Do It For Devyn: Special OTTB And Rider Pay Tribute To Friend’s Battle With Cancer

The Thoroughbred Makeover has been over for a week now. Horses and humans who came to the Kentucky Horse Park from all over the country have returned home, jumps and competition arenas have been packed away, and the last ribbons have been awarded. But for anyone who showed up to watch the finale competitions on Oct. 15, one performance probably burns clear in the memory.

Meg Hems and her off-track Thoroughbred Nucks arrived at the covered arena well ahead of their scheduled finale ride, streaked in silver and glitter. Hems and Nucks had qualified for the finals in barrel racing, and had also participated in the Thoroughbred Incentive Program Barrel Racing Championship earlier in the week, but their first performance was something completely different.

Their first ride on that Saturday was for Devyn.

Hems and Nucks were also finalists in Freestyle, which is a delightfully open-ended discipline at the Makeover. It has basic requirements of horse and rider – that they showcase the horse’s ability to walk, trot, and canter in both directions, halt and back up, do a lead change and trot in a figure eight. They have five minutes to show the horse off however they like. The discipline has seen a wide variety of creative performances through the years, with riders foregoing saddles and bridles, leaping their horses over fire, wearing costumes, and hauling props to music.

(See the 2018 Freestyle finals below.)

Generally, the horses who demonstrate the most versatility and most bombproof nature prevails, and with the top five competitors advancing to the finals, the discipline is a highlight of the Makeover’s last day for spectators.

Hems had practiced the core elements of her routine for a few weeks before shipping to Lexington from her base near Hamilton, N.Y. Hems works long hours at a car dealership and has a daughter who is ten months old – not exactly a combination that leaves a lot of time for riding. She said she rode Nucks in the dark by the light of her truck’s headlamps more often than she did in daylight.

So for her, putting on a blindfold at the start of her routine made the crowd twitter, but was just another ride in the black, with Nucks to guide her like he always had before. With blindfold in place, Hems trotted and cantered Nucks around the indoor arena as Tim McGraw’s ‘Live Like You Were Dying’ played over the loudspeakers. The pair looped figure eights over an enormous tarp laid in the middle of the arena, Hems counting strides and using the sound of Nucks’ feet on the plastic to help her get a sense for where they were in the ring.

Having practiced the pattern at home, Hems said Nucks turned himself through the space, knowing the center of the figure eights should fall over the tarp.

Nucks’ quick mind was one of many reasons he had converted Hems from her skepticism of Thoroughbreds. From time to time, Hems hauls horses for Second Chance Thoroughbreds, bringing them from the track to the facility’s base. Something about the Mission Impazible gelding, who retired a maiden after 12 tries, stuck out to her. Nucks called the program’s coordinator and asked what his story was.

“I was not looking for a horse. I did not want another horse,” she said. “I really liked him. I had picked up a rehab project, a mare from my track, and I said, ‘I’ll switch with you.’ She said, ‘I don’t have room for another mare but I’ll tell you what, I’ll pay you the first month’s board to take him. People brag about getting a free horse but I got paid to take him.

“I’ve worked with quite a few [OTTBs] but I’ve always trained them for someone else or rehomed them … I’ve never connected with one like I do with Nucks. I trust him with my life. He’s not going anywhere. I love that horse.”

Hems has done a little bit of everything as a rider. She runs barrels and does a lot of trail riding, but has evented, driven, done Western pleasure, roping, and hunters.

“I grew up riding English and decided I didn’t like placing off someone’s opinion,” she said. “Now, we just place off the clock and it’s a good time. And I can wear sparkles.

“I’m weird in the sense that I like finding the job the horse likes, and then I enjoy doing the job with them.”

Her equestrian horizons were widened by the influence of her close friend, Devyn Merritt Anderson. While Hems grew up riding 4-H, Anderson grew up doing Pony Club, ultimately earning the organization’s highest certification level in horse management. Anderson evented in the Genessee Valley, becoming the beginner novice champion for Area 1 and also drove carriages.

Hems and Anderson met while working at a farm and garden store a decade ago and realized they had horses in common. Their bond became a strong one. Hems stood up in Anderson’s wedding and she was there for her friend throughout her ten-year battle with ocular cancer. Anderson was there for Hems’ brother when he too was diagnosed with cancer.

Anderson (left) and Hems (right) at Hems’ first event

“She lit up every single room she went into. If you needed someone to talk to or someone to cheer you up, Devyn was the person,” said Hems. “Devyn was the one who helped him through it more than anyone. Any time he was scared or unsure, he’d call or text Devyn. She’d walk him through it and tell him it would be ok. He ended up beating cancer, and that was their deal was he beat cancer so she had to, too.

“He fought, he won, and he gives a lot of credit to Devyn.”

Anderson also saw something special in Nucks. It was Anderson who convinced Hems not to make him a resale project, but to keep him. Anderson gave them both dressage basics that made Nucks’ strides even and easy to count.

So as Hems prepared for the delayed 2020 Thoroughbred Makeover, she had an idea. She planned to take Nucks to the freestyle, which Anderson knew. What she didn’t know was that Hems was planning to dedicate the routine to her.

“I was going to come in that arena and, surprise, this whole routine’s for you,” she said. “She was going to cry. There was no question there. But it would be all the best tears. Her and I lived off surprising each other. I’d send her flowers randomly to brighten her day. She’d call me to tell me I was doing a great job. That was our friendship – we went out of our way to cheer each other up.”

Having wowed the crowd with her blindfolded trot and canter work, Hems signaled to four people standing in the arena with her – including her younger brother. Each lifted a corner of the enormous tarp, with Hems and Nucks walking underneath. Hems shed her blindfold and grabbed a flag from her brother, then galloped out from underneath the tunnel. The black flag showed a rainbow of cancer awareness ribbon colors, each representing a different type of disease, surrounding white letters spelling out “No One Fights Alone.”

Hems sent Nucks at a gallop around the arena’s perimeter, the glittered tassels on her show shirt flying, the flag flapping, her hair streaming behind her. And then, she dropped the reins, throwing her arms open and letting her Thoroughbred sprint at full speed, completely free. To anyone sitting in the crowd, she had an otherworldly power to her, racing the wind on her nearly-black horse like something out of an ancient myth.

“I am going to be completely honest – I didn’t plan to throw my hands up,” she said. “I didn’t practice it, I didn’t plan on it. The emotion hit me, and Nucks has my back through everything and I knew it. It just felt right.”

Anderson wasn’t in the stands, as Hems had planned. Just a month before the Makeover, she lost her battle with cancer at the age of 31. At the conclusion of the song, Hems looked skyward. She said she knew that even though she wasn’t sitting in one of the seats in the front row, her friend could see her.

“It’s very true that nobody fights alone, as cliché as it sounds,” said Hems. “I wanted every single person in that crowd to know they’re not alone. The disease is nasty, but there are people out there. We all have to have each other’s backs.”

Hems and Nucks finished second in the freestyle competition, third in barrel racing overall and 3D Average Champion in the TIP Championships and High Point Adopted Horse Award.

“He’s got an old soul to him,” said Hems. “He’s only six years old but that horse, I can put my daughter on him. I knew he wouldn’t do anything dangerous. He knows he’s got to take care of his people and he genuinely loves to be loved. He lives for me to tell him he’s a good boy.”

Now, she said Nucks will get a vacation. They’ll spend the winter trail riding through the snow before gearing up for shows again. He may learn to work cattle in springtime. Whatever comes, Devyn was right about Nucks – he belongs with Hems for life.

The post Do It For Devyn: Special OTTB And Rider Pay Tribute To Friend’s Battle With Cancer appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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