My Blind Knabstrupper

Frej competing in Dressage at Lexington in 2016. Photo by Pics of You

It’s easy to pick a Knabstrupper out of the crowd.  The Danish breed is an instant head-turner, featuring beautiful and unique coloring, from solid to full leopard spotted coats, and everything in between.  We are celebrating this breed as our April Breed of the Month on YourDressage! Join us all month long as we celebrate Knabstruppers with photo galleries and exclusive stories!

Dressage riders who choose Knabstruppers as their mounts are eligible for special awards through the Adequan®/USDF All Breeds Awards program as the Knabstrupperforeningen for Danmark (KNN) is a participating organization.

We recently asked our social media followers to share stories about what makes these horses so special.  Here, a Region 1 rider shares the story of her Knabstrupper, who suddenly lost his sight in a battle with Uveitis, but through perseverance, determination, and love, now acts as an advocate for both his breed and his disability.

By Sophia Martina

There have been many times that I have been asked to write about Frej and our story. While it sounds like a good idea, I am always fearful I will fall short in conveying how truly incredible and amazing this horse is. So here is my best shot at putting everything down on paper.

I, unfortunately, cannot remember the exact day I met Frej (pronounced like “Fray”), but I know it was in 2013. At the time, I was working as a stable hand at Cedar Creek Stables in Virginia. This horse farm, owned by Dr. Melyni Worth, is a private boarding facility, but also Dr. Worth’s personal breeding farm for a rare breed of horse known as the Knabstrupper. The Knabstrupper is valued for their exceptional temperament, trainability, and amateur-friendly nature, on top of their beautiful and colorful coat patterns. In the early 2000s, Dr. Worth imported several Knabstruppers from Denmark and Germany to start up her US breeding program. Frej happened to be one of the first that came over from Denmark. Frej was a gangly 3-year-old when he crossed the pond. I don’t know a lot about his early years, but he eventually went on to be sold as a jumper. One thing Frej always loved to do was jump, even up to the time he went blind.

Frej back when he had eyes

Fast forward a few years, and one might wonder how he ended up back at Cedar Creek. Sadly, the story I have been told as to how he made it back home was not a happy one. Frej ended up in the hands of someone who, in my opinion, did not deserve him. This horse is by far one of the goofiest horses I’ve ever met. He loves people and is incredibly kind and gentle. He is literally The Gentle Giant in horse form. So, when Dr. Worth got a call from his current owner saying she was going to put Frej down unless Melyni agreed to take him back, it came as a shock. Supposedly, her reason was that Frej was dangerous and nasty. A little side note about Melyni: when she sells any of her horses, she always makes it known that they can come back to her if they need to retire. She doesn’t want to see them end up in kill pens and, for this reason, she adds this to her sales agreements. Thus, this is how and why Frej ended up back home at Cedar Creek and how he ended up coming into my life.

Upon his return to the farm, we were pleased to find that Frej didn’t, and still doesn’t, have a mean bone in his giant goofy body! Once home, the trainer got on him a few times just to make sure he wasn’t going to pull anything. However, very quickly, she found out he was still the sweet and kind goofball that left so many years ago. The trainer had quite a lot of horses in training with her, so she really didn’t have the time to ride Frej, so she talked to Dr. Worth about letting me take over the ride. The rest is history. I fully and wholeheartedly fell head over heels for Frej. He was this massive horse that had a heart just as big.

I have been riding since I was six. Over the years, I had done a little bit of everything. Growing up, I had ridden in the world of Hunter/Jumpers and Eventing. Nothing crazy, as I was a timid rider that definitely dealt with anxiety and fears. Many times, my anxiety could be so crippling that it kept me from doing things I loved. Of all the things Frej did for me, not only as a rider but also in my daily life, the best was helping me deal with my anxiety and fears. He gave me confidence because he was confident and always took life by the horns. He always made me laugh (and still does) and learn that it’s okay to make mistakes. He also taught me that, as long as you are having fun and doing your best, nothing else really matters. Frej helped me go from that scared rider, who always sat in the back trying to stay out of sight, to a rider who learned to face her fears and reach outside of her comfort zone. For this I can never thank Frej enough!

