Losing a horse can shake a rider to their core and leave them questioning if they have the heart to carry on, but 2024 EA21 National Camp athlete Braden Speck had to learn how to channel all of his love for the sport of eventing after heartbreakingly losing three horses in a row due to uncontrollable circumstances.
“I think it’s all about following what your heart wants to do,” Speck said as he reflected back on the challenging, yet formative, first few years of his eventing career. “When you do that, you are going to be happy with what you are doing no matter what, but it was so hard for me to do that at that point.”
Speck grew up in Unionville, Pennsylvania, where he and his sister, Kaelen Speck, were immersed in the world of riding.
“I grew up with Phillip Dutton’s kids, and there were a bunch of other eventers around. My sister started riding at a friend’s house when she was around 6 or 7 and eventually got her own pony. I would just hang out at the barn and watch and eventually, everyone roped me into getting on and trying to ride.”
While initially riding was just something fun for Braden to do, he found his appreciation for the sport growing as he did.
“It was really spontaneous,” said Braden. “I just kind of started riding as a kid, just having fun, and eventually my love for it just grew and grew and never stopped. I would go to Plantation [Field in Unionville] and Fair Hill [Elkton, Maryland] and watch with eyes wide, just looking at these massive fences. I couldn’t believe that people jumped them.”
When his sister upgraded to her next horse, a Thoroughbred mare named Regal Dancer, Braden made his competition debut in 2014 on his sister’s Connemara Rosenharley Romello (Atlantic Swirl x Rosenharley Romarie). He showed that pony through the Novice level for two years before outgrowing him and eventually taking over the reins on “Dancer.”
“She was super sweet and a really good teacher,” Braden noted. “She was this little, small Thoroughbred, and when I got her she was older, but she loved her job.”
After having taken Kaelen to the Preliminary level previously, Dancer helped Braden work his way up through Training, and the pair made their Preliminary debut together in 2017. After a successful first outing, Braden and Dancer were schooling a few weeks later when the mare suffered an aneurysm and died unexpectedly. Braden was just in the eighth grade when it happened.
“She warmed up great; she was jumping fabulously," he remembered. "We were doing these two angled brushes, and we jumped the first one, and then she collapsed. There was a solid few weeks before I could get on another horse. Luckily, we still had our pony so he kept me going. It gave me some motivation to keep going to the barn because I had that responsibility. So I would just go and hack him and have fun with him for a few weeks while my brain sorted through everything.”
After he had come to terms with what he'd experienced, Braden and his trainer began looking for his next horse. They had purchased a young Thoroughbred by the name of American Fortitude (Zensational x American River) for Braden for the future, and Kaelen helped to get a solid start on him. In the meantime, they found a horse for Braden to lease. But just a few weeks later, tragedy struck again.
“I had her for about four weeks, and then she colicked and had to go to New Bolton [veterinary clinic],” said Braden. “She recovered from that, and we got the all-clear to ride again. We went to a couple of shows and she was great. And then one day after cross-country, she parked out like she was going to colic again. We gave her Banamine and rushed her to New Bolton where they tried to do surgery on her, but when they opened her up, her entire small intestine was dead.”
Braden was back to where he had been just months before—horseless and heartbroken. In the summer of the following year, he took over the ride on American Fortitude in hopes that his luck would finally turn around.
“He was great,” he shared. “He was just 5 years old at the time, but I got to ride him for two years. We went to Bromont [Quebec, Canada] and did the Training there when my sister did the three-star on her upper-level horse. We just had so much fun together.”
The summer after their Bromont experience together, American Fortitude suffered a career-ending tendon injury. The recovery prognosis after surgery wasn’t ideal, and with quality of life in mind, the decision to humanely euthanize the horse was made.
“I lost three horses in two years,” said Braden. “I love doing the sport so much that I couldn’t not do it. I was so invested. I didn’t want to walk away then. I just kept telling myself that this was probably the hardest thing I would ever have to go through in the sport to carry on.”
Braden’s trainer, Erin Kanara, got a phone call from the late Annie Goodwin about a horse she felt would be a fabulous fit for the young rider. So Kanara and Braden made the trek to Aiken, South Carolina, to meet the then 6-year-old Connemara cross gelding BSF Liam (Ballwhim An Luan x Rumor Risky). It was an instant connection.
“He is just like a big dog,” stated Braden. “He is super sweet, and that is why I wanted him so much. I am very much an animal person, so that was more important to me at that point. The other horses I tried might have been more athletic, but they weren’t super affectionate, and I wanted a horse that I could love and enjoy. I didn’t care if he wasn’t going to go Advanced or not. I just wanted to have a horse I would have a blast going around on.”
Liam fit the bill and quickly became a member of the Speck family. They had their first outing together in 2019 at the Novice level and have been together ever since. With some help from his sister, Braden brought Liam up to the Intermediate level with quite a bit of success. The spunky gray has a near-spotless cross-country record.
“The couple of stops we have had were totally my fault,” Braden said of his partner. “We have done 13 FEI competitions, and he has a spotless FEI cross-country record.”
Braden and Liam competed at the three-star level four times in 2023. They have tackled the highly competitive CCI3*-L at the MARS Maryland 5 Star twice, and in 2023 they received the USEF McKenna Award for being the highest Connemara halfbred or purebred competing at the Preliminary level and above.
While initially, no one anticipated Liam to ever tackle an Advanced level competition, the sporty gray gelding and Braden are preparing for their first attempt at the level together this season.
“He has proved us all wrong,” Braden shared. “He’s so smart on cross-country; he’s saved my butt a couple of times. He’s super smart, and he learns everything so quickly. We have just taken our time with him. He is just gung-ho and so strong. Erin is confident that he can do it, and I am confident that he can do it too.”
The 21-year-old rider is a junior at the University of Delaware and will balance the preparations necessary for that move-up with his busy school schedule as a pre-veterinary medicine major. Braden aspires to go into equine veterinary medicine and hopes to model his career after that of the 2022 USEA Adult Amateur of the Year Dr. Kevin Keane.
Braden’s involvement in the sport hasn’t been the smoothest of rides, but he refuses to let the hardships or challenges get him down.
“There were so many times in life where I could have taken other paths that weren’t riding, but I always chose riding. I could have given up when all that happened with my horses or I could have gone to boarding school to pursue ice hockey, but I always wanted to keep doing it. Sure, ‘why me?’ crossed my mind a few times, but this is what I loved.”
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