Darby’s Story: From death’s door to Equitana & beyond – it’s a miracle.

With the world ahead of him this beautifully bred stunning quarter horse, Darby, was entrusted to high-profile training couple in reining and dressage to start and train for his show career as a 2 1/2 yo. He was smart, super athletic with incredible movement and a strong mind.

His story is devastating; and the love of a dedicated owner, vet and a team of people saved his life. Months of veterinary care and two years rehabilitation of his health and mind, then a young lad came into his world and showed miracles happen. It is a long read but worth the time. Get a coffee and you will be shocked, appalled and speechless what this horse went through.

Dying and suffering incredible pain

Darby arrived from a 1500km trip and collapsed to die: he was suffering unbelievable mental and physical pain as his body broke down. He should never have been put on a transporter – he should never have been allowed to deteriorate so severely before the trip was made. He was in full livery and paying top dollar for his care but his condition showed otherwise.

Darby’s Victorian vet arrived within 20 minutes of the truck dropping him off home, and was confronted with a horse that was delirious and in severe pain. Immediately sedated for his own safety the inspections began. He was some 150 kgs underweight with muscles diminishing all over his body – He was smaller than his size as a yearling. He was shaking and collapsing and had problems passing urine. His body was so weak Darby was dying before our eyes. The trucking company unloaded him quickly, the only horse in the truck, and shot out the gate, we worked out quickly why. They were compromised being asked to deliver such a sick animal.

He would not eat the pellet product they had been feeding, but presenting grains he ate with vigour. He detests pellets and to this day will not touch them. Although in pain his body was demanding food and he started eating as much as he could of quality specially grown rye hay and hard feeds of chaffs and grain. He was starving for nourishment and to fill his stomach. A stomach full of ulcers.

Blood tests don’t lie

First blood tests revealed he had dangerously low red blood cells which is the oxygen supply for his body. Extremely low white cells as he battled unknown infections in his body. Darby would most likely die at any time. We stayed with him providing 24/7 care and to manage the pain. He was on a special dietary and hematanics regime, painkillers, etc. His strong mind kept fighting against all odds.

His next bloods showed little improvement. He was lying down most of the day and night and was continuing to stumble and shake when he stood. Broader tests were run, and he was also positive to Ross River Fever (RRF), so his little body was suffering huge aches and pains on top of the deterioration from no red blood cells. The vets confirming, they are definitely two separate issues he was fighting. From what we could diagnose, he was in advanced state of the RRF virus and most likely been suffering for months as he was well progressed with the virus.

Poor Darby had many things wrong from being in their care. But let’s take a step back in time before he arrived home.

The months prior

Having continual issues of the horse not being fed enough roughage, he remained smaller in size. The diet advised by their pellet company as unsuitable due to the lack of roughage. They would not change even with an open cheque book to buy what he needed. He was shod in rockers and shoes too big for him. He feet were deteriorating and all they could say was he would only ever be a small horse and he had crooked legs. He was narrow gutted and no working muscle on his body.

Then they attempt to show him in his first show, and he is pinged out lame in just minute of being in the ring. Then falsely diagnosed by the trainers with a hoof abscess in the near hind, we visited the horse to immediately identify a stifle injury in the off hind. Vets were called and a torn meniscus confirmed; they were still trying to ride him. He was underweight and needed six weeks before he could travel back home with his injury. The horse was flat, underweight (and size) and seemed to be switched off.

He was put in special care with vet instructions. Two months later in their care, he was seriously compromised by the care they were (not) providing. He had stomach ulcers just to add to the damage too. His condition had deteriorated rapidly. They laughed that another horse had eaten off his forelock through his hood. They attempted the lines “he must have been like it before he got there” obviously a tried and true excuse – but it did not fly after 14 months.

What others observed

Home on our farm, five months of dedicated care and medications and he had put back on weight. He had shifted from a 5’9” rug he arrived with to a 6’3”. He was still suffering the effects of RRF but was managing with a degree of comfort each day. He had a mare friend who stood by him throughout the months and she certainly helped bring him back.

A well-known race trainer visited our farm and remarked (without knowing his story) he had Vietnam eyes. His eyes were black and lifeless. His farrier related to him as being a horse that had down-syndrome. Darby had shut down mentally to manage the pain. He was a hypochondriac now and the thought of any potential pain, he shut down. We just kept looking after him and resigned to him being a paddock horse with extra care needs. Fortunately with enough land and him being a fourth generation bred horse our loyalty and love for him was unwavering.

Groaning when saddled and threw himself down

Two years on, Darby was happy and feeling good playing in the paddock. One day we decided to saddle him (14 months training bills to be tested) and were met with savage rearing, striking and kicking horse with ears flat back. Geesh. Maybe no work he was being grumpy we continued on. Finally saddled, he threw himself down on his knees and groaned like he was in pain. It was frightening, and we could not get the saddle off quick enough. Fourteen months of training with them and he hated saddles. He related it to significant pain.

Different approach brings enlightenment

A few months later discussing it with some experienced horseman, the suggestion was “jump on him bareback and see what he does.” Darby stood quietly then walked off happily toward his paddock. But, his steering was like a green horse, but he was calm. All winter was spent just riding him bareback up and down the drive from his paddock to the stable. He could not handle anything outside of this routine, but slowly headway was being made until he felt pressure. He continued to black out.

