The life of a broodmare manager is not a glamorous one – which means that the life of the significant other to a broodmare manager isn't either.
Sun up to sundown the work is hard, demanding, and it never ends. And that is just during daylight. Once dusk settles, the real labor begins. The mares are programmed to undergo parturition in darkness – both from a survival as well as an endocrine perspective. And because of that, us mere humans must adapt to their schedules.
Vet work at 7 am, mucking out until lunch. Treatments and medications spaced throughout the day in 6 to 12 hour intervals, and the constant leading to and from the pastures. And then the deliveries begin. Sometimes 2 to 3 mares a night. Always in the most inclement of weather, always in the most inappropriate of times.
From January 1st until mid June, this is a broodmare managers life. I left this lifestyle when I returned to school to obtain my doctorate, and yet somehow found myself living it vicariously through my manfriend Luke. He has worked on and managed some of the most successful nurseries in Lexington, Kentucky. And with that means a lifestyle dictated by the equines within the program.
So it came as no surprise when we received a phone call a few years ago to meet the nightwatchman at the clinic. Although it was technically Luke's “night off,” as the broodmare manager he was required to oversee all extenuating circumstances regarding his charges. And with one of the mares colicking – this would mean telling the waiter to cancel our order and run to the nearest equine surgical unit.
While Luke ran into the surgery wing of Hagyards Medical to assess the situation, I waited in the wings. Standing in heels and without a jacket, I silently shivered in the barn aisleway. From one farm manager to another, we all acknowledge this lifestyle. We all know that the horses come first and everything else second. And because of that – I could handle being cold for a couple of hours.
To keep myself distracted, I began roaming down the cement aisle and peeking into the other stalls. Assessing the other patients, I looked at one after the next, and then my eyes locked onto the most pitiful case.
A chromey chestnut newborn colt was nestled into a deep pile of straw with his nose tucked in between his front legs. His right hind leg was plastered in a cast from hoof to stifle, and a catheter protruded from his neck. His eyes were tightly shut as he slept, and his breathing was deep – completely unaware of his rather unfortunate start to his life.
I shook my head at the unfairness of life and the hurdles it places in front of us. But then giggled as I heard him begin to awaken and knicker out for attention. One of the technicians let herself into the stall, and Luke appeared from behind me to stare into the stall alongside me.
“Oh, thats another one of ours. He came in a few nights ago. His leg was completely useless to him immediately after we got him out. Dr. Rodgerson says that he tore his gastrocnemius muscle and will have to have that thing on for a few months.”
I shook my head and then looked back into the stall as the technician assisted the colt in standing to allow him to nurse. I asked what the prognosis was for this injury – an injury to a crucial part of the infrastructure of a healthy racehorse – what this colt was bred to be. It didn't look great.
And as the technician planted her left leg under the weight of the plaster cast to give an anchor for the shakey colt to lean against, she mumbled “steadyyy, steady now buddy” under her breath. And with that, the journey of Steady Eddie began.
Eddie spent the first month of his life in the clinic where he could receive around the clock care and intensive treatment. With his leg encumbered by a 30 lb. cast, he was unable to stand up or lie down on his own, requiring assistance.
But Eddie was smart, he quickly learned how to get the attention of the technicians and residents in the barn with his incessant knickering. He would whinny when he was hungry, knicker when he wanted to urinate, and scream when he wanted to play. He became a 250 pound labrador retriever, and the entire staff of the clinic fell in love.
And then he came home and was placed into the isolation barn with just his mom for attention. Luke quickly texted me to let me know that this personable foal was back on the farm, and I hurried to the barn to assess him.
His leg was still in the cast, but he was stronger. He was able to get up and down on his own, and was happily romping around the 12′ x 20′ stall with his right leg dragging behind him. It was a pitiful sight to see, but the sparkle in his eye and his desire to talk his way through a snuggle session were enough to warm even the coldest of hearts.
For months this was his life. A large foaling-sized stall, a plaster cast, and the attention of his mother. We attempted to change his behavior of dog to that of colt, but to no avail. Most nights Luke and I would take the dogs for a walk up to the barn to check on him, and this usually ended up with extra snuggles,a romp, and a giggle or two.
He quickly became a member of our family, but as is life, we knew in the back of our mind that we didn't actually own him. And on top of not owning him, he was owned by a large thoroughbred breeding operation that bred their horses to either sell or run. And if Eddie couldn't do either, he would be of minimal use to them.
Even worse, if Eddie couldn't even be turned out, he would be of minimal use to the world.
So with diffidence, we awaited the removal of the cast. And then the big day came, and Eddie became a free man…only he didn't. His leg had almost no strength, and the muscles were completely atrophied. His gait was irregular, with little impulsion offered even at a walk. And as we all stared at the otherwise beautiful colt with grimaces on our faces, we acknowledged that this journey might be over for Eddie.
But we just couldn't give up. He had become a favorite of not only ours – but the entire farm. From the lowliest of grooms to the owners, he had become a point of pride and a creator of smiles.
Eddie went through extreme physical therapy and rehab, but never fully regained strength in his hind leg. And our efforts to turn him into a racehorse quickly became a campaign for his life as a pasture ornament. But at 4 months of age, Eddie had never been turned out. By 6 months of age, he had never met another horse besides his mother. And again, it was made apparent that he wasn't ours.
His owners had already put over $50,000 into vet bills, and were looking at a lifelong commitment to an apparently useless horse. A horse that would require future vet work, farrier bills, feed and water, not to mention a paddock and a stall. And in exchange, he wouldn't earn them a dime. He would never be ridden, nonetheless run. And for an operation that is in this as an investment, this appeared to be a cash poor one. A money pit.
So this is where the story ends – right?
Everyone knows that the thoroughbred breeding and racing industry is in this entirely for the money. For the pewter and the roses, the accolades and the press releases? The public assumes that the end of these stories end up with an unwanted horses – either euthanized or sent to slaughter. The owners back on their bluegrass farms toasting each other with their decanters of bourbon.
Because Eddie is soon turning two years old. He still walks with a hitch, but he gallops out with a strong, although irregular, stride. He exists within the same stone walls that he was born on, and happily grazes within his personal 30 acre field. He has a best friend – a retired graded stakes winning gelding who earned the farm almost a half a million dollars.
One horse was profitable, one was not. One earned the pewter and the notoriety, one earned them nothing but sleepless nights. One horse's name is recognizable by many, while the other was never actually named. The only thing that bonds these two colts is that of a great owner who cherishes the horses who bring her joy. And both horses bring her joy, albeit in different ways.
So Steady Eddie is here to stay. As the best useless colt to ever exist.
Pennsylvania native Carleigh Fedorka is a Ph.D. student at the University of Kentucky's Gluck Equine Research Center who has worked in all aspects of the Thoroughbred industry. The article originally appeared on her blog, A Yankee in Paris.
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