by Ann Jamieson
On her wedding day, it was Maxwell that Kaitlyn Puterbaugh chose to accompany her down the aisle. With both grandfathers dead, and her father not a part of her life, Maxwell was the most important male in her life…next to her soon to be husband. And, as Kaitlyn says, “it would have been a little embarrassing to make that journey down the aisle on my own.”
Maxwell is Kaitlyn’s horse, and she rode him down the aisle.
Born on a small farm in Ocala, FL, baby Maxwell began his earthly journey April 5, 2008, as one of the next big prospects in the world of racing. His dam was Mary is Purrfect, a Storm Cat granddaughter, and his sire was the famous Skip Trial.
Racing 36 times in three years at Florida racetracks, Maxwell didn’t live up to his lineage. Of those 36 races, he managed to win only two of them.
Although Maxwell had the heart to keep fighting, to keep running, to keep trying for his owners for years, that wasn’t enough. During his last year of racing Maxwell hit bottom, never doing better than sixth place. The word on the backstretch was that he was sour, angry, unhappy.
Luckily, an observer convinced his owner to retire him. His eyes were “sad,” she said. “Defeated. The spark to keep running just wasn’t there anymore.” His owner reluctantly agreed with the woman, and by the end of the day had signed a bill of sale to her, selling Maxwell for $1.
The following day the owner changed his mind and returned, begging her to sell Maxwell back to him. He’d found a buyer headed to Puerto Rico, and they could split the profit–a whopping $850. Declining the offer, she quickly searched for a safe place off the backstretch for Max.
That was Max’s first angel.
The second one, Summer Thurber, stepped up next.
Summer works with a Thoroughbred Racehorse Aftercare nonprofit called TROT (Thoroughbred Retirement of Tampa Bay) which takes retiring racehorses off the track, gives them a soft landing, and begins the retraining process before adopting them out. Horses are kept as long as needed, sometimes forever. Summer also does the same thing with a handful of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on her own.
Summer knew Maxwell’s backside guardian angel, and got the call from her that there was a Thoroughbred in need. Having already taken on several Thoroughbreds of her own for the season, and knowing that TROT was full, she wasn’t inclined to take another. Yet something told her to take the horse. She’d heard he was sour and grumpy with a poor outlook on life. He would be hard to place, she knew, so he might be in her care for an extended amount of time. But Summer has a soft spot in her heart for horses that aren’t the run of the mill types.
Maxwell ran his last race on February 27th 2015, and about a week later, Summer picked him up from Tampa Bay Downs. She brought him home and turned him out with her herd of OTTB’s. Spending the next 30 days decompressing and relaxing, he learned the ways of herd life. Quickly finding his place, he settled in.
Kaitlyn, meanwhile, had been working tirelessly with a gorgeous dappled buckskin pony mare named Bella. Bella was the first horse she’d had since moving to Florida and she was a challenge. Bounced from home to home before landing in Kaitlyn’s welcoming arms, she had been chosen before for nothing other than her beauty.
“Bella is a sensitive soul. She is opinionated and challenging,” says Kaitlyn, “but will give you the moon when you ‘speak’ her language. She had the beginnings of being a spectacular mount for someone with continued education and the right people.” But that someone wasn’t Kaitlyn, who wanted to show in the hunters. At 5’7”, Kaitlyn knew she could never compete on 14.1 hand Bella. She placed her up for sale. At the same time, she began hunting for her next mount.
Summer noticed the ad for Bella on Facebook and commented on the stunning pony’s photo. Neither Summer nor Kaitlyn knew at the time, but soon their paths would cross. The result would be unexpected and life changing.
Maxwell had his first ride off the track in the round pen a month after arriving at Summer’s farm. Kaitlyn happened to come across a FB video of Summer’s son untacking Maxwell after that ride. It was love at first sight.
“I found myself stalking Summer’s posts, waiting for another update about Max.” Meanwhile Summer was doing the same in reverse: following Bella’s posts. She had noticed that Kaitlyn was commenting on a lot of Max’s photos so she sent her a message. Was Kaitlyn interested in taking a look at him?
“I told her I would love to come visit him, and see what he was all about, but that I needed to sell my pony before taking on another horse, and going to look would only send me further into love with this horse. Several hours of conversing back and forth later, we devised a plan. She was drawn to Bella. There was something about her. I knew what she meant, I owned the pony, and felt the same every time I saw her. We set up a time for me to come meet Maxwell.”
When Kaitlyn arrived at Silver Race Farm, she saw “a goofy plain bay Thoroughbred snoozing in the cross ties, one back leg cocked, lip drooping, with the most extravagant caramel brown eyes. A vibrant woman came around the corner and greeted me warmly, introducing Maxwell. She told me to have a look, so I did. I ran my hands over his legs, his back, his hindquarters.”
“Be careful, he’s a bit cantankerous,” Summer cautioned, as Max pinned his ears and swished his tail.