Saddled again and what a ride

Come Spring, the decision was made to attempt to saddle him again, and this time he was more receptive. The saddling was not as traumatic, but he was worried. We stepped on, and he immediately threw his head to the ground. If you touched the reins, he shifted to a rollkur headset even on big loose reins. He hated going in circles even after just a few laps of the round yard and the expression Drilled Numb was the consensus among all.

We opened the gate and headed down the drive. Darby was a green breaker to ride with no balance, no steering, looking for reins and legs to lean on. His trot was wayward and could not balance to canter. Appalling dead sided from spurs, the horse was a train wreck to ride. He could not go forward in a straight line, and any sign of going in a circle and the head dropped to the ground, and he started vocally grumbling. It was like teaching a beginner all over again that came with baggage.

We rode him in a big open paddock with trees and started to get basics on him. The moment he felt pressure the hypochondriac came through, and he shifted to block out mode with his head buried in his chest – on long loose reins. He was ready to fight anything that he thought would hurt him. He had a switch in him, and he could become dangerous. You could feel it there when you rode him. Destined to be a paddock horse only he was set to a happy life on the farm doing very little.

Darby’s (and ours) lucky break

In 2018 a young man, arrived on the farm to start some other horses for us; he had a way about him with horses. He heard the Darby story and wanted to try and help him. He said the approach is to do things he had never done before, so the horse was less likely to resist. To build his confidence in new good jobs and stay away from the ‘trainer’ regime.

He started groundwork and played with him, teaching him tricks like bowing and how to do a line dance and free work. Darby loved it, and we all watched with amazement the bond he was building with Darby. They were like a couple of kids playing and Darby was at the gate waiting for him everyday.

The young lad decided it was time to ride him and he was shocked at how the horse immediately showed signs of defensiveness and fear towards saddling. He agreed, the horse had issues and something big was brewing if he went under too much pressure. The young lad had plenty of experience riding rank horses, so he said it’s time to cowboy up and see what happens.

The two of them started riding together, and Danny made his time riding fun to build Darby’s confidence. No training, just good old fashion play out in the paddocks, through the trees and over the creek. The pressure walls were still there, and then one day he was triggered by a farm-bike passing, and it was on. He bucked all fours 3 foot off the ground and seemed to black out; he landed and was getting out of there. Danny just sat tight and laughed, going with the flow then loped off getting back to what they were doing. No spurring, jerking and reprimanding just loping along.

The horse was clearly shocked as he was prepared for a fight – he expected it and had his warrior mind ready. He had learned to pigroot with the trainer (on film during a dressage lesson) and also; it was suggested he was too much horse for them. What Darby learned that day was that he would not be punished or hurt – nothing bad would happen to him and he and nothing to fear. He may just have to lope a lot further and expend some energy. He still had issues but it not getting the response he was used to, and he was becoming less of a hypochondriac about things.

A special connection

Darby’s life got better every day. Long rides down the road, moving cattle next door, throwing ropes off him, jumping logs, galloping through the bush. A young nephew came and rode him around bareback and played with him. This young man, Danny Kopa, had performed a miracle and the horse was now rideable and loving life. Still boisterous but that comes with great athletic ability. The training continued, and his talent was starting to come through.

During play, Danny opened Darby’s athletic ability getting him to use his body and Darby strength grew, his body filled out and he loved doing harder jobs. Darby thought Danny was the best bunch of fun ever and loved being part of it. His head was held proudly and a twinkle in his eye. We let him travel with his head higher than usual now as he is just so proud of himself and loves life.

Danny’s cousin arrived from New Zealand to compete in the Way of the Horse competition at Equitana. He was saddened about what the horse had been through and could feel the underlying issues. Horses don’t lie and Darby told the story just being around him. He asked to have a ride on him and just loved him. He asked to use him at Equitana for his presentation on emotional connections with horses. Danny supported the idea, so he was booked to go.

From deaths door to Equitana

Equitana were again running the Connection Challenge; Danny was reserve champion the year prior in NZ and wanted to enter him. It was agreed and we trusted Danny would look after him. So, Darby and Danny loaded up with our other show horse and we headed to Equitana.

On arrival, Darby was expectantly over whelmed, and time was spent settling him out on the open arenas. Loping around and working amongst the horses learning that all would be fine. He still puts in the occasional jibbing or pigrooting session under pressure but its manageable. He settled down and started to have fun.

One of the ranch horse educators needed a horse to do a basic roping demonstration so yes, Darby and Danny put their hands (hoof) up and helped.

Darby and Danny walked through Equitana to his roping demonstration in the John Deere arena. Then off to his demonstration with Tui Teki aboard in the Epsom building. Later that day up to compete in the Connection Challenge. The public were taking photos saying what a magnificent, proud horse he was, and complimenting on how beautiful. Darby was in the limelight and was loving it. Danny had a pretty big smile too.

He was not the Connection competition winner, but he filled all our hearts with joy. Danny Kopa gave us a miracle in bringing Darby through.

Darby’s vet watching the connection video of him was just overwhelmed with joy. His farrier even giving him a little hug with joy. His support team is giving him lots of hugs too.

Darby was his own winner. He had recovered from shocking neglect and suffering and was now trusting and loving life again.

Darby is now starting his show career and being hauled to events. He still has issues under show pressure, but he is getting better each time.

Watch the video of him at Equitana and scroll down to see his show photos.

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The story continues…………….

Reserve Champion Halter Horse against 14 horses – AQHA  AA Show at Big Valley Quarter Horse Association