They say that horses pick “their” humans; that they come into our lives at just the right moments and the journey we go on together is for reasons we may not understand now, but some day will make sense.
There are horses that, whether our encounter with them is long or short, stick with us far after we part. Horses that have something in them that is reflected in ourselves; something we see in them that we wish we had more of ourselves, or is just like the way we are, or is neither of those but we are drawn to all the same.
They come into our lives in silence, unassumingly slipping their way into our days, until their presence is unavoidable and their legacy on our hearts indelible.
Cherie DeVaux has horses come and go from her life regularly as the assistant trainer to Chad Brown. Down the barn aisle new faces crosshatch with veterans and old friends – all Cherie’s charges. Some will stay for a while and some will move on in short time, but nonetheless they are all equally important at any given moment.
“I come in the barn when no one is around and I bond with them,” Cherie says. “I do it with all of them that come in. So when they run well, it’s like your kid out there. When you see things through from beginning to end it’s just so gratifying.”
The Summer of Eli
Cherie has been around horses since the day she was born, growing up in the family business of harness racing. At five years old, she remembers taking horses out on the track at her family farm, and the majority of her youth was spent on the back of a horse in one capacity or another – although away from the racing scene. In her fourth year of college, the pre-med student put aspirations of being a physical therapist on hold, having full faith a life in racehorses would “just work out” and followed her love of the sport back to the track. Once there, Cherie put her nose to the grindstone eventually working her way up to assistant trainer.
When Cherie worked her way to Chad’s barn, something about it just felt right: “I’m really fortunate to work for Chad, who puts the well being of the horse first. Obviously for me, that’s the most important thing. If a horse needs time, he gives them time; he tries to let the horses tell him where they’re going. When you get to work with somebody like that, it’s really nice. You’re just not worried about the safety of the horse or the people involved. All the horses come back safe and sound and all the people are taken care of in that respect- that’s most important to me. ”
In an environment where Cherie can relax and enjoy her job, the team has found success, but in 2015 that foundation was put to the ultimate test.
There was always something in the bay mare that attracted Cherie – something in Lady Eli that resonated in herself: “I have tremendous, tremendous respect for her; you have to be respectful of a horse that is so intense and so focused on what she loves.” Cherie points out she is a mare who knows exactly what she wants, who she likes and she makes her desires well known to those around her. She’s also a horse whose orange traffic cone designates her personal space outside her stall, lest you walk too close and meet her bite.
After her sixth start and still undefeated, Lady Eli walked away from the Belmont Oaks victorious and straight into the toughest battle of her life. A nail penetrated the sole of her hoof and laminitis set in; the condition can rapidly decline to the point where the bone in the base of the hoof loses it’s velcro-like attachment to the hoof wall and subsequently drops down through the sole of the hoof – which is both excruciating and life-threatening. Intervention at first signs of the condition has to be fast, aggressive and effective.
The mare’s trainer and team focused on one thing and one thing only from the very beginning: recovery at Lady Eli’s pace.
“The discussions were always very basic: there were no expectations, all anyone wanted was for her to be O.K. [Her recovery] involved a lot of really good veterinary care, podiatry and horsemen sense. Chad really did a good job listening to her and giving her the time; every day revolved around what she needed.”
The foundation of the Chad Brown barn allowed the ailed mare to decide if and when she would return; ultimately, recovery was up to Lady Eli.
Cherie’s summer turned into “the Summer of Eli,” as she called it, as days were counted by the hours spent on a bucket in Lady Eli’s stall; minutes stretching over time as the once robust mare could barely stand for 15 minutes of grazing; blacksmith appointments, bandage changes and medicine schedules only differentiated by the passing of day into night and day again as Cherie and Lady Eli crept towards recovery.
It was the same Summer of Eli when Cherie was swept up in another battle: her grandmother’s fight against cancer. “My Grandmother was our biggest supporter, my biggest encouragement; she loved the horses,” Cherie recalls. Her Grandmother knew of the nail and of the horse’s needs for recovery and even when she was very sick she asked Cherie not to leave Lady Eli’s side until the mare was OK.
Two days after Lady Eli got on the van to return to Kentucky, Cherie made the trip to see her Grandmother.
On a Breeder’s Cup Saturday in 2015, as she was preparing for a full day of racing, Cherie got the news that her Grandmother would not be there to see Lady Eli’s eventual return to the track in person.
Thirteen months after her last race, Lady Eli walked away from her battle with laminitis and ran straight back into her career like she never missed a step –a seemingly unfathomable return from the brink. “It’s amazing to just watch her. She’s feisty and she’s competitive and she comes back like that’s all she wants to do; that’s her,” Cherie says. “When she’s galloping back [after her race,] I think about how it was not that long ago that I was sitting on a bucket wondering if she was going to be OK,”
The Bonds Between the Horse and Her Human
Again, it is said that horses “pick” their humans; that the really special ones come along at just the right time in our lives, that there is something in them that is the same in us – whether we recognize it or not.
There is something in Lady Eli that is the same in Cherie DeVaux.
It’s not just the hitch in their giddy up they have shared some mornings, Cherie with a knee that will someday need to be replaced and Lady Eli wavering in her step.
It’s not just Lady Eli’s tenacity that has helped motivate and drive Cherie towards her love of bodybuilding and competing.
It’s not just the hours they spent together in days without any pressure, just living in the moment of what was – not what could be.
And it’s not just that the Summer of Eli was linked to someone so important to Cherie; that it is Lady Eli in so many of Cherie’s memories of her Grandmother towards the end.
It’s something more…there is something in Lady Eli that is the same in Cherie:
“My goal is to enjoy what I’m doing and where I’m at. My ultimate goal in whatever I’m doing is that it’s making me happy. I’ve gotten to where I am by never putting pressure on myself. I feel like when you put pressure on it doesn’t work because when you do that you’re working on a timeline and what happens if it doesn’t work that way? Right now I really enjoy what I’m doing. “
Lady Eli would probably say the exact same thing.
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