‘Strong Women Aren’t Always Human’

Joell Dunlap of the Square Peg Foundation pens a heartfelt tribute to her longtime equine partner and cornerstone of the Square Peg program, a unique and challenging OTTB named Gigi.

You may recognize the name Square Peg Foundation from previous HN posts — in October 2014 we recognized them as our Standing Ovation of the Week, an honor we give to individuals and organizations that are doing good work in the horse world. Located Half Moon Bay, California, Square Peg’s mission is to honor the uniqueness in everyone, emphasis on horses and children. They mainly focus on the rescuing, rehabbing, retraining, and rehoming of ex-racehorses, as well as bringing these horses together with people, mainly children, on the autism spectrum. Joell Dunlap published the following post on the Square Peg blog and was kind enough to share.

Photo courtesy of Joell Dunlap.

Photo courtesy of Joell Dunlap.

When a horse at the ranch dies, it’s my job to help kids come to grips with the circle of life. I carefully consider the age and emotional state of each person when I break the news to them. It’s a tricky dance navigating each family’s culture regarding death.

This time was different. This time, I did what must be done quietly and privately. I acknowledged Gigi and I had been soulmates for close to 17 years. This time, I attended to my pain and loss with the tenderness I afford others in these situations.

What flowed back was the kindness and innocence that Gigi loved – I am grateful for the care I’m giving myself.

Around 1999 (Art Sherman, California Chrome’s trainer) asked me to give him $1 for a skinny and awkward horse. She looked like both front legs came out of the same hole. Her exercise rider said she was crazy. Plus, you couldn’t tie her – she’d panic and destroy anything to get free. Add to that, her leg was injured and swollen. 

I said yes.

Thoroughbreds are handled by humans from the day they are born. Therefore, most Thoroughbreds are happy to please humans and see them as fellow members of their herd. This filly – not so much. She had no name, no tattoo, the exercise rider told me she was bred by some guy who left his horses mostly wild until they were four years old.

She grew big and strong and brilliant but still fearful. I called her Gigi.

I showed her through first level dressage. The judges consistently wrote “very tactful rider.” They could tell I was sitting on dynamite. Gigi jumped boldly, if flat and fast. She was famous for turning bounces into giant spread fences. She brought out the best and the worst in me as a rider.

As much as Gigi could humble arrogance,  Gigi was better at recognizing true innocence. Faced with a child or a kitten or even an adult without an agenda – Gigi’s face softened, she’d stretch her elegant neck toward them and lick them with her pink tongue.

When I started using her in lessons, people who knew her complained bitterly. They said she was unsafe, unpredictable, strong and willful. With me – yes. With any professional who climbed upon her broad back – absolutely. With children – never.

By 2004, when we started Square Peg, she was a cornerstone of the program. For eleven years she packed kids.

Last year we knew something was wrong. After a light ride, Gigi was sweaty and tired. She angrily bit one of our best kids while brushing. Her coat turned rough and then she started losing weight. We checked teeth, we pulled blood. We supplemented her food. She was only 20 for goodness sakes.

A fantastic private thoroughbred charity called us last year and said “how can we help Square Pegs?” I knew right away what to say.

“Our matriarch is sick and we can’t figure out what’s going on. I’d like to send her to the UCDavis and see if we can help her.”

After the Finish Line gave us the go-ahead and our vet made all the connections to have her examined by the University’s best. After a week of ultrasounds, blood tests, biopsy procedures and more we came home baffled. Gigi slipped another notch or twelve in that time. The tests for Cushing’s Disease came back inconclusive but it’s all we had to go on.

Our friends at Auburn Labs supported her with over $1,000 worth of their APF Pro product that had proven results for horses with Cushing’s Disease.

Photo courtesy of Joell Dunlap.

Photo courtesy of Joell Dunlap.

In Cushing’s the adrenal glands won’t shut down. Gigi was under constant chemical stress. It destroyed her eyesight, her joints, her metabolism, her lungs.

For the last five months we attended to her every whim. We grazed her in the most lush spots. We cleaned her water bucket daily so she could try to quench her insatiable thirst.

Yesterday, my friend, my teacher, my treasured co-worker was finally able to lie down again. The stress hormones no longer pushed through her veins.

A friend left flowers and a note in front of her stall with words that spoke volumes: “Strong women aren’t always Human.”

Gigi was a bold diva – a princess with a  gallant heart. She reminded me of one of my favorite film heroes – Maude from Harold and Maude. When Harold demands “You can’t die – I LOVE you!” Maude smiles and answers “That’s wonderful! Now go and love some more.”

Goodbye my darling Gigi.  I promise to go and love some more.

Many thanks to Joell Dunlap and The Square Peg Foundation for sharing. Go Riding.


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