Archive for March, 2016

This will be one of the top stories in the UK racing world this year. About a horse with a heart murmur and the team that brought him back to Cheltenham — two years later.

The eye of a champion. Photo and copyright, THE GUARDIAN. Photographer:Tom Jenkins.

The eye of a champion. Photo and copyright, THE GUARDIAN. Photographer:Tom Jenkins.

If you loved Lassie, or My Friend Flicka, or Black Beauty, or The Black Stallion then you already can sense what this story’s all about. Except that it really happened. One of those cases where truth trumps fiction by a mile.

This was the scene in 2013, when one of the best horses ever was pulled up.

This was the scene in 2013 at Kempton, when one of the best horses to ever race in the British National Hunt was pulled up.

Sprinter Sacre was THE STAR of the British National Hunt from his debut in 2011 until he was pulled up by jockey Barry Geraghty at Kempton in December of 2013, half-way through the Desert Orchid Chase. The race had been billed as a showdown between the undefeated Sprinter Sacre, who had raced to victory 10 consecutive times, and another star of the chase, Sire de Grugy. Geraghty probably saved Sprinter’s life that day, because the early diagnosis was “something to do with the heart.” No-one wanted to believe it: a brilliant horse, fondly nicknamed “The Black Aeroplane,” might be finished.

The cardiac problem had, quite literally, come out of nowhere. There were no warning signs of any kind. Brilliant trainer, Nicky Henderson, would have known if something was wrong with a horse who was the Frankel of chasers. As for Sprinter’s fans around the world, one could almost hear the silence, heavy as a stone, as the great horse was led off the course.

It was this Sprinter that all were expecting to see at Kempton that day. The superstar who had most recently won the 2013 Queen Mother Chase at Cheltenham:




Barry Geraghty after SPRINTER'S 2013 win at Cheltenham:

Champion jockey,Barry Geraghty, after SPRINTER’S 2013 win at Cheltenham: “I’ve ridden some brilliant horses over the years, but it’s the ease and grace [with which] he does it that sets him apart.”

When the tests were all in, the diagnosis was an irregular heartbeat. Sprinter Sacre was put on the equine equivalent of complete bed rest. As suddenly as he had burst onto the scene in 2011, he was gone.

Trainer Henderson would refer to the next two years as “a wilderness,” stressing that Sprinter’s full recovery — if such was even possible — was to be “very, very hard on everyone involved.” Because, initially, it was thought he might be back to his winning ways within about three months, in time for Cheltenham 2014, the biggest event on the National Hunt calendar. The equivalent of the Breeders Cup or Champions Day or the Dubai Carnival for hurdlers and chasers. To win at Cheltenham is to be anointed a Champion of Champions. There’s just nothing quite like it. But there was no Cheltenham 2014 in the cards for “The Sprinter,” as the stable calls him..

SPRINTER SACRE with his groom and best friend, Sarwah Mohammed.

SPRINTER SACRE with his groom and best friend, Sarwah Mohammed.


SPRINTER SACRE with his "best girl," Hannah Maria Ryan.

SPRINTER SACRE with his “best girl,” Hannah Maria Ryan.

And so it was that two long years of hoping and praying began. Team Sprinter was formidable, including owners Raymond and Caroline Mould, equine cardiologist Celia Marr, groom Sarwah Mohammed, exercise riders Nico de Boinville and Hannah Maria Ryan, Henderson’s amazing Seven Barrows stable staff and — last but not least — the trainer himself. However, two years off for a National Hunt horse is long, since most don’t even begin their careers until the age of four or five. And The Sprinter was “on a roll” in his seventh year, often one of the best years for jumping horses. In April of 2013 he had become the first horse since the mighty Istabraq to win at all three major jumping festivals (Punchestown, Aintree and Cheltenham) and was on his way to the third highest Timeform rating ever, behind the jumping gods Arkle and Flyingbolt.

By the time The Sprinter made it back, he would be an older horse who’d been out of action for over 24 months. In how many countries do nine or ten year-old thoroughbreds still run — and win? (Note to the reader: National Hunt horses must be thoroughbreds, with the exception of the Selle Francais, who are permitted because the origin of the breed goes back to the thoroughbred. Sprinter Sacre, classified as a Selle Francais by some, is the son of thoroughbred sire, Network, and a grandson of the great Monsun. National Hunt horses typically compete until the age of ten and/or until they show that they are no longer competitive. Hurricane Fly, for example, raced until he was eleven.)

