Marching to the Beat of Our Own (Bongo) Drum

Bongo and I at Loch Moy Dressage, August 2020. (Photo by Tara Jelenik photography)

Pony power!!  This month on YourDressage, we are celebrating ponies of all breeds.  Dressage riders who choose ponies as their mounts are eligible for many Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards as there are several pony organizations on our Participating Organization list.  Here, a Region 1 rider shares about her pony Bongo, who became a pillar for her during her cancer diagnosis.  

By Amy Parsons

It was early 2019.  I was 58 and had always thought that “someday” I would buy myself a “fancy dressage horse,” but it never seemed to be the right time. I had earned my USDF Bronze Medal on Bee, my hot little Thoroughbred mare, and we were working towards our silver but she was getting older. I thought if I was going to buy a weanling, the time is now. And if I bought a weanling, I would need to find him a pasture mate, because Bee might be intolerant of an obnoxious playful baby horse.

Bee 2019, Morven Park. (Photo by Tara Jelenik photography)

After some study and observation at competitions, I fell in love with Davos CF  (an Oldenburg GOV) and I purchased Darby CF as a foal in April 2019. (Davos CF x SPS De Lovely) (Darby CF, 2019 Davos CF/Doremello/Rubinstein colt )

DARBY CF (photo by Nancy Holowesko) June 2019

Darby was weaned at Crosiadore Farm, and came to my farm in mid-October 2019.  I started looking for a pony buddy for him. I called around and found that Loudoun Therapeutic Riding had a pony that they would be returning to Middleburg Humane because he failed his job interview with them! I thought, “he sounds PERFECT.”

I called Middleburg Humane and asked about fostering him, had an interview, and later a farm inspection. Then, I went and picked him up. 

Middleburg Humane gave me his history. His name was Bongo.  Bongo was  born in 2013 at a pony farm that bred Ponies of the Americas (POA). The owner became elderly and could no longer care for him or the other 20 ponies at the farm, and they had been roaming freely on the farm for several years. They were all surrendered to several different rescues in 2014. Bongo was adopted by a pony farm in my area and used as a lead line pony until 2019. He was given back to Middleburg Humane, Middleburg Humane sent him over to Loudoun Therapeutic, he failed his interview with them, and so ended up with me. He was 6 years old by this time. 

I brought him to my farm on October 25, 2019. While trying to load him in my trailer the day I picked him up, I could see that he had learned a few pony tricks that would need to be addressed.

Bongo and Darby in October 2019

I released him into Darby’s field and after a few mutual inspections, they turned and ran off together. Instant pals. Bongo immediately assumed the boss position and started teaching Darby some manners.

Then, life decided to interfere with my plans. In December 2019, I had an unexplainable pancreatitis attack. Tests revealed no cause. This began a series of tests resulting in no diagnosis, that lasted most of 2020. Tests were slow to schedule due to the COVID restrictions. I found by the process of elimination, I could reduce symptoms by avoiding all foods with fiber. My “pandemic diet” from February to September consisted of all forms of potatoes, chicken, and water. No fruit, no vegetables, no alcohol, no caffeine. I figured, as weird as that was, at least I could still ride.

Bongo was a great distraction during those times of no TP and trying to get used to the idea of wearing a mask. I concentrated on his basic training. He was the master at getting his head turned while you were leading him, and then bolting off to the barn! He refused to load into a trailer. He would try to lay on me while I was picking his hooves. He played “try to catch me” in the pasture! All of this made me laugh and think about the fun times when I used to work at a pony farm as a kid. Only THIS time I get to win instead of the pony!

By late February, I had fixed the main ground work issues. Then, winter boredom caused a “hold my beer” moment, and I thought, I wonder if I could ride him? This could end badly but at least it’s not far to the ground! As expected, steering was marginal and brakes pretty much zero, but he seemed receptive to my ideas. Then I got another crazy thought. All the shows had been cancelled, but there were some online dressage shows, maybe I could train him up for one of those. Why not? Nothing else was going on… it would give me a goal of sorts. I consulted with my dressage instructor (Shannon Bossung) as to what to do.  We started with groundwork and lunging and built from there. His pony antics made us both laugh.

In April, I tried an online dressage test, Intro Test B, I think, and he won a blue ribbon for that.  Very cute, I thought, and clipped it on his stall door.

