The Best Teachers Come in Unlikely Packages

Hannah Gurske and Buenos Dias at the Colorado Horse Park last weekend. Photo by Michelle Ptak. Hannah Gurske and Buenos Dias at the Colorado Horse Park last weekend. Photo by Michelle Ptak.

After a successful campaign at the Preliminary level, culminating in a win in the CCI* at the Colorado Horse Park in 2013, Julie Wolfert’s 10-year-old Percheron/Thoroughbred mare, Buenos Dias, was ready to move up to Intermediate. As is the case with even the best laid plans, though, “Dia” came out of the pasture one day with an injury to her left eye.

“About two weeks after the injury, it became a fungus,” Julie said. “We were referred to an ophthalmology specialist here in Kansas City, and we began medicating the eye every 15 minutes each day in hopes that it would clear up. Eventually, the fungus took over and was causing her a lot of pain and blindness, so the eye had to be removed.” On Christmas Day of 2013, Dia had her eye surgically removed, and Julie began adjusting her plans for the mare after the unexpected turn of events.

“I originally thought about breeding her, but there is way too much about breeding that I don’t know,” Julie said. “The vets told me that I would be surprised how well horses were able to acclimate to losing an eye, so in my mind I thought maybe she could do straight dressage or be a packer after she recovered.”

Julie's first cross country school with Dia after her injury. Photo by Marcie Otten.

Julie’s first cross country school with Dia after her injury. Photo by Marcie Otten.

Julie headed down to Florida to take part in the Developing Riders/U25 training sessions with David O’Connor for the winter. When she returned, she began thinking about what she wanted to do with the talented, now one-eyed, mare in her barn.

Hannah Gurske had switched from Western to English riding after a break from the saddle, taking lessons with Julie’s mother, Susie, starting in 2011. After a time, Hannah was ready to start jumping, so she began taking lessons from Julie. Once Hannah caught the eventing bug, she began leasing Julie’s former upper-level partner, Wondaree Barger, to begin learning about the sport.

In the summer of 2013, Barger came up lame, and Hannah and her mother, Sheri, began to search for a horse so Hannah could continue her education. Hannah knew Dia already, having seen her at the barn, but the mare was unavailable at the time, so the Gurskes focused on finding a suitable match for Hannah.

Hannah and Dia on the night of Dia's purchase. Photo by Julie Wolfert.

Hannah and Dia on the night of Dia’s purchase. Photo by Julie Wolfert.

After Julie returned from Florida in March, she began working with Dia to see what the mare was able to do without her left eye. “She’d had all winter off, and I hopped on her in March and quickly found that I couldn’t even tell that she had lost an eye,” Julie said. “She wasn’t weird around the jumps and didn’t bump into the dressage ring. So I started doing a little more, adding in some trot and canter poles, which she never touched or batted an eye at. So I held my breath and hopped over a cross rail, and I was honestly quite nervous because I wasn’t sure what to expect! But it was no problem for her, so I basically started over as if she was just learning to jump. She was just perfect.”

Julie had an idea in mind that she approached Sheri with. She wanted to know if Sheri would be interested in purchasing Dia for Hannah. “Julie had let Hannah hop on and walk her around the property after she got back from Florida, and Hannah just loved her. She would say ‘Oh, I wish we could have her!’ every time,” Sheri said. “Julie approached me and asked if we would be interested in Dia if she were to keep working with her to make sure she could perform to the level Hannah would need her to.”

Hannah and Dia at their second competition together at Colorado Horse Park. Photo by Sheri Gurske.

Hannah and Dia at their second competition together at Colorado Horse Park. Photo by Sheri Gurske.

Sheri jumped at the opportunity, but she and Julie kept their conversation a secret while Julie worked to ensure that Dia would be the horse Hannah needed. This plan included a cross country school, which Dia passed with flying colors. “I took her cross country schooling and took it slow, but she did everything just the way she was supposed to,” Julie said.

With all systems go, Dia soon found herself in a new home — much to the surprise of Hannah, who had no idea what her mother and Julie had been planning. Since then, Hannah and Dia have struck up a friendship that has led them to a third and a first place finish in their first two events together at Beginner Novice.

Hannah says she tries to make goals one year at a time, with this year’s goal being to compete at the American Eventing Championships. While she and Dia have quickly gotten to know each other, Hannah knows that the mare has much to teach her. “For her only having one eye, she is really good about everything,” Hannah said. “I do have to make sure to keep my left leg on coming to a fence, because sometimes she will drift a little to the left so she can get a better look at the fence with her right eye. When I’m walking her, I make sure she can see me and knows I’m there or she will get a little nervous.”

New love. Photo by Sheri Gurske.

New love. Photo by Sheri Gurske.

Horses that love what they do often have a hard time being without a job, and Dia is no different. She hasn’t let losing an eye slow her down and instead found a new niche in life: teaching Hannah the ropes and keeping her safe. While Julie had high aspirations for the mare to compete at the upper levels, she is thrilled that Dia will be able to continue her eventing career as Hannah’s horse, and a happy and healthy horse is, at the end of the day, the best aspiration you could have.

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