To Heaven and Back

An adult amateur’s off-the-track Thoroughbred overcomes a rare life-threatening diagnosis to regain success in the eventing world.

Allison Sandifer and Baron © Britt Gillis

Sitting outside the show stable at the American Eventing Championships in Tryon, North Carolina, last summer, I had a moment of clarity. I was with my chestnut gelding, Baron, who wasn’t supposed to be there. In fact, he wasn’t supposed to be alive. But there I was waiting for my cross-country ride time with my sweet little horse who previously had no hope of living past his 7th birthday. Now 10, Baron is making my dreams become a reality.

Baron is an off-the-racetrack Thoroughbred I found through the nonprofit organization CANTER in 2010 at the Penn National Racetrack and brought home to North Carolina. At the time, I was looking forward to the challenges of a 3-year-old, and boy did they come. Most of our rides included gallops even when I thought we were just going for a hack. Tiny fences felt massive when we jumped over them, and Baron investigated water obstacles with the intensity of a biologist. When he was 5 and started to settle into his work, I thought we had turned the corner. We were having consistently successful rides. The last thing I expected was news of cancer and a six-month to two-year life span.

Baron had developed a bony mass on his lower jaw early in 2013. It grew rapidly to the size of a fist and he couldn’t tolerate the pressure of a noseband. Several months of tests and bone biopsies finally became conclusive in the late spring, and he was diagnosed with myeloma—a malignant tumor of the bone marrow. Surrounded by supportive family and friends and armed with a quart of ice cream and a bottle of wine, I eventually was able to allow my denial to fade to acceptance, and I retired sweet Baron to live out his next few months with lots of love and peppermints. I cried as I watched his coat fade and his tail hair fall out. My heart broke as he withdrew from the touch of my hand on his side. He shifted from being a boundless ball of energy to becoming reserved and dispirited. The only consistency was his desire to be first to dinner; he wasn’t going to let his wounded jaw and bandaged head keep him from a meal. His hunger convinced me he still wanted to live. I didn’t feel right putting him down—it just wasn’t his time yet.

I visited him often and celebrated a full year of life with extra peppermints and assumed his brighter appearance was a mirage. I started riding other horses and eventually purchased a young Connemara-cross named Flynn with the idea that he would help ease the pain of eventually losing Baron.

Months went by—and Baron’s health flourished. I couldn’t believe my terminally ill horse was actually sick. I consulted with veterinarians around the country willing to help with his unusual case. After months of tests, he was declared “as healthy as a horse” without a clear idea of what happened to the cancer.

Sadly, I had formed a new bond with Flynn but I couldn’t afford to keep them both. So with my overwhelming joy of having Baron back from the dead, I also had to say goodbye to Flynn. Another quart of ice cream and a few bottles of wine later, I sent him off to a lovely new home and turned to Baron, who was elated to be my one-and-only again.

Baron’s only handicap is a bony mass on his lower mandible, but he is comfortable wearing a Micklem bridle or figure-eight noseband. I began riding him again in the fall of 2015, two years after his initial “retirement.” He was enthusiastic in his work, and within seven months we qualified to compete at the 2016 American Eventing Championships and that season we finished third in the Novice division at the Area II Championships. We returned to the AEC last summer where we finished ninth in a very competitive Novice Adult Amateur division.

Baron and I just completed our first Training level combined test on our dressage score. As I entered the ring for the competition, I couldn’t help but smile when Baron’s Jockey Club name, Uptoheavnnbakagain, was announced. Sometimes I wonder if the name was a prophecy—that my little red boy wasn’t ready for heaven and he came back to me.

This article was originally published in the January 2018 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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