by Terra LeMay
Read by Emily Rankin
Listen to the audio version
You always ruin your first horse.
That's what they used to say back when I was a kid saddle-breaking my first season of
two-year-olds fresh in from the upper pasture, my grandfather's scrubby crossbreeds, part Quarter
Horse, part Hackney or Morgan or I don't know, little more than ponies, really, and all I had to do
was get the buck out so my grandpa could take them to the local livestock sale. The goal: to give
me enough experience so I wouldn't ruin the first horse I would call my own. But you always ruin
your first horse. People said it because it was true.
They were still saying it a few years later when I was putting mileage on young show
jumper prospects for my mother's friends and, by the end of that summer, her clients. Still saying
it a few years after that, too, the first time somebody who didn't know any better said, "Jack, will
you teach me how to ride like you do?"
They don't say it anymore, though. Now they say, "Better luck next time."
Early one frigid morning in 1979, a thoroughbred mare named Coldly Noble foaled a
chestnut colt who turned grey, then gradually white as he got older. This colt, called Gem Twist,
grew up to win team and individual silvers for show jumping at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul,
South Korea. At the 1990 World Equestrian Games, he won the title of (I kid you not) "World's
Best Horse." He accumulated prize money and accolades until 1997, when he was publicly retired
at Madison Square Garden in front of thousands of adoring fans. He lived a long, full life and was
greatly loved. In November of 2006, he was quietly euthanized due to growing infirmities of old
And two years later, he made headlines again when he was reborn as part of a cloning
experiment. This is all true. Look it up. Google "Gem Twist" and you'll see what I'm talking
Gem Twist wasn't the first cloned horse. (You may have noticed, if you looked.) He
wasn't even the first cloned champion. Before him, geneticists cloned three National Cutting
Horse champions, a ten-time PRCA champion barrel racer, and a two-time World Endurance
Horse champion. They even cloned Airwolf, an infamous saddle-bronc bucking horse. Personally,
I always found it hard to understand why a horse could be worth cloning just because he was
unridable, but I guess a man's entitled to ride--or try to ride--whatever kind of horse he likes.
I was fourteen the first time I climbed into a saddle and recognized I was riding a horse
someone else had already ruined. After a few dusty, bruising weeks of bucking out horses for my
grandpa, my father drove up to the barn with his stock trailer in tow and unloaded a sorrel four-year-old with no papers and no name. Within an hour he'd been dubbed "Big Red," on account of
his coat was the color of a fire engine and he was about as big as one. Papers or no papers, he
looked like an opportunity. He was charismatic and had good conformation and nice straight legs.
Trot him out on a lead-line with no rider, and he stepped forward like a winner, hind feet tracking
well past his own front hoof-prints with a loose, swinging stride. Not only that, but he was a
thinker. Too smart for his own good, even back then.
One day Dad asked if I'd like to ride him and, always eager to prove myself, I had him
groomed and tacked up in ten minutes. I led him out to the arena, Dad and Grandpa trailing
behind, and I knew from all the things they didn't say while we were walking that Big Red was
meant for me, as long as I didn't screw up.
Easier said than done. The horse had quicky earned a reputation around the barn as hard
to handle. He stood nicely while I mounted and found my stirrups, but once I'd settled, he gave a
little half-rear, outta nowhere, tossing his head straight up. He almost broke my nose with the top
of his skull, and only missed because at fourteen I was still a head shorter than anyone else who'd
ever ridden him.
I turned him in a circle to get his feet on the ground where they belonged, then trotted him
forward. At ringside, my father and grandfather nodded their approval. I put Red through his
paces, my grandfather calling out corrections from time to time, and occasional encouraging
remarks. Red was green but responsive, accepting my cues and going as directed, but tense, like a
bomb about to explode. Like a supersized version of the crossbreed ponies I'd been bucking out
for weeks. The challenge was exhilarating.
Mom and a few of her advanced riding students--high school girls who took lessons at
our farm--had joined my father and grandfather at ringside. Still in the summer before my
freshman year, I was keen to impress them, but when I rode past, I heard my mother say, "Dan,
don't you think that's too much horse for him?"
My ears burned, and I cast desperately around for a way to prove I was capable.
