Two women on horseback plodding along US-50 through Thursday morning’s heavy rain was an odd sight for passing drivers. It was odder still for Sheri Gerety when she looked out a window at her house just west of Peabody.
“I was sneaking pictures from inside,” she said. “How many times do you see two women on horseback coming down your driveway?”
The women were riding thoroughbreds, a breed rarely seen in this area. Not surprisingly, the horses weren’t from around here, and neither were the riders.
Valerie Ashker, 60, and partner Peter Friedman, 53, saddled up and rode out of Georgetown, California, on May 9. They’re riding across the country to raise awareness of the lives, and deaths, of thoroughbreds after their racing careers have ended.
Ashker was atop her beloved 7-year-old Primitivo on Thursday, and riding Friedman’s mount, 16-year-old Solar Express, was Ariel Galyean, 25, of Kansas City.
Friedman was driving the couple’s support truck and trailer. A replacement driver who joined them in Garden City lasted just eight days, abruptly calling it quits Aug. 27.
Galyean volunteered to ride after learning about the couple’s dilemma online, relieving Ashker from having to ride while also holding onto Solar Express.
“She ponied for three days and that’s tough,” Friedman said.
The entourage needed a place to stay overnight, so Gerety and her husband, Bob, arranged accommodations with neighbors Jeremy and Michele Gossen.
After pitching camp, doing some laundry, and having dinner in Peabody, Ashker, Friedman, and Galyean appeared refreshed and relaxed as they talked in the Geretys’ living room.
“I’ve wanted to do this all my life,” Ashker said of the cross-country trip. “It was time, turning 60, a good window to give back to the breed that gave us such good opportunities and put my daughter on the map.”
Laine Ashker is a nationally-recognized champion rider in eventing who rides off-track thoroughbreds.
Many other thoroughbreds that have outlived their usefulness as race horses meet grim ends in Mexican and Canadian slaughterhouses.
“You see these horses in kill pens,” she said. “I saw one online last night. There’s this horse getting weighed, it looked like a thoroughbred, and on the halter, ‘I love my horse.’ It was someone’s pet horse and it was getting weighed so the killer buyer could give the owner the poundage.”
Thoroughbreds can live 20 or more years beyond their racing careers and can be retrained to do just about anything other horses can do.
“She wants to prove a point that they’re capable of other things besides running around a track,” Friedman said. “Their endurance, their heart, you can do anything you want with them if you take the time to retrain them.”
Ashker knows a great deal about retraining thoroughbreds. She selects and trains off-track thoroughbreds for upper level competition.
Friedman knew little about horses before he met Ashker about three years ago in Georgetown.
“She comes in with a friend to go to a hotel and shoot pool,” he said. “I just happened to walk by and poke my head in and saw them. I came in, sat down, and met her.”
Ashker already was mulling a solo cross-country trip, and Friedman eventually figured into the plan as support driver. He had another idea.
“Peter said, ‘I really don’t want you on the road alone and I would really love to ride,’” Ashker said.
Each of them have personal quirks, but they seem to mesh well with the demands of the journey.
“Day in, day out with her hasn’t been a problem for me,” Friedman said. “I’m not easy to get along with because I’m too much of a perfectionist.”
“He’s does that ‘It’s my way or the wrong way’ on everything — setting camp up, portable corrals,” she said. “Washing clothes, I just watch him. He’s got his way of folding them.”
“Not too many guys prefer to do their own laundry,” Friedman said.
The partnership and the end goal are enough for Ashker to overcome moments of friction.
“I get mad at him, I don’t know what our future will be, but Peter, as much as he has ticked me off, I need him to help me with this ride,” she said. “He knows my idiosyncrasies; he knows what it’s like to be a rider and a driver.”
Ashker said retired thoroughbreds would be good alternatives quarter horses for county horse lovers.
“If you want a horse that will work literally all day, you would get a thoroughbred, because that’s what they’re bred for, endurance,” she said. “There’s a difference in comfort. When you get into a nice canter, it’s more jolty on a quarter horse; a canter on a thoroughbred is more round, it has more buoyancy, it’s very comfortable.”
Tevo and Solar, as Ashker refers to them, are prime examples of the breed’s endurance and the value that comes from second chances.
“I’m bowled over by my horses,” she said. “I’m going to tell you they’re going to make it all the way. Both these horses would have wound up in the kill pen, and they would probably have been in your dog food’s next can.”
The sojourn continued Friday with a goal of reaching Kansas City in a few days, where Galyean would reunite with her husband and twin 4-year-old daughters. Ashker and Friedman hoped to find a new support driver there to join them as they pushed on toward Virginia.
So what did the Geretys think about their visitors?
“It was quite an adventure for us; we’ve never had this kind of situation come up,” Bob said. “I’ve learned a ton of stuff about horses.”
On the other hand, Sherri teased about missed opportunity.
“The horses could’ve stayed out in the yard,” she said, “and I wouldn’t have had to mow for a week.”