Recently, Patch the one-eyed Thoroughbred made headlines around the world when, with just a handful of races under his belt, he became one of only 20 three-year-olds in the country to qualify for and run in the 143rd Kentucky Derby. Though it’s easy to assume that this kind of injury would be career-ending, especially in disciplines like racing and jumping, for Heather Young, Patch’s story is not unfamiliar.
A horse’s worth, all too often, is ultimately defined by the number of blue ribbons he adds to his owner’s wall. But for Heather and her OTTB Norman, there was another prize altogether more valuable. Here is their story.
A year after I adopted Norman, or he adopted me, he developed what we now know was an abscess. At the time, his ophthalmologist thought he had uveitis and treated it as such which, from what I was told by the hospital, actually sealed the abscess into his cornea. Never having owned a horse and having little to no experience with them, combined with the fact that Norman was an ex-racehorse and a little hot headed at times, I wasn’t sure what I should do.
I didn’t really start riding until a few months before I adopted Norman. I used to ride every summer at a western horse sleep away camp for the month of July. I had always had an affinity towards horses and found that I felt at ease when I was with them. About four months before I adopted Norman (for my 40th birthday), I found myself in need of a hobby to de-stress me, so I turned back to something I hadn’t done since I was 13. This time, I decided to try English, because I always wanted to learn to jump.
I never thought I would own a horse even though I always joked around about it. When my husband asked me what I wanted for my birthday or Christmas, my response was always, “A pony!” So when I came across Norman at a rescue fundraiser I was attending to buy a helmet for my lessons, I couldn’t even imagine I would be lucky enough to be partnered with him by the end of the week.
After I found the helmet I wanted to buy, I made the mistake—or maybe it was fate—of going out into the field to see the horses they had up for adoption. They were all around their round hay bale, happily eating and oblivious to the people. As I watched them for a few minutes, I noticed this big bay pop his head up and start walking towards me. He kept his eyes focused on me and walked right up to the fence line and dropped his head to mine. That was it, I was in love.
“I think people assume that the loss of an eye limits a horse’s abilities or makes them less of a horse. I think, sometimes, it can make them better.”
That night, I went home to talk to my then husband about this horse I met and he reluctantly agreed (I think he was tired of me whining). I called the rescue the next day, only to be told they had already received a bunch of adoption applications for him and he was off to his new home. I told them to call me if he returned for whatever reason, and to my surprise, three hours later, they did.
It turns out, the lady who’d adopted him took him to her farm, put him into her herd where he was bitten and kicked, then brought him indoors to saddle him up. She tried to mount and he freaked out. He was rearing and would not calm down, so they put him back on the trailer and returned him to the rescue. The lady at the rescue called me to say he was back, they were leaving on vacation two days later, and that if I wanted him, they would drop him off on their way for me to try for the week. That is how this amazing boy came into my life. It’s weird how things tend to pop up when you need them the most.
I had no idea until about four months into owning Norman who he really was, as he would not allow anyone to touch his lips in order to read his tattoo. We found out later that Norman was a seven-year-old, off-track Thoroughbred who had raced under the name of Alydeed’s Leader (Alydeed X Dam Sounding Joy). Norman was foaled in April 1999 and his last race was in May 2005. He had a total of 40 starts and won two of them. He placed second 10 times and was third five times. At 17.3, he was incredibly large for a racehorse with (thankfully) no injuries. He was born in King City, Ontario, where Eric Lamaze is from, and was sold as a yearling in the Calgary sales. He raced at the Calgary, Tampa Bay, and Fort Erie race tracks.
Norman had ideas about doing thing his way right from the start. He had to be double-sedated in order to have his teeth done, and he never allowed anyone to deworm him (he would eat the dewormer but nobody could put it in his mouth). But he also had the kindest eyes, so careful and so smart. Around the barn, he was funny and sweet, and never put a step wrong.
We named him after the cow in City Slickers, as he had this puppy dog personality. He was great for the farrier and would do anything for a treat—including kisses on command and ‘giving a hoof’. He also knew how to open his stall door. He loved all other animals almost as much as he loved his Rice Krispies treats and vanilla lattes from Starbucks. Everyone that met him fell instantly in love with him.
Once, at a competition that was being held where he boarded, he couldn’t compete because of a bruised frog, so I took him out for a walk around. When he heard our coach’s voice coming from one of the judging tents, he wanted to see her, so he pulled me right into the tent. He was funny like that.
I wasn’t going to be another person that just gave up on him. He deserved more than that.
So it was difficult, in 2011, one year after I adopted him, when Norman’s abscess caused him to lose the vision in his right eye. I talked to his vet, to the barn staff, to fellow riders to get opinions on what I should do. How was he going to handle losing an eye? How was I going to handle him?
