Horses have so much power over us. They don’t know that, of course, but, unwittingly, they expose our personal weaknesses – and bring out our hidden strengths. This is something Allison Smith, a 28-year-old from Warrenton, Va., knows very well. Her passion for eventing and the pressure she put on herself to succeed in this many-layered, ultimately demanding sport exacerbated her anxiety and perfectionist tendencies. Yet one horse has changed her life in a way she never could have anticipated.
“Colby has changed my perspective on everything,” she says. “Through him, I have changed my mindset. Horse shows were so important to me and so stressful - everything had to be perfect, and if it wasn’t, it was my fault. Now, it’s just a horse show. There are many more things in life that are more important.”
Colby, a chestnut Dutch Harness Horse with striking white markings, came into Allison’s life in August 2020. She and her wife Olivia were sitting in a brewery, having a few drinks, when they saw a Facebook post about Colby, who was in a kill-pen waiting to be shipped for slaughter.
“Olivia said how cute he was, and I thought he looked a lovely, flashy type who could potentially be a good resale prospect,” says Allison.
In minutes, they had transferred money via Paypal, and bought him.
“I planned on getting him under saddle and reselling him. That [selling him] never happened!” she says.
Olivia started documenting the journey that Allison and the terrified, abused Colby shared via Tiktok, and, to their amazement, Olivia’s first video received a million views.
“It took off from there - it’s been insane,” admits Allison.
Their social media channels (@ohkaytacos) have hundreds of thousands of followers, and The Dodo shared this video which shows Allison’s endless patience and gentleness with Colby, and the extraordinary relationship they have slowly formed.
It has led to the founding of a 501C3 government-recognized non-profit organization through which they rescue horses from the slaughter pipeline and rehabilitate them.
“Seeing Colby’s transformation inspired me to do more,” she says. “He’s not going to be an upper-level event horse, but we forget that a horse can be our best friend - and he is mine. I never imagined that I would feel the way I do about a horse that has no involvement in my competitive dreams, and it has made me realize that it is the bond between a horse and a person that is what’s special. Whether you compete your horse at Kentucky or whether you simply ride him in a field, or handle him in the stable, it is the same bond.”
That doesn’t mean Allison’s ambitions to compete at the top-level are extinguished; far from it. She started riding with her friends at a local barn when she was nine years old, and when she was ten she started going to the Pony Club.
“It was through the Pony Club that, when I was about 13, I met Lynn Symansky, and that’s how I became interested in eventing,” she explains. “I started working for her on and off when I was 15; she found me my Young Rider horse, Double Rivers 2 Cool.”
Allison competed at the North American Young Rider Championships in 2009 and 2010 - “I didn’t do very well, but it was cool to get to go; he was a very good boy” - and from the age of sixteen, worked for Lynn full-time for five or six years.
“I groomed for her with Donner at events like the Pan American Games – I learned everything from her,” says Allison.
That includes many of the skills that she needed in the past year with Colby. “Lynn has great horsemanship skills,” she says.
Allison then worked in pure showjumping - “always my weakest phase”, and got great experience in the showjumping and hunter jumper worlds.
She says: “My Thoroughbred maxed out at Junior Amateur-Owner level [1m25], and really my heart brought me back to eventing three years ago. You can’t escape that incredible feeling after cross-country, the adrenaline . . . I love bringing young horses on and feeling them learn to look for the flags, and it’s also the people in eventing that are special.”
Somehow she fit in a Business Management degree at George Mason University. “I thought I’d have a real job in the corporate world!” she laughs. “I have tried every single outlet in an attempt not to make horses my career, but it hasn’t worked out for me!”
That includes the nursing degree she has nearly finished.
“My mother is a nurse and my sister-in-law a nurse practitioner, and I was feeling a bit burnt out by doing horses for so long, having them injure themselves, and so on. I was riding for people, doing grooming, clipping, doing Thoroughbred resales… I wanted something with a flexible schedule that would mean I could do horses for fun.”
Allison now rides with Sharon White, and the Thoroughbred Gude Affair has taken her to Intermediate.
“That was a goal, and gave me the ambition to progress further up the ladder,” she says. “He decided he didn’t like the Advanced/CCI3* dressage test, so my working student is leasing him now. I am very excited about my young horse, Great Red Dragon - he won his last Training event at Morven Park and is moving up to Preliminary. There are a lot of hoops we will have to jump through, but I hope to get him to the top level.
She credits Sharon with helping her a great deal with the mental aspects of eventing.
“I had horses a few years ago who didn’t really want to do it, and I got a real block about that. I have struggled really badly with anxiety, and that has affected my riding on my own horses; it was easier to ride other people’s horses because I put less pressure on myself when I was riding them. With my own, I had to be perfect all the time in every way.”
She continues: “It’s so important to take a step back and realize that nothing can be perfect. Horses don’t really know whether you are the best rider in the world or not - they just love you. It’s been important to realize that I am giving my horse the best care I can and what he needs to succeed, and that’s all I can do. If the horse goes out there and has a good time, you are doing something right. That was a big thing for me to realize.”
Colby and the horses who have followed him from the kill pen in Pennsylvania to Allison and Olivia’s base - and the global events of the past year - have allowed Allison to gain perspective.
“It’s been really humbling, and I now appreciate that it’s just nice to be with horses. Colby was like no horse I had ever worked with before, and he was the start of so much,” she says. “I am really excited about the next few years. My business is now split into Evermore Equestrian, which is the sport horse, breeding and producing side, and Colby’s Crew Rescue - they are very different from each other and both very rewarding. My sponsors - Buckeye Nutrition, Voltaire Design, Activo-Med, Toujoures Equine, and Etalon Diagnostics - have been amazing in supporting both sides, and I’m so grateful to them.
“But none of it would be possible without Olivia. I would never, ever have put myself out there at all. If I ever put a picture on Facebook, I overanalyze it endlessly. I am very shy and quiet, and very reserved. I owe everything to her; she has helped me so much, and has done so much to help with my anxiety and in not worrying so much about what people think.”
The power of horses - and of love.
The USEA is made up of over 12,000 members, each with their own special horses and experiences. The USEA's Now on Course series highlights the many unique stories of our membership. Do you and your horse have a tale to tell? Do you know someone who deserves recognition? Submit your story to Kim Beaudoin at [email protected] to be featured.
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