Thursday, November 30, 2017

In Memory of Walden

We had a very sad day a couple of weeks ago when we had to say goodbye to Walden. We met Walden, his mom, and some of his connections over six years ago when Walden and his best buddy Fabrizzio joined us for retirement. Walden had a storied career and wonderful life, and we had the honor of caring for him in his retirement.

Wonderful Walden and his mom at the jog for the Pan American Games; Clix photos

Walden was born and bred in Germany. Walden was a Hanoverian and his sire was Wittelsbach. He was entered in the Verden sale as a two year old and purchased by a well known dressage trainer based in the states on a tip that Walden was a very good horse. Walden was then imported to the United States as a two year old. The trainer loved him but was concerned that Walden would not get to be very big so he was sold.

Walden and his mom taking a gold medal victory lap at the Pan American Games

Another victory lap for Walden and his mom; Terri Miller photo

Walden was purchased as an engagement gift for a very lucky woman and placed in training with Marco Bernal.  Marco once told Walden’s mom that Walden was one of the most difficult young horses he had ever had in training. Something happened and the new owner’s engagement was called off. Thus Walden, the engagement present, was sold again.  At this point Walden was six years old, and the horse that others had previously thought might be too small had grown to be over 17 hands tall.

Walden showing off his beautiful canter in a victory lap; Terri Miller photo

Walden was sent to Southern Pines, North Carolina to Jules Nyssen to be sold. Several “name” riders looked at Walden and passed on him for various reasons. In the meantime, Walden’s mom was living in Ohio. She was a single mom with two young boys who was trying to balance raising her kids with running a small boarding and training farm. She had a few of her own young horses and an old FEI schoolmaster that served as a lesson horse. When Walden’s mom was younger she was ambitious and dreamed of someday riding for her country. Marriage, motherhood, divorce and everyday life made her give those dreams up.

Walden and his mom

However, Walden’s mom had told her long-time trainer Carole Grant to keep her eyes open and let her know if she ever came across a horse she just had to see. As fate would have it, Carole sent her a video of a six year old chestnut, Hanoverian gelding in Southern Pines, North Carolina. Walden’s mom said her first thought upon watching the video was that the horse had a very sparse tail. However, he looked well trained and was a super mover, so the tail thing quickly became unimportant. She decided to make a trip to North Carolina to meet Walden in person.

Bruno, Duesy and Walden enjoying a carefree retirement

Duesy, Walden and Havana living the retired life

When she first saw Walden in his stall she said her heart sank. Walden was somewhat lanky and a very plain horse. She said she thought to herself that he looked sort of like a brown paper bag and her first thought was that she was not interested. That thought changed as she watched Walden being warmed up. Instead of feeling not interested she started to get more and more interested. Once she rode Walden herself she said she immediately fell in love and had no doubts that she wanted him.

Walden and Fabrizzio

the chestnut club on the move; Remmy, Baner, Hesse and Walden

Walden and his mom had only been together for a few months when she decided he was something very special. At that time Hilda Gurney was showing a horse that was named Walden. In his mom’s words, “I actually had the audacity to think that there was a chance that my Walden might be up to competing with a horse that an Olympian was riding. I did a very uncharacteristic thing for me, I changed my horse’s name to Wonderful Walden. This is so not the sort of thing I would ever do, but I really felt that my Walden was wonderful, and that he was the sort of horse that, once people saw him, they would agree.”

Walden (2nd from left) and friends enjoying a gallop around the pasture

Walden, Duesy and Havana

At that point Walden’s mom said her life started revolving around Wonderful Walden. “I was so lucky that I had my own farm and could properly manage this super high energy horse. I compared him to a jet ski because he had so much go. I often referred to him as my all day horse because he could go all day. He loved his turn out time and he rarely had a day off. Some days he was even ridden twice, once for a training session and again on trails. I often lunged him some before riding him. If boarders were riding in the ring, sometimes I would just have to leave the ring and try again later. My father saw Walden cavorting around in the pasture one day and he asked my mother if she knew what sort of horse I was riding. My sons asked me to always wear a helmet (which I always did and always do). Walden was not ever mean. He just had a lot of energy and could move quickly. I began taking him to Florida in the winter, partly because he was a really good horse and partly because I did not want to deal with him during a long, cold, icy Ohio winter.”

