Redefining Heart

By Tracie Bjugan

PROLOGUE: This is a story about an amazing horse that I had the pleasure to own. Dutchess was peacefully put down in October, 2000. Her spirit will always live on in my heart.

Beginning a story about Dutchess is something that I have been planning to do for more than 6 years. It is almost like there is a novel in my head, just waiting to come out. This is a story about the most incredible friend that I had the pleasure to know. She graced my life for over 10 years, as well as the lives of several others along the way. This is a story about courage, strength, and heart.

Most experienced horse persons agree that the green horse - green rider combination is usually disastrous. I don't necessary disagree, but I guess it depends upon your definition of disaster. The sequence of events that brought Dutchess and I together would probably make a good basis for a sitcom plot. I decided, at age 25, I wanted to learn to ride horses, and jumping looked especially cool. So, being the practical person that I am, I decided I needed to find someone that knew about jumping horses and go buy myself one.

I found someone at work who had a horse, and knew someone who knew someone else, who had heard of a trainer named Jeff Campf - and thought he might have a jumping horse. I called Jeff, and sure enough, he had a horse. I was very excited, and headed out to see this wonderful creature. There she was - skinny as a rail, straight off the track from California, brown/black (later I learned this was called "Bay"), just turned 4, TB mare. Jeff put her through a jump chute a couple of times…. Sure enough, she could jump. "She's perfect! I'll take her!" - a few years later I would learn about such things as pre-purchase vet exams, and perhaps seeing the horse under saddle prior to purchase. Of course Jeff asked me if I wanted to try her out, but I was too embarrassed to admit I didn't know how. So step one was completed. I had my jumping horse.

I spent most of the next year learning the basics of horse care and riding. Dutchess started learning things like stop, turn, and "wait until the rider finishes mounting before you take off galloping!". We definitely had our disastrous moments, but we both did survive. Sometimes our rides ended with me on top, sometimes her. But we did learn. Dutchess would greet me every day with enthusiasm, eager to work, eager to please. Throughout those initial years, the patience she displayed amazes me to this day. No matter how unbalanced, uncoordinated, inconsistent, and sometimes just plain unfair my aids were, she still tried. She always tried.

I learned to ride, and Dutchess learned to jump. She was good at it too. Dutchess and I eventually teamed up with David and Wendy Eith at Winter Hill Farm, and David brought Dutchess through her first season of eventing, undefeated. Dutchess loved cross-country, and wasn't afraid of anything. I, on the other hand, watched David and Dutchess make a few too many bold, heart-stopping jumps, and decided maybe I'd stick to show jumping. Both Dutchess and I seemed to have more guts than brains, and the combination didn't seem entirely brilliant.

I learned about the depth of Dutchess' toughness a couple years later when she started showing some very minor lameness over jump courses. It was an off-and-on sort of lameness, and just seemed to give her a twinge every once in a while. I brought her in to get her hind leg x-rayed, and the results show a clear, and relatively large, fracture of the hind splint bone. The fracture was at least 3 weeks old. There was a pretty big knot in my stomach that day. I had been asking this incredible horse to jump fences with a broken bone in her leg, and she had obliged. It wasn't until that day that I started to understand what kind of heart she truly had.

Dutchess then had to do the dreaded "stall rest" thing to let her fracture heal….("stall rest" to Dutchess was an oxymoron-picture a caged, claustrophobic tiger on steroids). During this time, I noticed a golf ball size lump had developed just beneath the skin under her tail. I called a vet to look at it, but there was no resolution to the mystery. The lump was not fluid filled, and Dutchess had no other diagnostic signs that would help explain. She was slightly anemic, but that was attributed to her reduced diet to keep her from combusting the entire barn during her stall rest.

The fracture healed and the lump disappeared as mysteriously as it appeared. Dutchess and I resumed our training and I discovered dressage. Dutchess wasn't too terribly thrilled with the dressage thing, but being who she was, she gave it everything she had. About 9 months later, another lump appeared, this time on her barrel near the girth area. I called yet another vet to look at it in hopes of a diagnosis. This time I was told not to worry about it, because it was just scar tissue. So I ignored it for another couple of months, but it didn't go away. Something told me I needed to pursue this, and I shouldn't ignore it. I called yet another vet, Dr. Kimberly Maltmann, and asked her to remove the lump and do a biopsy. Dr. Maltmann came out and performed the minor surgery while I watched. The lump was a simple mass of yellowish tissue about the size of a ping-pong ball, just beneath the skin and attached to the first layer of muscle tissue. It looked strangely out of place, but not particularly noteworthy. There seemed to be no swelling, irritation, or signs of infection anywhere near the area. Dr. Maltmann prepared the biopsy specimen and sent if off to the lab. We'd know more in a couple of days.

