The once excitable Thoroughbred gently lowered his head to accept the embrace of a legally blind man, who reached up from his wheelchair to share in the strength that stood before him.
As if understanding how the man yearned to be close, the ex-racehorse reached over and sniffed the rubber and metal contraption. “And then instantly a softness came into his eye,” says Ashley Armijo, who had never seen her feisty Thoroughbred Hadifly react so gently to anyone.
Witnessing the tender moment on the grounds of the New Mexico Center for Therapeutic Riding two years ago, Armijo realized her novice-level Eventing prospect she’d renamed On the Fly had just punted, finding yet another post-racing career.
Show name: On the Fly
Barn name: Fly
Dam: Miss Lashawn, by Hopeful World
Foal date: April 17, 1998“It wasn’t until I had a legally blind client with cerebral palsy, and in a wheelchair, become infatuated with Fly that I figured out what my Thoroughbred was meant to do,” says Armijo, a trained horse therapy instructor and graduate of the University of New Mexico with a degree in speech and hearing sciences.
“When I finally agreed to let the man wheel his chair up to Fly, it was incredible,” she says. “Fly was so calm. He sniffed his wheelchair and then allowed the man to gently brush him.”
And soon after, Fly began to ease out of his life of a sport horse and into the hearts of dozens of developmentally disabled people. “He was never bad at jumping,” Armijo says, noting that they qualified in 2013 and 2014 for the American Eventing Championships. “But connecting with the kids meant more to him.”
At which point, the longtime equestrian let go of her earlier plan to train him as an Eventer in order to help her clients facing myriad challenges ranging from Autism to physical and emotional needs. “When I got Fly in 2011, I thought he’d be a fun project. And we did really well together at the low levels. But, he was always a high-strung Thoroughbred, like he had a little track PTSD. I was really quite timid around him when I rode him.”
What he couldn’t somehow give to her as a competitive rider, was easily given to all the people who needed him for stability, affection and confidence, she says.
And when a pasture accident left him badly inured back in 2014, and the chips were down, those same friends he had carried on his back, returned the love and support in spades.
Volunteers came everyday to massage his legs and encourage him to heal following a bad horse kick, which left him with a bad radial fracture in his right, front leg.
“The man in the wheelchair came by crying, telling Fly not to give up,” she says. “And there were some nights I slept in a cot in his stall.”
At his lowest, Fly was given only a 30 percent chance of survival. Because the damage to his leg was so severe, a wrong move could have snapped his leg, she recalls. “My vet warned me that at any point I could come to the barn and find that he’d snapped his leg in half, and she offered to euthanize him if at any point I felt it was too much on him,” Armijo says. It was if the horse wasn’t ready to leave his friends, and they certainly weren’t ready to let him go, she adds.
For eight weeks he endured the tedium of standing still, tied with cross ties, but surrounded by all the people whose lives he’d touched.
And when he emerged from the barn after 12 total weeks of stall rest, he stepped right back into the loving arms of a community that needed him to stay.
Just last weekend, two years since the accident, he took a therapy rider on her first horse trial. Sensing the rider’s nervousness, Fly cautiously walked the course of 18-inch jumps, Armijo says, noting that her headstrong Thoroughbred no longer boldly jumps the courses. But what he does instead is help others feel a little bit braver.
“I feel this is his calling,” she says. “The calmest and happiest I’ve ever seen him is while he’s working with therapy kids, helping them fulfill their dreams.”