Take a good look at Sonnet Precious, and you probably won’t notice anything unusual. A plain bay Quarter Horse, the mare doesn’t stand out from the crowd when she competes in western dressage or at English schooling shows.
But get close enough to give “Sonnet” a pat on the neck, and you might jump back in surprise. This 13-year-old homebred mare is competing with a tracheostomy—a permanent hole cut into her trachea to allow her to breathe.
Sonnet has a long history with the MacDonald family. Alison MacDonald was 6 when her parents gave her Sonnet’s mother, Rohos Precious Honor, a backyard bred Quarter Horse turned rodeo pony. After accepting that “Opie” lacked the speed to become a professional barrel racer, MacDonald shifted to dressage upon entering high school. The MacDonalds bred Opie soon after that, and Sonnet was her second and last foal, born in 2006.
“I wanted a filly that was just like my barrel horse turned dressage horse turned driving horse turned whatever else I could possibly think of her to do,” said MacDonald. “Sonnet was a much stronger personality than Opie was, which is saying something because Opie was pretty strong-minded.”
Sonnet taught many children to ride in MacDonald’s dressage lesson program, and then in 2017, Alison and her mother, Doris MacDonald, bred Sonnet to the Andalusian stallion Ribera V. She delivered a healthy foal, Mariachi, the following May. “We noticed [Sonnet] slowing down, and we thought it was the baby; everything was changing in her,” said Alison, Pattison, Texas. “Sonnet took a big dive downhill. She wasn’t eating; she was struggling to breathe, so we took her to the vet, and they suggested either euthanasia or a tracheotomy so that she could breathe.”
Veterinarians found that Sonnet’s larynx was inflamed and coated in scar tissue from nasopharyngeal cicatrix, a rare equine disease that causes a buildup of scar tissue that restricts the airway. The disease is unique to central and southeast Texas, and while veterinarians believe it is caused by an environmental agent, they’ve yet to determine a cause or cure for it.
“Cicatrix is a disease that’s been around in the south for 20 or 30 years; it’s a disease of longevity,” said Doris, 67. “It’s a chronic problem, and some will develop it to the point where they need a trach to survive and maintain their function.”
Not wanting to lose Sonnet or orphan her 2-month-old foal, the MacDonalds opted for a tracheotomy surgery at Jordan Equine Sports Medicine & Surgery in Waller, Texas.
It was during recovery that Sonnet’s true nature was revealed.
“Sonnet, as soon as we gave her that trach, it was like she was 6 years old again,” said Alison, 32. “She went from being this dull, quiet Quarter Horse to cantering everywhere and running everywhere, and all of a sudden she was really into being ridden. She couldn’t wait to be the first one chosen.
“The healing process for the trach took a little bit longer than her mental process, but that was way harder on us than it was for her because she didn’t see anything; it didn’t appear to really hurt her,” Alison added. “It must’ve itched as it healed because she did rub out one of her stitches, but it was like buying a new horse but with a hole in her neck.”
The MacDonalds carefully manage that permanent opening. Doris wipes any dirt or sputum from it and is careful when bathing her to prevent water from entering her airway. Sonnet doesn’t get turned out in the rain.
“You can’t see [the hole],” said Doris. “It’s high up on the neck, and it’s not any louder than a horse out of shape that’s working to breathe. It’s not like roaring, so you can’t tell she’s got it.”
When Mariachi was weaned, Sonnet returned to work with an exuberant trot and canter that disqualified her from the lesson program at Alison’s MacDonald Dressage. Sonnet’s newfound passion for life led her to western dressage and also opened the door for Doris to compete for the first time.
“When the kids were growing up, if I wanted to show, then they wouldn’t have shown, and that would’ve eliminated their careers,” said Doris. “We’re not a trust fund family. Both [my husband] Rick and I are the first generations to go to college in our family, so you go to work when you’re 18; you don’t play. When our kids started riding, I funneled the lessons into them. I hoped that these girls would get skilled enough to take it to the next generation; they can open the door to horsemanship to the rest of the world. For me, until the kids finished college, the focus was on them. The last two years, I’ve really made progress in lessons.”
Doris also shows Sonnet in unrecognized dressage competitions, and the mare’s zest for life has helped Doris maneuver through the show world.
Until the tracheostomy, the MacDonald family’s affection for Sonnet had been more sentimental rather than based on her performance.
“[Sonnet] was the last foal out of my first horse as a child, so she’s got that special place in everybody’s heart,” said Alison. “Since then, she has not been according to any book. She’s opinionated, not terribly athletic; she’s been injured more times than we can count, but now that we got her a trach, she and my mother are just showing up a storm.
“She’s not your typical adult amateur horse,” Alison added. “We love her for all of her quirks, but she’s one of our most fun show horses we’ve ever had because she goes out and is just ready to horse show even though she came to it kind of late in life.”
Alison said Sonnet thinks like a cutting horse, trying to figure things out on her own rather than looking to her rider for direction. “It’s a little stronger minded than I would look for in a regular dressage horse, but we bred her out of sentiment, not necessarily for her cutting ability or dressage ability; we just loved her mom,” said Alison. “The good thing about that brain is I can take her to a horse show, and she is going to put on her horse show hat, be the best she’s ever been, better than she’s ever trained because she plays the game differently.”
In 2019, Doris and Sonnet entered the Western Dressage Association of America World Championship Show, which was held Oct. 2-6 in Parker, Colorado.
“She just got better and better because she looked around and goes, ‘I can do this,’ ” Doris said. “It was just a treat because you get a horse that loves that job, and it’s just fun.
“Each day she got better and better,” Doris continued. “There were about 45 horses in her class. By the fourth test, I wanted it so badly that I messed up a few places, and then we were back down in the middle of the pack. Had she done that test without me, she would’ve been in the top five, which is pretty amazing for a horse with not a super amount of talent. It was really fun.”
The U.S. Equestrian Federation board of directors approved a rule in June this year that prohibits horses with tracheostomies from competing, so Doris won’t be heading down centerline at a USEF-rated show, but she’s enjoying the competitive opportunities available.
“[Sonnet’s] mother was real competitive, and she’s really competitive; it was hidden for those first 10 years because now it’s night and day with her ambition,” said Doris. “She’s not a very naturally athletic horse, but she 150 percent tries. She’s willing to work harder, to make herself better than any horse—except for her mother—that we’ve had around here. It’s been just a blast for the past two years because it improved my riding to make her better, and she is willing to get better at 13 years old and not give up.”
Do you know a horse or rider who returned to the competition ring after what should have been a life-threatening or career-ending injury or illness? Email Kimberly at email@example.com with their story.