I was all of 22 years old when I hit a low point.
One minute I’m living my dream of working on a thoroughbred farm, the next minute I’m being chased across a parking lot by a 6’4” drunk ranch foreman hell bent on hurting someone. The ranch was bankrupt and all of our paychecks had just bounced. I was broke, I was scared and my brave move to live my dream was turning into a nightmare. I was too proud and too stubborn to call my folks or even my best girlfriends. There was only one place to go – to the side of my leggy horse Lad. He didn’t lecture or offer advice, he was simply present and he let me cry myself out. With his help, I was able to scrape up the dignity and strength to push on.
Fast forward ten years and it’s 2001. Now that I was fairly established in the horse business, I started pursuing my other ambition – to be a published author. I put my best foot forward and published a piece about my aging horse Lad. I led with the fact that a 24 year old horse had touched more lives than most people might. Not only had he served as my friend and leaning post these 12 years, but he was my constant companion in raising my impetuous and highly individual son. I poured my heart into the piece. Lad had been a racehorse, a show horse, a school horse, a racetrack pony and lastly a babysitter for weanlings. He’d spent his entire life serving everyone with everything he had. It was the first piece of writing I’d ever gotten paid for. Lad had made another fantasy of mine come true; to be a professional writer.
Lad died on Joe Shelton’s ranch in 2002. I thought Lad’s story ended at that point and he was just a tender memory for me, my son and a few others.
Boy was I wrong. Hang on folks, this is where things turn mystical.
Just last month a Texas man found Lad’s story on our website and there is no telling how he did it. By admission, he’s not a horse person, but he Googled Lad’s racing name and there was my story (we had reposted it in 2008). He browsed the Square Peg Ranch website and picked up his phone. I was driving up the California coast on my way to the barn when his call came in.
“Is this Joel Brewster-Dunlap?”
“Um, this is Joell, can I help you?”
“My name is Terry and I’m calling from Dallas Texas. Do you remember a horse named Lite Lee Lad?”
Stop the truck.
I swallow hard. “Why yes Terry, he’s a horse I will never forget.”
“Do you have a minute to talk?”
“Sir, you have my undivided attention.”
“Well, I’m not a horse person, but my Dad was, and he bred and raced Lite Lee Lad. My Dad’s name was Lee, you see. Even though he had an artificial leg, he worked in car parts sales as a counter sales person most of, if not all, of his career and he loved the races. When he retired, he bought a fifth-wheel trailer and had a few horses – he raised Lad himself. He followed his horses around the California and Arizona racing circuit.”
Terry stops and I realize he’s crying “Sorry m’am, this is kind of hard.”
“Go ahead Terry, take your time.”
“One night the races were at the Solano County fair in Vallejo and my dad was found slumped in his trailer, he’d had a massive stroke. I flew in from Texas, and when the doctors convinced my sister and I that he was indeed brain dead, we agreed to take him off life support and some hours later he was gone. But Lite Lee Lad kept racing with my uncle. Within a month or two, he was claimed away and I never knew where he went. My dad’s horse you see, with his name and everything and then they were both just gone. I never forgot that horse. And then I found your article and found out that he was with you. I was so happy and I just wanted to talk to you, but I couldn’t find you. I held on to that article for years and I put it in Google the other day and I found you and Square Peg Ranch and you just don’t know how happy it makes me to know that Lite Lee Lad was part of what you do for kids and ex-racehorses.”
Both Terry and I have given up holding back tears. All I can do is thank him for his kindness, for his story and for finding me.
“I’m going to scan a couple of his win pictures and send them to you. Will that be okay?”
Of note; these photos are 34 years old – “Yes Terry, I would love to have them.”
Lite Lee Lad raced an astounding 46 times. For reference: Secretariat and Man O’ War both ran 21 times, Seattle Slew raced 17 times. He packed me and others over jumps for a decade, he was the key to me starting my first and second riding school and he spent his last days taking care of weanling foals. He was never famous and I never thought he meant much to anyone but me.
The day I received Terry’s call, I called my parents to tell them the story. My mother, also not a horse person said “I will always love Laddie because he kept my daughter from a nervous breakdown.” All these years and I had no idea that my mother knew. Another gift from Lad.
Twelve years after his death, this hard-knocking gangly racehorse is still touching my life with grace and beauty. Now I know he’s also touching Terry’s life too. Terry told me he knows his father, Lee, would be overjoyed to know what his most beloved Lite Lee Lad had done.
Today I stand in awe of the power of a thoroughbred to unite us in our humanity and to build bridges. I honor your memory sweet Laddie and I am grateful for your service to all.
Joell Dunlap is the co-founder and executive director of Square Peg Ranch a non profit in Half Moon Bay that pairs horses who need a second chance with kids who know what it’s like to be a Square Peg (mainly, kids on the autism spectrum). Joell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org