Frej without eyes but still handsome as ever. Photo by Bethany Grace Photography

Frej and I continued to grow as a team. While we were never the best at anything, we enjoyed all we did. We evented a little bit (nothing crazy) and dabbled in dressage. Frej even helped me get my First Level scores towards my USDF Bronze Medal. Unfortunately, in August 2016, Frej was officially diagnosed with recurrent uveitis. In the beginning, he wasn’t really bothered by it. Occasionally, he would have a flare up, but his symptoms and pain were easily managed with prescription eye ointments. Hindsight is 20/20, but what I wouldn’t give to have known in the beginning just how serious of a disease uveitis is. Maybe I could have done more, or been more proactive about everything, but that is something I personally try not to dwell on. It wasn’t until March 2017 that I found out Frej had already lost sight in one of his eyes. Frej and I had taken a trip to our local veterinary clinic to have a bump on his hind leg looked at and to have an ultrasound done. Dr. Kelly Stoneburner, DVM, who I have known for many years, was performing the ultrasound for me. I happened to ask her to have a look at Frej’s right eye because it was pretty red, and I hadn’t been able to get it under control with his eye ointments, so I was a little concerned about it.  She did a thorough exam and looked at me and said, “You know he’s blind in this eye, right?” Shock doesn’t even come close to what I felt. There was no way he could be blind. We were still doing everything we had done before, including jumping. Frej had never skipped a beat or indicated he couldn’t see out of one side of his head. I will never forget this day; it will probably always be the day that officially started our journey with uveitis.

Frej strikes a pose. Photo by Bethany Grace Photography

Frej and I will forever be grateful to Dr. Stoneburner for all she did for us during the long battle with this ailment. She was the one who really helped us get through everything. She was proactive and incredibly supportive, and for that I cannot thank her enough. She recommended Frej go to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, to get a cyclosporine implant in his remaining “good” eye (his left eye). Since uveitis is a bilateral disease, we knew his left eye would eventually be affected, but our hope was to prolong his sight in the eye. Dr. Stoneburner was able to help us get an appointment by the end of March, and off to Blacksburg Frej and I went. Thankfully, Frej was accepted as a recipient of the cyclosporine implant, and we scheduled the surgery for May 2, 2017.

Frej made it through surgery beautifully, and the vet staff at Virginia Tech took exceptional care of him. The implant was put in, but it would take a bit of time to determine when it would start working, if at all. Frej was sent home to the farm, and we had a follow up appointment in June. After two weeks of stall rest and a recheck by Dr. Stoneburner, he was released for turnout and allowed to go back to his normal routine. Everything seemed fine, and thankfully the implant seemed to be working, because Frej had no flare ups in that eye. June 14 rolled aroun,d and we went back up to Virginia Tech for his final recheck. We were given the okay that everything seemed to be working as it should. The vets said the implant definitely seemed to be working, and it could last up to six years! So, they hoped they wouldn’t want or need to see us again for a long time, even though Frej quickly became the students’ favorite. Virginia Tech is a teaching hospital, so many of the vet students got to follow along with Frej’s surgery and recovery. Frej and I went home thinking we may have finally gotten this disease under control; however, we were sadly mistaken.

Fast forward a week to June 21, 2017. Dr. Stoneburner came out to Cedar Creek for shots. Frej was on the list, per usual, as were all the other horses at the farm. Frej was given his normal vaccines, including his lepto vaccine which he had received previously and on a regular basis. The lepto vaccine is given to horses to help prevent uveitis. We already knew that Frej had uveitis, but Dr. Stoneburner and I had asked Virginia Tech if we should still be giving him the vaccine. They felt it would be a good thing for him to have because they hoped it would aid in keeping Frej’s uveitis in check. They hoped his own immune system would continue fighting off the disease, and then the cyclosporine implant would help keep the flare ups controlled. Sadly, this was definitely not the case and June 26, 2017 will forever be burned into my memories.

