“Great horses will change your life. The truly special ones will define it.”
This is the story of a bond deeper than the sea — a bond which will live long after its subjects have departed for a higher calling, as we all do when our work here is done.
This is the story of a boy and a girl — a horse and his rider.
Madison Nichter has worked with horses for as long as she can remember, settling in on OTTB’s in her teenage years. As a seasoned eventer, she prefers the athleticism of Thoroughbreds in a sport that largely prefers Warmbloods, setting both she and her noble steeds apart from the rest, in competition.
On a crisp Fall morning in October of 2012, Madison set out to find herself a new project. She hadn’t a clue that she was on the precipice of meeting a horse which would teach her more than she would teach him, in return.
He didn’t come in a sleek, shiny package. He wasn’t the ideal, well-manicured racehorse we all imagine when we think of Thoroughbreds. Instead, he was a horse in need, awaiting the arrival of someone with the imagination it would take to see past the neglected mess that he was. “His mane and tail were filled with burrs, and he shared a paddock with a one-eyed pony,” she recalls, stars filling her blue-green eyes, alive with wonder, as she travels back in time to this very moment. “I knew that I needed to buy him, regardless of the future we may or may not have together. He was my Cinderella horse.”
And so the Cinderella horse, registered with the name Varvatos, “Var” for short, found himself on his way to a new life — one which would be filled with the promise of a warm stall, all the food he could eat, and most importantly, the love and devotion of one young woman — a best friend of his very own.
After some well-deserved TLC, Var began the transformation from ex-racehorse to eventer — a transformation that seemed to come easily to the big gray gelding. Within four months of the two’s first serendipitous meeting, Madison and her heart horse would compete in their very first show as a team. “The more and more he progressed, I knew he was something special, and everyone who saw him knew it, too.”
The pair earned the opportunity to train in Florida during the winter of 2014, and when Var arrived on the scene, it became clear to all that the horse who was once living in a lot with a one-eyed pony, would be the one to take Madison to the upper levels and become the four star horse she had dreamed of owning all her life. Instilling a confidence in her that she had never known, even after years of competing, Madison credits Var for most of the success they achieved together. “His final year of showing, he did not receive one show jumping penalty. He wasn’t the fanciest horse, but he sure stood out,” she says.
Var didn’t need to be the fanciest horse in the ring to carry Madison to several winning rides. She remembers her favorite moment with him, competing in the Classic Training three-day-event in 2015. “He was the only horse to end on his dressage score, and we finished second,” a second that was astounding, considering the level of competition they faced — horses and riders from all backgrounds, most of them riding horses which were imported, costing more than double what Var did.
In the Summer of 2015, Madison received a call that would forever change the course of her life. Her dear friend and trusted partner, Var, had badly broken his leg. As we all know, Thoroughbreds are massive animals, and just as they are massive, they are fragile. “I knew right away, there was nothing that could be done. I rushed over immediately to meet him in the field.”
As she arrived on-scene to witness Var struggling in pain — a horse once so brave and strong, now helpless and fighting for survival, the clouds darkened, and it began to rain as if the heavens themselves regretted the terrible turn of events this story had taken. “Seeing his leg crushed me, and I broke down then and there, while trying my best to comfort him in his darkest hour.”
She would stay with him, just as he had done for her through thick and thin since that October day in 2012. She held him in her arms, stroking his face and whispering how much she loved him, as he calmly steadied, and closed his eyes forever. There, beneath the unyielding storm, Madison would lay with her dear friend, now lifeless beside her, until her grandparents arrived, to transport Var to their family farm, where he would then be laid to rest for eternity. Lying beside him in his final moments was both the greatest heartbreak and privilege of Madison’s life.
“He did so much for me. He owed me nothing. I owed him everything.”
Nearly two years later, she still finds it difficult to tell his story — one both beautiful and sad, but altogether defining. She recalls him now, and credits the strength she has come to know, to her special, once in a lifetime horse. “I didn’t know what to do with myself once he was gone. I had to start all over again, but I knew that I had to keep going for him… he has inspired me to keep pushing through life, no matter how hard it gets.”
And so Madison has carried on, as Var would have wanted her to. She purchased another OTTB whom she affectionately refers to as “T”, and while Var’s memory is and will always be fresh in her heart and mind, she carries on with her career as an eventer. “T and Var are day and night. T is quirky, and high-maintanence, but he is the fanciest Thoroughbred I have owned. He will be one to watch for when he figures it all out.”
T was not a replacement for Var, as every horse is special in his or her own way. But, he has helped to heal a young woman who was left broken by the loss of her best friend.
While there have always been horses in Madison Nichter’s life, and there will continue to be for the remainder of it, she owes her perseverance, bravery, and much of who she is, to Var. The horse who will forever hold the key to heart — the horse who lives in the deepest, warmest corners of her soul — the horse who changed her — made her better…
…the Cinderella Horse.
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