When I spoke to the doctors at the hospital where he was being treated, they told me a story about him. They said how smart he was and how quickly he’d figured out that when they wore their white coats and came into his stall, it meant they were going to poke him and go for his sore eye, so he would turn his head into the corner and lift it way up so they couldn’t get to him. The veterinary staff would literally have to leave, take off their white coats, and bring back a treat. Then and only then would Norman drop his head and turn around for them.
I still wasn’t sold, but I spent a day with him at the hospital, just sitting in his stall. I thought about what drew me to Norman initially—the fact that, honestly, I think he was as broken as I felt at the time. He had been left in a field by his owner that got him off the track after she had a baby. He was returned to the rescue that saved him less than a day after leaving it.
It was then that I decided that I wasn’t going to be another person that just gave up on him. He deserved more than that. Who cares if he never let me ride him again? I would still have the largest, most adorable lawn ornament.
Surprisingly, the physical recovery after Norman’s eye removal surgery was remarkably quick. He occasionally had bumps and bruises along the way, learning his boundaries on the right side. He also walked into walls and posts, and was picked on by some members of the herd on his blind side. Other than that, he did very well.
Norman had always been so very careful to ride, and he never put me in harm’s way. He would take down a fence before ever refusing to jump it. Once, before I could pull him up, he came into a corner on the wrong lead, lost his balance, and flipped over. It all happened so fast, and by the time I realized what was happening, we were both lying on the ground. He wasn’t moving, and I was so scared that I had killed him. I got up, and as soon as I was on my feet, he got up too. I realized he had been lying that still because he was afraid of hurting me.
“Right up to the end, he was doing it his way…that was just the kind of horse he was. He was Norman.”
So I felt safe—once he was cleared by his doctor six months into his recovery—trying to get back on Norman. He, however, was having none of it. He would rear at the mounting block and bolt. And though I never felt he was trying to injure me, he was clearly trying to avoid the situation. I tried everything I could think of to get on: treats, someone holding him, another horse standing next to him, but nothing worked. I then heard about a gentleman in the area that practiced Parelli natural horsemanship and thought, It couldn’t hurt.
The man came out and within 30 minutes, he’d figured out the issue. Norman had lost his right eye and was uncomfortable with me mounting on the left because it left the right vulnerable. I shifted the mounting block to his right side, and, voila! I was up, and he was the perfect horse he was before he lost his eye.
I think people assume that one eye will limit a horse’s abilities or make them less of a horse. I think, sometimes, it can make them better. The partnership and trust it created between Norman and I was immeasurable. The only thing that changed in the way I rode him was how much rein I gave him over fences. He needed to be able to tilt his head before a jump to really size it up. Even after losing his eye, Norman never refused a jump. His favorite training exercises were bounce lines. We had been training him as a hunter before his surgery, and we began training him for the jumper in ring in 2015.
Just over a year ago, the barn staff found Norman standing in his stall in the morning nickering at them. They didn’t notice the blood until they opened his stall to feed him. Norman had shattered his femur sometime in the night, but he never went down. As always, he wouldn’t allow them to give him Bute in his mouth, so they had to inject him, and when they took him into the indoor riding arena, he walked on his own without assistance. When the vet came, it took them three rounds of sedation just to get him to lie down before they euthanized him. Right up to the end, he was doing it his way…that was just the kind of horse he was. He was Norman.
I really don’t know enough about other breeds, but for me, I love the Thoroughbred’s spirit, athleticism and connection to one human—they are definitely a one-person horse. They give 100 percent in everything and always try so hard to not disappoint you. At least, that is how Norman was. I would love to see more of these amazing athletes that finish their racing careers at such a young age be re-homed and repurposed. They have so much heart and so much to give. I know when I am ready to adopt again, it will be another off-the-track Thoroughbred.
A few years before he died, I wrote a children’s book about Norman’s life. I thought about his story, how far he had come, and everything he had been through. He never gave up. He was never mean, and while he had every right to fear us, he was goofy and sweet and willing. I thought Norman could teach kids a little bit about believing in yourself and how not to give up and what happens when you have someone else who believes in you. The fact that he was a real horse that lost his eye and didn’t just survive but thrived—that maybe that might just give them a little bit of courage too.
- Mavis Spencer’s 15 Emotional Phases of WEF 2017 [NF Style]
- Why I Chose to Quit Riding Professionally to Pursue My University Degree [NF Style]
- Jennifer Bliss: When Your Sale Horse Becomes Your Horse of a Lifetime [NF Style]