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How a Big-Hearted Horse Beat the Odds and Inspired a Community

by Catherine Madera


Photo credit JLT Photography

For Kristi Merrill, finding the right horse had begun to feel like an exercise in futility. After losing her beloved barrel mare, Mari, in a freak accident, the competitive gamer had gone through nine different horses trying to find a partner that felt right; something with heart, talent, and a great attitude.

“I’d ride them for a year or so and always end up saying, ‘No, don’t like it’,” said Merrill of her previous prospects. “I can see now I was trying to replace the bond I had with Mari.”

Cruising one day, Merrill paused at an ad for a ratty looking horse of good breeding. His pedigree filled with names such as Go Man Go and Dash For Cash, the gelding promised speed. He simply didn’t look like much. BF Go Man didn’t impress Merrill’s friends in the Patterned Speed Horse Association’s affiliate club, The Nooksack Valley Riders, either. Comments such as, “He looks like a pony” and “He’s a greyhound with hair,” were standard after she brought “Guss” home. A skinny bay with four inches of winter coat, Guss stood barely 15 hands. Still, Merrill was drawn to the horse she describes as having a can-do attitude.

“He is sweet and easy going,” said Merrill. “His attitude was always, ‘Ok, I’ll try that.’”

Ignoring the good natured ribbing from friends, Merrill began bringing the then five-year-old along in training, patterning him on speed events such as Barrels, Poles, and Figure 8 Race. By 2010 Guss had become a force to be reckoned with in the Patterned Speed Horse Association. Her ultimate goal to race at Interstate Finals, Merrill qualified for State Championships that fall in 12 of the 15 events and traveled with Guss to Wenatchee, Washington.

On the last day of Finals Merrill was leading Guss to the warm-up arena when the gelding uncharacteristically spooked and bolted, tearing through a crowd and between a row of parked vehicles. On the way, his shoulder caught the bolts on the hitch of a gooseneck trailer. The force of the impact moved the rig a foot and a half from its position and brought the horse abruptly to his senses. Bleeding profusely, he trotted to a bystander and allowed himself to be caught.

Photo credit Kristi Merrill

“His competition days are over,” was the grim announcement after a vet examined Guss’s wrecked shoulder. The bolts had caught the gelding’s hide near the wither, puncturing the skin and peeling back layers of flesh to the third rib. A team of vets spent three and a half hours just sewing up the lacerated internal muscles.

“It brought you to your knees,” said Merrill, remembering the gruesome injury.

Once home she pondered the fact that a freak accident had again derailed her dreams, but there was little time for self pity. Nursing a stall bound Guss took six hours a day, initially, and included hosing of the hole in his side, extensive cleaning of several drain tubes, and rounds of antibiotics. Merrill could only hope he would one day be sound enough to use as a trail companion for her two young children. True to his nature, Guss took the often painful doctoring in stride.

“He was an awesome patient,” said Merrill. “He never moved, not even when I had to stick my hand in his side. It was like he knew I was helping him.”

Photo credit JLT Photography

After the wound finally closed, Guss rapidly improved. Merrill began riding him bareback, walking only a few steps at a time, before graduating to a saddle and light exercise. When she noted the injury had not affected the gelding’s enthusiasm for racing or his willing attitude, she took him to a show the following spring. There spectators were moved to tears as they watched Guss claim the second fastest time in Figure 8 Race out of the 80 horses present. 

In August of 2011, a year after Guss’s devastating injury, Merrill received the letter she thought would never come—the pair had qualified to compete at Interstate Finals.

“It felt like a miracle,” said Merrill, who says the healing journey has included progress followed by plenty of setbacks. Some of these include a fight against scar tissue and Guss having to learn new ways to use his body. Through it all, the little horse with the big heart continues to inspire all who watch him with rare determination and spirit.

“He seems to grow a couple inches at the starting line and gets so excited,” said Merrill, “He wants to do his job.”

What has this tragedy done personally for Merrill?

“I’ve learned patience and perseverance. It reminds me I’m not in control,” said Merrill who, still has no idea what spooked Guss that day in Wenatchee. Rather than dwell on this mystery, or the disappointment that followed, Merrill focuses instead on the precious gifts she discovered through the ordeal.

Photo credit Vikki O’Flaherty

“I realized the depth of people’s hearts in the midst of hardship,” said Merrill who cherishes the care and compassion showed to her and Guss from her “horse family,” particularly those in The Nooksack Valley Riders. She has also forged a much deeper relationship with Guss and says that after months of one-on-one they are closer than ever.

“I finally found what I was looking for.”


Published November 2011 Issue


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