“Hey, this horse is dancing!”
Curious to see what the onlooker meant, Dawn Willoughby made her way down the aisle of the barn to peer in at Mean and Lean. Dancing? Well, not exactly. He was indeed putting on a show, hopping and jumping and craning his neck, but if ever there was an animal who hated being confined, this was it.
“He wasn’t dancing at all! He was weaving, and very elaborately,” says Willoughby. “I’ve never approved of stabling—I don’t think a horse belongs in a box—so I figured I’d better take him.”
Willoughby, who had taken to wandering into horse rescue farms near her Unionville, Pa. home, since her first Thoroughbred Banjo had died of a heart attack in July 2004, was lonely and searching for the right horse with whom to share her life.
“Clearly I needed another horse, and, from my earlier experiences with Thoroughbreds, I knew what I was getting into,” she says. “A rehab can take months or years, but I wasn’t in a hurry. I was in it for the journey.”
And her first steps began as she strode down the barn aisle of Lost and Found Rescue of York, Pa., and set her eyes on the dancing antics of Mean and Lean.
“I didn’t plan to come away with anything when I went up there. I knew they had a lot of nice horses, and I had a listing of who was Race name: Mean and Lean
Barn name: Love Sunny Days
Sire: Not For Love
Dam: Best Terms
Foal date: March 17, 1999available,” she says. “In fact, my husband, who knows nothing about horses —he’s a cycler— had actually circled a picture of the one he liked. I don’t know why he picked Mean and Lean, because he was so racing fit that in his picture, he looked kind of funny, with a big head on a pencil neck.”
The odd-looking, stall-walking gelding, it would turn out, was perfectly suited to the 61-year-old horse lover in search of an in-your-pocket friend. “I just wanted a buddy to ride out the rest of my life with,” she says.
So for $50, Lost and Found agreed to ship Mean and Lean to her farm, whereupon the journey to make the horse with the fancy footwork happy, from his feet on up, began in earnest.
Starting with the name, everything about the ex-racehorse’s life was changed. Now named Sunny, he was taken to a farm and turned out with a herd of friendly horses.
They lived outdoors together, and in bad weather, could choose to stand beneath a run-in shelter to keep the rain off their backs.
“For the first month, he hung out with the herd, and I treated him like a foal; he had to learn everything new,” Willoughby says. “I taught him to stand quietly on the cross-ties and we had to re-adjust his ground manners.”
A proponent of natural horsemanship methods, which encourages gentle persuasion, Willoughby used a treat-and-reward system to encourage new manners.
“I used a clicker and when he did something right, I’d click first, and then reward him with a treat. In the beginning, he got rewarded for the least little try,” she says. “He loved it! He could finally figure out what the idiot human was wanting him to do!”
This is the way that Sunny learned to calmly pick up his feet for cleaning and trimming, as well as good manners “on the ground.” And that good behavior eventually resulted in becoming a well-behaved riding mount.
“At 61, I’m overly cautious at this point in my life. I don’t mind popping over logs, but I don’t ever plan to take him on a Hunter/Pace. That’s all in my youth,” she says. “I can ride him without the clicker, but I always click-and-treat at the mounting block, because I really appreciate him standing still.”
The importance of good ground manners and overall behavior go hand-in-hand with how well a horse feels, she notes.
For this reason, Willoughby has decided to eschew traditional shoeing practices and, instead, cares for her horse’s feet, herself.
She obtained the appropriate certification in hoof trimming, and now keeps her horse barefoot and happy, trimming his feet every month.
At home, she instructs people in trimming methods, and has become so well versed in the subject that she has uploaded instructional videos on You Tube, that have attracted tens of thousands of viewers.
“I realize that this is going against the grain of traditional farriers and shoers,” she says, “but the idea is that feet are supposed to move, and frogs are supposed to touch the ground.
“With every footfall, the heel should land first.”
After helping Sunny recuperate from a bad bout with a high suspensory tear in 2005, he has remained 100 percent sound going barefoot, she adds.
For the dancing horse and the longtime professional who “forgot” about her childhood love of horses for so many years, life has come full circle in Willoughby’s retirement.
“Shortly after I retired, I happened upon a tack shop in Unionville. I walked in and … the smell of the leather took me right back to my childhood riding horses. I started taking lessons and bought my first OTTB, Banjo, in 2000. When she died in 2004, two weeks later, I found Sunny.”
With him, she has found a new lease on life!
She has embraced all that there is to learn about her horse, and in making him happy, she has earned the deep trust and friendship of a horse she calls her “pocket pal.”
“In my OTTB, I have a friend for life.”