Down the middle of the arena, a line of jumps had been set up for someone else's riding
lesson. I'd never spent much time jumping horses. I'd done it on ponies and knew the process, but
the men in my family disdained it as a sport for girls. My own saddle was a heavy Bona Allen
roping saddle not suited for jumping. I circled Red at the end of the arena, then took him straight
to the first fence, a vertical only about two feet tall. The big horse cantered right to the base of the
ground pole, then launched himself over, clearing the jump by a good eighteen inches.
This might have been more impressive if not for the saddle horn on my Bona Allen, which
came up and punched me in the gut. There's a reason English jumping saddles don't have a horn.
But somehow I got my breath back and avoided the horn over the second fence, then another
stride and we jumped the oxer at the end. I suddenly understood the appeal of jumping horses. On
a horse like Big Red, it felt like flying.
As I brought Red around and slowed, my grandfather said, "Well, he's got some kinks to
work out, son, but he's got potential. You think you can fix him?"
"Yessir," I replied. "I'm going to try."
It was love at first ride.
At the time Gem Twist was cloned, it cost a cool hundred and fifty grand to do it. That
may seem like a lot of money to someone unfamiliar with horses, but consider this: In August of
2008, a month before Gem Twist's clone scrabbled onto his dainty little hooves for the first time,
one hundred and twenty-two thoroughbred yearlings were auctioned in Saratoga, New York, for
more than thirty-six million dollars. That's an average sale price of over $295,000 a head. For
Consider also that during the very same year, a horse called Big Brown was insured for
fifty million dollars after winning the Kentucky Derby. Fifty million. At 150k per cloning, his
insurance company could have replaced him over three hundred times. Three hundred little Big
Browns, and a buffer of nearly five million dollars left over.
By the time we cloned Big Red the first time, we'd already replaced two champion fox
terriers and my Mother's favorite mare. It was still frowned upon, back then--an eccentric
behavior associated with wealth, not common sense--but it wasn't rare. Even so, it wasn't like it
is today, with people routinely reproducing their pets and prize-winning livestock as a matter of
"Jack!" yelled my Mother, across the warm-up ring. "Stop fighting him. Give him his
head. You're knocking rails because you won't let him find his own distances."
I couldn't concentrate on what she was saying when it was all I could do just to keep Red
on course, so I finished the line of fences, then circled back toward her rather than finish the
"When I give him more rein, he rushes the fences and knocks rails anyway. His mouth is
"Well of course his mouth is like iron when you won't stop hanging on the reins like that."
My mother was the best trainer I'd ever known, but she was wrong this time. I'd tried
giving him his head in lessons at home and I'd ended up on the ground more than once, or tossed
into a jump. Red was the most honest horse I'd ever ridden, but even he couldn't jump fences at
this level when we were rushing around the course like we were both still green.
I threw my crop down and dismounted. "Fine. If you think you can do better, show me."
She frowned, but climbed up and adjusted my stirrups to her shorter legs. I was nineteen,
taller than her, and this was our second Red. Red Fred. Big Red was now called Old Red as often
as anything else, and he'd been retired to live in the mare pasture. We'd done a lot with Old Red,
but his early training had been a disadvantage we'd never been able to overcome.
Mom took Red Fred around the course, building speed between every fence until they
blew past an oxer rather than barrel through it. My smug satisfaction that I was right only lasted
until she'd circled him down to a walk and returned to me.
"This isn't his problem, Jack," she said. "This is your fault. I ought to put you back on
school horses! His mouth is ruined. I don't know if I can fix this."
I won't repeat here how I responded to that criticism. It's not something I'm proud of.
In 2016, an Argentinian polo player rode six ponies, named Cuartetera 01 through 06 (a
string of genetically identical clones of the same mare) to win a match in Buenos Ares. In
succeeding years, other riders followed suit, and it wasn't long before those with wealthy patrons
began putting together specialized strings of horses, trading cloned foals the same way baseball
card collectors traded cards to assemble fantasy teams.