Some trainers might not have been bothered to even try. But Nicky Henderson isn’t “some” trainer. With champions like See You Then, Remittance Man, Punjabi, Binocular, Caracciola and Bob’s Worth on his CV, the Eaton graduate is considered one of the top National Hunt trainers. But the horse who had stolen hearts and raced off-the-charts for two undefeated years was, in Henderson’s view and, indeed, in the eyes of all who worked with him, set apart from all before him. Trying to bring The Sprinter back to form just wasn’t an option. But all agreed that the horse came first. Nothing new there: Nicky Henderson’s horses always come first.


SPRINTER with trainer, Nicky Henderson. Nicky is no stranger to great horses, having trained the likes of

“THE SPRINTER” with trainer, Nicky Henderson. Nicky is no stranger to great horses, having trained the likes of See You Then, Long Run, Caracciola, Bob’s Worth and Simonsig. But The Sprinter holds a very special place in his heart.

Team Sprinter must have been glad to be part of a community as they worked shoulder-to-shoulder, all the time knowing that if Sprinter wasn’t going to be safe running (i.e. in perfect health and condition), then retirement was the only recourse. And each day over twenty-four months, they had to find the courage to believe that he could come back, that he would come back. To say that the mission of bringing The Sprinter back was tricky would be an understatement of huge proportions, as Henderson indicated in February 2014:

By late in 2014, the horse’s cardiac problems had been ruled a thing of the past. But he still didn’t seem quite himself. Pivotal was young Nico de Boinville, The Sprinter’s regular exercise rider, who had a kind of special bond of his own with the 17h gelding. It was Nico who rode The Sprinter on his works, and Nico who told Henderson, “… I can’t put my finger on it, but he’s not quite right. There’s something missing.” So they soldiered on, hoping to see a glimmer of The Sprinter of old.


Nico and SPRINTER head out for a gallop. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

Nico and THE SPRINTER head out for a gallop. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.


On the gallops. Nico and SPRINTER SACRE. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

A pause on the gallops. Nico and SPRINTER SACRE. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

There were long sojourns with Nico and Hannah over the Lambourn downs, loving hands and loving words and, at last, there he was: back with the team that loved him. His first start was in January 2015 and this was how it ended:

The headlines read “Dodging Bullets Destroys Sprinter Sacre,” but that wasn’t true. Barry Geraghty stated that the horse had tired, which made a good deal of sense after not racing for two years. Nicky Henderson was quick to point out that, as a nine year-old, The Sprinter may not be the “same horse” but he had run a blinder despite his age. Next came another two races: at Cheltenham in the 2015 Queen Mother’s Chase, a tired Sprinter Sacre was pulled up. Then, at Sandown in April, he finished second to Special Tiara with Nico de Boinville riding him for the first time. As The Sprinter’s exercise rider from the very beginning, Nico was a natural partner for the horse and, although the move was precipitated by Barry Geraghty signing on as first rider for owner JP McManus, Nico had ridden himself into the spotlight as the jockey of the 2015 Hero of Cheltenham, Coneygree, in March.

Coneygree ridden by jockey Nico de Boinville after winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase on Gold Cup Day during the Cheltenham Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse, England, Friday March 13, 2015. (AP Photo/PA, David Davies) UNITED KINGDOM OUT NO SALES NO ARCHIVE

CONEYGREE and Nico de Boinville after winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase on Gold Cup Day, Friday March 13, 2015. (AP Photo/PA, David Davies)

At this point, Henderson remained optimistic and Nico reported that The Sprinter had felt most like himself since 2013 during the Sandown run. But it would also be fair to say that the jury was still out on the horse’s future and his passionate fans were beginning to suspect that his best days were behind him and mourned his demise with statements on Facebook like, “Poor boy….he’s just not the horse he used to be. Retire him, please!”

And then “…the real Sprinter Sacre” showed up, on November 15, 2015, with Nico again in the irons:

As he said, Henderson found the win “overwhelming” and was quick to note that, for the first time, The Sprinter “took” Nico to the win. Next came a re-match with his old nemesis, the wonderful Sire de Grugy, in the 2015 version of the same race — the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton — where the champion had been pulled up in 2013:

Granted, he didn’t put miles between himself and Sire Grugy to win, as The Sprinter of old might well have done. Nicky Henderson was of a mind that the Desert Orchid performance had been better, but what happened at Kempton was that The Sprinter fought back, every inch of the way, to defeat a champion chaser in Sire de Grugy. And that told the trainer that heart and courage were igniting his big gelding’s spirit.

