In the 1980's, Holly Westenhoefer Veloso was fortunate enough to grow up in a world that many little girls would give their right arm for. Her parents owned a large boarding barn near Lancaster, PA. Holly had school horses and a succession of ponies to ride, but at age 12, she’d never had a special horse to call her own. However, her luck was soon to change.
Holly’s father, Frank, was at an auction in New Holland, PA looking for school horses, when he spotted a black horse in a kill pen (at this time the slaughter of horses had not yet been outlawed in the US). At first, Frank thought the horse looked quite poorly and so pathetic, that he was going to pass on him. Then the horse trotted away, revealing unusually flashy gaits, and igniting the start of a beautiful story.
Instead of being passed over, the gelding's nice movement caught Frank’s eye. Holly relates, “I guess the horse’s trot is what grabbed Dad, because he bought him and brought him home.” Twelve year old Holly couldn't believe her good fortunate when the horse arrived, but the reality of acquiring a horse with a history of neglect at best, and at worst abuse, quickly became evident. Holly's fairy tale beginning plunged south as her new horse became adjusted to the Westenhoefers’ barn.
THE FIRST MONTH
Ruger, as they came to call the black gelding, had a strong aversion to the human world that had left him tired and deserted. “To be clear”, remembers Holly, “He wasn’t like this sweetie horse who would crawl in your lap - he was awful to adults, especially men.”
As Holly and Frank came to learn, Ruger's history was likely tarnished with bad luck and mistreatment. Frank learned what we could from the auction staff - that Ruger had been an Amish cart horse, and that the gelding was presumed to be a Standardbred/Percheron cross. The rest was a guess, but poor Ruger's weathered frame left little to the imagination.
In addition to harness wounds, he had a big indentation on the bridge of his nose. “Our vet figured it was from a halter left on him as he was growing which had grown into his skin. He also had barbed wire cuts around his fetlocks. He wasn’t lame, but he was really a mess” Holly remembers.
The Westenhoefers’ barn was a busy place, and Ruger's distaste for people meant that he “met everyone with his butt.” As soon as the stall door was opened, he swung his hind end toward the door, and pinned his ears back, threatening to kick.
At first, Holly’s parents were the only ones to handle the horse. They literally used a carrot and stick method to improve the way he greeted guests at his door. “I think Mom said that for a month, they’d go to the stall door with a carrot and a stick. If he showed up with his rear end, he got a swat. If he showed up with his head, he got a carrot. Very simple.
“That went on for a month, and he was filling out and looking better, but my parents knew he wasn’t going to make it as a school horse because he wasn’t safe - especially with men. So they wondered, ‘Well, now that we have him, what do we do with him?’
As fate would have it, the answer came from a most unlikely source.
Directly across the road from the Westenhoefers’ barn was a church which offered daycare and summer camps. There were kids everywhere, and they were precariously close to the farm.
Ruger’s big moment occurred when Frank was walking him down the road to the farm’s smaller ring. Suddenly, a group of kids saw the horse and they swarmed him. “Dad said he just stood there and about had a heart attack because all he could think of was how many of those kids were going to get squashed.”
While Frank held his breath, Ruger let his out, dropping his head and reveling in the attention. Holly repeats the story she heard often from her father. “Ruger stood absolutely still, put his head down and let every little kid pet him and touch him and coo over him. Dad said that it was miraculous. He’d literally never seen anything like it. He thought it was going to be a disaster - but Ruger loved it. Soft eye, stood still - the whole thing.”
And in that moment, a bell went off for Frank and he knew exactly what to do with Ruger. This horse was meant for Holly.
A GIRL AND HER HORSE
From day one, Ruger never put a foot wrong for Holly, “So, he never did become a school horse, he became my own personal horse.”
Holly started competing Ruger in dressage. She laughs, “He had an ugly head and an ugly shape to him, but he was a really good mover. Of course, this was back in the ‘80s before anyone had $100,000 warmbloods.”
It didn't take long before young Holly and her black rescue horse became talk of the town. When Holly and Ruger started racking up wins the local buzz was ripe with news of the hometown sensation - Cinderella horse comes from the meat herd, little girl shows him and wins! Even Disney contacted Holly’s parents about the possibility of doing a movie.
YOUNG RIDERS PREQUEL
Holly and Ruger continued doing well in the dressage arena. “He was solid as a rock in any show situation. You could throw him on any trailer, he didn’t care. You could put other kids on him when we had to switch horses in the dressage derbies - he was just a beautifully kind boy.
Holly recalls, “Todd Bryan, Scott Hassler and I were competing together - we were about the same age. None of us had really good horses, but there was a succession of shows for a couple of years where the three of us all did well. We were riding in dressage derbies and doing well. We were the first batch of Colonel Kitts’ and Captain Andy de Szinay’s kids coming along, and we went to the first “Junior Riders” competition. That was back at the beginning and nothing like it is now!”
Even though he wasn’t built for collection, Ruger excelled through 2nd level due to his big, scopey movement. Anyone who saw the pair compete knew that Ruger had found his stride with twelve year old, Holly. As the saying goes, 'every horse deserves at least once to be loved by a little girl' and for a tattered, kill pen horse that had nearly given up, Holly was just what Ruger needed. “He was the Cinderella horse from the meat herd, and I have the best memories of him.”
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