I'll never forget the phone call from Dr. Maltmann. It was February, a dreary day, and I was in my office looking out the window at a trash dumpster (some offices have nicer views than others). The lab diagnosis was cutaneous lymphosarcoma - cancer. The prognosis was grim - it would continue to spread and eventually be fatal. There were no known treatments or cure. Some experimental procedures and drugs had been tried, but results were mediocre at best. It was February of 1995.

Suddenly my life had been given a big jolt, and I found myself needing to quickly adjust and make decisions. How could it be true that this living being, so full of life and strength, could be dying? I decided I wanted to breed Dutchess and bring as much of her as possible into a new life. I started down the path of selecting a stallion, which I knew nothing about, and engaged the help of a local veterinarian and breeding specialist, Dr. Barb Crabbe and Michelle Ives. When it came time to start the breeding process however, we hit another bump in the road. After consulting several different vets, I came to the very hard realization that Dutchess may not live long enough to have a foal, and in fact the pregnancy itself might accelerate the cancer. But it was all guesswork, and no one really knew for sure what would happen, or how long Dutchess would live.

That was when I was introduced to a new and fascinating process called embryo transfer. I also was introduced to Dr. Lisa Metcalf and the embryo transfer program at Colorado State University (CSU). Over the next few months Dr. Metcalf, Dutchess, and I began the incredible adventure of creating new life, and beating the odds. With assistance from others, I selected the Hanoverian stallion, Bordeaux, for the breeding. Dutchess' first cycle came up empty, no embryo was found in the flush. Her second cycle produced something that we thought might be an embryo, but the vets at CSU reported that the flush contents were negative. At this point I was starting to panic… what if we couldn't get Dutchess pregnant? Just as Dutchess' third cycle was coming near, we got news that the stallion, Bordeaux, had coliced and gone in for emergency surgery. He would be unavailable for breeding for at least 6 weeks. Now what?

I had about 2 hours to make a decision to avoid missing Dutchess' third cycle. Thanks to Susanne Hassler, an extremely understanding staff at Hilltop Farm, and the wonders of modern business - Fed-Ex, fax, email, and Visa - we had a new stallion. Hilltop Farm's Holsteiner stallion, Cor Noir, was the new daddy-to-be.

At this point, our luck finally started to change. The first cycle produced a perfect embryo that I was able to see under the microscope. We tried for a second embryo also, to increase the odds for success, and were successful on the next cycle. Both embryos were sent to CSU and implanted in surrogate mares. Then I had to wait….

The science of the whole process was a bit mind-boggling. I kept wondering how I would know if the foals were actually the same embryos I had viewed in the microscope. I actually had dreams about baby horses being born with antennas and zebra stripes.

The first mare came back with positive pregnancy tests on both 14-day and 21-day tests after implant. I was ecstatic! The second mare came back with a negative pregnancy test at 14 days. It appeared that we had indeed played the odds correctly, and I was going to have my baby Dutchess. Then the 21-day pregnancy test came back on the second mare - it was positive. CSU explained that sometimes the 14-day test would produce a false negative on the pregnancy, and the second mare was indeed pregnant. I was again ecstatic, but this time the practical side of my personality interrupted the celebration.

The way that the embryo transfer program works, you agree to purchase any mares that become pregnant once they are confirmed in foal. I was relatively prepared for one, but not two! In addition, I was now looking at 2 stud fees instead of one. Suddenly the fact that I had a house on a small lot, had Dutchess boarded, and had no horse trailer became a bit disconcerting. The reality was that my horse population was going to grow from one to five in the next 12 months!

The surrogate mares arrived via Bob Hubbard's horse transportation that fall. They were quite a sight! The mare that carried the first embryo was a short, but very wide, palomino quarter horse type. The second mare was bay, and looked like a Thoroughbred. They were given the "oh so creative" names of Butterscotch and Cocoa. Thanks to the generosity of David and Wendy Eith, I was able to keep the whole crew at their farm. David created a foaling stall and arranged a separate pasture and run-in shed for the mares and foals that next spring.
The spring of 1996 brought two new lovely lives into the world, but not without plenty of adventure and anxiety to go along with it. Butterscotch's foal was a colt, born May 3rd. I cannot explain the incredible feeling of watching a birth, remembering what that embryo looked like in the microscope, and seeing this huge black TB/Holsteiner baby come out of this tiny palomino Quarter Horse! The colt (named "Dutch Treat") stood over 44" tall, and looked like a strange version of a daddy-long-legged spider. Within an hour we realized we had a bit of a problem on our hands. Dutch couldn't figure out how to nurse because he was so tall, and Butterscotch was so short. It's amazing the things you overlook when you start playing around with nature. It took Dutch 8 hours to finally figure out how to spread all his legs out and twist his head around to nurse. Butterscotch was on her tippy-toes.
Three and a half weeks later, Cocoa foaled. This time it was a filly, (named "Café Noir"), absolutely identical to her brother. I was on a business trip in New Zealand when she was born, and to this day I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Lonnie and Mike Sexton for taking care of the new foal during some initial scary moments. By the time I was able to get home and see Café Noir, I was quite thankful that I had one of each sex, because that was the only means for telling them apart (even to this day). There was no doubt that these were the right embryos.