" I can dream, can't I?" Nicky Henderson and THE SPRINTER early in 2016.

” I can dream, can’t I?” Nicky Henderson and THE SPRINTER early in 2016.

The Sprinter had weathered his 2015 season well and after consultation with the Moulds, Nico and others in his inner circle, Henderson determined to aim the big horse for Cheltenham 2016 and The Queen Mother Chase. Now, The Sprinter is a racing icon and beloved by his whole team, but he’s not a “love bug” as far as personality goes. Rather, he’s a curmudgeon….not exactly Mr. Grump, but close. So, when he started to show aggression on a regime of slower gallops, someone who knew him less well might have just chalked it up to temperament. But Nico and Henderson knew better: The Sprinter was saying that he wanted a race and wanted it badly. As the trainer pointed out, “Horses know when they’re stars and they know where they belong…in the winner’s enclosure, right at the top of the heap.”

As Racing UK reported at the end of the 2015 season, quoting Henderson:

“He is not what he was two years ago but we are creeping up there,” Henderson added. “They are two very good performances so far this year. He has done a lot of slow work, rather than fast work. It has been different. We put in a new deep sand canter and he did a lot of work in there. He does not do a lot of galloping.”

Despite one reported pre-Cheltenham work where The Sprinter looked spectacular, Henderson remained cautiously optimistic about his ten year-old champion:

March 16, 2016: the field was set for the Cheltenham Queen Mother Chase. The Sprinter was one of three ten year-olds entered, the others being Sire de Grugy and Felix Yonger. All the others were eight year-olds, including impressive jumpers like Dodging Bullets, Somersby and Un de Sceaux. Nor did The Sprinter go off as the favourite, although he clearly was THE ONE that people were there to see. Could their fallen hero triumph, joining the only horse to ever stage such a comeback: the great Moscow Flyer, who had won the Queen Mother Chase at Cheltenham in 2005 as a ten year-old?

The place went potty. The stands shuddered and shook. Trainer and jockey cried. Twitter exploded with cries of joy. Trainers like the eminent Willie Mullins showered praise on Henderson and Team Sprinter. Horses just don’t do what Sprinter Sacre had just done and everyone knew it.

The Kiss: Nico and SPRINTER SACRE in the winner's enclosure, Cheltenham 2016.

The Kiss: Nico and SPRINTER SACRE in the winner’s enclosure, Cheltenham 2016.

So thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Mould, Nicky Henderson, Nico de Boinville, Sarwah Mohammed, Hannah Maria Ryan, Barry Geraghty and the staff at Seven Barrows for taking us to Dreamworld on the back of your fabulous, fabulous horse:




For a look at Sprinter Sacre’s career from 2011-2013, including videos:




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Dedicated to the Kunz family and Susan Watt, Executive Director of Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, with love. Special thanks to Monica Mohr, Steve Leonard and Wayne at the BLM, Canon City CO for their support and kindness. To my dear friend, Jim Pettyjohn: Without your partnership in this endeavour it could all have ended in a dull whisper. 



LADY'S SECRET with BEAR WITNESS as a colt foal. Photo and copyright Steve Haskin. Used with permission of Steve Haskin.

LADY’S SECRET with BEAR WITNESS as a colt foal, with Joan and Amanda Haskin and the Glenney family. Photo and copyright Steve Haskin. Used with the written permission of Steve Haskin.




I don’t remember how I came across the news that a young couple had pulled an emaciated gelding out of a horse sale and determined that he was the son of Skip Away and Lady’s Secret.

Foaled on April 9, 2000, the colt who carried the bloodlines of Secretariat, his champion daughter and the incomparable Skip Away, came into the world at John and Kim Glenney’s farm. It was clear from his iron-metal coat that he would be a grey. But what he wouldn’t turn out to be was a racehorse. He made 16 starts and a little less that five thousand dollars (USD) before his owners, caring and good people who would eventually get out of the thoroughbred business because of what they saw happening to horses like Bear, gave the gelding to a woman who trained show jumpers. In an article published online by The Dodo, John Glenney pointed out that when it was obvious that a thoroughbred wasn’t going to run, they were given away to trusted individuals to find new careers. Potential owners were interviewed by the Glenneys to assure that the horse in question was going to the best possible home.

