Sunday November 20, 2011

This particular blog entry is one that I have put off for far too long.  I put it off in large part because most of this blog’s regular readers will be aware that I am writing about my favorite horse in the world, and thus, I am perhaps not the most unbiased of persons.  But then, where horses are concerned, aren’t we all biased? 

So this is about Wallenda.  He was a good racehorse, certainly.  But he is also flat-out, no contest the toughest horse I have ever known.  In a world where Thoroughbreds are considered to be ever more fragile, he has shown himself to be smarter, stronger and more determined than anyone could have predicted. 

Wallenda, named after the patriarch of the famous circus family, amassed $1.2 million in earnings over a 33 race career.  As a three year old in 1993 for Dogwood Stables, he won the Super Derby, the Pennsylvania Derby and ran second in the Blue Grass Stakes.  He was Kentucky Derby worthy and in fact ran in the Derby that same year. Whenever I find myself in the Derby Museum at Churchill Downs, I stop to look for his name on the Derby wall.  Even though he didn’t win, seeing his name listed there never fails to thrill me.  After his racing career, Wallenda stood at stud in Kentucky, New Zealand, and ultimately ended up in Japan.  In the summer of 2007, he joined the Old Friends roster.  

I was new to Old Friends as a volunteer at the same time Wallenda arrived at the farm.  Among my first memories of the deep-chested, nearly black stallion is watching the Flying Wallenda family feed carrots to Wallenda the horse, and then performing their high-wire act at a farm fundraiser.  Wallenda the horse is a carrot hound, and a show-off.  He is also a stallion, and not the kind you kiss and fuss over.  He is an active horse by nature, not above taking a nip at anyone who annoys him, and not a particularly gentle or simple horse to be around.  Had I thought about it, I probably would have said he was a not a horse that would be calm and content as an indoor horse.  I had no idea the path Wallenda was about to walk. 

My memory of the time line isn’t precise but sometime after the Flying Wallendas visited, on a Sunday morning, I gave a tour of the farm to a married couple. As we approached Wallenda’s paddock down by the pond he was standing in the middle of his field with no weight on his back leg, clearly in distress.  As we watched, he struggled on three legs to limp the 30 feet over to the fence to greet us. Given how he struggled, those 30 feet must have felt like 30 miles.  And instead of reaching for carrots, Wallenda shoved his head into my arms, heaved a sigh and just stood there, looking for comfort.  Truthfully, I think in that moment my heart just dropped at his feet.  I have spent as much time with him as possible ever since, and I like to think we are friends. 

It turned out Wallenda had all but shredded his left hind suspensory ligament, probably not for the first time.  The vet who scanned it reportedly remarked the ankle looked like “ground beef.”  In many ways, it was a life-threatening injury, because of the repeat nature and resulting cumulative damage to his ankle.  For any horse, inactivity and standing on three legs for any length of time invites all sorts of complications, including colic and the dreaded laminitis.  Laminitis, or founder, is an often incurable disease with a long history of claiming the lives of famous and not-so-famous horses, including Secretariat and more recently, 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro.  But unlike Barbaro, Wallenda was not headed to an equine hospital with swimming pools and lift systems to help bear his weight.  No, with this injury Wallenda became an indoor, stall-bound, no-exercise, no-visitors-allowed patient in the big barn at Old Friends.  He was now a horse most at risk for the deadly complications that had taken the lives of so many other horses, regardless of the world-class care they received. 

But Wallenda was, and is, some kind of a tough guy.  He seemed to understand that he had to remain quiet, and he put himself on a schedule—eat some hay, drink some water, lay down for an hour or two, get up and start the routine all over again.  He did this all day, every day, for months. He spent the entire fall, winter and early spring in his stall.  In hindsight, his ability to recognize that he needed to regularly take weight off his legs is probably what saved his life.

Eventually, Wallenda began to be hand-walked—ten minutes twice a day in the barn, then 15 and then 20 minutes.  The day he was allowed out of the barn to be hand-grazed for a few minutes was a triumph.  I remember Janet calling me, telling me to look out the back window of the farm’s office.  When I saw the black horse on a patch of grass in front of the barn, I think I cried.  After that it was a series of small steps.  The day I looked up while giving a tour and realized the horse in the round pen was Wallenda?  I just stopped talking and watched him, for what seemed like forever.  From there, he went out to a flat paddock for part of the day.  Through it all, Wallenda maintained his sensible routine, and even today he lies down regularly to rest his legs.

While Wallenda’s originally injured ankle will never be anywhere close to normal, the people that continue to monitor Wallenda and treat his injuries—Dr. Fraley and the Old Friends team—have nonetheless wrought a miracle.   Now, four years later, Wallenda’s ankle is clearly misshapen, thick and arthritic.  The hoof on that foot is abnormally shaped, and Dr. Fraley provides him with a special shoe that extends out the back, giving him a larger platform on which to support himself and keep his ankle from caving.  Even worse, his long-term inability to bear equal weight on the injured leg has compromised his “good” back leg, which is showing clear stress from having to support twice what it should. His right hock is three times normal size, knobby, and bends at an unnatural angle.  He is forced to bend it oddly in order to support himself.  His good back hoof also needs the support of a special shoe.  

