Bail Me Out (Striker)

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By Nikole Ruddy

Striker was born on my grandparent’s small farm in Windsor, Connecticut on May 26, 1983.  My grandparents, William and Marie Garthwaite, had not expected him to be born yet, so they’d left the farm for a day’s outing.

The only person who stayed behind was my aunt, Chris Garthwaite. She was planning to have a relaxing day by the pool.  Instead, as soon as my grandparents pulled out of the driveway, their mare, Holly, went into labor.  A short time later, Striker was born with a very unrelaxed Aunt Chris by his side!

Striker is a fifth generation descendant from a Thoroughbred/Suffolk cross mare named Lady of Windsor that my grandfather showed in the old Madison Square Garden in 1947.  He was conceived as a twin, although we didn’t know it at the time.  The other twin was stillborn.  Striker was a tiny foal.  After some initial breaking, he was put out to pasture because he was too small, and the family was busy with other horses in the barn.

Then fate intervened.  When I was 12, my aged equitation horse, Striker’s uncle Liberty, injured himself and had to be retired.  I didn’t have another horse to ride.  So I pulled Striker out of the pasture and started playing with him.  From the start we were buddies.  He had a great attitude and was so willing to please that I instantly formed a bond with him.  I never worried about him hurting me even though he was very green.  Every day after school, I would run down to the pasture, open the gate and let all the horses run up the long hill to the barn.  I would jump on Striker bareback and gallop him up the hill with the rest of the horses.  He’d let out a buck coming up the hill but it was all in good spirit.  I knew when he got to the top of the hill he’d stop and I could hop off and let all the horses into the barn.

I started training Striker with the help of my grandfather, and my aunt, Pat Garthwaite Towle.  I took my time, entering him in baby green hunters and moving up slowly to the lower level equitation and hunter classes at local shows.  Along with training him for the show ring, I taught him tricks. He would bow on command.  My favorite trick was teaching him how to raise his lip as though he had just smelled something bad.  If I didn’t place well in an equitation class I would ask Striker, “How much does the judge stink?”  He would raise his top lip up and everyone around would laugh.

After a couple of years training in the hunter ring, I entered Striker in a 3’6” jumper division at the Pines, in Glastonbury, Connecticut.  We had a blast cutting corners and clearing the jumps.  He placed first in all three classes that day.  I quickly realized that Striker’s true calling was in the jumper ring.

In the years to come, my aunt Pat, and Pavel Blaho, partners at Tatra Farm in Clinton Corners, New York, helped me fine tune his jumping ability.  Pavel would never call Striker by his name.  Instead, he would refer to him as “the little horse.”  The little horse became a top competitor in the Marshall and Sterling Children and Adult Jumpers.  Over the span of 12 years he qualified for the Marshall and Sterling Finals in Washington three times, placing second twice.  During those 12 years he was almost always in the top ribbons and only had about five rails down in his entire career!  His winnings (which totaled approximately $65,000 over the years!) would go towards covering the entry fees at the next show.  This was the only way I could afford to compete at the A shows.

The two of us were an entertaining duo.  My unique equitation style left something to be desired.  Pavel would see me warming up in the schooling area and say “Niks, heels down!”  Then you’d hear him mutter to himself, “Oh, damn it, just jump the jump.”  After a couple years of trying he had given up on correcting my poor style.

Striker was a little backyard horse with a crooked blaze among a sea of fancy show horses.  Together, we made the perfect odd team.  My mother would always say “Striker knows what Nikki wants him to do before she does.”  This was the secret to our success.  We were partners.

Striker jumped with such heart.  He always tried his hardest to be clean, even if I placed him wrong to a jump.  His show name “Bail Me Out” suited him perfectly.  If I missed a distance I could always count on Striker to bail me out.  By the time we finished our first round, strangers in the stands would be rooting for us.

I’d prep Striker for a big class by taking him on “happy walks.”  We had an understanding; I gave him grass and he would bail me out.

During jump offs, my mother would always be at the in-gate yelling at the top of her lungs, “Go, go, go!”  Pat and Pavel would uncontrollably pick up their own feet as Striker sailed over each jump.

