When Tommie Ashley contacted me with the story of off-track Thoroughbred Mountain Fox ("Danny"), I couldn't believe the trials this now 30-year-old gelding had been through. While this story (and photos) are not for the faint at heart, in the end, you will be amazed at Danny's resilient spirit and will to live, as well as the deep love of his owner.
Danny was foaled at the former Dearborn Farm (now Vinery) near Lexington in the spring of 1983. Less than stellar on the track, the son of L'Heureux-- Yeti, by Balmacara won just one race in 12 starts and retired from racing with earnings of less than $5,000.
It wasn't long before Danny found success in a new vocation as a timber racer, however.
"Timber racing is different from Steeplechase in that the obstacles are made from wood," explained Ashley on Danny's Facebook page, which has more than 8,400 likes. "(The obstacles) are more solid than those in Steeplechase."
Danny came into Ashley's life after he had retired from racing and was given to her as a birthday gift from her mother.
"I must say, I was a little disappointed when I first saw him," remembered Ashley, who received her first horse, a pony her grandfather had won in a poker tournament, at the tender age of 4. Ashley owned several other horses while growing up, including another pony named Prommie.
"You see, (my pony) Prommie was a fat, round, welsh type pony and was only 14 hands," said Ashley. "What got off the truck was a 16-hand Thoroughbred with a 6 foot long neck (I'm exaggerating) and 10 foot long legs! How was I going to get on this monster?"
While it took some adjustment, Ashley, a fearless rider, eventually grew to love her new partnership with Danny.
Danny and Tommie Ashley going for a ride
"After six months I felt comfortable enough to jump him a little," she said. "Truth be told, after owning this horse for 20 years, his jump still scares me. He is a perfect jumper, jumps anything, picks his spots, and knows exactly what he's doing. All you have to do is hold on and steer."
Ashley began occasionally showing Danny, but the expense of training and competitions prevented her from delving too much into that world. Instead, she mainly rode the gelding for pleasure.
"Danny was a great teacher," she said. "He forced me to ride every step, every stride. I became a much better rider thanks to him.
"A couple of years after I got him, he started to develop some changes in his hocks, so we injected. Then he seemed to have some stifle and back issues, so we did massage and chiropractic care along with supplements. He always seemed a little off, so we stopped showing completely and just rode for pleasure."
Danny and Tommie
For several years, Ashley boarded Danny at a stable with plenty of trail riding opportunities outside of Charlotte, N.C. After some financial struggles in 2010, however, Ashley decided to relocate back to her former place of residence in New Jersey in hopes of finding a better job.
"Three weeks after I moved back to New Jersey, I received a call from my mother who said Dan was colicing and was not responding to what the vet was doing for him," said Ashley. "She said she was taking him to North Carolina Veterinary School in Raleigh, N.C. I was terrified Dan would die in transit; that would have just been a horrible way for my friend of 19 years to die."
Upon arriving at the veterinary clinic, Danny was rushed into surgery. He had a four-pound lipoma (fatty tumor) that was on a stem and it had flipped and wrapped around his bowel causing an obstruction. Ashley noted the condition is typically fatal for older geldings.
After the surgeons removed eight feet of bowel and several smaller tumors, however, "In true Danny form, he came through it all with flying colors!" Ashley exclaimed.
The gelding's surgery procedures came with a hefty price tag, however as the bill was more than $12,000. After paying her mother back for Danny's medical costs, Ashley regretfully let her home go into foreclosure.
Things began to look up when Ashley found a good-paying job in New Jersey and was able to move Danny there in April of this year. She decided to board him at Carol Laskos' Amelia Acres near Goshen, where he thrived on a new diet and weekly trail rides with Ashley.
But then, on the evening of June 28 when Ashley was in New York City for her sister's bridal shower, disaster struck with Danny. He had impaled himself in the skull with a nine-foot piece of fencing while in his paddock at Amelia Acres.
Ashley later learned the wood had entered into Danny's sinus cavity, and gone out through the soft palate of his mouth but that no major bone structures had been affected.
"I almost fainted with relief," she said. "Dr Murray said they were going to remove the wood and call me after the procedure. When she called, she told me he came through the extraction like a champ and that he was 'very brave.' "
The next day, Ashley, her mother, and sister made the trip to Rhinebeck Equine in Rhinebeck, N.Y. to visit Danny.
"He heard my voice in the hall and immediately began nickering for me and everyone marveled at how much he missed me," said Ashley. "I joked that is wasn't so much that he missed me, but more what I was bringing him! He seemed in good spirits--nuzzling me for treats and just being cute.
"I was allowed to take him for a walk but he could not eat grass. He was still on colic watch as he had not produced any manure. The vets showed us the x-rays and explained everything they had done for him and what his prognosis would be. Then they gave me the stick (thankfully cleaned of all blood and tissue). The end that went into his head is flat. We have no idea how he managed to do this to himself...and still don't know."
