A birthday present from Kristen Miller’s husband that gifted the horsewoman five percent of Heart Stopper during his racing career was the beginning of an unexpected journey for the CANTER Chicago executive director.
“Over the years, I visited him often when he was stabled at Arlington Park and Hawthorne Race Course and I grew quite attached to him! He has a gentle demeanor when you are paying attention to him in his stall, and of course giving him peppermints, so we became fast friends during my regular visits to the backside,” Miller explained. “I grew particularly close to Heart Stopper in the summer of 2015 when I lost my personal riding horse, a former AQHA racehorse, at 28 years of age. During that time, Heart Stopper’s intelligence and gentleness really helped me through the grieving process.”
When Heart Stopper was claimed from the syndicate Miller owned him through in July 2017, she was heartbroken and quickly hatched a plan. She claimed him back with her husband a few months later and let him finish out his racing career that fall. After he ended his career with a game second-place finish in December 2017, it was time to retire him and find him a new home where he could excel in a second career as an off-track Thoroughbred (OTTB).
“While I hated the idea of parting with Heart Stopper, in addition to my volunteer work with CANTER, I also have a demanding, full-time career, have a young son and already own one off-track racehorse. From a time perspective, I knew it might be difficult to find the hours in the day to ride two young OTTBs,” she said. “I listed Heart Stopper on CANTER Chicago for several months, and while I got numerous inquiries, I never found the buyer that I thought ‘well, that’s the perfect fit for my boy!’ Or maybe, if I’m being honest with myself, I just couldn’t bear the thought of him being owned by anyone but myself.”
Once Miller admitted to herself that she would be keeping Heart Stopper, she turned her attention to transforming him into a riding horse. As is often the case with her OTTBs, Miller has taken it slow with her mount to give him a solid foundation for his post-racing career.
“I’ve worked with hunter/jumper professionals throughout the past year in his retraining to give him a really solid foundation and to ensure I wasn’t going to mess him up with my amateur ways! That slow and steady approach, plus utilizing professionals along the way, has really paid off. Less than a year into his under-saddle retraining, he’s now walk, trot, and cantering under saddle and jumping small courses. He even got to participate in a clinic with a top hunter/jumper rider and judge, Scott Hofstetter,” she said.
One challenge that she has had to battle comes from knowing him on the track. It was a running joke in the barn when he was a racehorse that he got his name due to dropping his riders, which is something that stuck in her head when she started riding him. But Heart Stopper seems to have put those days behind him, acting like a saint for his new rider. Overall, she says that knowing him during his racing days has more pros than cons with the connection meaning she knew many things about him, including his medical history right from the start.
Her favorite part of his personality is his intelligence, something that has helped him transition into a new life quickly but Miller says that the gelding learning how to do everyday tasks is her biggest accomplishment with him so far.
“For anyone who has transitioned a horse direct from the track, you know there’s so much more to ‘retraining’ than just the riding aspect,” she said. “So for me, it’s a bunch of little accomplishments, like how well he stands on cross-ties, how he’s adjusted so well to turnout, how easy he is to handle on the ground, etc., that make me really proud of how far we’ve come in less than year.”
He has also taught her that just because you know a horse on the track doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get the same horse once they’re retired.
“Heart Stopper is teaching me that just because a horse behaved a certain way on the racetrack, it doesn’t mean that behavior will carry over into their second career. Knowledge is certainly power and anything we can learn about these animals during their racing days to help us better care for them in their second careers is extremely helpful, but just don’t let that knowledge handcuff you. Everyone deserves a fresh start in life, and for these majestic creatures, their off-track career is a fresh start.”
While Heart Stopper may not have found a new home through CANTER Chicago, you can find your perfect partner on the website here.