TRUE TALE

Look­ing for in­spi­ra­tion? Con­sider Mor­gan Wag­ner and her horse Endo, who have over­come daunt­ing chal­lenges to con­tinue to ex­cel in the show ring.

EQUUS - - Equus - By Theresa Rice

With­out lim­its: Look­ing for in­spi­ra­tion? Con­sider Mor­gan Wag­ner and her horse Endo, who have over­come daunt­ing chal­lenges to con­tinue to ex­cel in the show ring.

Ifirst saw Mor­gan Wag­ner rid­ing her horse Endo in a video linked to my Face­book feed. It was a work­ing equi­tation class in Las Ve­gas, and I watched with rapt at­ten­tion as the young woman and her horse nav­i­gated around the ob­sta­cles in the arena, in­clud­ing gates, bridges, poles and even a small jump. If not for the head­line on the video, I might never have no­ticed that the horse was blind.

The video ended with ap­plause and cheers, and I went on about my busi­ness, re­turn­ing to the work I’d been avoid­ing. A few months later I ar­rived at the barn where I board and saw a large Ap­paloosa stand­ing in the cross ties. Where his left eye should be was a dark­ened hol­low. I walked past them and saw that the other eye was gone, too. I turned around and came back.

“Is that the blind horse?” I asked with­out think­ing. Ob­vi­ously, with no eyes he was cer­tainly blind.

“Yes,” said the young woman who was groom­ing him.

“No, I mean, is he the blind horse, like in the videos?” “Yes.” And that is how I came to meet Mor­gan and her spe­cial horse Endo. Mor­gan was 13 when she picked out the 3-month-old foal at her grand­mother’s farm. Mor­gan not only broke Endo to sad­dle as he ma­tured, she trained him to a high level of per­for­mance work­ing to­gether at lib­erty. For those un­fa­mil­iar, lib­erty work is when the horse and per­son move to­gether in an en­closed area with the horse com­pletely loose---able to move at will but in­stead choos­ing to obey the per­son’s re­quests. The goal is to build a strong foun­da­tion of trust and com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween horse and rider.

When Endo was about 9 years old, he de­vel­oped uveitis, a painful in­flam­ma­tion of the uveal tract of the eye. Through years of re­cur­ring in­flam­ma­tory episodes and treat­ments Endo’s eye­sight de­clined, and the pain mounted. The grow­ing shad­ows that filled his vis­ual world made him spooky and un­safe to be around. Mor­gan de­cided to have Endo’s right eye re­moved in 2012, and the left one a year later. She knew that she might be end­ing Endo’s ca­reer as a rid­ing horse. But she made the gam­ble that he would be able to live a pain-free pro­duc­tive life.

At the same time, Mor­gan faced chal­lenges of her own. She was di­ag­nosed with sys­temic lu­pus ery­the­mato­sus at age 19, although look­ing at her you wouldn’t sus­pect any­thing is amiss. Lu­pus is a chronic au­toim­mune dis­ease that can af­fect tis­sues through­out the body; symp­toms can in­clude ex­treme fa­tigue, headaches, painful joints, ane­mia and fever.

Be­fore Endo lost his eye­sight, Mor­gan did

some re­search into how to help a horse adapt to blind­ness, and she be­gan teach­ing Endo oral cues so that he would still know how to per­form ex­pected tasks.

Af­ter the sec­ond surgery, Mor­gan went back to work with Endo al­most im­me­di­ately to keep him in a rou­tine. Their first and most daunt­ing task was help­ing Endo re-learn bal­ance. Even when his sight was clouded with shades and ob­struc­tions, the geld­ing had been able make his way in the world. Now blind, Endo had to re-ori­ent him­self. Once this is­sue was re­solved to a point that Mor­gan could safely ride him, she got back in the sad­dle.

Mor­gan and Endo did not start com­pet­ing in work­ing equi­tation un­til af­ter his eyes were re­moved. The pair at­tended a work­ing equi­tation clinic by Julie Alonzo, who was so im­pressed with their team­work that she was happy to con­tinue work­ing with them.

Work­ing equi­tation com­bines dis­tinct “tests” fo­cus­ing on dif­fer­ent skills: dres­sage, ease of han­dling, speed and, at the high­est level of com­pe­ti­tion, cat­tle han­dling. For Mor­gan, one of the draws of the dis­ci­pline was the sup­port­ive com­mu­nity she found on the cir­cuit. Com­peti­tors get to know each other and sup­port one an­other in their pur­suit of bet­ter per­for­mance.

None­the­less, Mor­gan does hear neg­a­tive com­ments some­times. Some peo­ple sug­gest that she asks too much of the geld­ing. Why, they ask, doesn’t she just put him in a pas­ture and let him lead a sim­ple life? Mor­gan’s an­swer to such ques­tions is that ev­ery pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence Endo has in a new place, and the mas­tery of ev­ery new skill, makes him that much safer to be around. She con­tin­ues to train Endo to demon­strate that blind horses still have value and can have mean­ing­ful re­la­tion­ships with their own­ers.

Af­ter watch­ing the two work­ing to­gether around the barn, I tend to think Endo feels more at ease with Mor­gan than he would sim­ply be­ing turned out to pas­ture. He sticks his head out of his feed­ing window at the sound of her voice, “look­ing” for her. He also will stretch his head to­ward her, us­ing sound and touch to find her, for scratches. Some­times while rid­ing my own horse in the ring with the pair, I for­get that Endo is blind. His ex­tra­or­di­nary tal­ent seems to be the prod­uct of his at­tach­ment to Mor­gan and her ded­i­ca­tion to him, not some kind of forced dis­play pushed by a trainer. I re­cently asked Mor­gan what she would tell some­one who was look­ing for en­cour­age­ment in deal­ing with a chal­lenge or dis­abil­ity. She pon­dered a mo­ment, then re­sponded: “Don’t put lim­i­ta­tions on your­self. You’ve got to find a way to do what you want.”

Spend­ing even short pe­ri­ods of time around the barn with Mor­gan and Endo has changed my per­spec­tive on horse­man­ship. Now, I be­lieve we can over­come any bar­rier with our horses. Most of us face chal­lenges far smaller than those over­come by Endo and Mor­gan. I, for ex­am­ple, would just like to do a fly­ing lead change with­out rac­ing off into the sun­set. But the prospect of suc­cess is there for each of us to achieve, if, as Mor­gan would say, we just set our minds to the task and stop put­ting lim­i­ta­tions on our­selves.

Mor­gan does hear neg­a­tive com­ments some­times. Some peo­ple sug­gest that she asks too much of the geld­ing. Why, they ask, doesn’t she just put him in a pas­ture and let him lead a sim­ple life?

IN­SPI­RA­TION: By con­tin­u­ing Endo’s show ring ca­reer, Mor­gan Wag­ner hopes to demon­strate what blind horses can ac­com­plish.

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