Maria and Howie at Stable View in 2019. Photo courtesy of Maria Caplan.
Seven years ago, Howie Gonnado This was born and raised to be a racehorse in the countryside of Maryland. Although he had good breeding and came from a reputable establishment, Howie had other ideas about his intended career in life. His owner/breeders trained him for racing, but when his earnings amounted to $0.00 in six races, their daughter, a competitive show jump rider could tell he wanted to do something – it just wasn’t going to be on the racetrack.
Howie’s personality and disposition stood out to the family, and it was not hard for them to fall in love with him. They began to switch his training to jumping instead of running, and immediately saw how much he loved it. During that time, the family entered a phase that necessitated downsizing and decided to sell this last homebred, entering him in the Thoroughbred Makeover & National Symposium held in the fall at the Kentucky Horse Park.
Hometown local event rider Maria Caplan was looking for a horse to buy, and in October of 2017 she and her husband Edward made the trip to Lexington with the hopes of finding one she liked. Through the Makeover’s ASPCA Makeover Marketplace Maria watched and studied and was able to try out many mounts, but when she saw Howie, her heart raced a little. He had that air about him — that classic and confident look that you only see occasionally in a horse.
As he competed alongside hundreds of other horses, he was a finalist in both the field hunter and show jumping divisions, one of only a few horses to achieve that. Upon riding him, she found he also had that puppy dog, “in-your-pocket” nature. As Maria thought back to the handful of horses she owned in the past, this was the first time she truly felt that immediate “click.”
Howie en route to his first win at Carolina Horse Park. Photo by High Time Photography.
She felt no hesitations and bought the four year old and shipped him by herself to her farm in Raeford, North Carolina. They competed in their first event, the Pipe Opener I CT at Carolina Horse Park, in the spring of 2018. They won their maiden division, and to Howie, it was game on. To Maria’s surprise, pride and joy, she knew they had something special. They continued showing at Carolina Horse Park throughout the summer and soon moved up to Beginner Novice. By October, they were awarded the Thoroughbred Incentive Program (TIP) award for having the most points earned for all competing Beginner Novice Thoroughbreds for that year in the War Horse Event Series Horse Trials. The pair moved up to the Novice in 2019 and won a USEA gold medal after competing in their first three USEA sanctioned events at the level. That year, they again received the TIP award in the War Horse Event Series for year-end high point out of all competing Novice Thoroughbreds.
The year 2020 started well for them, and in moving up to Training level, they took second place as well as the TIP High Point award at Stable View Aiken. Maria and Howie continued with their accomplishments in other events, and Maria set her sights on competing at the Carolina International in the spring and made plans to compete in their first FEI CCI* this fall in Stable View’s Oktoberfest. Even more events were on her schedule for the rest of the year, but with the onset of COVID-19 hitting the country in early spring, Maria had to put the competitions on hold.
Going back in time, Maria’s mount before Howie was another Thoroughbred that she found through the New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program. This horse was the opposite of what Howie turned out to be. Show jumping was not really what she liked to do but instead preferred fox hunting or the quiet hack out on the trails. Eventually, Maria sold the mare to the Old Dominion Hounds hunt club in Virginia, where the horse was better suited and happier at her new life. At that time in 2016, she and her husband were ready to leave New Hampshire, and as they were somewhat familiar with the area and the horse community of mid-North Carolina, they settled on and purchased their little farm in Hoke County.
Maria’s early training was with Denny Emerson, but as he is only in the state for part of the year, it left her in need of a coach. By luck, she found that eight-time Olympian J. Michael Plumb not only lived in the area but was more than willing to help further her training. Although he first helped her with the mare, he soon saw what potential Maria and Howie had together as a team. Mike was thrilled to witness their talents and was amazed at how much willingness Howie possessed and was always trying. He knew the horse was one in a million. Maria began to feel that their relationship had become so solid and that they trusted each other 100%.
With the mass cancellation of all horse events starting in mid-March, Mike felt this was an excellent time to work on the many other aspects of training a young horse. Maria began to trailer over three or four times a week to her friend Lynn McGugan’s farm in Southern Pines, and as Mike lived a short distance away, the trio would ride the trails in the Walthour-Moss Foundation. Howie was used to the show ring, but the new sights and sounds of a different venue did not matter to him. He was the type that after he got his bearings and checked everything out, he was good to go. The horse was so levelheaded and always took things in stride. He did not care if they rode in a single file on the narrow trails, rode three-abreast on the fire lanes, popped over new fences, or crossed the water features; Maria could feel his level of comfort elevating with each trip out. This year she could feel their bond becoming even stronger than it was before. The getting out into nature is good for the soul, even for the soul of the horse.
Howie’s final outing. Photo by High Time Photography.
Occasionally Howie colicked from time to time, and the episodes were attributed to ulcers as they never found irregularities in the examinations. On June 23, after Maria, Mike and Lynn returned from their ride on a beautiful summer day, he started to paw just ever so casually. She turned him out in a pasture so she could continue observing him, as it was beginning to look like classic colic. Upon her veterinarian’s examination, it was recommended she transport him to the NC State University as this time, what seemed to be a slight abnormality was found.
To the astonishment of all involved, the discovery of a six-pound tumor that was the size of a basketball at its widest point was attached deep inside of Howie’s small intestine. Previous scopings, palpitations, or radiographs never detected it because of its hidden location. The surgeons commented that it was the worst and biggest they had ever seen. They felt he lived with the tumor for quite a long time and may have even been born with it. As it grew over time, they thought it most likely was also cancer. The prognosis did not look good, and Maria had to let Howie go so he could be at peace.
Maria often wonders how Howie could be so perfect in every way, whether in a competition or having a lesson or just lazing around the farm enjoying the company of his two Nubian goat companions, all the while carrying this terrible physical fault inside of him. He loved everything; he loved the woods, all animals, and his sweet potato treats, and he loved jumping.
“In three short years, he has taught me so much, and we shared our successes. I was lucky to have him to ride and to give me the confidence that I could do this. He taught me what being a true horsewoman is all about,” Maria says, still with pain in her heart. When she saw him for the last time, she thought the small glimmer of light in his eye might have meant he was going to make it, but now she knows he was giving her hope to keep going and to maybe give another horse a chance at a good life.
“It is unbelievable to me how strongly our horse community pulls together when something tragic happens to any of us,” Maria says. “I am so grateful for their support, thoughts, and help during this time of Howie’s passing. We would never have been so successful without Mike Plumb, who cared so deeply for my horse.” She laughs at the fact that both he and Howie share the same birthday of March 28 and how they celebrated the event together. In honor of his passing, they planted apple trees graphed with three types of apples representing the three phases of eventing. “We grew together, and I will never forget him; he had such a huge heart, and he just wanted to live.”