Thoroughbreds can excel at anything, I truly believe that. So often after racing they're asked to perform over jumps on the cross-country course, in the dressage ring or on the polo field. They enjoy having a job and a routine, and time and time again they prove to be incredibly adaptable to new challenges and surroundings. All that being said, this is one story you're going to want to file away in the “You're Using a Thoroughbred for What?!” files, but it's also probably one of the flat-out coolest things I've heard of a Thoroughbred doing after racing.
Meet Serge to Paradise, a Kentucky-bred gelding who, after a career in the claiming ranks, was sold to a cattle rancher in Colorado who's also a bit of an adrenaline junkie. There's a saying in that part of the country that “everybody spends the summer preparing for the winter,” and while that will include a fair amount of cow work and ranch riding, it will also include plans to reclaim Serge's title as the Southern National Champion Skijoring Horse, which he earned in 2017.
Skijoring is a winter sport most common in the rural west in which a horse and rider (or, in some competitions a dog or a snow mobile) pulls a person on skis as they navigate a course of jumps and obstacles.
“I got Serge in March of 2015 and he's been awesome from day one,” said Richard Weber, II, the fourth-generation rancher who piloted Serge to Paradise to his championship title. “I got him through a friend of a friend. One day my neighbor said, ‘My buddy has a horse and he's fast – you'll love him' and that was good enough for me.”
Serge to Paradise had retired from racing the year prior. Owned and trained by Kim Oliver, who purchased the horse from his breeder, David Bloom (who also owns Serge to Paradise's sire, Taste of Paradise), the gelding had raced on the Turf Paradise-Arapahoe Park circuit, earning wins at the $5,000 and $3,500 claiming levels.
“When Serge retired from racing, my reined cow horse trainer helped him find a great home with Richard,” said Oliver.
With a penchant for speed and a need for a horse he could use for the winter sport he'd taken up just a few years prior, Weber started the search for a skijoring prospect. When he was told about Serge to Paradise, he made an appointment, hooked up the trailer and headed across the state.
“I drove six hours from Ridgeway, Colorado to see him, liked what I saw and loaded him in the trailer to head home. I paid $1,800 for him and I never even rode him before loading him up in the trailer,” said Weber. “Once I got home I told my dad, ‘Let's saddle him up and try him out' and he was like ‘You didn't ride him!?'”
Weber threw a saddle on him, cinched it up… and ducked out of the way. Serge to Paradise blew up, bucking and hopping and rearing, eventually bucking the saddle off his back.
“What the heck did you just buy?” said Weber's father.
“I got him settled, tightened the cinch a bit slower this time and climbed on. He's been the best horse you could ask for ever since,” said Weber.
After just a handful of rides Weber was using Serge around the farm, checking cows, roping calves and doing routine farm work.
There was one day while gathering cattle that, in an attempt to get away, one of the cows jumped into a nearby pond and started swimming away. Weber rode Serge to the edge of the pond, gave him a little nudge with his heel and in he went, swimming up to the cow, herding her back the other way and pushing her back to shore.
Eventually they were riding through the mountains, into town and in skijoring races.
“He's my go-to horse. If I'm on bad trails – the footing isn't good or they're really narrow – he's who I want to be on,” said Weber. “I can ride him into town and go through the drive through at the bank or tie him up outside of the restaurant and grab breakfast.”
Since getting Serge, Weber has taken him throughout the West to compete in skijoring races, including Big Sky, Mont., Deadwood, S.D., Bozeman, Mont., and Calgary, Alberta in Canada.
While Weber has taken a few trips around skijoring courses on skis, he much prefers to be in the saddle.
“If I want to win a race, I need to be in the saddle. I've only done two races on skis, but I'm not very good. I can't go very fast if I want to stay on my feet, but I hoot and holler and give people something to laugh at,” joked Weber.
Serge isn't the only Thoroughbred on the Weber family ranch. They've gotten several other retired racehorses.
“We really like the off-track horses. They're started pretty well under saddle, they stand well to shoe, most of them don't have a rear to them or buck and they usually come at a great price,” said Weber. “You can turn them into anything; it just depends on how much time you want to invest into them.”
For a cowboy who uses horses to make a living, a good horse is hard to come by and even harder to part with. Serge to Paradise has definitely earned his place in that category for Weber.
“I was talking with my dad about a week ago about my 9-year-old niece. I think I might put her on him and let her start riding him,” said Weber. “She might eventually use him for Gymkanas, so I might get him going with barrels or poles. There are other things he and I can go out and learn together. Serge will probably die on this farm someday. I don't think I could ever sell him.”