The flat end of a surgical screw looked grotesque jutting from the soft mouth of a starving broodmare.
Driven deep into the fleshy gums, wedged between the lower-front teeth of Wide Eyed Wanderer, the alien protuberance was covered with bubbly saliva—shrouding the mysterious object like the silence that surrounds the life of a racehorse whose life comes to no good end.
There were no answers November 5th when Thoroughbred advocate Jenny Earhart showed up to the California auction where Wanderer waited, emaciated and doomed in the slaughter pipeline.
There was only Earhart’s practiced routine: Flip the lip, identify the Thoroughbred, and then get her the hell out of there.
“I’d never seen anything like it,” says Earhart, proprietor of Royal Star Ranch, a California-based facility for rehabilitating and retraining Thoroughbreds. “I was disgusted. It’s the most barbaric thing I’ve ever seen!”
Acting quickly and carefully, Earhart loaded the starving dark bay onto a trailer and drove her straight to her veterinarian, who fostered the physical wreck of an animal for a month.
“She was about a one-and-a-half on the body scale, so my vet, Dr. Bryn Moser, agreed to foster her temporarily because she was in such poor condition,” she says.
Wanderer was gently returned to a better weight, her health restored, and that screw, that hideous instrument used for god-knows-what, was gently loosened by her kind hands. “We worked for several weeks to loosen the screw little by little, to ensure it did not had an adverse effect, and hurt her,” Earhart says, noting that it was surgically removed in December during two-and-a-half hours of surgery.
Prior to surgery, an X-ray of Wanderer’s head was done revealing a very faint line that could possibly indicate the mare may have sustained a broken jaw at some point in her life. If that was the case, it’s possible the screws were used to help repair the jaw, but Earhart notes that they believe the screws were not professionally inserted.
And her suspicion is that they were more likely used as an attempt to stop the mare from her compulsive wind-sucking habit of cribbing, a habit in horses that can lead to medical side-effects, including colic and ulcers.
Regardless of why the screws were driven into the mare’s mouth, the one in front was successfully removed, while the secondary screw on the side of her mouth is now so permanently overgrown with calcification that removing it would pose too great a risk of injuring the horse.
Though Earhart made a few calls to try to get to the bottom of the mystery, even contacting her original breeder to ascertain that the screws were definitely not installed on their watch, the Thoroughbred advocate decided not to dwell.
What was important was that Wanderer survived her darkest hour, and the hand of fate brought her a pasture pal she would remember by scent and by feel: Her last foal!
On March 11, by a total fluke, Earhart was asked if she was interested in taking a racehorse named Helimark. She knew the name well, having researched Wanderer’s pedigree, and tracked her progeny online.
“When I got the text telling me that Helimark was available, I dropped what I was doing—we were just getting ready to geld a horse, but I dropped everything—I got in my truck, and I floored it to the racetrack” holding Wanderer’s last son. “I showed up and they gave him to me at the track. They asked if I had a halter, and I said yes, and they said to go ahead and take him.”
She adds, “He’s injured. He has a bad suspensory on the left front and his right front ankle is bad, but he’ll be okay.”
Later, when Helimark finally touched noses with his mother Wanderer, there was no mystery, only love.
“They definitely recognized each other,” she says. “I’m going to turn them out together.”
And from a shared paddock, Wanderer and her son will bask in beautiful California sunshine, the dark days of a former life left mercifully behind.