloring to Snafu’s bath water, they transformed her color. Thomas School of Horsemanship owner Nancy Thomas was not amused when she arrived at the barn to find a green horse…literally.

“My smiling daughter came back to me that summer,” says Patricia.

When the summer ended, Heather was not about to give up her time at the barn. Her summer camp experience turned into lessons, lessons morphed into a half lease which later became a full lease and then the purchase of her first pony, a chain of events all too recognizable by most parents of  horse crazy kids!

Snafu became Heather’s first half lease. As anyone who has ever owned a grey knows, a considerable amount of time is devoted to grooming them. One day Heather was preparing to attend an away show. Her friends, who had bays and chestnuts that were easier to clean, pitched in to help bathe Snafu. When they finished, the mare was immaculate. At least, she was when they left the barn.

When they arrived in the morning they were horrified to discover that their spotless horse had rolled and was now covered in manure stains! Luckily they had arrived early, and although there was no time to give her a full bath, they plunged in with buckets of water and shampoo, sponges and towels, and cleaned her up just in time to load her on the trailer.

Heather’s first pony was Dream Girl, a seven-year-old large pony Appendix mare. Heather spotted an ad for her in a feed store in Huntington. Owned by 16-year-old Dana Marabini, who had outgrown her, she was an immediate hit with both Heather and her trainer Terry Striker.

Dream Girl’s unfortunate but well-earned nickname was “Night-Mare” and she frequently dumped Heather with her well-timed bucks. As a result Heather learned to not just be a passenger, but a rider, and in the process the team earned top ribbons at many shows in the Children’s Hunter and Equitation divisions, including the prestigious Hampton Classic Horse Show. A friendship developed between Heather and her family and the Marabinis, a friendship that has continued to this day.

Heather then moved to her first horse, Captain Crunch, a 17 hand chocolate bay Canadian Thoroughbred. Although a sweet and beautiful lap dog horse, Crunch was afraid of everything. Because of what she had learned riding Dream Girl, Heather was able to encourage Crunch and build up his confidence in the ring, while increasing her own equestrian education.

To build up her own confidence, Ralph Caristo at Glenview Stables was contacted for a new horse for Heather. He sent them a show veteran named Sharper Image.  A wonderful equitation horse, Sharpie loved his job and loved to jump. He had the attitude that all top show horses develop: “I own this ring.” Heather was able to focus on her riding techniques, and not have to focus so much on teaching the horse. Although he was not able to jump over three feet, Sharpie taught Heather well, giving her the confidence to move up to the Junior Hunters (a 3’6” division).

Patricia, who had always loved horses, began riding Sharpie herself. The family moved their horses to Glenview and purchased Cooper, a warmblood junior hunter and a “wow” mover and jumper. Soon Heather and Cooper were showing in elite shows such as Wellington and Lake Placid. Starting at the very beginning, with no knowledge of, or experience with, horses, Heather had earned her way to the pinnacle of the horse show world in her division.

Keepsake, a seven-year-old Quarter horse, was added to the junior hunter team. Although not a great mover (his movement was akin to the action of a sewing machine), he proved an incredible show horse and quickly changed the minds of those who thought Quarter Horses did not belong in the hunter ring.

Patricia recalls hearing onlookers outside the show ring refer to him as “that cow horse.” But once he was on course, their jaws would drop in amazement at his dazzling technique over fences.

Throughout all of Heather’s years in high school as a teenager, Patricia says, “I never had to worry about where she was. She was at the barn.”

Cooper has long since retired, and Heather is now in her 30’s. She continues to ride, leasing a warmblood on Long Island, and getting up at 6 a.m. to commute out to East Norwich, and then return to Manhattan for a full day’s work.

Horses have been her constant passion, her means of dealing with the devastating loss of her father, and a continual thread of learning, connection and joy in her life. Her friends she has made in the horse show world have remained friends throughout her life. Her love of horses is a love that never dies.

Heather called her mother a few months ago out of the blue. She said, “I wanted to thank you. Your decision to send me to Thomases changed my life and introduced me to the people who are great friends of mine to this day, and a life long love of horses.

How did you know?”

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