The Jockey Club held out longer. Clones had been banned from racing since well before
the first viable cloned embryo had been implanted in a recipient mare. But in 2019, a determined
cloner with the help of a talented marketing director gilded the right palms with enough cash to
lease the track and stadium seating at Churchill Downs for a series of high-profile invitational
races. The field was wholly composed of cloned superstars. By then, the difficulties associated
with cloning deceased animals had largely been overcome (and long dead animals had been
exhumed in some extremely unpleasant procedures at tracks and private animal burial sites across
the nation.) That week, Churchill Downs race enthusiasts were treated to match races between a
clone of Secretariat and a clone of Man-O-War. Cigar vs. Big Brown. Man-O-War vs. Northern
Dancer. Dozens of match races between clones of famous winners. Only two years later, the track
saw the first ever race between ten genetically identical colts. And within a decade, racing became
more about training and conditioning programs and jockey skill than about breeding and
bloodlines. The Jockey Club finally buckled under pressure to register cloned animals. To resist
would have been to embrace the end of the racing industry. Or, at least, to part company with it.
When I was thirty-seven, I finally got Red (number eleven) to the FEI Rolex World Cup.
Even though we didn't even make it to the jump off, we were a favorite of the crowd. A blot of
crimson in a field of white. Every other rider was mounted on a clone of Gem Twist.
To be fair, that year was a fluke. Usually there was at least a little diversity among the
contenders. But a decade earlier, Cheryl Lynch, the financial patron of Iron Bridge Farm, had
decided to raise an entire season of Gem Twist clones with the intent to make them all into
schooling horses for her lesson program. Every mare in her breeding program had been implanted
with a Gem Twist embryo and when they were born, she'd convinced almost every successful
competitor to try their hand at reproducing the original Gem Twist's accomplishments. As these
horses had begun to excel, it had become a challenge among trainers and riders to see who would
take their Gem to the top first.
It was only through sheer doggedness and twenty-five years of practice on the same horse
that Red and I even made the list. We were eliminated in the first round.
I'd been offered a Gem Twist clone too, and had accepted, but ultimately I'd been too
stubborn to invest as much time in that horse as I had in Red. I sent my Gem Twist back to Iron
Bridge when he was ready to school beginners. In the meantime, I'd been raising and training Red
Thirteen (a three-year-old) and Red Fourteen (a weanling) while campaigning Eleven. (Twelve
had suffered an unfortunate pasture accident ending in early retirement.) The field of white horses
at the World Cup had given me pause to wonder if I could justify the expense of cloning more
than one Red a year.
Perhaps it was my preoccupation with this question that led me to mount Red Thirteen for
the first time without thought to the preservation of my nose cartilage. He gave a half-rear and
tossed his head. In an attempt to keep my seat, I tipped my center of balance forward. The top of
his skull struck my face with a nauseating crunch and blood sprayed everywhere. It was no
surprise to anyone when Red succeeded in unseating me in the moments that followed, but I hit
the ground harder than I expected, elbow first. I knew immediately that I'd broken something, but
the true extent of the damage was far worse than I could've expected given the nature of the fall.
It took three surgeries and six months out of the saddle to make things right, and I never did
recover my full range of motion in that arm. I sold Thirteen to pay medical expenses, then sold
Fourteen a year later, to get the rest of my finances straight and to pay the cloning fees for
Fifteen, Sixteen, and Seventeen.
I managed to get Sixteen short-listed for the Olympics, but that was the beginning of the
end, for me. By then I was edging into my fifties. Everything hurt more than when I was a kid,
and I no longer had the reflexes to bring up young horses. I still own a trademark on Red's DNA
sequence. I'm not giving that up. But I sold Fifteen, Sixteen, and Seventeen as a package deal and,
like many trainers before me, turned my attention toward training young riders instead of young
horses. I now teach lessons full-time to the teenage children of wealthy corporate aristocrats,
some of whom look suspiciously like their work-a-holic single parents. I've been doing it for
about ten years now, and it's a good living. Equestrian games have long been a luxury sport and,
with ownership and trade of the most competitive DNA sequences a secondary hobby for those
with money to burn, that fact's not likely to change any time soon. But babysitting rich kiddies is
an occupation that offers opportunities that I've discovered I want. Opportunities for myself and
for my son, Jack Jr.
Another few years, and he'll be ready. I'll make arrangements to have Big Red cloned
again. Together they'll have everything Old Red and I had when we first started out, plus a
lifetime of experience that only I can provide.
I know we'll get it right this time. Jack Junior and Big Red will make daddy proud.