Throughout her 30 years in the business, Vicki Reed rose from a Saddlebred novice to one of the premiere owners, amateur exhibitors and even breeders of the day. From World’s Champions to her beloved retirees, the equestrian life is her true passion, so when a severe stroke threatened to take all of that away from her last year, she refused to let it, fighting in a way that inspired her fellow equestrians, and recovering in a manner that was nothing short of miraculous.
Growing up in San Antonio, Vicki loved horses from an early age, and spent her weekends trail riding with the local Boots And Saddles club. When she met her future husband, Sam, in eighth grade, and they began dating in high school, her love of horses was one of the first things he noticed about her.
“I think what attracted me is that she is always a lot of fun, outgoing, optimistic, and has a great deal of fire,” he said. “Those were the attributes about her, and you can see it in her riding and her driving.”
Vicki and Sam both graduated from Rice University in Houston, were married in 1970, moved to Hawaii, and started a family. But it wasn’t until they moved back to the mainland and Augusta, Georgia, that Vicki got her first introduction to the American Saddlebred. Her friend Peggy Gillenwater kept a gaited horse at the nearby Cleveland Park Stables, and invited Vicki to accompany her out to the barn.
“I didn’t know what gaited horses even were,” Vicki said. “I didn’t know what a Saddlebred was.”
But she went, and enjoyed the experience so much that she began taking lessons and attending shows with Peggy, including the World’s Championship Horse Show. It was a great year to experience Louisville for the first time, as 1988 happened to be the year CH Sky Watch and Michele Macfarlane faced off with CH Imperator and Don Harris. Just a month later Vicki purchased her first horse, Sh-Boom R.W.F., from Judy Werner … without telling Sam. But she couldn’t keep her secret forever.
“I can’t remember what I said, but Vick and I have known each other a long time and we have a lot of love and trust in each other, and it did surprise me but I dealt with it,” he said.
Her love for Saddlebreds continued to grow despite multiple life changes. When she and Sam left Augusta for California, she began riding at Menlo Circus Club, and with Bill Becker in nearby Salinas. Ready for a new challenge, she purchased the reigning Junior Five-Gaited Mare World’s Champion, Moving Time, or “Kate,” in 1992, from Peter and Kim Cowart.
“It was the first really good horse she had,” Sam said of Kate, who was the first horse to carry Vicki onto the green shavings of Freedom Hall.
However, it was a colt out of Kate who would take Vicki to her first World’s Championship honors. Named CH Harlem’s Moving Man, by Harlem Globetrotter, Vicki would go on to win the Three-Gaited Show Pleasure 41 & Over Div. 1 World’s Championship in 2003, on a homebred horse.
When she and Sam settled near Chicago in the mid-90s she could finally immerse herself fully in the horses.
“That’s the point at which she became very active in Kentucky, and I once introduced her as a woman with 11 trainers and one husband,” said Sam, who, along with their sons Sam and Dan, had long ago learned to appreciate the equestrian lifestyle.
“I thought it was just a great thing for our family,” he said. “There were ups and downs, but it was a big part of the family fabric … just part of our family ritual.”
Though he and Vicki reside near Chicago, they purchased a farm in Nicholasville, Kentucky, where ten of their retirees live out their golden years. Since 2000, Vicki’s show horses have been in training at A.J. Bruwer’s Bruwer Stables, in Versailles, Kentucky. These horses include horses like World’s Champion Kalarama’s New York Lady, World’s Champion CH Heir To A Kiss, I’m A Sugar Shaker, CH Mesmerizing and Ask Me Again.
Happily splitting her time between Chicago and Nicholasville, Vicki was truly living her dream, but this picturesque life she and Sam built was almost completely upended last spring when, without any previous warning, Vicki suffered a stroke on April 28.
“It was not apparent,” Vicki said. “Nothing showed up with my blood work.”
Early that morning, Vicki heard Sam getting ready to leave the house, and tried to get up to tell him something. Instead, she found herself on the floor, confused about how she had gotten there and unable to get back up. Sam, unaware of what had just transpired upstairs, left the house to head to a board meeting and then catch a plane to California.
