In a squalid yard littered with empty grain bags starved a mare named La Sheikh.
The name alone might have seemed ironic, even pathetic, given the state of deprivation that drove the hungry animal to forage desperately in the short grass, her ribs protruding. She was far from living a royal life.
And the sad irony didn’t end there. The haggard 15-hand mare really was descended from royalty. Not way-down-the-family-tree nobility: both grandsires were pretty big. Storm Cat sired her father and Pulpit sired her mother. A.P. Indy was her sire’s grandfather. And the third branch of her family tree hung brightly with stars, including Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Northern Dancer and Bold Ruler.
New name: Twizzler
Sire: Essence of Dubai
Dam: Southern Summer
Foal date: May 4, 2008Yet, her life was nothing like theirs. After 26 starts in two years on the Florida circuit, she wound up in a crowded yard in the 17000 block of SW 184th in Miami-Dade County Florida.
By the time the authorizes accompanied the South Florida SPCA on a raid of the property in April 2013, La Sheikh looked like a bag lady living among the ruins of lives gone wrong. She was one of 11 horses seized that day. And as owner Elma James Burgess faced 11 counts of animal cruelty, she embarked on a topsy-turvy return to a better life.
“She was in pretty bad shape. Of the horses we seized that day she was one who was in one of the poorest conditions,” says South Florida SPCA’s Laurie Waggoner, director of ranch operations. “She was basically malnourished.”
Though La Sheikh bounced back physically, and in a couple months’ time proved cooperative under saddle, her new adoptive family soon found that an undiagnosed issue threatened the mare’s life.
Shortly after Dawn Marshall adopted the mare for her 14-yar-old daughter Brittney, the ex-racehorse started behaving erratically.
After first vigorously shaking her head, the mare would rear up and flip over backwards. She did this several times with young Brittney on her back, finally crushing the young rider’s helmet in the last spasmodic incident.
“We didn’t know what to do. We took her to the University of Pennsylvania School of veterinary medicine, and nobody could clinically determine what was wrong. A behavioral psychologist thought it was trauma, and a neurologist thought it might be brain damage,” Dawn Marshall says. Though the diagnosis was unclear, the solution was not: “Everybody said we should euthanize her as a dangerous horse.”
As the family debated what to do, Brittney was forbidden to ride the mare. And they agonized over the situation. “We all loved that mare. And one day my daughter begged me to ride her one more time, and it was a mother’s worst nightmare,” Dawn Marshall says. “I finally said OK, right or wrong.”
It was now the end of November the same year when Brittney took one last chance with the mare. It was a cool day after a long, hot summer, and the mare agreeably walked out to the riding ring.
Brittney Marshall says she never once believed the mare was trying to hurt her on purpose, and when she climbed into the saddle to begin a ride, she sang to her. She crooned renditions of My ABCs and Christmas songs. “She was really caught off guard, and I think it just relaxed her.”
To this day, mother and daughter are not sure what happened that caused La Sheikh to settle down. Brittney suspects the little horse, having been passed through several homes before she was rescued, had emotional difficulties.
But over time, with careful backyard training, and lots of singing, Brittney and La Sheikh developed a bond so trusting that last month the pair was able to participate in their first horse show.
On April 5, Brittney and La Sheikh, who she renamed Twizzler, showed for the first time at a small schooling show in Wellington. They earned a second- and third-place ribbon, and a blue ribbon for riding clear in a third test.
After the show, with tears in her eyes, Brittney told her mother the reason she was crying: “Everybody wanted to put her down, and I can’t believe we just placed!”