TOWN OF LAFAYETTE — Dawson’s Creek Ranch has a barn with horse stalls lining each side and straw on the floor of the stalls. In front, there is an office. Farther down there is a room filled with saddles. Some are decorative show saddles studded with gems. Others are plain and worn. Out the back door, a garage door which slides down from the ceiling, horses stand in paddocks chewing hay and sniffing at the ground beneath an overcast December sky.
Heidi Dawson runs the ranch with her husband, Kevin. Horse owners who do not have ranches of their own rent stalls in the ranch’s barn. Dawson has been a horse owner for about 10 years, she said, and has competed in barrel races for five.
A black and white cat slinks between stalls in the barn and jumps on top of a box by Dawson’s knees. Dawson leans against a stall wearing a straw cowboy hat. The stall is Thunder’s.
Thunder is her colt.
He was born on June 7 in a room opposite Dawson’s office at the front of the barn. Thunder is the colt’s barn name, a pet name, Dawson says. According to his papers, his name is “Colors of a Storm” — a name that signifies his lineage.
Through his mother, Dawson says, the colt is descended from Secretariat and is named for his late forebears “Storm Cat” and “Winning Colors,” a quarter horse stallion — not to be confused with the Kentucky Derby-winning filly.
Speed and agility are in his blood. He was bred from a storm of thundering hooves.
But the colt was also born in the wake of another storm.
To Dawson, Thunder’s birth marked the end of an emotional hurricane — the time she could start moving forward from a year marked by tragedy.
Leaning against Thunder’s stall, she tells her story.
“It was just a horrible year,” she says.
Dawson waited while her mare, Lost Dove, was in labor in the Dawson’s Creek Ranch barn.
She was excited to welcome a new foal into the world — the first foal she’d ever bred.
By April of 2012, Dawson had won races and become the state director of the National Barrel Horse Association (NBHA)— a job that entails responsibility for barrel races across the state.
In barrel races, riders race their horses at high speeds in a clover-leaf pattern around three metal barrels placed in a triangle on a dirt track. The competitions require skill and control from the riders, and speed and agility from the horses. One of Dawson’s responsibilities as the state NBHA director, she said, is to organize and run the annual state meet in Madison. In 2012, the meet was scheduled for Aug. 22.
With a new foal on the way and the state meet approaching, Dawson anticipated an exciting year.
But there were complications.
Lost Dove labored in the barn with a veterinarian. But the afterbirth came out before the foal.
The horse was still-born. Suffocated during birth.
The last place Dawson wanted to be was at the state NBHA races she had organized and been so excited about.
But after all that planning no one else was capable of running the show. It was one of the most difficult experiences of her life during the most trying time of her life.
Her son Travis Abbott, 27 years old and father of two, had taken his own life in Elkhorn just four days earlier, on Aug. 18, 2012.
“As a mother you feel like you failed,” she said.”I didn’t know what was wrong. “I didn’t know there was something wrong. I didn’t know why.”
Friends and family members were flying in for Abbott’s funeral as Dawson tried to maintain her composure in Madison.
“Opening ceremonies ... when they did the national anthem it was very hard,” she said. “You know, you just try not to break down. I had to stay strong and I had to control myself: focus, just focus.”
But her mind was in another place.
“My son was still in the morgue when I was gone. My family was flying in from everywhere. And I wasn’t even home.”
After the funeral, Dawson drove to Michigan to place Travis’ ashes in Southhaven, where he was born in 1985. The urn of his ashes strapped to the passenger seat, she remembers apologizing when she tuned the radio to a country music station.
Travis hated country music.
“He was into head-banging stuff,” Dawson said, like Insane Clown Posse and Korn.
She drove for hours and eventually turned off the radio. In that situation music was hard to listen to, she said.
Instead “we had a pretty good talk,” Dawson said.
While warming up with her mare Goldilocks before a barrel race, Goldilocks collapsed under Dawson. When horses lose their balance and trip while running, they flail their feet, Dawson said, and a kick from a panicked horse can inflict severe damage to riders caught in the mix.
So when Goldilocks collapsed, Dawson scrambled out of the way as fast as she could. But something was wrong. Goldilocks did not flail. She did not attempt to get back to her feet but remained limp on the track.
She looked around for help after the mare collapsed. “Don’t let my horse die,” she said.
But it was too late.
Goldilocks had died instantly, Dawson said.
A vet would find that the four-year-old mare had a heart murmur and collapsed. A horse’s blood pressure does not return as fast as a human’s, Dawson said, and drops very low if a horse is not standing. Since Goldilocks collapsed during the murmur and didn’t rise, neither did her blood pressure and she died.
On New Year’s Eve, Dawson eagerly awaited the end of 2012 — what had become the worst year of her life.
But while she waited for the new year, thieves entered her barn through the back and tied the front doors shut with a rope to prevent interference while they stole saddles worth an estimated $15,000.
The robbers stood on a chair and turned her security camera to a wall so that they wouldn’t be seen, she said. They had knowledge of her barn’s layout and had planned the theft in advance.
The saddles were eventually recovered and three thieves were convicted.
Dawson considers herself a strong person.
“First of all, you can’t take anything for granted,” she says. “Whenever I see a horse that looks like Goldilocks, or when I see families ... a lot of times you get that lump in your throat. But it makes you want do it even more. For your deceased, like my son, like ‘here, child, this is for us.’”
“It makes you want to achieve something. But you still ... some people, I guess, will just crawl under a rock and say ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ I really didn’t do that, I just spent a little down time and … you don’t forget things, but you appreciate things a little more, and your goals change a little bit. A lot of times you just say ‘it is what it is’ or … I don’t know.”
Dawson says she would like to enter Thunder in races around the world. He’s less than a year old now, but when the colt turns two, she wants to enter him in the All American Futurity race in New Mexico, which is a quarter horse race.
Quarter horses are a breed of American horses best suited for short-distance sprinting, according to the American quarter horse Association’s website. They are fast “cowboy” horses that are popular in rodeos.
At $2.6 million, the All American Futurity race has the largest purse for a race of its kind in North America, the AQHA’s website states. Thunder is an appendix quarter horse, or a thoroughbred mix.
Dawson said she chose to breed Thunder with thoroughbred lineage on his mother’s side and quarter horse blood on his father’s side to combine the Thoroughbred’s speed with a quarter horse’s stocky versatility — if Thunder doesn’t end up panning out as a racer, he might make a good barrel horse, Dawson said.
In the mean time Dawson plans to continue her Thursday night barrel races while she focuses on training Thunder.
“You just got to do it, you just can’t stop,” Dawson said.
Note: Dawson and Thunder will be marching through downtown Lake Geneva at 5 p.m.on Saturday during the Great Electric Children’s Christmas parade and will also make an appearance earlier in the day at 1:30 p.m. in Elkhorn for the Christmas Card Town parade.