It was just after 3 p.m. last August when Susan Winsor drove up to Alivia Kettleson’s farm in Thorsby – about 60 km south west of Edmonton. It was a miserable afternoon; rain was blowing sideways and the temperature gauge in the horse van shivered at just over 10 C. Water puddled everywhere.

Winsor and her husband, Doug, were there to take a look at a horse named Irish Gold – a retired thoroughbred with two white socks on his near side and a white snip on his deep-red forehead.

Nine years old, Irish Gold, a speedy stakes winner in his days at the track, won six of 28 races. Most of them were sizzling wire-to-wire wins. Like the September victory in 2018 when he wowed everyone in the Red Diamond Express when he went untouched and won by three lengths. Or the warm but cloudy June day in 2020 when he went to Winnipeg and won an allowance race leading at every call.

Dale Ellson owned him in those days; Jerri Robertson was his trainer.

His breeder is the very successful Bar None Ranches.

But now Irish Gold’s days as a racehorse are long gone.

“We tried to make him a stable pony leading horses back and forth from the track,” said Robertson, who just notched her 500th victory.

“But Irish Gold wasn’t sound enough to do even that. He needed a new career – a new job. He was a real nice horse to be around. Kind of a pet really.”

Enter the Winsors, who generously purchase just those kind of horses – especially Thoroughbreds – to give them a second chance at life.

The other option you don’t want to think about.

Susan took one look at Irish Gold standing in the rain and cold and knew in a blink he was the perfect horse.

“When they brought him out of his stall he was Joe Cool. He looked at Doug and I and seemed to say ‘Why don’t we just go home together?’ And I said ‘Yeah, I think you’re right.’”

“Jerri told me a couple of times that he might be just what I was looking for – a kind, intelligent horse – and she was right.

“I’m so glad we saw him,” said Susan.

The thing is Susan and Doug weren’t just looking for another horse. They had plenty of those. Including boarders there were many years when they had as many as 50 horses.

“Bud Keiser used to bring me horses all the time,” said Susan. “He hauled horses and trainers would tell him that they had a horse that isn’t running well and probably shouldn’t be on the track. Bud would say ‘That’s fine. Take him to Sue’s place.’

“The next day there would be another horse with a note on the stall door.

“How many horses have I found homes for? Lord. Quite a few. We used to buy 10 horses a year that would stay with us until they found out what they wanted to do with their lives.

“We want them all to have a good home.”

But this time was different. This time they were looking for a companion for an old, 34-year-old grey horse named Ice.

Ten months earlier Ice had lost his best friend, Bird on a Roll – another former Thoroughbred racehorse. Bird on a Roll was 33 when he died in January of last year.

“We seem to grow them old here,” said Susan.

Ice and Bird on a Roll did everything together. Where one went, the other followed. They were partners – as inseparable as toddlers and mud puddles.

“They were together for almost 15 years,” said Susan.

“Bird was quite the character. I got him as a yearling in California. He did everything. Chased and herded cows, evented in dressage, cross country and show jumping… Everything a horse could do.

“He was a special boy. As they all are.”

But then Bird on a Roll finally died of old age and colic.

His death shook Ice to the core.

“About the same time Ice’s mother also died.

“Ice wasn’t just despondent, he was suicidal. He wanted to drown himself in a bowl of water,” said Susan, who has been riding horses since she was three despite no one else in her family having anything to do with horses.

“He was devastated.”

Originally from Scotland, Susan, who moved to Canada when she was 20, said “Ice was screaming every day. He charged up and down yelling and looking for his buddy. There were several times when it looked like he wanted to jump over the fence on our property in Bragg Creek,” she said of a quarter section the Winsors own just west of Calgary.

And then they brought Irish Gold home to meet Ice.

“Irish strolled out of the trailer, sniffed the air, looked around and said ‘This will do,’” said Susan.

“Almost immediately he walked over to Ice, nuzzled his withers and said ‘Hi. I’m here. You should come with me.’ And Ice said ‘OK.’

“It was as if someone stuck a pin in Ice and he exhaled with relief.

“And off they went. Happily. They never even looked back. They just walked to the paddock. They became buddies immediately.”

Susan and Doug couldn’t believe what had just unfolded.

“We both shrugged our shoulders and said ‘Did this really happen?’

“As soon as Irish arrived Ice settled down instantly.”

Susan said it’s very unusual for a horse to make friends that quickly.

“It’s amazing. Unreal. It just doesn’t happen.

“It was as if Irish told Ice ‘Don’t worry; we’ll fix that problem.’

“That’s just his nature. Issue? What issue? We’ll remedy that.

“And Irish did. It was a match made in heaven.

“Ice now thinks Irish is his hero.”

Irish and Ice have recently become a threesome.

“We recently bought a two-year-old sire named Remington. He’s very big. Irish is 16.1 hands; Remington is already 18 plus and he’s going to get much bigger.

“We got him at a draft-horse sale. We weren’t going to buy anything but somehow we came back with this one.

“Now the three of them play together. They are the odd couple or I guess I should say the odd trio.

“They play a Black Stallion game where they rear up and whoever rears up the highest is the winner; the winner is the boss.

“Then they nuzzle each other and go off and graze together.

“Irish is just a very special guy.

“And then there is the deer,” she said.

The deer? Oh yes; the deer.

“An orphaned deer showed up at our door this past fall,” began Susan.

“He was just managing to hold on. He was so thin.

“Irish knew something wasn’t right. The deer had an open wound that wouldn’t heal and Irish took care of him. He actually adopted the deer.

“The deer decided to be a horse. He joined Irish’s gang.

“Irish would share the same bucket of food with the deer. There would be two heads in the same bucket eating together.

“At night, when it was cold, you could find the deer, Irish and Ice all snuggled up together in a deep bed of straw – tucked away into the corner of the arena,” said Susan, who is also a realtor.

“The deer left this spring to do deer things but he will probably show up again this fall. Probably when hunting season comes. They know that’s not a safe time for them.”

Today, Irish relishes going for long rides in the hills and forestry lands that border the Winsor’s property.

“It’s not really trail riding because we find deer trails and outlines to explore other than trails,” said Susan, who used to compete in equestrian events like dressage and still competes in combined driving, which is driving a horse or a pair of horses in three-day events: first driven dressage, then in a timed marathon course cross-country with hazards to drive through and then through a tight course where cones are set up six inches from the wheels.

“I’m way past competing,” said Susan. “Been there; done that. But I still like to hop over natural obstacles we come across like fallen trees and streams.

“I don’t compete in combined driving with Irish. But maybe one day. He certainly has the brain for it and he is fast.

“I have lots of other horses and ponies to ride but, nice as they are, they are simply not the same as riding a sensitive Thoroughbred like Irish who knows what you want him to do before you ask him to do it. It seems like he can read your mind.

“Irish is kind, sensible and has this amazing nature. You can walk into a big field where horses are grazing and he’ll canter up to you even if it’s just to hang his head on your shoulder.”

Susan and Doug currently have 13 horses at their Fish Creek Ranch: two Hanoverians, Welsh ponies, Quarter Horses, draft crosses.

And, of course, Irish Gold, Ice and Remington.

“The whole story is like some kind of magic,” said Susan.

“People cry with tears of joy when they hear the story.

“It’s one in a million.”