Ottawa real-estate agent Heather Young wasn’t looking to acquire a horse when she headed to a 2010 fundraiser at Heaven Can Wait Equine Rescue in Cameron, Ontario. What she really wanted was riding clothes. Then she saw Norman.
At 17.2 hands, the bay Thoroughbred gelding was hard to miss. And when he noticed the woman gazing at him from across the fence, he stopped eating and walked over to her. “He just had a spirit that talked to me,” Heather says. Still, she didn’t give serious thought to adopting the former racehorse until she was on her way home. A call to the rescue yielded disappointing results: Norman already had been spoken for. But Heather left her number just in case those arrangements somehow didn’t work out. A few hours later, she learned the plans had fallen through and she could adopt him.
Canadian bred and born in 1999 as Alydeed’s Leader, Norman raced 40 times in his career. He failed to experience the same caliber of success as his sire, Alydeed, who finished second in the 1992 Preakness Stakes, or his great, great grandsire, Northern Dancer, who won both the 1964 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes among other major titles. But Norman’s record at the racetrack was immaterial to Heather, a first-time horse owner. Her plan was to put some weight on her skinny new acquisition, then begin working him on the flat and progress to jumping.
It was the next June that Norman’s right eye began to water endlessly and seemed inexplicably locked in a squint. Tests revealed an infection as the cause. But even treatment at an equine hospital couldn’t resolve the condition. Heather was faced with a difficult choice: have the eye removed or put Norman down.
“Someone had to fight for him,” Heather remembers. So she gave the go-ahead for surgery and prepared for what she knew would be a long and challenging recuperation.
As Norman’s wound mended, Heather started him with ground work—lots of it—and incorporated methods from trainer Pat Parelli’s Natural Horsemanship program. It took eight months before Norman would let Heather on his back. Through trial and error, she discovered that she had to mount on his right side, where he couldn’t see her. To remind Norman how to be a riding horse, Heather returned him to the basics. This meant teaching him to bend before they slowly progressed to jumping. From the saddle, Heather would use a loose rein so Norman could turn his head to see with his left eye. Gradually, she lessened the slack in the rein and encouraged him to move like a horse with normal vision.
Norman now lives at Numech Equestrian Centre, in Stittsville, Ontario, where he’s been demonstrating his ability as a competition hunter. He started out with Heather in flat classes at several B-rated shows and earned ribbons and then moved on to the Green Hunter division with a trainer, where he collected several ribbons and one championship. Heather believes that Norman’s training is more advanced now than it was before he lost his eye, and she couldn’t be more proud of the accomplishments of the horse she didn’t intend to adopt.
That’s a large part of why Norman also is something of a literary darling among pint-sized, horse-loving readers. In 2012, Heather published Norman, a heartwarming and award-winning story about a kind, determined horse whose jumping ability is adversely affected by the loss of vision in one eye. Determined not to disappoint his loyal young rider, Norman teaches himself to jump once again. The message of the story: With a little hard work and a good friend who believes in you, you can overcome any obstacle.
A second book, Norman and the Bully, was published last year. It tells the story of how Norman came to befriend Brutus, a champion show jumper with a big chip on his shoulder and no rider in his saddle.
For a horse who nearly lost his life three years ago, Norman has come a long way. He is also active on social media and chronicles his adventures on Facebook. Through his loss of sight, he serves as an inspiration to many.
For more information about adopting a rescue horse, go to www.ahomeforeveryhorse.com.
This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.