My grandmother sat with my grandfather in the stands, and we all joked that she was busy using her mind power to put hexes on the other riders to knock down rails.  She would pick a spot to watch from, and if other riders were knocking down rails, she wouldn’t move.  If no one was knocking down rails, she would move to “a better spot.”  She was a church going lady, but horse shows brought out her competitive nature!

After Striker did well in a jump-off, my grandmother would quickly run to the warm-up area yelling “My hero!”  She was referring to Striker.

My husband Mike, who was my boyfriend through college, would say there was nothing better than pulling into an “A” show with a backyard horse, rusty truck and trailer, and taking home a top ribbon.

Red was Striker’s favorite color.  He seemed to place second at every show.  At a show in Northampton, Massachusetts, Striker placed second in the Marshall & Sterling classic.  After the show, a cow pinning exhibition event was held.  English riders from the show were encouraged to participate and ride the Western horses provided.  I knew Striker would enjoy doing something different.  I borrowed a Western saddle and entered him in the competition.  Striker loved it.  He had been turned out with steers on my grandfather’s farm, so it was no big deal to him.  Riders from earlier that day recognized him and asked, “Isn’t that the horse that almost won the Marshall & Sterling classic today?”

Before Mike and I married, my mother explained to him that Striker and horses would always come first for me.  She said to him, “If you can accept this, then you would be okay marrying Nikki.”  She also joked that, “If you can not accept this, then you should run the other way while you have a chance.”

My dad, Rob Hansen, was so happy that I found “a sucker” as he called it, to help support my expensive hobby.  He almost ran from the dinner table to pack up the truck, trailer and horses and ship us off before Mike could change his mind.  Lucky for me, Mike didn’t change his mind.

The day after we were engaged, I brought Mike to my grandparent’s farm to ride and clean stalls.  I wanted to see if he really understood what he was in for by marrying a “horse person.”  Plus, I had a plan.  I’d introduce him to riding on Django.  Django was my sturdy, 20 year old Welsh Cob pony that I had had since I was six years old.  No one could resist Django.  The whole family loved him and half the family rode him, from my grandmother to my little cousins.  Everybody loved him.  He had the personality and smarts of a human, earning him many nicknames.  One of them was “Pony Man.”  My plan worked.  I still joke today that Mike married me because he wanted my pony.

Mike and I were married in September, 2000.  After the wedding ceremony in Storrs, Connecticut, we posed for pictures on the horses.  I rode Striker and Mike rode Django.  I knew then that horses had taken another “sucker” captive into our horse family.  Two years later, Pat rode Striker in her wedding and her husband David Towle rode Striker’s niece, Sago Lily.  When my grandfather passed away in 2006, Striker led the funeral procession as the riderless horse to honor his World War II army service in the last remaining unit of the U.S. Cavalry.

Striker spends his retirement years continuing to spread joy to our family.  My husband, mother, friend Bridget and I take him hunter pacing and trail riding regularly.  He proved to be a valuable lead horse when I broke my Percheron/Thoroughbred mare, Stormy Sky.  Stormy was a rescue horse that was timid about everything around her.  She quickly settled down with Striker leading the way on trails.  Striker and Stormy love their trips to the beach at Bluff Point in Groton, Connecticut.  While Stormy and I swim in the ocean, Mike and Striker sneak off to visit their favorite spot on the beach.  They each have their own agenda.  Striker is planning to take a sun bath and fall asleep while Mike plans to drink a beer.

My one year old daughter, Julia Marie has been riding Striker from the day she was conceived.  I continued to ride him until two days before I went into labor with Julia.  I had no doubt that Striker was safe to ride while I was pregnant.  Now, Julia rides Striker on my lap with a glow on her face that only another horse person can understand.  She giggles when we trot and canter.

Striker has been a “hero,” “the little horse,” companion and amazing competitor but most importantly, a family member.  He has brought joy to four generations of my family.  I plan for him to come out of retirement to compete in one more “A” show.  This time, Striker’s division will be lead-line, with Julia aboard.