When he hadn’t heard back from Vicki after a few natural attempts to get in touch, he became concerned and asked his assistant, Loretta, to head over to the house to check on her. When she got there, she found that Vicki had been stuck on the floor of their bedroom for two days, without food or water.
“I just didn’t know how to use the phone,” Vicki said. “I didn’t know if I could get to it or not. I just said, ‘I can make it here until Sam gets home.’”
After learning the news, Sam rushed back from California, where an MRI revealed that Vicki had suffered a serious stroke. After two days in the hospital, she was moved to the Rehabilitation Institute Of Chicago, where she stayed for seven weeks.
“They planned for her to stay eight, but they released her early at seven because she had been making so much progress,” Sam said.
She was able to finish her rehab on an outpatient basis at an RIC unit near their home. The rehab process involved physical workouts, facial expressions and a lot of speech therapy. Though Vicki hated the speech therapy, she didn’t mind the workouts. She didn’t tell her doctors she was an equestrian for fear of what they would say, but it was never far from her mind while working out.
“I did a lot of exercises on machines, and I did a lot of hand exercises,” she said.
Her progress and her spirit amazed Sam.
“She was the most eager and determined on the entire floor to get on with her rehabilitation, particularly with physical therapy,” he said.
Vicki’s close friend Mark Strong remembers her determination well. She and Mark met about six years ago at the Shelbyville Horse Show, just a week after Mark became a part of Bruwer Stables. On that very first night he learned that she was extremely welcoming, with a great sense of humor, and has been close friends with Vicki and Sam ever since. He even married his husband, Paolo Martini, at the Reed’s farm. When Sam texted him about the stroke, he was devastated.
“There was very little information for probably a week or so,” he said. “It was just a very difficult time not knowing what we were going to end up with.”
It was also hard to imagine, because he had just been with Vicki recently at the Kentucky Spring Premier Horse Show, and he knew that she had just returned from Southern Saddlebred Spring Fling in Murfreesboro, Tenn., where she won many of her classes.
“The first thing I said is if Vicki doesn’t come back, I’m out,” he said. “If she’s not coming back I’m getting out of the business. Because we had just gotten so close to her, and she has been such a good person to bounce things off of.”
Still, Mark had a very strong feeling that she would.
“I didn’t tell people about it because it wasn’t my place, but I said to myself and to Paolo and other people who already knew, ‘if there is anybody who can come back from this, it’s Vicki.’ I said that for two reasons. One, because she’s in great shape, and two, because she had a real reason to, and that was the horses.”
He was proven right when he visited her at the rehab center. Not knowing what to expect when he walked in, he was surprised to find her working out on the treadmill. One of the first things she said to him was, “I’m so much better off than most of the people here.”
“She already had that attitude of things could be worse,” he said.
That visit was the last Mark would have with Vicki for months, though her barn family received periodic updates on her progress.
“I think she wanted to recover as much as she could before we saw her again,” trainer A.J. said.
But she was reunited with all of them at last year’s Lexington Junior League.
“We were thrilled at how good she looked, but she was still very tired and overwhelmed by all the people who wanted to come over and talk to her,” Mark said.
It’s a good memory, because he remembers Vicki laughing the night away on the sidelines with her friends. But it still didn’t answer the question – could she leave the sidelines and once again be a competitor in the ring? Vicki herself refused to even think about it for long.
“I wondered, but I would’ve gotten depressed if I thought about it,” she said. “All I could think about was getting better and doing everything they told me to do and that went pretty well. I just kept focused on that.”
Getting back on the horse
Like Mark, A.J. always believed she would return to showing in some capacity.
“This is what she loves to do,” he said. “I always thought she would fight back and recover and do this at some level.”
September, five months after her stroke, he was ready to help her try. With A.J.’s help, she settled herself in the cart behind Ask Me Again, or “Freddie,” once more. She trusted her tried-and-true partner Freddie, but still she was unsure.
“I felt nervous, and getting in and out of the cart was hard, but I was going to do it,” she said.
