by Jen Roytz
Every horse person has their “heart horse.” It’s that horse for which there is no equal, at least in your eyes. To you, that horse is your absolute one, your favorite beyond all others. It’s a horse that, for whatever reason, you connected with on a deeper level than you even knew was possible. If you’re thinking to yourself, “who would my heart horse be,” then you may not have found it yet. Trust me when I say you will, and once you do, there will be no doubt.
Advanced level eventing rider Kelsey Briggs found her heart horse in the unlikeliest of places – at River Downs via a web search from Charlotte, N.C. in 2006. While a then-18-year-old Briggs knew from the moment she saw the photo of the 3-year-old gangly-looking gelding that he was meant to be her horse, she could have never predicted the feats they would achieve together, competing on the sport’s biggest stages throughout the U. S. and Canada. She could also have never known the love and admiration she would one day have for the animal.
“I was casually scrolling through the CANTER website one afternoon after a client said she would like to get something off the track. I’d seen several that I thought she should consider, but then I landed on a photo of a horse with the most ridiculous name – Bub the Scrub – and I couldn’t take my eyes off of him,” said Briggs. “He was tall and awkward – kind of like the horse version of me – and I had to have him.”
Briggs called the trainer to say she was interested in the gelding, asked her mom if she wanted to come with her on a road trip to Cincinnati, Ohio and a day later at 3:00 a.m. they were on the road with Briggs’ truck and trailer.
“It was 4:00 p.m. when we arrived, not exactly the busiest time of day at a track. They told me what barn he was in, but nobody was there yet. I walked down the shed row and I knew which one he was immediately. He turned his head sideways like he was trying to kiss you, which he still does to get attention, and I saw he had a little scratch over his eyelid. I remember saying, ‘Look at you, you old Pirate. What are you doing?’ and from then on he went by Pirate.”
Having only raced three times, Pirate wasn’t in need of much let down, so once she got him back to North Carolina, Briggs wasted no time in climbing aboard and figuring out her new ride.While Briggs’ base of training today is a lovely farm with all the amenities an eventer could want including a large covered arena, back then she wasn’t as lucky. Lacking any formal riding area, she did most of her riding in the fields and on the roads surrounding the farm.
“Any horse that I’ve had in training has done a ton of hacking out in the open rather than riding in an arena, more out of necessity back then, but even now I spend much more time out in the open fields than I do in an arena,” said Briggs.
As such, Briggs began the training process with Pirate hacking around the countryside, jumping whatever they could find and just making his advancement an organic process. With that process, they two of them worked their way up the levels, up to and past Briggs’ former plateau of Preliminary Level competition and on through the highest level of the sport – Advanced.
“I was a teenager without a clue and he jumped me around my first advanced course. I trained Pirate for his first two-star competition just training out in the fields,” said Briggs of the horse she shows as “The Gentleman Pirate,” as a homage to his nickname and kind nature.
Things were going great. Briggs was teaching extensively, riding a lot of horses, traveling to events and feeling like she was truly achieving success as a trainer. Then, one day in 2013 her world – and his – came crashing down, as she found her beloved heart horse with a broken neck in the field.
“To this day, I don’t know how it happened. He could barely walk. My concern for him to just have a quality of life. There was no hope for him ever being ridden again, let alone compete,” said Briggs. “I was heartbroken. This poor fellow who had been carrying my butt around for so many years chasing all of my dreams…this is how it was going to end for him? It was devastating.”
Briggs persevered, and so did Pirate. She gave him all the time he needed, followed all orders given by his veterinarians and made sure he wanted for nothing. Then, a funny thing happened. His recovery began to surpass expectations. He even became so sound and stable that he was given the all clear to be ridden. Briggs brought him back slowly, spending time just as they had started, hacking out in the countryside just enjoying each other and the nature around them.
Eventually they began to hop over small obstacles; then when that was successful the pair aimed at bigger jumps, eventually working their way back into competition and even back to the level they’d once achieved…then beyond it.
“The fact that he came back not only to be ridden or even to compete again, but to jump clear at the three-star level is incredible,” said Briggs. “Even today, we just take things as they come. We jump at the upper levels for fun, and we’ll continue to jump around advanced as long as he feels good and loves it.”
Briggs, who has a second horse (Villain)she’s currently bringing up the levels with hopes that he will one day replace Pirate as her main competition mount, said she only competes with pirate two or three events a season or seven or so events a year. Currently the pair is preparing to compete at the Stable View CICI3* later this month.
Briggs has long been drawn to Thoroughbreds, galloping at the track to make ends meet as she embarked on her training career and even taking out her steeplechase trainer’s license. For her, it’s not a focus on racehorses or off-track sport horses, but Thoroughbreds in general.
I love these horses all around, from the racing side to the aftercare,” she said. “Pirate is your typical off-track horse, which is why I like him so much. He’s a bold sort of horse who’s super-athletic and has an old-school big galloping stride, so I try to focus on competitions that play to those strengths.”
As for what the future holds for Briggs and Pirate, she says it’s up to him to decide the direction they go.
“As long as he keeps enjoying things, we’ll keep doing them. If this horse wanted to stop eventing and run barrels one day, I’d learn to become a barrel racer,” said Briggs. “He’s truly the love of my life. Regardless of what he’s accomplished for me, I’m just grateful for this grand adventure we’ve been on together for the past 12 or more years. I was just that 18-year-old without a clue when I got him, and at 30 I’m still not sure if I have much of one, but somehow we have made it to the top levels of the sport and I can’t imagine anyone being better to me than Pirate has been.
“No matter what I have gone through in my adult life, Pirate has been there, ready for me to throw him on our old, beat-up trailer and go chasing some dream or escaping some heartbreak or whatever it is I need him to do. He owes me nothing, but gives me everything and he’s made every last dream I’ve had come true.”
Name: Bub the Scrub (a.k.a. “Pirate” or “The Gentleman Pirate”)
Born: April 8, 2003
Sire: Covered Wagon
Dam: Jasin Jodie, by Repriced
Sale History: None
Race Record: 3-0-0-0
Race Earnings: $165
Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Kentucky and was recently named the Executive Director of the Retired Racehorse Project. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of equine, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She is the go-to food source for one dog, two cats and two off-track Thoroughbreds.
Email Jen your story ideas at Jenlroytz@gmail.com or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.