Walden and Baner

Havana, Walden, Fabrizzio, Cino and Hesse

During their first few years together Walden’s mom always tried to take Walden to shows early. Walden need to be lunged and ridden in new places for a few days before he would settle down. In 1997 Walden’s mom realized a long time dream of hers, riding  at Dressage at Devon. She had been dreaming of getting to Devon ever since she was a kid reading about Devon in the Chronicle of the Horse. When they arrived at Devon, Walden was leaping and being so wild in the warm-up ring that her trainer, Carole Grant, made her get off. In her words, “I got benched at Devon!” She then spent the next two hours hand walking Walden around the show grounds, and then tried riding him again later.

Walden, Fabrizzio and Merlin

Walden and Fabrizzio

The next morning Walden’s mom arrived in the wee hours of the morning in the dark to lunge him. She said all she could see were Walden’s white polos and white saddle pad as he circled around her in the frosty morning air. Walden and his mom ended up winning the Prix St. Georges that day and then won again the next day.

From that point on it was clear that Walden was certainly wonderful. Walden and his mom showed successfully in the small tour in Florida and in the Midwest. Robert Dover referred to Walden as “arguably one of the best horses in the country.” In 1999 Walden made his mom’s once buried dreams of riding for her country come true when they were named to the U.S. dressage team for the Pan American Games. The team went on to win the gold medal in dressage, and she and Walden placed 4th individually. After the Pan American Games Walden and his mom continued showing in dressage at the Grand Prix level for the next decade. They competed several times at the Festival of Champions at Gladstone.

play time for Walden and Merlin

nap time

Even in his later years Walden was still a very high energy horse. Walden was never mean but he could be nervous, exuberant and quite a handful. He was one of those horses you see passaging around the show grounds blowing loudly out of his flared nostrils with his tail up over his back. One time he started crow hopping and his mom got whiplashed as his moves could take you from one end of the ring to another almost instantly. His mom said that when she and Walden won at Devon her trainer said, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that you won. The bad news is that you have to ride in the awards ceremony.” After the awards ceremony at the Pan American Games it took two men, one on either side, to lead Walden back to the stable.

Walden always loved to show and he remained remarkably sound throughout his long career. He developed a post-show routine where he would hesitate to get back on the trailer to go home. Instead of just walking on, Walden would stop and look around the show grounds as if he were soaking everything up. Then he would calmly walk onto the trailer to go home.

Walden and Fabrizzio

Fabrizzio, Noble and Walden posing on a snow day

In all of his years of training and showing his mom said that “Walden never said no. He had no holes, he never got tired and he really knew how to learn. He really liked me and we were a great team. I absolutely adored him. He completely changed my life and I went places and did things I never would have done it not for him.”

Walden’s mom decided it was time to retire Walden in 2011. She did not want to put him through moving and back and forth between Ohio and Florida each winter. She did not want to leave him in Ohio for the winters because he loved his turnout time and she was afraid he would get hurt being wild outside on the ice, and that meant he would have to stay in work. Knowing that Walden would never say no, his mom worried that if he stayed in work at some point his aging body would get pushed too hard.

Walden and Merlin

another meeting of the chestnut club; Hesse, Walden and Remmy

On a lucky day for us, Walden’s mom decided that Paradigm Farms would be the right place to retire Walden. In his mom’s words, “I wanted him to end on a good note while he was healthy and sound. In October of 2011 I had one last ride on Walden before shipping him to Paradigm Farms in Tennessee. We did everything from the Grand Prix. Then I dropped the reins and we did our own version of the Black Stallion on the island. I cantered him around the ring with both of my hands out to the side while tears streamed down my face. Then I hugged him and walked him out on the trails and that was it. The next day I took him to Tennessee. It was time for him to enjoy the rest of his life as a horse.”