Through all of this, Dutchess and I continued our training and competition in both jumping and dressage. She seemed undaunted by the cancer, and worked as hard as ever. The lumps slowly grew and spread throughout her body, but we modified tack, monitored her health and nutrition, and kept her in training. She loved to work, and when she didn't get enough attention or work, she would let me know - When Dutchess felt neglected, she would abruptly turn her rear end toward me when I arrived at her stall. It usually took a lot of carrots and extra grooming to be completely forgiven. The explanations about how I had to work late at the office so I could feed all the new mouths didn't seem to impress her much, but in the end she would always forgive, forget, and give me her all.

Eventually, after the purchase of a new property in Sherwood, I was able to bring my horses home. Butterscotch and Cocoa were sold after the foals were weaned; Dutchess and the (now) yearlings moved to Sherwood. Dutchess and I had now focused on dressage, and Dutchess somehow found the ability to make her very non-dressage conformation succeed at the sport anyway. There was never a question in my mind about whether or not she could manage the movements - she had conquered anything and everything I had put in front of her.
Eventually, after the purchase of a new property in Sherwood, I was able to bring my horses home. Butterscotch and Cocoa were sold after the foals were weaned; Dutchess and the (now) yearlings moved to Sherwood. Dutchess and I had now focused on dressage, and Dutchess somehow found the ability to make her very non-dressage conformation succeed at the sport anyway. There was never a question in my mind about whether or not she could manage the movements - she had conquered anything and everything I had put in front of her.

Year after year Dutchess and I would show up at the next season of competitions, and so many people would comment in amazement about the fact that she was not only still alive, but fit, competing, and winning! Dutchess competed 5 full years beyond the first appearance of the cancer. In 1998, she developed an acute lameness in her right stifle. X-rays didn't reveal any information, and the next step was arthroscopic surgery. At that time, I decided against the surgery, and instead decided she deserved a cushy retirement plan. She spent the next 8 months playing in the pasture….. And she hated it. The cancer had again advanced, her mood was dull, she had lost weight, and her eye had lost its sparkle. I thought this was it, and it was time to say good-bye.

But I brought her back in to the barn and put her on the lunge line. Amazingly, the lameness from the stifle was almost completely gone! Not only that, but after the short session on the lunge line, I noticed a marked difference in her mood the next day. She wanted to go back to work….. And so, we did. With the help of Dr. Crabbe and a careful rehab program, Dutchess went back to work, this time as a school horse. Her mood improved, she gained weight, and the sparkle in her eye returned.

Throughout the next several months, Dutchess taught others about dressage as a school horse. She was ridden 2 and 3 times a day, and even competed again in 1999 (and took some blues). This was truly a reincarnation of the Energizer bunny with a Timex watch.

Dutchess provided schooling lessons as long as she was able, and probably some beyond that. This past spring she took me on trail rides, and took a new yearling under her wing as a pasture buddy. Dutchess loved life and squeezed every last ounce out of it that she could.

This week I said good-bye to my partner and my friend. My sole wish for her is that she is now happy and pain-free, and that she is able to continue her zest in her next life. After Dutchess was gone, Dr. Crabbe investigated the right stifle….. The entire stifle area was encased in a solid tumor. The tumor had probably been growing there for years.

I expected that Dutchess would teach me to ride, but I never expected how much more there was. In the end, what she really taught me was patience, unconditional love, strength and courage, but most of all, she completely redefined the word heart.

EPILOGUE 2000: Dutch Treat and Café Noir are now both 4 years old. I still own Dutch Treat, and we have just begun competing in dressage. Riding him is an absolute joy. He "rides" like Dutchess, sounds like Dutchess, and even takes a half halt like Dutchess. Café Noir was sold to Karyn Albrecht, and is training to be a jumper. I cannot wait to watch her in future years. My life has been truly blessed by the gift of Dutchess' legacy.