And this is why Wallenda is the toughest horse I ever met: he walks on not four, not three, but on TWO good legs.  Horses just don’t do that; they can’t.  Nature designed the horse to need all four legs—an injury to one leg is often catastrophic, let alone damage to two legs.  But Wallenda is tougher than that.  He not only survives, he does it with determination, verve, and class.  He goes outside every day.  He trots and even canters for a few strides, making me cringe in fear when I see it. But he seems to know just how much he can handle.  He cleans up his meals, his coat is shiny and dappled and his eyes are bright.  I visit him a couple times a week, and he always, always comes to the fence or his stall door to welcome me with a head toss and a nicker.  He loves peppermints, a good back scratching and scoping out the mares across the road.  This month, Wallenda moved to the new Old Friends annex farm, a move that involved a ride in the horse trailer.  No problem—he walked onto and backed off that trailer like it was a piece of cake.  Think about it—a horse with bad balance, balancing himself in a trailer as it goes around curves and up and down hills.  Then, when he has to be tired, move backwards down a ramp, leading with two bad legs.  No hesitation, no problem, just the determination of a horse who knows he can do it.  He enjoys his life and makes the most of it—regardless of the chronic discomfort I imagine he must feel.  

I just can’t imagine any horse tougher than that.  

-Val

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29 Comments

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29 responses to “Sunday November 20, 2011

  1. Lynn Ciavarini

    Beautiful story. I cried. Thank you .

  2. Marta

    Great blog Val!

  3. These horses all leave their mark on our hearts, but some, like Wallenda, are head and shoulders above the rest. Excellent entry, Lynn–another in a long line of them.

  4. Sorry–I meant “Excellent entry, VAL.”

  5. Lexie Crowson

    I am crying over here! He is the definition of HEART, WILL to LIVE, GUMPTION, you name it. God bless you all for what you do everyday and God Bless Wallenda!

  6. kathy Breakall

    I have missed my visit to OF this year. I hope to be able to plan a trip soon and visit the new annex. I say payers that our fragile friends will still be there to greet me. I remember Michael talking about Wallenda’s shoes the last time I was there. It just shows how much he is valued that OF would do whatever it takes for his care; as you do for all of your horses. On another note, what is the advantage to Wallenda from his move?
    KLB

    • oldfriendsblog

      Wallenda gets kind of excited about treats, and so without regular visits from people bearing carrots he just stays calmer. Anything we can do to keep him quiet and in a regular routine is best for him. Anything that gets him wound up, not so much! Also, at the new farm he has a really big, roomy stall, his new field is right outside the door, and he has a big window from which he surveys the neighborhood. He loves it! -Val

  7. Val
    Great story, thanks! Returned home this eve after in Kentucky yesterday visiting Old Friends and today at the Horse Park. Hope to see Wallenda next time.

  8. Gulchfan

    I’m so glad Wallenda (whom I followed, being a son of Gulch) is at Old Friends and no longer in Japan. I dread to think what would have become of him with these physical issues, had he remained there. Please give him hugs and kisses from me. 🙂

  9. Viv from Ivytree

    Go Wall-E! You have proven your great heart and fighting spirit make you a champion among champions…and I will always remember Val’s story about you comforting my Appy. May you have many more days with your Old Friends family and your biggest fan, Val. XO, Vivien

  10. Rick Capone

    Beautifully written story about a wonderful, beautiful horse Val. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings about him. Rick

  11. MRO

    Wallenda impressed me during my first visit to Old Friends. He dropped down to roll right in front of me and made a huge dust cloud with his legs kicking and straight up in the air. He was one of a couple of horses I went to OF feeling indifferent about & left adoring. I certainly understand your admiration getting to see him every day. Great post!

  12. Such a heartwarming story Val.I truly believe God made animals to give us humans a chance to see the true beauty of creation.They deserve all the support and nuturing we can give and then some.When they gaze into our eyes we see the very depth of their hearts and needs and their appreciation for all the love and care we give them.Whenever I was down all I had to do was go to my horse and he would gaze at me and trot over and the hours together melted every care in the world.How I miss him. Thank you all at OF for the love and care you provide. See you next year. God’s blessing to all of you-Horse and Human.

  13. Beautiful and heartfelt…I hope Wallenda continues to do well. What a blessing Old Friends is for these horses. I am hoping to see them next year.

  14. Thanks for a beautiful article, about this brave soul. In this season of giving thanks, I am thankful, for what you, and Old Friends are doing for champions like Wally, and the not so famous, Leave Seattle. Thanks once again.

  15. Susan

    Hi Val,
    You need to compile your writings about each horse into a book and have it published…it would be a best seller!! I can’t believe it’s already been 6 weeks since my visit, and I’m wishing to come back already! I’m glad Wallenda is happy and comfortable! I’m so thankful that I discovered Old Friends several years ago…what a special blessing it has made to my life! Happy Thanksgiving to you and everyone, human, equine and canine too!!!

