Rambler is a proud Quarter Horse who spent much of his life competing in timed events. He?s achieved an American Quarter Horse Association Register of Merit in barrel racing and pole bending.
The first time Toni Christopher saw Rambler, his eyes still shined with pride but she could see every bone along his topline and every rib. ?He was left in a lot with nothing to eat but the bark off the trees,? she recalls.
Rambler?s story is all too familiar in the horse world. Born of good lineage, and raised and trained to compete and perform, Rambler?s younger years were full of friends, fun, and excitement.
Then Rambler?s owners, for whatever reason, would sell him. Perhaps they found a faster horse. Perhaps they?d encountered a life-changing event and could no longer keep a horse. Perhaps they simply lost interest.
Whatever the reason, as Rambler matured, he began to find himself in new homes more and more frequently. Often, he?d be the mount of youngsters who wanted to learn to compete. He was an excellent teacher.
But as the beginners mastered what Rambler could teach they would, all too soon, want a faster horse. Not that Rambler had lost a lot of speed, but the years were taking their toll.
?He was passed around from owner to owner, and his last owner had simply moved away and left him,? says Christopher, her voice soft and unsteady. ?That’s when I saw him for the first time, abandoned in a pasture left to survive on his own.?
For several weeks, Christopher tried to contact the owners. Eventually, they told her they didn’t want him anymore; she could have him. She took him home eight years ago.
Christopher and her husband own and operate Starlight Stables. ?I named it that, because as a young girl my family couldn?t possibly afford a horse,? she explains.
?My mother died when I was 2, and my father worked two jobs to raise us kids. Every night, I would find the first star and make my starlight, star-bright wish, that I could have a horse. I was 29 before that wish came true.?
During the past 17 years, the Christophers have rescued and placed numerous horses and ponies; Starlight Stables is currently home to 18 special equines.
?The very first rescue was a starved Shetland pony we named Smokey,? says Christopher. ?At the time, my son Michael was 2. Smokey taught Michael how to love horses and ride. Michael and Smokey were best friends until Smokey passed away six years later, but they did a lot of trails and shows. And they adored each other!?
Christopher offers lessons year round, and horse and pony camps in June and July. ?They are three to five day camps, depending on the children?s ages, and we do everything from basic introduction to horses to what it means to care for a horse to riding, and tack,? she says.
About 16 years ago, Christopher also started doing pony parties as a way to help support Starlight. ?Sometimes I laugh when I think about how many kitchen walls pictures of our ponies giving rides hang on!?
Christopher, who?s also a school bus driver, knows the challenges of generating the constant cash flow necessary to operate a private rescue. Discovering the American Competitive Trail Horse Association was a revelation.
?I was so excited when I heard about ACTHA and their commitment to horses, rescues, and charities,? she says. ?I volunteered and was simply blown away by the organization. Since I?ve joined ACTHA, I?ve met some of the most marvelous people and horses!?
Christopher now incorporates obstacles in her lessons. Her students love to go on ACTHA rides and show what they?ve learned.
At the ACTHA rides she hosts, Christopher gives awards for the best rescue horse story. ?ACTHA is a sport that celebrates the rescue horse,? she says with pride.
Rambler has a lifetime job as a lesson horse at Starlight. Last summer, Christopher rode him in the ACTHA Ride for the Rescues. Her student, Melanie Verrett, won first place in the Junior Division aboard Rambler at the Magnolia Branch CTC.
?Rambler is 28 now and healthy as can be,? says Christopher. ?All the kids love him, and he gets so excited when they tack him up. You can’t miss the pride in his eyes from a mile away.
?That’s why I host ACTHA rides. ACTHA gives ?throwaway? horses the chance to shine again.?
For more information on the American Competitive Trail Horse Association, visit www.actha.us.
Dutch Henry is a freelance writer and novelist who resides in Virginia with his wife of 35 years, plus his horse, dogs, cats, and chickens. He?s a staff writer for the American Competitive Trail Horse Association.