My Life

Practical Horseman - - Special Sporthorse Health Issue - By Al­li­son San­difer

An adult ama­teur’s off-the-track Thor­ough­bred over­comes a rare life-threat­en­ing di­ag­no­sis to re­gain suc­cess in the event­ing world.

I cried as I watched his coat fade and his tail hair fall out. My heart broke as he with­drew from the touch of my hand on his side. He shifted from be­ing a bound­less ball of en­ergy to be­ing re­served and dispir­ited.

Sit­ting out­side the show sta­ble at the Amer­i­can Event­ing Cham­pi­onships in Tryon, North Carolina, last sum­mer, I had a mo­ment of clar­ity. I was with my chest­nut geld­ing, Baron, who wasn’t sup­posed to be there. In fact, he wasn’t sup­posed to be alive. But there I was wait­ing for my cross-coun­try ride time with my sweet lit­tle horse who pre­vi­ously had no hope of liv­ing past his 7th birth­day. Now 10, Baron is mak­ing my dreams become a re­al­ity.

Baron is an off-ther­ace­track Thor­ough­bred I found through the non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion CAN­TER in 2010 at the Penn Na­tional Race­track and brought home to North Carolina. At the time, I was look­ing for­ward to the chal­lenges of a 3-year-old, and boy did they come. Most of our rides in­cluded gal­lops even when I thought we were just go­ing for a hack. Tiny fences felt mas­sive when we jumped over them, and Baron in­ves­ti­gated wa­ter ob­sta­cles with the in­ten­sity of a bi­ol­o­gist. When he was 5 and started to set­tle into his work, I thought we had turned the cor­ner. We were hav­ing con­sis­tently suc­cess­ful rides. The last thing I ex­pected was news of cancer and a six-month to two-year life span.

Baron had de­vel­oped a bony mass on his lower jaw early in 2013. It grew rapidly to the size of a fist and he couldn’t tol­er­ate the pres­sure of a nose­band. Sev­eral months of tests and bone biop­sies fi­nally be­came con­clu­sive in the late spring, and he was di­ag­nosed with myeloma—a ma­lig­nant tu­mor of the bone mar­row. Sur­rounded by sup­port­ive fam­ily and friends and armed with a quart of ice cream and a bot­tle of wine, I even­tu­ally was able to al­low my de­nial to fade to ac­cep­tance, and I re­tired sweet Baron to live out his next few months with lots of love and pep­per­mints. I cried as I watched his coat fade and his tail hair fall out. My heart broke as he with­drew from the touch of my hand on his side. He shifted from be­ing a bound­less ball of en­ergy to be­com­ing re­served and dispir­ited. The only con­sis­tency was his de­sire to be first to din­ner; he wasn’t go­ing to let his wounded jaw and ban­daged head keep him from a meal. His hunger con­vinced me he still wanted to live. I didn’t feel right putting him down—it just wasn’t his time yet.

I vis­ited him of­ten and cel­e­brated a full year of life with ex­tra pep­per­mints and as­sumed his brighter ap­pear­ance was a mi­rage. I started rid­ing other horses and even­tu­ally pur­chased a young Con­nemara-cross named Flynn with the idea that he would help ease the pain of even­tu­ally los­ing Baron.

Months went by—and Baron’s health flour­ished. I couldn’t be­lieve my ter­mi­nally ill horse was ac­tu­ally sick. I con­sulted with vet­eri­nar­i­ans around the coun­try will­ing to help with his un­usual case. Af­ter months of tests, he was de­clared “as healthy as a horse” with­out a clear idea of what hap­pened to the cancer.

Sadly, I had formed a new bond with Flynn but I couldn’t af­ford to keep them both. So with my over­whelm­ing joy of hav­ing Baron back from the dead, I also had to say good­bye to Flynn. An­other quart of ice cream and a few bot­tles of wine later, I sent him off to a lovely new home and turned to Baron, who was elated to be my one-and-only again.

Baron’s only hand­i­cap is a bony mass on his lower mandible, but he is com­fort­able wear­ing a Mick­lem bri­dle or fig­ureeight nose­band. I be­gan rid­ing him again in the fall of 2015, two years af­ter his ini­tial “re­tire­ment.” He was en­thu­si­as­tic in his work, and within seven months we qual­i­fied to com­pete at the 2016 Amer­i­can Event­ing Cham­pi­onships and that sea­son we fin­ished third in the Novice di­vi­sion at the Area II Cham­pi­onships. We re­turned to the AEC last sum­mer where we fin­ished ninth in a very com­pet­i­tive Novice Adult Ama­teur di­vi­sion.

Baron and I just com­pleted our first Train­ing level com­bined test on our dres­sage score. As I en­tered the ring for the com­pe­ti­tion, I couldn’t help but smile when Baron’ s Jockey Club name, Upto-heavnnbak­a­gain, was an­nounced. Some­times I won­der if the name was a prophecy— that my lit­tle red boy wasn’t ready for heaven and he came back to me.

Al­li­son San­difer and Baron last fall

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