We met Walden in October 2011 when he and his barnmate, Fabrizzio, made the trip to together to our farm. Although Walden and Fabrizzio had never been turned out together they had been stalled next to each other prior to their retirement and they were already buddies. On their second day with us we put them out in a paddock together. After cantering a lap around the paddock they immediately began grooming each other, both enjoying their first time interacting with each other completely on their own terms.

Walden and Fabrizzio

Walden and Noble enjoying some play time

We let Walden and Fabrizzio enjoy spending time with each other in a paddock for a few days before integrating them into their family group. To this day I have no idea how it happened, but almost immediately Walden became the boss horse in his group. I never saw anything that looked like a standoff with the previous boss horse, or any type of exchange of power. I never even saw Walden pin his ears at another horse. Despite never seeing any of the typical herd dynamics, Walden somehow became the leader of his group.

Even in retirement Walden remained an active and high energy horse. As I was looking through all of the pictures I had taken of him over the last six years, I was struck by how many of them involved Walden galloping across the pasture. Walden enjoyed not only being active, but also being very interactive. He loved to groom and play with his family group, and he was always around where there was action.

the gang found something of high interest, and Walden was literally front and center

Fabrizzio and Walden

A few years ago Walden had an eye injury that required treatment several times per day for a few months. Most horses after a day or two would start running from you in the pasture when they know you were coming to put stuff in their hurting eye, or at a minimum would need to be bribed with food.  Walden never tried to run away and never needed to be bribed with a treat. When he saw me coming for the fourth time that day he would always greet me with a little nicker and let me walk right up to him. Then he would hold his head still while I put several different medications in his eye. This went on for months, and he was always the perfect gentleman.

It was while Walden’s eye was being treated that our son Carter fell in love with Walden. Carter was three years old at the time, and he would make the trek out into the pasture with me once or twice a day to treat Walden’s eye. I never realized how much of an impact caring for Walden had made on Carter until I had a surprising conversation with one of Carter’s teachers at his pre-school. She asked me who Walden was and how his eye was doing. Ever since that time Carter always made sure he knew what Walden was up to, how his eye was doing, and if he needed anything. When the Chronice of the Horse featured Walden in their “horse of a lifetime” series I showed the article to Carter and asked him if he knew who the horse was in the pictures. He knew right away that the horse in the pictures doing upper level dressage movements was Walden. To me that is what made Walden live up to the Wonderful part of his name, the way he made all of us fall in love with him by just being himself.

Walden making it easy for Carter to pet him

In addition to his amazing intelligence, what always made the biggest impression on me about Walden was the way in which he ran his herd. As I mentioned earlier, Walden appeared to rule his group with kindness rather than with an iron hoof. He never did anything more than pin his ears at a horse to let them know if they were getting out of line, and even that was a rare occasion. The only times I ever saw Walden truly exhibit any snark towards another horse was towards his best buddy Fabrizzio. Fabrizzio was always hopeful that Walden would let him get fed first each day, but that never happened. Walden always got fed first. A couple of times a year Walden would finally lose his patience with Fabrizzio constantly checking in to see if Walden would mind if he ate first, and Walden would take a couple of steps towards Fabrizzio with his ears pinned flat and his mouth open. That was the most snark we ever saw from Walden, and it was exceedingly rare.

What fascinated me about Walden with his herd leader status was the way in which he was always so welcoming to a new horse. On a few occasions through his years with us Walden’s group would have a newcomer. I’ve written a lot about my observations of herd dynamics, and I have my own labels for different herd members. I often refer to horses as greeters (horses that are always ready to be welcoming and friendly with a newcomer), chargers, indifferents, and boss horses. Walden was both a boss horse and a greeter.

the chestnut club; Baner, Remmy, Hesse and Walden

In all of my years of watching herd dynamics, Walden is the only horse I’ve ever seen that was both a boss horse and a greeter. Every other boss horse that we’ve seen has been largely indifferent on the front end towards a new horse. Their main concern is making sure the new horse knows they are the boss. Once they’ve made that clear for a few days then they might decide to be friends. Walden was always ready to be friends and was typically the first horse in his group to roll out the welcome carpet for a new horse. He considered every horse his friend, and never spent any time making sure that a new horse understood he was the herd leader. Instead he always made sure that a newcomer was included in group activities and did not allow the other horses to haze the new guy. He was simply amazing as a herd leader.

