Trampled kill-pen mare readies for show

Selleria on the day she was rescued.

Selleria on the day she was rescued.

The mare’s bandaged feet oozed with abscesses, useless to deflect the blows that rained down upon her.

One sharp kick, and then another, came without mercy from a band of frightened horses who tore at the tattered coat of the weakest among them.

As she lay in the soft mud of the Hermiston Auction in Oregon last February, her life spiraled away.

“There were a couple of mares who stood guard over her, but the alpha mares were pretty relentless with the attacks,” recalls Mary Lei, founder of local rescue Rescuing Equines in Need (REIN), who watched in horror as the silent animal seemed to accept her sad fate.

She’d been dumped in the Oregon kill pen and left to cower, and to eventually stumble and fall as some onlookers laughed.

It hadn’t always been this way for the once-beautiful chestnut filly, Selleria.

A granddaughter of Storm Cat, she was born in Kentucky in May 2009. She grew to be glossy coated and full of promise, and she sold a year later at the fabled Keeneland Sale for $24,000.

Barn name: Ria
Sire: Van Nistelrooy (Storm Cat)
Dam: She’s Mahogany
Foal date: May 12, 2009
She began racing in 2012 at Santa Anita and a year later in September, after a 3rd place finish at Golden Gate, she fell off the radar and reportedly passed through several hands. Five months later she landed in the auction lot to face attack, ridicule, and certain death.

“When she was run through the ring … she was trying to hurry and she fell. People were actually giggling and pointing and laughing at her,” Lei says. “Though we’d intended to euthanize her there at the auction, I thought this was a pretty cool horse who deserved to be put down in a better environment than that.”

So Lei and her team bought padding for their horse trailer, and the young mare, despite her obvious pain, hobbled onboard.

It was, for Lei, one of the most emotional encounters she’s had at an auction. “Ria was gross, covered with ticks and lice and rain rot, and standing in eight inches of mud,” she says. “I said to her, ‘you’re pathetic,’ and hugged her neck, and she dropped her head over my shoulder to pull me closer. And for the first time since I’ve been doing rescue, I started bawling.”

Throughout her recovery from multiple abscesses and laminitis, Ria remained bright-eyed.

Throughout her recovery from multiple abscesses and laminitis, Ria remained bright-eyed.

In the months that followed, Ria surprised one and all with her bravery and determination to live. In spite of her pain, she approached each day with a bright eye, her ears forward, Lei says. “I’m so impressed with this horse, and that she never gave up when a lesser horse would have,” she says. “Even covered in all that mud, that horse still believed she was some level of royalty.”

And possibly even a star.

Ria, her hoof ailments healed with careful care by farrier April Wolf of The Savvy Hoof, has been entered to compete in the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Showcase later this year in her birthplace of Kentucky.

Under the gentle training of Oregon horseman Stacey Riggs, Ria has been started on a path to learn dressage, freestyle trail riding, and other disciplines. “She’s a super sweet and very kind horse, and my goal is to work on a connection with her, and building back her strength at a rate she can handle,” Riggs says. “Ria beat the odds and recovered and the next step of her life has begun.”

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Jan Vandebos: ‘I wasn’t prepared to let her go’

Diorella survived a serious head fracture two years after receiving extensive care through the efforts of her owner Jan Vandebos.

Diorella survived a serious head fracture two years after receiving extensive care through the efforts of her owner Jan Vandebos.

An all-out effort to save the filly Diorella began in the horse’s third year of life, after she flipped on the lunge line and fractured her skull.

So severely was she hurt that she writhed and seized in the dirt, unable to stand without falling back down.

It was horrifying to witness, says her owner Jan Vandebos. She had stepped away for a brief moment on June 28, 2012, and returned to find her horse, who had just been lunging with a groom, crumpled in the dirt.

But she did not flinch away from the animal she loved.

Moving quickly on what she recalls as the “worst day of her life,” she carefully checked the filly’s nose and eyes for evidence of blood, and finding none, made the decision to do everything humanly possible to save her.

“I wasn’t prepared to let her go unless I felt I had taken every avenue to save her,” says Vandebos of RanJan Racing, which she owns with husband Robert Naify. She had brought the young filly into this world to be a riding horse and was determined to save her: “I wanted to make her whole again.”

Sire: Betrando
Dam: Specific Gravity
Foal date: Feb. 9, 2009
Like a commander of a military MASH unit, Vandebos first quickly arranged to have a throng of people on scene to assist, and immediately contacted her personal veterinarian Dr. Phoebe Smith, who was on site within 20 minutes.

What followed was controlled chaos.

Diorella’s eyes darted back and forth as she tried to make sense of her world, and struggled to rise. Working quickly, Dr. Smith administered medicine to quell her seizures, as Vandebos and others tried to calm the frightened animal. “I kept thinking that if we could get her calm, and get her to the hospital, we could save her,” she says.

Diorella was anesthetized, rolled onto a tarp, and lifted by 20 people onto an emergency van and taken to Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center in Los Olivos, Calif., where she would spend the next two months in intensive care.

Diorella is released from the hospital. Her head was still swollen, and a long road to recovery awaited her.

Diorella is released from the hospital. Her head was still swollen, and a long road to recovery awaited her.

Dr. Erin Bryn, DVM, Diplomat of the American College of Internal Medicine, took over the filly’s care, and stood with the entire staff, who lined up outside the medical facility the day Diorella arrived.

A radiograph of Diorella’s skull, taken immediately after she was unloaded, revealed she had fractured bones at the base of her skull, causing her to have seizures, Dr. Bryn confirms.

