Sweet Seniors! In October on #YourDressage, we are celebrating the special horses in our lives that are ages 20 and up through photo galleries and exclusive stories. Join us all month long as we celebrate the ‘Golden Oldies’ of the dressage community!
By Jennifer Bruni
It was March 2021.
Phone calls at 7:30 AM on a Saturday morning are rarely a good thing.
“Toby’s down. It’s bad. Get here quickly.”
Stacey, the barn manager at the small private farm where I board my two Thoroughbreds, is one of the most no-nonsense people I know, but it was easy to hear the stress in her voice as I groggily answered the phone. It was enough to bolt me awake and out of bed, even at 6.5 months pregnant. After a few minutes scrambling to get dressed, my husband, Joe, and I were on the way to the barn.
We found my older gelding, Toby, down in his stall. He was in obvious distress and pain, but still scrambled to his feet when I asked him to stand. Stacey had already administered banamine and my vet had been called, but Toby was still seriously struggling. He let me clip his lead rope to his halter and followed me, staggering, out of his stall.
I had barely gotten him out of the barn when his knees buckled and he went down again, rolling in pain. He briefly cast himself against the side of the barn, but managed to stand once again. Our arena, full of soft sand, was just a few feet away and I wanted to get him to an area that would be a bit safer and open if he kept collapsing.
My vet was unfortunately tied up with an emergency with another client, but continued to check on us by phone. “Give the banamine a little time to work,”he advised, “no need to panic yet.” It was almost impossible for me NOT to panic. Toby had always been a very stoic horse that I had to watch carefully for signs of pain. When he had colicked before, small-intestine enteritis in late 2011 and two minor gas colics over the years, his symptoms had been anything but dramatic: becoming listless and going off of his feed, but never collapsing and rolling. Seeing him struggling so much was frightening.
Toby is a 21 year old off-the-track Thoroughbred gelding that I had purchased as my first horse in 2011. Registered with the Jockey Club as Royal Beau, he had won a handful of races in his youth in small, short, claiming races before going through the New Vocations program. To the best of my knowledge, he had one owner before me, a very kind lady named Alverna. We stay in touch about Toby to this day. Though not gifted in the conformation department (he is the definition of downhill), Toby let me begin my journey in dressage, as well as dip my toe into the world of eventing. He had taught me a lot over the years: the benefits of not jumping ahead, how important it was to ride correct transitions, the joy of riding a smooth and fluid dressage test, and of course, why we should avoid the evil horseflies (bucking, lots of bucking).
When Toby had made it clear that the cross-country phase of eventing was not something he particularly enjoyed, I made the decision to shift our focus to dressage. As things usually go, life happens, and our progress took a backseat to job changes, barn changes, getting married, and other life events for a few years. In 2019, we were able to really buckle down and spent the year showing in our local schooling show series. We ended the season as Champions of the senior Training Level division for the Queen City Dressage Circuit including high point winner of Training Level at the Walnut Creek Sunny Daze Series. We were prepping for a move up to First Level, but then … COVID. 2020 was a bust for pretty much everyone, but in the fall of 2020, my husband and I learned that I was pregnant. While we were ecstatic, it was not a very easy pregnancy, and it meant riding was going to take a backseat to life for a bit longer.
We continued to wait for some sign that the banamine was giving Toby some relief, but it never came. My vet was still unavailable to come out and see Toby personally, but advised me that with what we were seeing, we probably had two options: haul Toby to one of the equine hospitals for specialist care and possible surgery or saying our goodbyes. Toby is a family member (Toby can do no wrong in my husband’s eyes) and after a very brief discussion, we decided we wanted to give Toby every chance we could. Living in Cincinnati, Ohio, we have several very well-regarded vet clinics within 1.5-2 hours drive time, including Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital where Toby had been treated back in 2011. Within minutes, we were on the road.
We made good time to Lexington, Kentucky, and I was grateful for the lack of traffic on a dreary Saturday morning. Rood and Riddle staff met us as soon as we pulled in, and we opened the trailer door to find Toby down again. I think he knew we brought him somewhere that would help as he quickly got to his feet and went into the examination bay. Due to COVID precautions, we couldn’t follow him, but waited anxiously in our truck. It was only minutes, but time felt like it was crawling while we waited for an update.
Dr. Brett Woodie soon came to our truck and explained that Toby was quite sick and ultrasound tests showed a problem with the intestine. They would need to do surgery to determine the exact problem and possible treatment. He explained that, yes, Toby was 20 years old, but he was in great shape, great condition, had no fever, and was a good candidate for surgery. We were determined to give Toby a chance and gave the go ahead for an exploratory surgery.
Again, we waited. Not knowing was incredibly hard, but I trusted Dr. Woodie. He had been the vet who treated Toby in 2011, and I felt we were in good hands. I cannot even recall how much time passed before they came to get us and let us come to the doorway to the surgical bay for an update. Dr. Woodie had found a hernia that had strangulated a section of intestine. About 8 feet had been choked off and the tissue was dying. 8 feet sounded so dire to us, but Dr. Woodie was confident that, barring any complications, Toby would do fine with a resection. We could see a glimpse of Toby and my heart broke. We agreed to let him continue and resumed our anxious waiting.
We went to a nearby restaurant and half-heartedly tried to eat something while we waited for the phone to ring. I updated friends, including Toby’s previous owner, with what we knew. The call finally came – the surgery went just like Dr. Woodie hoped and now they were just waiting to help him out of the anesthesia. We headed home with the assurance that they would continue to update us.
After 8 days, and only one minor setback when Toby got uncomfortable and they needed to treat some signs of discomfort, he was able to be discharged to continue his recovery at home. Toby walked on the trailer with enthusiasm and energy, and (whether it was pregnancy hormones or not) I couldn’t help but cry tears of joy that my Toby was coming home. Toby’s recovery at home was textbook. He didn’t care at all about being on stall rest while his barn buddies got to go outside to enjoy the spring grass. He definitely walked out of his stall with a pep in his step when we went out to hand graze, but he was the model patient.
Toby was able to return to work just as I was due with my son, so he got to enjoy an extended time off while we welcomed our new addition. Soon, I was able to bring Toby’s new rider to the barn and my son took an immediate liking to Toby and my other gelding, Sammy. As my son has gotten a bit older, I’ve been able to spend more time in the saddle working to get us both back in shape. Finally, this summer, Toby and I finally entered a local schooling show riding First Level Test 1 and 2. Our scores weren’t anything to write home about, but we won (in a class with one other rider) Test 1 and came in third in Test 2. He was the same horse he was when we last showed, and I didn’t care what the result was, I couldn’t stop smiling that my best friend had made it back to the show ring.
I am beyond grateful that the successful surgery gave us Toby back, regardless of whether he ever returned to the ring. Toby turned 21 this year, and we will continue to see where we can go with our dressage for as long as he is willing.