NICHOLASVILLE — Josie Forbes walks toward the stall of her 3-year-old saddlebred champion and, before he can see her, he knows she's coming. The ears perk. The head turns. The eyes shine.
Then, she's there and his nose dives deep into her vest. Looking for affection and peppermints in equal measure, Mirror Me is not disappointed. These two go way back, back to the Sunday morning on which Mirror Me was born and it was clear, even to a newborn foal, that he was going to need some help from someone in addition to his mama if he was going to survive.
That someone would be Forbes, with a big assist from a pony named Daisy. And a bell he wore around his neck. And Forbes' strange penchant for telling him over and over again that he would be not just fine, but great.
It all started in January 2005 when a champion show horse named Time's Mirrored came back to Nelson Green's Stables in Jessamine County. Green is one of the nation's top saddlebred trainers. He's on the board of the American Saddlebred Horse Association. But he also acts as a sales agent for others looking to find top quality buyers for elite show horses.
Green had originally sold Time's Mirrored to the Mielke family in 2001 when they had been looking for a horse with show potential for their daughter. Their daughter, Anne Marie, had campaigned the horse from their home base in Wisconsin and done extremely well with her. (She'd won national champion and world champion titles in several classes.) But Anne Marie had grown up and moved on with her life.
Time's Mirrored was still valuable, the Mielkes thought, even though she was having problems with her vision, and they asked Green and his partner, Josie Forbes, to sell her.
Green suspected the problem was bad. He asked Lexington equine ophthalmologist Claire Latimer to take a look. Latimer explained that cataracts had left the horse with only 5 percent vision in one eye and that she was likely to soon go blind in the other eye. Her days as a show horse were over.
It was up to Nelson to call the Mielkes. Trying to turn the negative into a positive, Green said Time's Mirrored could be bred. She had all the attributes you would want in a broodmare, he said. She was beautiful; she had an almost perfect motioned trot; she was a multi-titled winner; she was royally bred.
The Mielkes told Green and Forbes they were not in the baby-horse-making business. They owned horses only because their daughter enjoyed them. Could Green please try to find a nice home for their champion horse, they pleaded.
Green and Forbes looked at each other and agreed they'd provide that nice home.
Forbes and Green moved her away from the stables and to their farm on Catnip Hill Road.
The first thing the horse did after that was have a nervous breakdown.
"She was not an adjuster," says Forbes. "Most women are. She wasn't."
It takes a village
Time's Mirrored, affectionately called Sadie, was only 10 years old, and she was going blind. She didn't like it nor did she understand it. So she stayed in her stall, bumping aimlessly into its walls, refusing to eat. She grew thin, frustrated and afraid. When she did run, she would twirl in circles. She would threaten anyone who came close.
Thinking she needed company, they put a donkey in with her.
The donkey wasn't welcome, either.
The only thing Forbes knew to do was stand every day by the stall for hours and talk to her. Bringing along carrots and peppermints, the forlorn horse would listen to the sound of Forbes' soothing Southern accent and for the rustle of candy wrappers to find where Forbes was standing. It seemed to calm the mare down.
Day in, day out, Forbes repeated the ministrations. Finally, Sadie let Forbes hand-lead her around the small paddock, letting her nose touch the fences so she would know the boundaries of her world.
Forbes still had to tap on Sadie's feed bucket for her to find it, but things were better.
Sadie grew brave. She began to trot around the paddock with some confidence. They began to put her out into the field daily. This time, with a pony named Daisy.
Sadie allowed it. She even seemed to like it. Sadie must have learned that blindness didn't mean she was abandoned.
Daisy, a dappled gray Welsh, had her own pedigree. She'd been given to Pamela Ashley Brown, the then-toddler daughter of former Gov. John Y. Brown, in the early '80s while he was in office. Somehow, Daisy had ended up at the Nelson Green Stables, serving a lot of children. And now Sadie.
They tied bells on Daisy and her mini-donkey sidekick, Shirley Temple, so Sadie wouldn't run into anybody. The foursome hit it off so well that Sadie seemed ready for the next step.
In May 2006, she was bred, by artificial insemination, to Harlem Town, a five-time world champion show horse himself. Sadie got pregnant the first time.
Preparations for the foal were extensive. Daisy and Sadie were put into a field with mothers and foals, all who had been equipped with bells, so Sadie would get the hang of all that proximity, high and low. (Shirley Temple was put in a field next to them, separated by a fence.) Then all the bells were removed except for Daisy's. That way, Daisy, who always hung close to Sadie anyway, would be like the ever-present baby — they were going to take the bell off Daisy and put it on the baby at birth — and that way Sadie wouldn't be spooked by all that newness underfoot.
But Sadie foaled two weeks early, and Daisy and Sadie walked into the barn on a Sunday morning with the baby already in tow. When Forbes went to switch the bells, Sadie wasn't pleased. The baby didn't smell like Daisy. And the baby seemed a little leery, too.
Had they had trouble nursing in the field?
Forbes went out in the field that first morning to carefully watch the goings-on.
"The foal laid down to sleep," she says, "and Sadie pushed and pushed on him. He slipped under the fence and onto the other side."
Forbes got him back on the side where his mother and his milk was. This happened a few times.
If that weren't enough, Sadie repeatedly stepped on him while he napped.
"Here he was, four to five hours old," says Forbes, "and he already began to realize he better not lie down to sleep or else he was going to be stepped on by his mother or pushed under a fence."
Worried for him, Green and Forbes decided to move mother and baby and pony out to a separate paddock. There, the mare, the pony and Forbes set out to raise the colt named Mirror Me because of his strong physical resemblance to his mother.
Talk isn't cheap
Every day, Forbes would tell Mirror Me that he would grow up to be a champion and win the futurity, the height of saddlebred horse showmanship.
Every day, while he slept standing up next to his mother, she would tell anyone who listened that he was dreaming of being a champion and winning the futurity.
It was like a running joke.
But she was as religious about repeating the prophecy as she was about carrots and peppermints and leading Sadie's nose along the fence.
The next year, Sadie foaled another time. This time, she foundered badly. She lived eight more weeks before she had to be put down. She was only 13.
Forbes says the second colt Sadie bore was so protective of his dying mother that they named him Standing Guard.
Mirror Me was just a yearling.
At 2 years old, Mirror Me was deemed not yet ready to show. Green schooled the colt in manners and turned him back out into the field.
At 3, he was ready. And, under Green's tutelage, in July 2009, Mirror Me won the 3-Year-Old Park Pleasure Class.
In August, at the World Championship Horse Show at the Kentucky State Fair, he won the National Park Pleasure Futurity. That's the futurity Forbes had whispered in his ear about only three years earlier.
Two weeks later, he won the 3-Year-Old Park Pleasure Sweepstakes.
Every time he won, someone mentioned again how much he looks like his mother.
Last Tuesday, Nelson Green took Mirror Me into his indoor training arena and put the horse through his paces as he does every day. Mirror Me, closely clipped and carefully buffed, stood with his head held high.
It is as if he knows where he comes from.
That morning, Daisy was euthanized in a field not far from the arena. Approaching 30, very old for a pony, she had foundered over the autumn and, it was determined by her doctors, that she was just in too much pain.
Forbes was by her side. So was Shirley Temple, who brayed inconsolably.
Mirror Me was not told of Daisy's death immediately. Forbes spent the rest of the day Tuesday looking for a companion for Shirley.
She found another mini-donkey named Lili and put her in the field Tuesday night to comfort Shirley right away because, well, Shirley had never spent a night by herself.
At last check Thursday, says Forbes, Lili and Shirley were standing side-by-side, their hind ends touching, looking at the sunset.