Lest you think Walden was completely perfect he did have one weak spot. I always told his mom that the only parts of Walden that seemed to age were his teeth. His mind remained sharp as a tack and he stayed amazingly sound. However, his teeth in his golden years progressed from mediocre to terrible. His last couple of years he could still eat grass but mostly quidded hay. As a result he ate several mashes per day made up of soaked senior feed and hay cubes to keep his weight up.

Walden and Fabrizzio

Walden enjoyed a little over six years of a perfect retirement. He stayed so sound and healthy that despite the fact that he was 29, it was easy to convince yourself that he was going to live forever. Sadly that was not to be the case. A few weeks ago Walden began to decline physically at an alarming rate. After significant consultation with our vet and with Walden’s mom, we were all unanimous that it was time to let him go before his body completely gave out. I told his mom that I wanted Walden to go while he was still happy and running his herd efficiently, and it was becoming readily apparent that without intervention we were going to soon find Walden in crisis one day. The last thing Walden’s mom wanted was for him to suffer, so we let Walden go on a beautiful fall day.

Merlin and Walden napping, Cino and Fabrizzio standing by

Fabrizzio and Walden

Walden inspired me so much with his wisdom and his kindness, and his final moments in this world were so typical of his life. Shortly before the vet arrived I stood at the gate to Walden’s pasture and called him. As always, he came when called, the only horse on the farm that we could count on to come when called. However, instead of taking the direct route to me like he usually did, Walden took the long route. He made a point of walking up to every horse in his family group and giving them a little “fist bump” with his nose. He worked his way around the pasture sharing a final moment with every horse, and then he walked up to me and shoved his face into his halter and gave me a comforting bump with his nose as well. I told his mom that there was no doubt that Walden knew it was his time and that he was ready to go as I watched him say his goodbyes to the other horses.

I can only describe Walden’s final moments before his passing as graceful and dignified. Every day I miss his energy, his antics, his wisdom and his kindness, as does his mom. I miss his soft and gentle leadership of his herd and his excited whinny at feeding times. Walden was truly a horse of a lifetime in countless ways, and I feel so lucky to have played a small role in his life.

Rest in peace Walden, we miss you.


Anonymous said...

What a sweet and lovely post!

My condolences to Walden, his family and you - glad he had so many good year with you.

Hillary (equestrian at hart) said...

This is a beautiful tribute to a lovely horse.

EvenSong said...

What a lovely story! He was truly "wonderful!"
I hope Carter is not taking it too hard. He will surely be missed by you all. My thoughts are with you r family and Walden's.

Lori said...

I am crying. I so,share your passion for caring for our retired friends. This is the end I wish for all of our friends. Wonderful Walden sounds like My Mio 5 Feathers who I also lost a couple weeks ago. It takes me a time to talk about it because I need to absorb it all first. I am so sorry for everyone's loss.

Unknown said...

I was one of Walden’s grooms for some years. This article is so amazing. It is spot on when it comes to him. I am heartbroken that he has passed but so grateful he was able to have such a Wonderful life and Wonderful retirement. RIP Big Red Horse.

foffmom said...

What an amazing horse. And that picture of him at the gate with Carter was so sweet! Walden's life was storybook perfect, thanks to his owner and caretakers.

Lori Skoog said...

Well Melissa, here is another Lori crying while reading this very touching post. Not only was Walden talented, he also had great character. What a beautiful tribute to this incredible boy. His Mom knew what she was doing when she sent him to you. Thank you for giving him such a perfect retirement.

raphycassens said...

What a beautiful tribute to a beautiful horse family.

Unknown said...

Such a lovely story and a wonderful condolences.