“Yessss! Good BOY!” I screeched with enthusiasm as Romeo stepped into a beautiful square, balanced halt. I rubbed all over him as he shook his head and then turned to inquire what the fuss was about. Square halts are our nemesis, left over from his western pleasure days combined with his weakened hind end. We moseyed through the fields on a loose rein, heading back to my newly established stable, Romeo surely thinking about his hay while I contemplated how much needs to be done in the next six weeks to get us in shape for the USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC).
Due to life being, well, life, and moving my entire lesson and training program to a new facility at the beginning of July, I haven’t exactly been keeping up with our training schedule. You see, I work a full time job as an IT Tech for county government and run my busy program from 6:00 p.m. to ungodly hours. For some reason unbeknownst to me, my personal horses always seem to get the short end of the stick. Taking that into consideration, along with my princess of a gelding’s history, it’s a miracle we are AEC-bound at all.
Lauren and Romeo as a foal in the winter of 2009. Photo courtesy of Lauren Schiller.
I fell in love with Romeo (Unzip My Chip) as a weanling while attending Kansas State University. He was a royally western pleasure-bred American Quarter Horse colt and I bought him as a foal to be my future show horse. I had visions of Quarter Horse Congress and Worlds with that little guy. Every horse and trainer/rider have their ups and downs - it comes with the territory. But, in my opinion, we have had more than our fair share. The cliff notes version goes like this:
As a yearling, Romeo got tangled in smooth wire and cut his hind left leg into the bone. Emergency surgery and a three week stay at K-State Vet Med Hospital resulted in a hefty bill, a gnarly scar, and months of stall rest for my baby. Recovery went well, I broke him with no issues, and he swept all his classes at local western pleasure shows as a 2-year-old. He began to get lazy in his hind end so I thought we would add Hunters to our docket. We began training for Hunters on the flat and a month before our debut, I pulled him out of his stall to see he was on three legs. Down the road to K-State we went and I’m told my 3-year-old has end stage osteoarthritis and his pastern joint is bone on bone with zero cartilage. It was caused by the injury he sustained as a yearling. Surgeons gave me a good prognosis if we perform arthrodesis, a surgery where they go in, scrape all the bony protrusions and insert a plate to fuse the joint.
Romeo's left hind leg following the surgery to repair the joint. Photo courtesy of Lauren Schiller.
Surgery went without a hitch, Romeo was now sporting a plate and five screws, and I left the hospital to await the call that he was awake and on his feet. However, an hour later, I got a tense call from a doctor that I needed to get to the hospital, immediately. Apparently while walking back to his stall, Romeo collapsed. His entire hind end was paralyzed and he was in an absolute panic, suspended from the ceiling in a sling. Vets had no clue what happened, nothing went wrong in surgery, nothing was pinched, no mistakes were made. He was one of three cases in the world where this had happened. One of those horses had been euthanized. The other took a month to regain use of his legs. He had to be kept fully sedated so he wouldn’t thrash and hurt himself or the people attempting to care for him.
I reluctantly went home that night when it was clear there was nothing I could do. I got a call the next morning at 7:00 a.m. I can still remember those words. “Hello, Ms. Schiller? You need to come say goodbye to your horse.” All I could muster was a choked up okay. I have tears in my eyes right now just thinking about it. The main doctor told me that my sweet baby boy had zero response to even the deepest of stimulation and that with how panicky he was, there wasn’t much hope. They couldn’t keep him sedated non-stop, his body would start shutting down. But as soon as he woke up, he would freak out. People had to sit on him to keep him down otherwise he’d struggle to stand, realize he couldn’t, and thrash uncontrollably. I went into his stall with him, put my hands on his neck, and he looked at me with those trusting doe-eyes. And he calmed.
To make a VERY long story short, when I was with him, he would settle. So I stayed with him. I slept in his stall, food was brought to me and I would only leave for a few hours to sleep when I was forced to by friends. After three days of this, he slowly began to show signs of feeling. A month in the hospital and he made a full recovery. After getting his cast off, his hoof fell off and my amazing farrier worked miracles on him for six months. A year later, I rode him again. He moves with grace and beauty and besides the scar, one would never know there had ever been an issue with that leg. He truly is my miracle.
Romeo all decked out in his western pleasure schooling attire. Photo courtesy of Lauren Schiller.
Fast forward a few years, I was now fully immersed in eventing with my Morgan gelding and my mare. Romeo was my steady lesson horse, bringing students to hunter and western pleasure shows. He's an arena princess who doesn’t like mud, rain, or uneven surfaces. I had set a goal to make it to the AEC in 2018. I had a spooky Novice horse and a neurotic ex-barrel racer (my mare), but gosh darn it, we were going to get there! Plans were going well, schoolings were showing promise so of course, a wrench has to be thrown in the works. Somehow during turnout, my mare crushed two of her vertebrae. She, thankfully, would heal and be able to be ridden one day. But she was done for the year, at least.
Enter Romeo. My mother suggested I take my drama queen out in open fields, through water, and exposed to the elements. Ha! I told her she was crazy. Romeo, the horse who once made us buy bottled water because he refused to drink the water at a show grounds? That horse? But . . . I already had the money set aside for the entry. Why not?
Lauren and Romeo at the Windemere Horse Trials 2017. One Tulsa Photography Photo.
The first time I rode Romeo in dressage contact, he was convinced the world was going to end. When I asked him to trot in the grass? He pinned his ears and swished his tail every time his foot didn’t land where he felt it should have. And during a schooling when he saw a person standing on a table jump, he lost his mind. But, not to be a quitter, we showed up to Windermere Run Horse Trials in October of 2017, ready to do our first sanctioned USEA Horse Trial, competing at Beginner Novice. And you know what happened? He stepped up and proved to me why he truly is the love of my life. We had the best dressage score in our division and ended on that score, winning our first time out. Tickled that my little Quarter Horse did so well, I figured let’s try again. And our second go in the spring of 2018 was a repeat. We led in all three phases and ended on our dressage score. Our third trip, to get that last cross-country qualifier, wasn’t as nice. Romeo reminded me that he truly does prefer peace and quiet when he’s working and that when he doesn’t get it, all of the fits will be thrown. Dressage and stadium were a mess, but he jumped around cross-country like he was made for it.
So, here we are. About five weeks out (Lord help me!) from the 2018 AEC. My goal has been met, I just never thought it would be on my fully self-trained, accident-prone, plate-toting, drama queen, western pleasure Quarter Horse. But maybe I should have known that it would be him. He truly is the love of my life, the one that makes my heart skip when he nickers to me and I couldn’t be prouder of our journey together. I can’t wait to join in the celebration of our sport in Colorado, see some familiar faces and make new friends! In the meantime, I’ll be attempting to convince Romeo that if a bug hits him not to take it personally.