Bear already suffered from a condition known as EPM, and had received costly treatment throughout his time with the Glenneys. Given his medical issues, it was critical that he be given to someone who would continue his treatment.Despite all of this good intention and despite the fact that the Glenneys were nothing if not “Type A” in researching where their horses were going, “Bear” slipped through the cracks. (Having done some horse rescue myself, I need to add that the numbers of times I talked to caring, responsible owners who thought their horses had been adopted into loving homes was legion.)

It seems likely that Bear’s second owner was legitimate, but over the time he goes off the radar, changing hands numerous times until he ended up at a horse auction in Tennessee.


Not only was BEAR WITNESS starving, he was also covered in cuts and abrasions.

Not only was BEAR WITNESS starving, he was also covered in cuts and abrasions.


The young couple who saw him just couldn’t turn away. So home he came with John and Jessie Kunz.

“…It took a month for Kunz to gain the horse’s trust. ‘I couldn’t even touch his face he was so terrified,’ she said.

‘He had a big, bloody open wound on his back leg,’ Kunz said. ‘He hadn’t been fed in a month and his hooves had not been maintained — they had not been cleaned out, shoes checked, kept moist. He could barely stand or walk.’

Originally from Germany, Kunz says she had never been to a horse and tack auction, where various farm animals and gear are sold, in Tennessee before. What she saw there horrified her. Bear was covered in rain rot, a bacterial infection of the skin that causes scabbing and hair loss, from head to tail. ‘He was down from 1,400 to 500 pounds,’ Kunz said. ‘People were shocked at the cruelty. I just couldn’t stand it. I went to [Bear’s owner at the time]. He took $250 and I took Bear home.’

A month after being moved to Kunz’s care, Bear slowly started gaining weight and trusting people again.” (reprinted from THE DODO, https://www.thedodo.com/bear-witness-horse-abuse-1571398906.html)

But despite all their love and care, Bear couldn’t be saved. He fell in his paddock in October and was unable to get up. The decision was made to have him humanely euthanized. Bear Witness was 15 years old.


BEAR WITNESS with Jessie.

BEAR WITNESS with Jessie.


Learning that Bear had been put down was shattering news for the many who flocked to his FB page daily. It came as a shock that a son of the mighty Skip Away and the brilliant Lady’s Secret would be entitled to anything less than a life of care and respect, because we all want to believe that our society takes care of the horses that we love.

But John and Jessie Kunz knew better, and their grief was visceral.


In mythology, the horse stands proud. In almost every culture throughout history, horses are bestowed with greatness, honour and gifts. The Celts and Native Americans believed that horses travelled between this world and the next, carrying souls to their final resting place.


EPONA, or RHIANNON, depicted in Celtic jewelry.

Blame it on my Celtic ancestry: when a death touches me, I always long for a horse to carry that soul into its future.


My Facebook home page is always crowded with horse rescue postings, messages from lobby groups like the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition, and the work of brilliant photographers associated with different horse breeds all over the world.

It was there that I first saw her face and it stopped me in my tracks.

As in, “Drop everything, be still and just look at me.”



First encounter.....and I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

“Drop everything, be still, and just look at me.”


A bay mustang mare in a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) online auction, she had been captured in the Antelope Hills of Wyoming in 2011, when she was only a yearling. She was exquisite. The expression in her eyes reached out to me, travelling across the internet as though there was no medium dividing us. Even with a red rope hanging around her neck (she was officially # 9579), her dignity refused to be diminished. Despite coming to a place where she could only see the wild hills from behind the rails of her small paddock, she knew she was meant to be free — and so there was sorrow in those deep, dark eyes too.


She could see the hills that were forbidden....

She could see the wild hills through the paddock rails…..

As many of you know, the mustang is in terrible, terrible trouble in Canada and the United States. In the former, a handful still exist on the Prairies but they are under constant threat of being rounded up; in the latter, the BLM has been charged with the unenviable task of “gathering” wild horses all over the country as their habitat becomes increasingly overtaken by cattle ranchers. As the argument goes, since America’s mustangs were protected under federal law, they have done too well, i.e. there are too many of them. So one solution has been to gather them up and try to sell them off at online and real-time auctions. Despite a veritable city of activists and lobby groups, some mustang herds have been reduced to less that 60 individuals and others have been wiped out altogether. These “gatherings” of mustangs takes no account of genetics, making it quite likely that some important bloodlines are being removed permanently, increasing the risk of inbreeding inferior animals.


wild horse, Antelope Hills Herd Area, Wyoming, roundup, stallion, mares, foal, helicopter

Antelope Hills Herd, Wyoming, 2011: This was “my” mare’s herd and how they were “gathered.” She is quite possibly in the photo — a yearling filly, running for her life. Used with the permission of Carol Walker.



