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.