He broke my heart twice.
I found him as a 5-year-old at Alex Robertson’s barn. I had gone to look at a mare who wasn’t for me and Alex asked me if I wanted to try Zuni. I thought he was a big pony, but when they put the tack on him he flicked his feet and arched his neck.
As soon as I sat on him I was completely smitten. Forget about the fact he looked like he was put together by a committee and had the longest pasterns imaginable. A week later he was in my barn in Oldwick, N.J.
He was showing first level and schooling changes and though he had trouble with the right change, he was right where he needed to be at that age. I showed him at first and second level with a great show record, so much so that we were considered the one to beat by the other competitors at most shows when we entered the ring.
But that right lead change was not happening, and none of the trainers who worked with him were able to get it either.
Enter the vets.
First I found out he had a heart murmur. Scary but manageable. But then the prognosis got progressively worse. Zuni was neurologic—he couldn’t really back up and was compensating for a neck problem that looked pretty bad on X-rays. No wonder he couldn’t get those lead changes!
We shipped him home from Florida with the plan to take him to Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center Hospital (Pa.) where the neurologist could do more advanced radiographs to determine what was going on. But the trip home nearly killed him as the next morning after shipping in I found Zuni crouched down in the back of his stall barely able to move.
Dr. Rachel Gardner from Brendan Furlong’s clinic showed up for the emergency call and instead of putting him down—which is what I was pretty sure she would recommend—she gave him enough steroids to get him down to New Bolton a few days later. Pasture sound. That was what I was told to expect. Turn him out for a year and see. The neck was arthritic and would eventually remodel. Maybe he could be ridden again if it didn’t impinge on the spinal cord, which was what was happening at that point.
He was only 7 years old and I was completely brokenhearted over him.
He went out with my young horses and I tried not to look at him much for that year. I had shed enough tears over losing the ride on this horse. At least he was fat and happy. So with high hopes after a year, we lunged for a couple of weeks and called the vet back in. Still neurologic. I was done—really brokenhearted this time. It was too hard to think this horse would ever be more than a pasture ornament. When my friend Sue Sell was looking for a pasturemate for her retiree, I gave her Zuni as a companion. She and her daughter loved him and he became part of their “family.”
After a couple of years, Sue started telling me how good he looked running around the field. I agreed but tried to explain how he wasn’t safe to ride—that he could fall at any time with his bad neck and it wasn’t worth the risk. She finally gave up talking to me and instead sent me a picture of Zuni standing straight up on his hind legs in a hi-ho Silver move that certainly didn’t look like a horse with no balance. I called the vet.
Dr. Kit Miller came in armed with all Zuni’s history, took some new X-rays and told me to lunge him for a couple weeks then he would be back. That was the new beginning for Zuni. He spent the winter at my farm getting legged up by Katie Patton, my farm manager, while I was in Florida.
I came home in April thinking he might be a good lesson horse as he was always was super comfortable. At the end of the first ride I was beaming from ear to ear exclaiming just how cute he was. Two months later we trotted down the centerline at Saugerties (N.Y.) and by the end of the test I was sobbing, overwhelmed that one of my all time favorites, my “heart horse,” was back showing after five years of being in a field.
I showed Zuni second level all last year and he was back in the ribbons consistently enough that we decided to teach him his changes—not an easy task for a 12-year-old who had a fused neck! Both my current trainers, Gabriel Armando and Allyn Schiavone, worked hard to get him to not panic about that right lead change, and slowly he started to get them much more consistently. Over the winter I started showing him third level and would get the changes sometimes—but not confirmed enough to be reliable in the show ring.
Regardless, I decided to take him to regionals, where I knew he not only needed to get his changes, but also be put together in a third level frame. All of this seemed impossible at first. It took at least a year to put real muscle on him and with both a long body and funky neck, how could I ever expect Zuni to really be able to do this level of work?
But this truly lovable guy came out every day and basically said OK—I’ll try as hard as I can, so the two of us kept working at it to see where we could go.
Somehow we qualified for regionals where we put it together enough to end up in eighth place—leading the victory gallop around the arena. And the biggest bonus was a wildcard qualifying score for the U.S. Dressage Nationals.
So Zuni is going to Kentucky, where we don’t expect to win, but we will be there along with all the other finalists. And it’s Zuni, so I’ve learned you never know what to expect.
Of all the horses I’ve owned, Zuni is certainly not the fanciest or the prettiest. He still looks like an overgrown pony, and while he is “cute” under tack he is not a head-turner by any means.
But I get on this horse every day and come away knowing I’ve gotten another gift—another ride on Zuni I never thought would happen and I come away with a smile. You just never know.
Want to follow along with the U.S. Dressage Finals? The Chronicle will be there!