“We treated her immediately with anti-inflammatories, antibiotics and anti-seizure medication,” Bryn says, noting that it was unusual for a horse with this degree of head trauma to make it to the hospital.

“We probably get one or two cases a year of horses who have flipped over.” Many die before they reach the hospital, or are euthanized on the spot, she says, noting that it is a rare horse to recover from such an injury.

Within 12 hours, however, Diorella was able to stand on her own!

For two months after those perilous beginnings, if a prognosis was issued, it was only in terms of whether the horse would survive. “It’s important to set the expectations low in a case like this,” Bryn says, adding, that the future ride-ability of a horse such as this is spoken of in terms of “miracles.”

Diorella was eventually led on wobbly legs over an outdoor path, which had been carpeted in case she fell, to a waiting van.

Her next stop was the J & M Thoroughbreds farm in Santa Ynez, Calif., where Greg Fanning had stepped up as the sole volunteer to help Diorella with her physical therapy.

Jan Vandebos enjoys a moment with her prized filly.

Jan Vandebos enjoys a moment with her prized filly.

“I couldn’t find a farm for her. This was before I had my farm. Nobody wanted to take a brain-damaged horse who was falling down,” Vandebos recalls. “Then a friend of a friend stepped forward and said, ‘I will help you fix her.’ ”

Greg Fanning admits he took on a project that many expected would fail.

But he never gave up on Diorella. Knowing she could fall at any point, and that it was dangerous work, he babied the filly at every turn.

“I couldn’t turn her loose, and would walk her. Her recovery took little baby steps and lots of elbow grease.”

For months he worked with her in a deep-sand arena and when she became steady on her feet, moved her to an equine exercise machine. Here, she trotted and eventually galloped. The filly stayed with Fanning for approximately six months before being moved to Vandebos’ new farm, where she was reunited with her dam Specific Gravity, purely to enjoy turnout, grazing, and idyllic pasture life.

And oh yes, there was one more little miracle: about three months ago: Diorella and Vandebos went riding!

“We had started placing her in a paddock close so she could see her friends being ridden and worked. Then we started to tack her up, and two weeks after that, I decided very spur-of-the-moment to hop on her,” Vandebos says. “We walked for about 10 minutes and then I asked her for a trot. She remembered all of her cues, and I could tell she was very proud to be a riding horse again.” —This story was originally published on May 16, 2014.

A moment in the sun comes for a prison horse

Nicki Wheeler had a stellar 30-year career in European racing circles before landing in the US as an equine instructor for a Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation program in Illinois.

Nicki Wheeler had a stellar 30-year career in European racing circles before landing in the US as an equine instructor for a Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation program in Illinois.

A horseman, who once enjoyed a glorious heyday working alongside famed Sir Henry Cecil, took a chance last year on a Thoroughbred who never had his moment in the sun.

There was just something about the 6-year-old “lead-locked” gelding with clicking stifles that charmed the heck out of seasoned Scottish horseman Nicki Wheeler. So when Silent Retreat was returned to the unglamorous stables at the Vandalia Correctional facility in Illinois, where Wheeler now works teaching inmates horsemanship skills, she threw caution to the wind.

“We had shipped him and three other horses to the Springfield State Fair as sale horses, but nobody wanted him. The other three sold, but for some reason he didn’t,” Wheeler says. “And as he walked back off the trailer” back at the prison “I took a better look at him and thought, my goodness, he’s beautiful.”

Silent Retreat
Barn name: Sammy
Sire: Eddington
Dam: Silver Lined
Foal date: May 20, 2009
No stranger to glitz and glamor of the Sport of Kings, the Scotland native worked for 30 years at the pinnacle of the sport before she relocated to the US, eventually landing as barn manager and equine instructor for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s inmate program at Second Chance Ranch in Illinois.

Though her career working as exercise rider and travel groom for legends such as Sir Henry Cecil, John Gosden and Henry Jones are well in her past, her practiced horsemen’s eye saw past the humble trappings of Silent Retreat, and to the good horse that he was.

“When he walked off that trailer after he failed to sell at the fair, I took a second look and thought he showed a lot of class,” she says. “He had a temperament and impeccable breeding, and I’d always had a soft spot for chestnuts.”

Silent Retreat schools for a new career with Nicki Wheeler, up,  and Barbara Jo Rubin.

Silent Retreat schools for a new career with Nicki Wheeler, up, and Barbara Jo Rubin.

A week later, she bought him. Two weeks after that, she hauled him to a local dressage show to try him out in new surroundings.

“Neither one of us knew what we were doing, but we came in 4th out of 14. I’ve spent 30 years riding with my knees up to my chin, so this was a real change for me.”

That first show whetted her appetite for competition, and she immediately sought the coaching talent of Barbra Jo Rubin, the first female jockey to win a recognized race, to train her and Silent Retreat for the dressage world. The former jockey and the one-time world-class exercise rider and groom soon teamed up to bring a little recognition to the overlooked OTTB.

“We went from not knowing anything in that first show to becoming High Point Award winners in an OTTB show in September sponsored by Thoroughbreds Helping Thoroughbreds,” an Illinois-based organization that helps re-home OTTBs. “We’ve only been to two shows so far, but our goal is to get to as many shows as we can this year, and win as many ribbons as we can!”

Her little chestnut Thoroughbred, such a far cry from the famous horses she once worked with—including Secretariat’s Tinners Way—is an undiscovered star who deserves to have a heyday like she once had.