Photos and Story By Nancy Bruen Smith
It is hard to believe this petite, bubbly person, Caitlin Silliman is only 24 years young this spring. She has experienced more than many do in a lifetime. She was the youngest Rider to compete in the prestigious Rolex Event in Lexington, KY in 2013. Her love for horses started at the age of 6, which led to an eventing career under Susie Beale's tutelage, and then became a working student for Grand Prix Dressage rider Silva Martin at the age of 18, and is presently Boyd Martin's assistant rider and trainer. She has a quiet and confident way with the young horses as well as the Thoroughbred's off the Track.(OTTB) She was the first one to x-country school my last horse which happened to be a 9 yr old OOTB, gelding, that had a successful 6 year racing career as a stallion. She is a master at funneling that "NRG" into constructive puzzles for the horse to negotiate, which usually has nothing to do with brakes, but everything to do with confidence for the horse, with a big smile on her face.
Caitlin purchased a horse that was competing at Intermediate level, named Catch a Star, (barn name Hoku) in 2010, thanks to financial partnership with Bradford Johnson. Hoku, (Hawaiian for star) is out of a Thoroughbred mare by a Holsteiner stallion bred by Linda and Terry Paine at Kingsway Farm. After many hours of dedication, their partnership matured into competing at the CCI** level in the Spring of 2011. They accomplished 2nd place at the Jersey Fresh CCI** and were short listed for the Pan American Games. On May 31, 2011, Boyd Martin was leasing Phillip Dutton’s True Prospect Farm in West Grove, Pa, when a freak fire destroyed the barn and claimed the lives of 6 event horses. Ryan Wood, Lillian Heard and Caitlin were sharing the upstairs apartment at the time.
The three of them along with the combined courageous efforts of Phillip Dutton and Boyd Martin, were able to save five horses that were rushed to University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Veterinary Clinic. Catch a Star, was one of the surviving horses that was pulled to safety, and had 2nd degree burns over 30% of her body, facial lacerations from her ears down her face, exposing her skull. Caitlin’s immediate reaction in the main trauma room was to do whatever it took to get her out of her misery. The vet reassured her that Hoku was going to make it; luckily her eyes were not affected and her face was cut but not burned. Caitlin meticulously nursed Hoku back to health, applying Silver Sulfadiazine cream (used on human burns), hours of physical and mental therapy and extreme caution of keeping her burns clean during her convalescence. The dedication paid off. Judith McSwain, designer of Fleeceworks Pads, was touched by the story, provided every type of saddle pad necessary to get Caitlin back in the saddle and continues sponsoring Caitlin.
By March of 2012 they were back competing in 3*** level events. September 26, 2012, Caitlin was back in the groove! She had just competed both Hoku in the 3*** and RemingtonXXV in the 2** at Plantation CIC. Then, the unheard of happened. Caitlin was simply riding the rising trot in their dressage arena at home, and had a minor tumble, but unfortunately the dressage kick-board in the arena took the blunt of her fall , and caught her head just below her helmet and fractured her skull with damage to her cerebellum. Caitlin’s brain swelled and she lost all her motor skills, predominantly on the left side. She was not able to walk at first, and her balance was really compromised. Again, with incredible determination and perseverance, she did recover! Her boyfriend Ryan Wood (Advanced Event Rider and Trainer) broke his back a couple of weeks after Caitlin’s accident, which according to Caitlin, “Worked in her favor so he could take care of me.”
Three months later, Caitlin was back in the saddle, competing Catch a Star in advanced levels, and qualified for Rolex in spring of 2013. She was the youngest to compete in the Rolex Event, and finished 24th, a commendable position for their first Four**** competition.
Presently, she is putting in double or maybe triple time as Boyd Martin’s assistant rider and trainer. Boyd recently cut and broke his shin, and is temporarily out of the saddle, and his wife Silva is intense rehab from a freak accident involving brain damage from a similar fall as Caitlin, hitting her head on the dressage boards during a fall. Both Boyd and Silva are expected to come back 100%, but meanwhile, Caitlin continues to be an irreplaceable team member for Boyd and Silva’s Windurra Farm, and is focused on Rolex once again, and embraces each challenge as it comes………………..Quite a resume for someone who has been on this earth for less than 25 years!
This article is copyrighted and first appeared on the Aiken Equestrian Calendar of Aiken website. It is reprinted here by permission.