Any horseperson worth their salt will tell you it is not the purchase price of that cute ‘project’ on Facebook that may gaslight you into thinking you should stick to your day job of online shopping. It’s the rabbit hole money pit you will go down trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with it!
Or maybe that’s just me…
Here’s my story, and spoiler alert, it does not yet have an ending. But I share it for those on their own journey to find out what’s wrong with their friend. For those who some call crazy for dumping so much money into a “cheap horse” or one they may knowingly never ride again.
I share it because it is OKAY to get to the bottom of something, as horses aren’t pieces of IKEA furniture, and it is fine to simply enjoy and keep your broken equine friend. You owe it to no one to justify what some might consider wasting your time and money. DO YOU!
During the “First Summer of COVID” in 2020 I was basically on unplanned leave from my pay-the-bills career in politics due to the nasty bug sweeping the country and working as the assistant trainer at the show barn where I kept my (then two) horses.
Once it became murkily clear we could leave the farm, you know the first thing we did was load up a trailer full and head to the local shows at a neighboring barn. I took my Bestnut, my heart horse, my most trusted and patient Paint, Reno (featured above). We had THE BEST time. At least I did. And he ate his hefty weight in peppermints as payment for jobs well done.
However, Reno is no spring chicken, and because he is so special to me I am perpetually terrified of breaking him. We had also done all the things to the level I was comfortable pushing him—derbies in rings, derbies in fields, beating the Warmbloods in the hacks, learning how to lean all the way off his side to land the lead… you know, important stuff!
And now I was on the search for a new project, something to take the pressure off Reno. Something I laughingly told myself was going to be for sale. L.O.L.
I grew up showing hunters and jumpers in the 80s and 90s, so of course I did not shy away from a sight-unseen, straight from the track, only a video of him jogging in hand on concrete, seven-year-old bay Thoroughbred gelding that fit my budget.
He was cheaper than the California king split Tempur-Pedic bed I was attempting to con my wife into buying, and her compromise was horse or bed. I liked his big shoulder more than a good night’s sleep and convinced myself it would be key to clinching derby titles via the scope to pick high options. Obviously, right?!
And so Jude, aka “On the Spot,” JC “Peg’s Prince,” came into our lives in August of 2020.
Of course I immediately knew I loved him and he was a lifer, but I didn’t really know what that would mean for my sanity, my savings, nor, most importantly, my learning as a horsewoman.
Quickly I found that Jude has all the potential in the world to be a *gasp * top-notch jumper, and this hunter princess was willing to adapt and try her hand at going fast and clean. However, something was always just a little off with Jude, and thus begins my journey.
Jude is one of the most athletic horses I’ve ever sat on—he can jump a 3’6” oxer from basically a standstill, has a canter built for the Big Eq, and a step that can be eight feet one moment and then corner like it’s on rails the next. He is an anxiety-ridden cribber who bullies his friends in the paddock, but on the ground he’s the sweetest snuggle-bug we have. He’s also my greatest enigma.
He spent much of his time that first year on the back-burner, with starts and stops. But I never pushed him hard and always did my homework before asking him to really perform. We had issues with kicking out, would school beautifully at a horse show but then completely melt down when it was time to head to the show ring, and struggled with off and on in general.
Yet by October of 2021 he was doing schooling shows at 2’6”, jumping big sticks at home, and I was heavily investing in his monogrammed jumper costumes with matching hunt coats for a kick ass 2022 season!
Then it all went to hell in a handbasket. We backslid faster than I can drive to the local tack shop. The kicking out got bad when you put your leg on. We had issues going forward without threats to rear. He started bolting at the jumps.
Before you are too quick to judge, know I engaged other professionals to help. Despite no obvious signs of lameness, I had vets out for evaluations. We tried Equioxx and methocarb, flexions and new fancy shoes, chiropractic and magna-wave. Nothing was helping.