I want to start off by saying that I do NOT lay any blame on Dr. Stoneburner or Virginia Tech Veterinary Hospital for what happened to Frej. All of their actions were only in Frej’s best interest, and what happened was something that no one could have foreseen. Five days after Frej received his lepto vaccine, he had a serious immune response that resulted in a uveitis flare so severe that his left eye was destroyed in a matter of days. He was left completely blind. I still remember that day like it was yesterday. I remember walking into the barn and hearing Frej scream. That is the best way I can describe it, and to this day, I hope I never hear it again. All the other horses were in, so I had no idea why he would be so upset or sound so full of fear. I walked around the corner to his stall and saw him spinning and crashing into the walls. I called his name, and the whinny that he returned broke my heart. He was clearly scared. I ran over to his stall and instantly it hit me that he couldn’t see. He was frantic and very upset. After getting a hold of him and helping him calm down, I took a look at his “good” eye. It had shrunk into his head and was red and inflamed. I waved my hand in front of his eye and there was no reaction, no blinking, nothing. I just cried. I called Dr. Stoneburner immediately and told her Frej was blind. Luckily, she was very close by and rushed over as fast as she could. I knew it wasn’t good when she turned to me with tears in her eyes. I don’t really remember her confirming my fears that he was blind. My world had gone numb, and I just cried. I was so upset because we had done so much to try to save Frej’s sight, but it was all in vain. I felt that, in the end, uveitis had won. We were out of options, Frej would forever be blind, and it broke my heart. To think he would never be able to see the sun or the stars broke me. I have to thank Dr. Stoneburner again for not only helping Frej through this rough time, but for also helping me, especially mentally. She helped us move forward and to see the positive that at least Frej is still alive. Frej’s left eye was extremely painful and ended up producing three large ulcers. While Dr. Stoneburner and I couldn’t save Frej’s eyesight, we could at least make him comfortable again and help ease the pain.

It did not take Frej long to adjust to his blindness. I think it took me longer to accept it than it took him. My new goal was to make sure he could live a happy and pain-free life, but it wasn’t going to be easy. I would say Frej was fully adjusted to his new world in about two months. Thankfully, he has a very relaxed disposition, and I truly think this is what helped him adapt so quickly. Of course, he still bumped into walls, but he quickly learned to use his other senses to navigate this new world. In July, Frej went back to Virginia Tech. Dr. Stoneburner had been in contact with them, as well as the vaccine company, about what had happened. We hoped we could at least learn something from what happened, and maybe Frej’s experience could help other horses dealing with uveitis. Thus, Frej went back up to Virginia Tech so that they could pull DNA samples, blood, lepto titers, and many other samples to hopefully provide insight as to why this all took place. I am proud to say that shortly after Frej’s experience, the vaccine company changed their label to say that it is not recommended for horses that already have uveitis. I like to think Frej had a part in making that happen, and hopefully preventing other horses from going through what he did.

Frej and Afton

However, life is hard and time keeps going, no matter what happens. Frej and I now had to learn to adjust to this new life. Frej does, and has done, so much for me, and I couldn’t give up on him now. We slowly started to go back to normal. I eventually decided to try riding him again. Those first few rides were nerve-racking. It’s not every day you can say you go cantering around on a horse that cannot see at all. However, I am proud to say that now, if you didn’t know he was blind, you would never guess it by looking at him. He is so confident, and we are able to do so much together, all things considered. Over the years, I have had Frej’s eyes removed. They were still causing him pain, even after he couldn’t see out of them. After having his eyes removed, you would have thought he gained 10 years on his life. Plus, I achieved my goal of making sure he would be happy and pain-free . May 2022 will mark five years since Frej went completely blind, and this June he will turn 20 years old. Over the years, Frej and I were able to work up to schooling Fourth Level dressage. While Frej is not the most athletic creature on the planet, what he lacks in ability, he makes up for in heart. I definitely wouldn’t say we were “good” at Fourth Level, but we were trying. Considering I never thought Frej could ever get up to that level, to say he did it while being completely blind speaks volumes. I decided at the end of 2021 to officially retire Frej from dressage. He is now enjoying his retirement, happily going on trail rides a couple times a week and living his days out with his best friend and pasture mate, Afton. While Frej never turned up lame, I had started to notice that he was getting uncomfortable at the level and with the intensity of the work. So, I decided to let him continue out his days (hopefully many more of them) sound and comfortable living his best life possible.

While Frej’s story may be considered sad, I don’t think of it that way. I like to think of it as a story of perseverance, determination, and love. Frej and I couldn’t have gotten through this struggle without the love and support of friends and family. However, I think the one helped us the most was Dr. Stoneburner, and Frej and I will be eternally grateful for all she did. I now hope that Frej can be an advocate not only for the Knabstrupper breed but also for blind horses. Being blind is not the end of the road, and Frej feels like he is anything but limited! I also hope the data and information collected from Frej’s experience can be used to help prevent and maybe one day find a cure for uveitis.

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