Ashley Wyss had found ‘the’ horse. The horse every barrel racer on the brink of breaking into the 1D yearns for, the horse to finally take her there.
“When I first got into horses, I had a horse that didn’t really take me anywhere as far as barrel racing,” Wyss said. “I started college rodeoing and he wasn’t really competitive, but I didn’t have the money to buy a fancy, already-made horse. I bought a 3-year-old down in Tennessee and started breaking and training him instead of hitting college rodeos. I was going to take the time, make my own horse. I took him to a trainer, Marne Loosenort, whom I worked for in Murray, Kentucky. She helped me train him and get him to be the finished barrel horse I needed. Even as a 4-year-old, he was up there with some of the best horses and nipping right at their heels.”
The beautiful 2008 palomino gelding Jet Premium Lynx was on track to accomplish the goals that seemed distant to Wyss for so long. However, in early 2017, Wyss noticed something wasn’t right with “Bo.”
“I went to the barn and noticed he was just off. He was running into gates, running over feed buckets, and normal stuff that wasn’t like him. He’s usually pretty chill, and I’ve had him his whole life, so I know how he is,” the 27-year-old vet tech recalled. “I took him to the vet I was working for at the time, and he said there’s nothing wrong with him. I thought OK, maybe I’m just crazy. So I took him back home and kept over-riding everything I was worried about—the vet said he was fine, he said it was nothing, so he must be okay.”
But Bo wasn’t okay, and Wyss couldn’t deny her gut feeling any longer. When she moved back home to her parents’ house, she brought the gelding to Equine Services Hospital in nearby Simpsonville, Kentucky. The vet told Wyss that Bo probably had brain cancer and needed an MRI the next morning.
“I lost it, of course, hearing that news. I’m like how am I going to afford this? I can barely afford myself and him, how am I going to do this vet bills thing?” Wyss said.
The next morning, the veterinarian called Wyss. Prior to the MRI, the clinic’s ophthalmologist Erica Tolar, DVM, examined Bo and reported that he was blind in both eyes due to equine recurrent Uveitis, or “moon blindness.” Bo’s condition is believed to be contracted from leptospirosis—it can come from sharing water troughs or pastures with cattle, rotational grazing with wildlife, and cattle in general.
“I was like you’re kidding me—I mean thank God he’s fine—but what am I going to do with a blind horse?” Wyss said. “She said, ‘you probably aren’t going to be able to barrel race him anymore, but I’m not one to tell you that you can’t do it—I’m just setting you up for what’s to be expected.’ So like every girl who loads up her horse at the vet, you have your mental breakdown so nobody can see you. I thought you know what, he’s still able to do things like a normal horse—he can load in the trailer, go into his stall, eat his food, graze outside—to the point I questioned if he was even blind. If he can do things like a normal horse to where people don’t even notice who don’t know him, then surely we can do something.”
Under the care of Tolar, Wyss got Bo’s eyes on the right path to keep him as healthy and comfortable as possible. And, Wyss’ time as a patient at Equine Services also got her a job as a vet tech at the clinic.
“We would go back every week for checkups. We did surgical procedures on his eyes to try and preserve them, because they weren’t flushing normally,” Wyss said. “Dr. Tolar had to do injections on his eyes, and she made time to make sure our schedules worked out—she was just great. I now work for Equine Services, so I see her every day and keep her updated.”
Though Bo can see shadows, he is 95 percent blind in his left eye and 85 percent blind in his right eye. Wyss made small modifications to his daily routine and living conditions but chose not to change much.
“I try to treat him like he’s a normal horse. Obviously he’s got special little things I’ve got to do, but if I go around and baby him, that’s no fun for him or me,” Wyss said. “He gets daily eye medications, two kinds in both eyes, to keep the inflammation down and keep his eyes dilated. When he goes from light to dark, he has trouble adjusting to the light, so I clamp onto his halter and talk to him and guide him, or if we go in narrow passageways I grab onto him a bit more and walk him through. He’s so accepting and personable, that he doesn’t act like it fazes him at all. He has ulcers now that he’s blind, and it wasn’t an issue he had before—I’d be freaking out too if I couldn’t see very well. He’s on prevention daily and a treatment of Omeprazole and Ranitidine as a treatment.”
Wyss began riding Bo again knowing she needed to be his vision. She started exhibitioning once they became comfortable riding around. Though Wyss guided Bo, Bo inadvertently helped Wyss build her own confidence.
“When I built up the confidence to enter in an actual race, that was really hard. I thought somebody was going to judge me on my horse, they’re going to think I don’t know what I’m doing, that I’m a loser,” Wyss said. “I just had to push all that aside—I’m working on me and him right now, and that’s all that matters. Our first race, we turned the first and started going to the second barrel and he ducked. He kept doing it at every barrel race we went to. Then it started getting in my head.”
Wyss had a friend video her run from the second barrel and studied it endlessly to figure out what she was doing to confuse Bo.
“I had been cueing him wrong the whole time and riding him the way I used to ride him. Apparently he saved my butt every time—I had been setting him up for the second barrel too early and he would just keep going. He was turning when I told him to turn and being so honest,” Wyss said. “When I figured it out, it was like a light bulb went off, and I had another breakdown. It’s me, I’m the one who’s doing that stuff, I suck and he’s doing it right! Now I ride all the way to my second barrel and I don’t move my hand off that right rein until I get there, and then drop and pick up my left rein, so he can step to the barrel. It always helps too that I’ve said ‘Hey’ at each barrel, so that verbal command helped with the transition.”
Wyss says the gelding sometimes struggles to run on uneven ground, so she’s even entered some rodeos to help him adjust to sketchy ground. In 2018, the duo qualified for the International Barrel Racing Association National Finals and finished in the top five of the 2D in the final go-round.
“I know to some it doesn’t seem very big, but for me I’m okay with being mediocre right now,” Wyss said. “You can’t even describe it. You can’t even put it into words. When you finally figure it out and put it all together, and it feels like you have your horse back, that’s what you’ve been working at the whole time. When it finally happens, it’s amazing. It’s a Godsend. You can’t thank everybody else enough too who’s helped you get there.”
Wyss still has big goals on her list with Bo, but she’s taking it one barrel race at a time. At the end of the day, what happens in the arena doesn’t matter to Wyss as long as her teammate is by her side.
“I think it’s just trust. I think his personality has always been so kind, accepting and willing. Being my horse and me being his person his whole life—I know it sounds really sappy—but I think he’s like ‘Mom’s got this, it’s okay,’” Wyss said. “I’ve always only been able to afford one horse, and it’s just been him. He’s had a lot pressure because I love him, and it’s like I can’t get rid of you because I like you too much, and I can’t afford another horse, so we have to make do with what we have, buddy.”