I had a new job and was busier than expected at the time. And maybe, just maybe, some of this behavior, which I feared and coddled (being 45 and all, not bouncing like I used to!), was partially my own fault. I needed help—as all riders do, pros, amateurs, trail riders…
So off Jude went to some trainer friends who have unwittingly found a niche specializing in Thoroughbred jumpers for what I called “winter camp.” About a month later we collectively determined behavior wasn’t all that was wrong with my sweet boy.
At home, I sobbed to my wife as I flopped down on the couch, clutching a very healthy pour of box red. She, being the calm and sane one in this family, simply looked at me and replied, “He’s part of our family. We have the money, call the vet in the morning and figure it out.”
So begins the last year of my life chasing the elusive pain in my Thoroughbred. And if you’ve stuck with me this far, thank you. Maybe my search will help you. Maybe it will give you comfort in your own search. Or perhaps you’ll just think I’m crazy. That’s cool, too.
We started with x-rays and padded shoes. We scoped my ulcer-y Thoroughbred, and while I was hoping there was something akin to Little Shop of Horrors in his belly not much was found. We did a month of Ulcergard anyway.
I brought him home, gave him some down time, occasionally hopping on to walk around the property. I took him with us to some shows just to hack in the schooling ring. Things seemed maybe a little better until he very unexpectedly reared and nearly went over. In front of my mom.
Yeah… that was not great.
More lameness evals. Pictures of his back. He wasn’t holding his weight very well, despite personally feeding all the quality food and pricey supplements.
In the fall of 2022, we pulled blood and tested for EPM and Lyme. I had always suspected neurological issues. Negative on the Lyme, negotiable on his potential levels of EPM. We ended up treating him for EPM, and he weirdly put some weight back on. We had his teeth floated and I thought we might finally have found our culprit.
Despite consistent longeing and longeing over poles and long slow trots on the longe, he’s still unable to canter more than three or four strides without losing his hind lead. This is a now 10-year-old Thoroughbred who was on the track four years—no way he should be this weak, something is still missing from this puzzle.
Cue more tears and giant plates of pasta. Cue incredibly understanding spouse telling me to spend the money taking him to the specialists instead of using it to do much-needed updates to our house (so we can put it on the market and buy a little backyard farmette for these retired loveable jerks of ours).
I’ve now spent approximately the cost of three new horses to determine what is wrong with this one. I don’t begrudge a single penny. Here’s why: Jude deserves it.
I owe it to my horse whom I made this commitment to through his addition to our family to make it a happy life. I deserve it. All of this experience has made me a better horseperson in understanding his limits, my limits, how to better read behavioral or pain issues. Horses are not mean, they do not intend to be bad. This is the sweetest horse we have who loves me so much. I know in his alien brain he doesn’t want to hurt me. He understands even less about what is going on with his body than I do. Which makes me feel terrible, but I will do right by him.
So off we go in the beginning of February for an all-day appointment with the University of Wisconsin Vet School. Did you know they invented a standing CT scan for horses so you can better see the whole picture? Did you know I’ll probably be scrubbing their toilets to pay for all the things I’ll want to have done for my friend while I’m there?!
As the cliché goes, it is what it is. I can’t move on. I need to get to the bottom of this conundrum. I’m in the well with Timmy, and Lassie might need to send us a Xanax before we come out. I’m mentally prepared for it to be “career ending”—he won’t be the only horse on my current bill with that diagnosis. Hell, he won’t even be the second one! But that is all okay, if it continues to help develop me into a better horse partner for all my boys, for my clients and their horses, and for my future equine family members.
And to put any fears to rest, as long as he is not a danger to himself or anyone around him, he will live his life with dignity, quality and pampering with us until he decides it is his time to go.
But maybe, JUST MAYBE, the diagnosis will come back that my sweet jumper boy has a future with me in the show ring. Then watch out, world! You are sure to see some extensive time faults and really chic outfits coming to a Midwest horse show near you!