The piece of fencing that was removed from Danny's head
Ashley was extremely concerned the next time she came to visit Danny, however.
"His eyes were half closed, he was dripping blood and goop from his mouth and nose, he was swollen and didn't even move when I went into his stall," she said. "It was the only time during this whole ordeal that I questioned my decision to take him to the hospital. They had stopped his pain medication because he still had not passed any manure. They were concerned the pain meds were causing constipation (as pain meds are apt to do). I just stood there and cried. I could not bear the thought of him just standing there in agony.
"They again allowed me to take him for a hand walk and he seemed to perk up a bit. Every now and then, he would try to lower his head to try and snatch a mouthful of grass and he would get his head to about chest level, shake his head a little, raise it back up and give me the most pitiful look I've ever seen. I could tell he wanted the grass, but could just not lower his head to eat it. He didn't really feel like walking either, but the more we walked, the better he seemed to feel.
"After about 30 minutes, he was finally able to lower his head and have some grass! I was so happy. We kept walking and he kept eating. His step got perkier and he looked much better."
Six hours after retuning Danny to his stall, he finally passed manure and the vet was able to feed him again. The following day, Danny's veterinarian informed Ashley that the culture from Danny's head wound revealed he was suffering from MRSA and he must be moved to quarantine. MRSA is Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium that causes infections in different parts of the body. For the next 10 days, the brave gelding endured his condition in isolation.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Danny was released from the vet on July 15.
"He has a catheter in his head which allows us to lavage (flush with sterile saline) his wound three times a day and he gets his bandage changed every evening," said Ashley of Danny, who is still on several medications to treat his head wound.
To date, Danny's bill from Rhinebeck is more than $15,000, which does not include any of the aftercare that has been provided at the barn.
"Carol at Amelia Acres has been wonderful through this whole thing," said Ashley. "She has taken complete control of his aftercare and personally makes all of his meals, checks his manure for issues, lavages his wound, administers his meds, and changes his bandage every day. This is no small task. She devotes at least three hours a day to his care and I am forever in her debt."
"Ever since his last visit to Rhinebeck, the wound is 100% better," Ashley added. "No more odor, no more food backing up into the sinus, and you can definitely see it's getting smaller. Through all of this he has had a great attitude and appetite. At one point one of the vets asked me 'how much does he eat? Because we are feeding him a lot and he just wants more and more food.' "
Danny enjoys a visit from Tommie during his recovery
Danny is currently awaiting a surgery at the Cornell University Equine Hospital to have the hole inside his mouth surgically closed, which will hopefully help the hole in his head heal as well.
Danny's Facebook page, 'Danny, the Miracle Unicorn Horse,' has links to various news articles in print and on video, a FundRazr account, and information on 'Hugs for Danny' t-shirts.
Through Facebook, Ashley has received countless messages from people all over the world telling her stories about how Danny's strength and courage have inspired them.
"It literally makes my heart burst with joy knowing my horse has touched so many people in such a positive way," said Ashley.
Here are a couple questions I asked Ashley during a Q & A, along with her responses:
EM: What's special about Danny? Why do you feel your connection with him is so strong?
TA: Dan is a sweetheart. He's just all about being with me. He makes happy sounds when I come into the barn. I swear he knew the sound of my car, because whenever I drive would down the barn driveway, he would come out of his run in shed...lol. I have owned this horse for 20 years. He moved with me from Florida, to North Carolina, to South Carolina, and now New Jersey. He got me through my divorce. He has been my rock. When I'm sad, he makes me happy. He gave me courage through his courage. He taught me how to be responsible. He's my everything and I'll do anything for him.
EM: Describe what's it's been like to have such an outpouring of support for Danny via Facebook. How did you get the word out about him and were you surprised you received such a huge response?
TA: I made his Facebook page and really didn't expect much. I think I just wanted a place to document everything. I don't really recall how his Facebook took off...I set up the "Fundrazer" and posted the link to his page, not expecting anything to happen. Not five minutes after I posted the link, I got a donation. Then another, and another. They kept coming in all night. When I woke up the next day, I had over 100 emails from Fundrazer about donations.
After that, his page just took off. One day someone suggested t-shirts as a fundraiser. So now we are doing t-shirts. It's not exactly t-shirt weather, but people want them. They are actually very nice; I love the design. People send him cards from all over the world. I have kept all of them. Danny has really inspired so many. I have emails from people who are facing cancer and they think of him and his strength and it gets them through the day. Some of the cards and emails just make me cry because he is such an amazing inspiration to so many.
Danny being Danny
So there you have it--the story of Danny. What did you think? Have you heard his story before? How do you think we can use Facebook and other social media to draw even more attention to Thoroughbred aftercare?
Oh, by the way, Ute Shepard was the lucky winner the New Vocations t-shirt. Congratulations and thanks for playing! Stay tuned...I will be giving away a 2013 Blood-Horse calendar in the New Year!