The holiday season is officially upon us, but Sarah MacHarg needs no extra reminders to be thankful this year.
She has spent the past six months watching her Thoroughbred gelding Great Minds defy the greatest of odds, overcoming an intra-articular joint infection so severe that most veterinarians suggested he wouldn't be able to survive.
“He is larger than life and commands the attention of everyone around him,” MacHarg said. “I felt it wasn't my call to make to put that type of horse down. He had to make it perfectly clear that is what he wanted, and he never wavered in wanting to live.”
The 8-year-old son of Stroll is a graded stakes winner who earned over $443,560 on the track, and when he retired from racing MacHarg was the first in line to re-train the handsome dark bay gelding for a second career.
She operates Passport Sport Horses out of Lexington, Ky., which specializes in selecting, re-training and re-homing off-track Thoroughbreds at the end of their racing careers. MacHarg has been remarkably successful: in 2019, one of her program's graduates won the Competitive Trail division and placed second in the Ranch division at the Retired Racehorse Project's Thoroughbred Makeover, and another grad finished third overall in the Showjumping division.
“Horses are my life,” MacHarg explained. “They enable me to spend my days outside, working hard, being healthy. They keep me humble, elevate me to emotional highs. They are my everything.”
Great Minds' athleticism made him a great prospect when he arrived at her farm in mid-2019, but he had some recurring pressure in his front ankle.
The gelding's intelligence, coupled with his exuberant antics in the pasture, left no doubt that he wanted a job. After external therapies proved ineffective and a full set of radiographs came back clean, MacHarg and her veterinary team elected to relieve his pressure with a joint injection.
Unfortunately, Great Minds developed a serious infection in the joint. The horse had to be taken to Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital for treatment in July, and vets there weren't optimistic about his chances.
MacHarg had a tough decision to make. This was supposed to be one of her sale horses; continuing to treat Great Minds' infection at the clinic would certainly be cost-prohibitive for her small business. There was also no guarantee that he would be rideable in the future, even if the treatment were successful.
Great Minds didn't know the odds were against him, however, and the gritty warhorse wasn't ready to give up. He raised his head and looked MacHarg in the eye every time she came to his stall, standing tall and convincing her to fight alongside him.
If he had given up, MacHarg would have let Great Minds go peacefully. But facing down a horse with that kind of will to live, she rose to his challenge and committed to him 100 percent, financially and emotionally.
“Every sales horse I have becomes part of my team, part of my family,” she said. “I am committed to them. They are a living being and deserve to be backed, not treated like an asset. Yes, I will lose money, but I will not lose sleep. My morals and ethics surpass the limits of my checkbook. Yes, it makes our lives harder to commit to this level. No, I will not change how I operate. Love and passion are occasionally, if not often, painful. Loving less is not the route I choose. I will take the pain because the highs the horses offer far outweigh the lows.”
There were ups and downs aplenty over the next several months, including a re-hospitalization in early August.
“Yesterday when I went to load him on the trailer to bring him back to Rood & Riddle, he dragged me out of the stall and on to the trailer, keen and excited for whatever lie ahead,” MacHarg wrote on Facebook that day. “When we arrived, the tech had her hands full as he jigged into the surgery suite, having to hold him back and beg for a walk. He was aggressively going forward. So how could I not?”
The gelding's good days were especially sweet, and MacHarg spent hours tending to his needs, hand-grazing and loving on him (when the opinionated gelding allowed it). The local equine community also stepped up: many different individuals aided in Great Minds' recovery, whether that meant cleaning a few stalls so MacHarg could focus time on him or donating their own services to aid in his recovery.
“I believe deep in my soul we are healing him with love,” MacHarg said. “I pray the tribe that is backing him will see years of updates with the new things we come up with to keep a retired, pasture sound horse busy and engaged. His sport career is decidedly over, but his life, as of today, is still very rewarding for him (and me).”
The bad days often brought feelings of despair, and more than once it was unclear whether Great Minds would even be sound enough to live out his life in a pasture.
“I have been advised to 'emotionally write him off,'” MacHarg wrote on Facebook when Great Minds took a turn for the worse. “I proceed only because he is comfortable and there is the slimmest of chances he could survive.
“While we wait to see if Great Minds body will ultimately fail, it is easy to be present with each moment I spend with him. Each nuzzle, grooming (session), graze, bath, ice boot time, meal, cookie- they are all special and I am completely focused on him for all those moments… And so he has reminded me to be present, with each of my horses, every ride, every time I interact with them. He is improving my relationships with each of my horses by reminding me everything could be a last and without warning for no good reason. Each ride is a gift we are not entitled to.”
That slim chance of survival has now become a reality. The veterinary team found the right antibiotic to treat his infection, and Great Minds finally started to heal. He has now been taken off anti-inflammatory medications and remains comfortable, a miracle all by itself.
Great Minds has graduated to daily turnout in a small enclosure and continues to mark each healing milestone with gusto. His desire to live never once wavered, and neither did MacHarg's faith in him.
She has found herself overwhelmed with appreciation throughout this journey, for the people who've given of their time or expertise to help the horse, and for those who stepped up to support her emotionally. MacHarg is prepared to keep stretching the limits to give Great Minds the best possible life after racing, in whatever form that might take.
“To think a few months ago I had nightmares all the time knowing each morning I walked into the barn with him could be the last,” she said. “I don't completely understand how he beat every single odd stacked gravely against him so far… I sit around and watch him graze and can't believe he is still here, he is still so incredibly happy. This is the most resilient, gritty horse I have ever known.
“So why not be a dreamer… I will keep doing the research, we will re-radiograph, we will therapy, we will wish and hope for further miracles that defy science and logic, and maybe he can go show the OTTB world the heart and soul of a fighter by standing in a conformation class next September.”
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