But Kaitlyn loved it. “The eyes did it for me. I saw those eyes, and I knew that while he might play the cantankerous card, this horse had a lot of heart and a lot of love somewhere in there. I got on him for his second ever ride post racing, and again, fell in love. Which in retrospect, is funny, because the ride wasn’t very special. We walked in a small enclosed space, his feet sore from recently removed racing plates, and he was unsure what I was asking him to do. He stopped often, turned and looked at me when I squeezed him forward, even nibbling on my foot, but boy I was in love.
The entire drive home from her farm, I couldn’t stop gushing about him, both to my friend with me, and via text to Summer. By the time I arrived home, I had made my decision. Maxwell had to be mine.
The stars aligned perfectly, and Summer felt she needed my pony. The next day, I loaded Bella up for the 45 minute drive, and arrived back home with Maxwell. This was the start of a very special relationship, with horses and humans.”
Kaitlyn took her time with Maxwell. “You can’t be in a hurry. Some OTTBs require a lot more than others, especially with the type of baggage Maxwell was carrying.” Kaitlyn explains, “The problem with the race world is that there are a lot of angels on the backstretch, but there’s still a lot of evil too. There are a lot of people who see nothing but the dollar signs, and have zero compassion for the living breathing animals that make them that money. Maxwell had been in that situation.”
Kaitlyn built Max back up on her own, with some wonderful guidance from Summer. They quickly became close friends.
“Maxwell is different,” says Kaitlyn. “Baggage is hard to work through when you’re dealing with a creature as intelligent as he is.” When she asked Summer for some assistance on ground work, as well as the support of someone besides herself, Summer offered to bring him home for 30 days to work with him. Kaitlyn gratefully accepted.
Max was scheduled to return home, when things took an unexpected turn. The owner of Kaitlyn’s barn informed her that she was ceasing operations and Kaitlyn would need to find somewhere else to board Maxwell. “It was a blessing,” says Kaitlyn. “Maxwell stayed with Summer, and I joined the crew.
The rest is history. In 2016, Maxwell and I were Reserve Champion in the “All Thoroughbred Show” division and received the Reserve Champion TIP (Thoroughbred Incentive Program) Performance Award. This is our biggest accomplishment to date, and one I will always hold as a proud moment. Maxwell is happy.
He’s actually the biggest class clown in a herd of 16, almost all Thoroughbreds. He makes me laugh every day. He is hilarious! He makes every single person who meets him laugh within seconds.
He does this funny thing with his lips. His lips are big and floppy and he loves entertaining himself with them. He will hold his top lip over his bottom lip and flop his head around. He likes to flip his lip up and ‘smile’ when he gets his favorite candy: Piedmont soft peppermints. He also loves water; we call him the water buffalo. He will lie down in a puddle and wallow around. He enjoys sticking his head in the water trough and making massive waves, splashing everywhere.
There’s so much to be said about a pair of eyes. His guardian angel on the track saw defeat and sadness in his eyes. Summer saw something sweet and kind in him, regardless of his cantankerous actions. I saw the potential, and the spark, somewhere deep in those eyes, even while he was being a sass. And we were all right. Because now? His eyes glimmer. They shine. And I know he’s happy. He has a purpose. And he brings me just as much joy as his eyes reflect to the world.
One day Summer and I were reminiscing, and she mentioned how nasty he had been in his stall at the track any time someone would enter. I was in complete shock; that couldn’t be further from who Maxwell is. I never questioned my safety in the stall with him; he had never given me a reason to. All it did was validate for me that he was simply telling the people at the track that he was no longer happy about his career or living arrangements. I like to think that no horse is nasty just to be nasty. There is always a purpose. In Maxwell’s case, he was trying to get his point across in a way that people would hopefully understand.
Currently, Maxwell is recovering from a tendon injury. It’s my hope that once he’s completely healed, we come back stronger and better than before, and hopefully defend that Reserve Champion TIP title, or maybe even make it Grand Champion. You see, I never expected Max to be much, I went in with the expectations that I would have a riding horse, who may or may not be fancy enough to show. Who may or may not be sound enough and sane enough to jump. Everything he gives me is extra. I will always listen to him, that’s a promise I made the day he came home. I will make sure that sparkle doesn’t fade from his eyes ever again. If he never wants to step into the ring again, that’s okay. He’s got enough personality to keep me entertained here on the ground. But if he does? The sky is the limit. He will carry me over the moon and back. And I’m just along to enjoy the ride at this point.
Kaitlyn decided to include Baby Maxwell in her wedding, “because of how important horses–he–is to me and my life. Summer offered her farm as a place to hold our wedding, and she was my Matron of Honor. The amount of specialness in that alone is overwhelming. The circle is complete. I met this amazing woman, who had this wonderful horse, who took my wonderful horse, and I took hers, and a lovely friendship and bond formed. I am a part of the family now at Silver Race Farm, and I have a friend for life–all thanks to these horses.
I’ll never forget my special day, surrounded by everyone who means the most to me, including my horse. I was able to look past the grouchy, rough outer shell he displayed the day I met him, and he’s been repaying me ever since. And always will.”
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