A.J., who had been through his own recovery process six years earlier, understood.
“I broke my leg really badly and I had to start over, so I kind of had a good idea of what she had to deal with,” he said. “Obviously not to that extreme, but I had an idea.”
So he went back to the drawing board and took things slow, providing encouraging pushes when needed.
“I don’t want to say I forced her to do things, but I know Vicki – I’ve been with her for a long time – and the more I could show her that she could do things, the more she could believe she could do it,” he said. “That was kind of my approach with things, and that’s still kind of my approach as far as her riding.”
He even encouraged her to show Freddie at Mane Event that fall.
“I wanted her to believe she could do it, and knew if I could get her in before the end of the year she would be so much more confident this year,” he said.
Not only did Vicki show Freddie, the two of them won the Country Pleasure Driving qualifier, in their only appearance. The next step was riding.
“I was there the first day we got her back on a horse,” Mark said. “We were all holding our breath.”
A.J. led her around on a lead line, and when they finished, announced with a laugh, “That’s your first and last birthday party pony ride.”
Mark suggested she begin taking lessons at nearby Blue Willow Farm, and helped make her an appointment there.
“I went over there with her the first day, and they are so professional and wonderful that she had a great experience,” he said. “She has been back there many times since to get back in shape.”
After a succession of kind and tolerant lesson horses at Blue Willow, Vicki has now begun riding Freddie.
“Freddie is a big help,” she said. “Freddie has earned his keep many times.”
Her eventual goal is to ride her beloved three-gaited horse, CH Mesmerizing, again.
“I think I might try and ride him the next time I go, but I’ll wait and see,” she said. “There are some days I feel certain I can do it, and some days I think I’ll give it a little more time.”
It’s a concept Vicki believes is hard for fellow equestrians to understand, because she looks healthy, and can do many of the things she did before.
“They just don’t understand what’s going on in my head,” she said.
But she has never doubted that the horse industry cared.
“Everybody sent me cards,” she said. “It made me feel really good to know that people were thinking about me.”
Back to the Green Shavings
She also feels good about her impending return to Freedom Hall, where she will show both Ask Me Again in the country pleasure driving division, and Kalarama’s New York Lady in the fine harness division – something she wasn’t sure she would ever get the chance to do again.
“It makes me feel very good, because I didn’t know what I was going to do without the horses,” she said. “I still can get depressed sometimes if I start thinking that I’m not getting better fast enough, but most of the time I’m just very happy to be in the barn.”
A.J. is excited for her Louisville experience, and thinks she has a real shot at doing well.
“She’s 100 percent comfortable doing it,” he said. “We’re really hoping for a good and successful Louisville for her.”
And everyone – family and friends – is just happy to see her back in the ring.
“It’s completely thrilling for her and all of us,” Sam said. “It couldn’t be better than to have her, in essence, fully recover and be able to go back to doing those things she loves to do most. It’s great to see her on the back of a horse and great to see her in the buggy.”
Though he still doesn’t claim to be a horse person himself, Sam understands the significance Louisville holds for Vicki.
“She can still describe to you the excitement she felt when she saw Sky Watch and Imperator her first years at Louisville,” he said. “It was electrifying, and she’s kept that memory and many others for decades now. That is an essential part of our lives together. I’m very happy that she can go back to Louisville.”
But whatever honors Vicki achieves at Louisville this year, there is one achievement that will never be topped by ribbons – just the fact that she was there.
“That’s my biggest achievement,” she said. “That I came back.”
For A.J., it is a relief to have a great customer, and great friend, back in the game.
“She always lets me do anything that I need to do that is in the best interest of her horses, and to me that makes a great customer,” A.J. said. “As a person, her and her husband have been nothing but kind people and very good friends to me. The two of them are more like family to me than customers.”
He also believes her return is a blessing to the Saddlebred world at large.
“I just think she’s been a great supporter of the Saddlebred industry,” he said. “I think very highly of her and her husband, and I think we need to treasure and take care of people like that.”
No doubt there are countless others – people and horses alike – who would feel the same.