Bongo’s First Ribbon, Spring, 2020

Later that summer we went to Loch Moy dressage, and in every photo, I have a big smile on my face because it was just FUN to ride him. There was no concern over qualifying for anything, or what score we got, it was just for fun. We were all wishing for normal times again, just happy to be at a show.

In August, I finally got a test done that showed what was going on with my pancreas but it would need surgery to fix it. It was a relief knowing it was fixable and that everything would be back to normal once that was done. It was a big surgery- they would remove half my pancreas and my spleen and they would go through my abdominal muscles to do it. The first thing I thought was, how long before I can sit the trot again?  And then lastly, wow I’m so glad they can fix this, I can eat normally again. Visions of junk food, vegetables, beer, and wine floated through my head in anticipation.

So they did the surgery in September, which went well, and I went home and began the recovery process. Two weeks later I got the biopsy report and a big surprise.

Turns out, there was a tumor hiding inside the chunk of my pancreas that they removed. What?? Everyone was surprised by that. It didn’t show on any scan that was done. The surgeon said that the tumor probably did not cause my symptoms.  So it was luck that the one issue caused the other to be found. It’s a bit freaky to think about that, so I don’t.   (It was stage 1 B, which means that it had not spread.)  They told me I was essentially cancer free at that moment. BUT.. it still meant 12 rounds of chemo because cancer cells can still be floating around even though they got the tumor.

I began chemo in November 2020. 12 rounds would take 6 months. I was so fortunate to have my friend Shannon and my husband Wayne to take over barn duties during that time.  Every other week, I would go for a chemo infusion on Wednesday, and come home with a small pump unit for an additional 2 days. Then for the next 11 days, I would wait for the side effects to fade. As time went on, the side effects took longer to fade between treatments. Sometimes I would just walk out to the barn and watch and visit while Shannon did the stalls and fed. Shannon was the only “outside person” to visit because of COVID. My immune system was pretty low due to the chemo, so I didn’t leave the farm very often. Wayne did all the shopping and was very careful. The chemo made me oddly cold sensitive- my hands and feet tingled and my muscles would contract in the cold. I couldn’t eat any cold foods. My taste buds were all “off” and food tasted metallic and “slimy”. 

I couldn’t use food as a distraction, so when able, I would bundle up like an arctic explorer and head out to the barn.

Bongo learned that I liked to fuss over him and lean on him during those times- he was very patient and would hold still for me. He was the perfect height to lean on, and I could stick my nose into his neck and smell that horse smell we all love. It was quite relaxing! And for a couple days right before the next treatment, my side effects would usually fade enough that I could ride Bongo. He was easy to handle, being small.  Riding him was my treat and really boosted my spirits. Sometimes it was just at the walk, and sometimes I’d trot a bit – I’d get about one 20m circle done, and say, ”Okay, I need to walk now.” So I’d work on everything at the walk – half halts, leg yields, turn on the forehand, turn on the haunches.  I think it actually benefited both of us to do that. He learned, and I rehabbed my core muscles. I kept positive, thinking that whatever happens, it’s just temporary and things will get better!

During one break, I put a small jump out in the arena and hopped Bongo over it. He had a nice natural jumping ability!  He would veer towards the jump every time we went by it after that.

Cadence Farm CT in May 2021. Photo by Courtney Might.

Now on chemo days,  I was laying on the couch, Googling jumping saddles, and watching FEI jumping videos on YouTube, as well as FEI dressage. I was daydreaming about Bongo and what kind of classes I could show him in as an adult amateur.  I made plans for Bee and Darby too, but Bongo had taken full control of my heart and my brain. 

My last chemo session ended on April 23d, and I entered a schooling combined training show scheduled for May 1. I figured I could always scratch. But we did it, and had a great time. Bongo’s dressage was excellent and his jumping displayed natural form as well as pony attitude when he attempted to dart out of the exit gate as we cantered past!  

The chemo side effects are slowly fading. I got my COVID vaccine! The world seems to be heading back to “somewhat normal” and me along with it. I’m getting Darby ready to be shown in hand, and Bee is slowly getting back into training. And for fun, I am trying to put together a musical freestyle for Bongo.

Bongo and I plan on going to the PVDA Ride for Life dressage show in June. It’s a fundraiser for breast cancer research. I’m excited because I get to go out of town and sleep in my trailer!  My first trip overnight in many months, how exotic.

I think it’s pretty obvious that Bongo is at his forever home now. I paid his adoption fee last year and broke the news to my husband by showing him the permanent stall plate I had ordered. He’s staying!


Leave a Reply