It was bath time, and not the battle scars of a hard-knocking racing career that bothered him.
Arbor Day detested everything associated with a soapy wash up, and on a warm afternoon on the Suffolk Downs backside, he decided enough was enough.
He broke free from his groom and dashed from shedrow to shedrow, taking a bunch of harried handlers on a merry chase. He’d hide, then bolt, hop skipping away from the hose and sudsy bucket like a military combatant in a building-to-building skirmish.
This is how Heather Hayes met the gelding she didn’t want, but couldn’t resist.
Hayes had come with a friend to check out sale horses they’d seen advertised on CANTER New England’s website. But she knew going in that the dark “seal” bay with bath-time issues wasn’t for her.
The warhorse had raced 188 times in a five-year career at tracks across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic before developing a slight tear in the cartilage of a pelvic joint. And Hayes was not interested in taking home a rehabilitation project.
Not until she happened upon the rollicking scene, that is. And as she watched the 16.3 hand bay, leap and frolic, expressing himself with upright elegance, she softened.
“He really was amazing to watch that day,” she says. “He has phenomenal conformation and a great overreach with his walk and trot. He really steps up under himself.”
Race name: Arbor Day
Dam: Bring An Apple
Foal March 21, 1997Where some may have seen a naughty horse, Hayes imagined a brilliant dressage prospect.
With high hopes, she took him back to Connecticut and settled him in. Then, with adequate time off to heal the pelvic cartilage tear, she began light training.
And then she noticed it.
“I started to see gait irregularity,” she says. “He was moving with a catch and slightly dragging his toe. And he also rested the foot quite a bit.”
Stopping the training immediately, she brought in a vet she calls a “godsend” and began searching for the cause. In the right hock, they found it: multiple fractures in the second and third tarsal.
“At this point, my only goal was to get him pasture sound,” she says, explaining that her dressage plans evaporated with the diagnosis.
For the next 18 months, Hayes spared no expense on her gelding’s care. “Everyday I’d come to the barn and ask him, ‘Do you want to do this?’ You can always tell when a horse has that look that says, ‘I’m done.’ He never had that look,” she says.
Arbor Day was put on a roster of medications and treatment, including hot and cold therapy, chiropractic care and massage. She also had him shod with a Standardbred racing “spider” plate that helps protect his frog while allowing airflow to circulate around his feet. “It’s done wonders for him,” she says. “The spider plate disperses the pressure on the frog in a much more natural way.”
From head to toe, he proved in the end to be resilient and tough.
His body healed beyond all expectations, emerging as a balanced, talented dressage mount who is always in the ribbons when he shows. Most recently he has strutted around King Oaks and Mystic Valley shows.
He is eagerly working on his trot and canter half-passes in both directions, gets ridden three days a week, and is the go-to horse for much more.
“Arbor Day is as solid as a rock mentally,” she says. “When I do clinics or teach people about dressage, he’s my Guinea pig. He’ll stand there for hours with me. And at Christmas, I dress him up like a reindeer and put all the kids on him. He doesn’t care.”
Hayes and Arbor Day share a birthday—March 21. Every year, she splits a carrot cake with him and a Guinness beer to celebrate how far they’ve come.
The daughter of a horse trainer, Hayes grew up riding green Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds before traveling to Germany to work as a catch rider at various barns. After earning a degree in equine science from Breyer State University of Alabama, she eventually settled in Connecticut to start her own farm.
She now owns six ex-racehorses and an assortment of other breeds, but always, she holds a special reverence for Thoroughbreds.
Especially the one who expressed his disdain for baths.
“I just like a hot, sensitive horse because you can channel that energy into so many things,” she says, noting that Arbor Day is schooling at third level and ready to show at second. He also goes great on trails, and as a driving horse.
“I’ve ridden him around cattle, he has gone to horse shows, and you can body clip him down to his brain stem,” she says. “He’s an amazing horse. I’d be lost without him.”