  16. Dawn

    Val, I loved your article about Wallenda. He holds a special place in my heart, as I saw his Blue Grass Stakes in person. Please give him some lovin’ from me. 🙂 Is he allowed any visitors at the Annex?

  17. colmel

    As a former Georgian (and huge fan of Dogwood and Cot and Anne Campbel), I thought I’d add that Karl Wallenda did his famous high wire act across Tallulah Gorge (a “gulch”) in Georgia. Cot started Dogwood in Georgia with the hope (like all of us) that horse racing would be approved in the state. Obviously, they still haven’t seen the light – but I digress. Cot loved to name his horses after things “Georgia.” I loved it when Gulch arrived, but his naming of Wallenda was a tour de force! Tallulah Gorge is still a wild and beautiful place but amazingly strong place. Karl Wallenda crossed it on a high wire – your Wallenda embodies it – beautiful and resilient.

  18. Val
    Would it be possible next time I’m there to visit Wallenda?

  19. Sharman Woll

    Val, thanks for sharing that story. The tears are running down my face. The courage that horse shows, is a lesson in life for all of us. God Bless Wallenda, and I hope, he has a few more yrs left. What a real trouper he is…….next time you see him – if he lets you – give him a hug from me – with a carrot or peppermint if he still likes them !!! 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing this!!!
    Sharman 🙂

  20. oldfriendsblog

    Wow. So many comments and questions. Thank you! Couple answers: first, I’m not sure how visitation to the new annex might work since it isn’t right next door to the main farm. In addition, we try very much to keep Wallenda away from tours and regular treats. He just gets too excited and bouncing around isn’t good for him! Having said that, he does allow me to give him the occasional kiss and I will happily pass those along to him!

  21. kathy Breakall

    Thanks, is there a caretaker at the annex?
    Have a blessed Thanksgiving, you at OF are the keepers of the treasures.
    klb

    • oldfriendsblog

      yes, all of our farm horses have regular caretakers and receive daily, professional care. However tour guides, myself included, are all volunteers. Tours are scheduled daily at 10am, 1 and 3 pm through our office, at 502-863-1775. We greatly appreciate reservations, especially headed into the winter season. -Val

  22. Lisa A.

    Thank you for writing something that confirms what I believe to be true in my 27 year old gelding: despite the infirmities and surely the discomfort he must feel from chronically bad feet and arthritic hind legs, my ol’ Petey still enjoys his life, just like Wallenda. He still enjoys looking over the view from his paddock, he still enjoys the few strides he can manage of a brief gallop (and sometimes a kick!) on a brisk morning, he loves to play with my young gelding, and he still has his “sense of humor”. His weight is good, his eyes are bright, and he attacks his food voraciously. And so, I won’t put him down. I can see some days are obviously more painful than others, but he enjoys his life so much, I feel strongly that he’d rather be alive, even with some aches and pains. Good for OF for seeing the same in Wallenda.

  23. Barbara McGlothern

    As always heartfelt, loving and caring. We are all thankful for you, Val, and all at Old friends. Have a good Thanksgiving!

  24. Charlie Pigg

    Thanks, Val. Wallenda is so blessed to have you. His story is so remarkable. And thanks to Michael, Janet, Kent, Dr. Fraley…everyone at Old Friends who participate in his wonderful care. He’s the toughest of all

  25. Anne

    What a fabulous story of love, Val. Wallenda will always be remembered by the readers of your blog with heartful foundness and tons of love for a horse with an incredible heart of his own.
    It reminds me of my times I was fortunate enough to visit D’Accord. He too had some gimpy legs and knees but was never afraid to show off. Our last visit unfortunately was our last. His knees just gave out. How lucky I was in sharing his last bday.. He was so funny. They had a cake and balloons…he saw the balloons on his way out of his stall and freaked out… “what the heck”… you could hear in his mind… then we showed him the bday cake and at that moment he knew we were all terrrorists and headed for the back corner of his paddock after a “scary’ photo shoot for him. The cake was closer than he wanted it to be. Ha! Normally he loved listening to the clicking noises of the camera.
    We all laughed as he kept his eyes on us as we gave the cake to some mares in another paddock….well tried to give it to other mares…One felt it was HER cake… when the cake was finished…he then ended his watchful eye on the freaks with the cake. It was something I will never forget.
    They have such personalities.. Wallenda’s age proves his determination and will to live and enjoy his treats and best friend, YOU, Val.
    Thanks for sharing.

  26. Carolyn from Indiana

    Val – Thank you soooooo much for the posts. I anxiously await them each week. Being old enough to know what the name Wallenda means, this horse had an immediate connection w/me. Now, that I know “the rest of the story”, he has taken on another dimension of greatness. Please give him a hug for me. Thank you for all you and every volunteer and staff member does for these oh so deserving champions. Have a blessed holiday!

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