Antelope Hills Herd, Wyoming, 2011: Part of the herd in the containment chutes. Used with the permission of Carol Walker.


The mustang came to North America long before the arrival of the Spaniards, crossing the Bering straight into a new world. These “dawn horses,” as they were called, roamed free along with the American camel, sabre-toothed tiger and the wooly mammoth. The native American horse is the only animal that survives from this world.

The American mustang began as a "dawn horse" during pre-history, living on the plains with the American camel, wooly mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers.

The American mustang began as a “dawn horse” during pre-history, living on the plains with the American camel, wooly mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers.

In the face of # 9579 I saw not only dignity and sorrow, but the palimpsest of a being older than time, whose journey to me had taken place over thousands of years.


#9579 running in her paddock.

#9579 running in her paddock @ the BLM.


The plight of this mare — one of so many posted on the BLM online auction site — haunted me.

But before I could intervene, I needed to find a home for her and someone who could bid on her once I had secured a place for her to live. (Canadians are prevented from online bidding, for reasons I never looked into.) So, working with my friend, John Pettyjohn, I began to search for mustang rescues within proximity of the mare’s location. Which, in turn, led to Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in Hot Springs, South Dakota.

As I learned more about Black Hills, I knew that this was where I wanted “my” mustang mare to live. In fact, Black Hills is where I wanted to live!

The stories below, written by founder Dayton Hyde about two of Black Hills’ personalities told me more about the spirit of Black Hills than any “fact-based” documentary ever could:

And then there was Dayton’s story of Medicine Hattie:

But I learned that there was another treasure at Black Hills: Susan Watt, the Executive Director and driving force behind her partner, Dayton Hyde’s, dream. Without Susan’s vision, expertise and skill, Black Hills today might have looked very different. But under her guidance, the Sanctuary thrives as well — or better — than most non-profits. And a good thing too. Because if there’s one thing she can count on, it’s the calls Susan gets every day about horses needing rescue. So when I called, she wasn’t surprised to hear my request.


Executive Director SUSAN WATT, who brings vision and strategic planning to Dayton Hyde's dream.

Executive Director SUSAN WATT, who brings vision and strategic planning to Dayton Hyde’s dream.

Having worked for a number of non-profits during my career, I understood “the basics” they all share, the central one being the constant search for funding. I suspect that Susan was relieved to find that Jim and I were prepared to sponsor our mare, once we had purchased her. And so this amazing woman from South Dakota and two people she had never met, one from Montreal and the other from Portland, began to plot the adoption and return to freedom of mare #9579.

And then there were two: #8869, a mare of the same age also gathered from the same herd, turns out to be #9979's best friend.

And then there were two: #8869, a mare of the same age, gathered from the Divide Basin herd in Wyoming, turns out to be #9579’s best friend.

Jim and I sent more money than was needed to secure # 9579 and Susan suggested we look into whether or not the mare had a best friend. Sure enough, she did. It was another bay mare, with a bit of white on her hind leg, who had been captured the same year from the Divide Basin herd of Wyoming. So we bought her as well.

This all happened in November 2015. It would take until March 2016 for the best friends to set foot on the vast reaches of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota.



Once we had “our girls” and had secured the best home in the world for them, Jim and I decided that they should be named in honour of Bear Witness.

We named the first mare Maya Littlebear and asked John and Jessie Kunz to name her BFF. The name they chose was Felicitas Witness aka “Tassy.”

MAYA LITTLEBEAR (foreground) and FELICITAS WITNESS (bay mare in background, looking into the camera) shown together @ the BLM in Canon City, Colorado. They arrived at Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary on March 10, 2016.

MAYA LITTLEBEAR (foreground) and FELICITAS WITNESS (bay mare in background, looking into the camera) shown together @ the BLM in Canon City, Colorado. They arrived at Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary on March 10, 2016.

Maya and Tassy: carry Bear into your future and anoint him with your joy. You are his eagle feathers.

(“Prairie Lark Gets Her Eagle Feather” filmed at Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary)



Take a tour of the amazing Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary on their website or (below) on video: http://www.wildmustangs.com







Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary


“What Happens To Racehorses Who Never Win?” at The Dodo: https://www.thedodo.com/bear-witness-horse-abuse-1571398906.html

Wild Hoofbeats: Carol Walker


Bureau of Land Management, Canon City, Colorado










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