From Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II

The Heart of a Champion

Whether you think that you can, or that you can’t, you are usually right.

Henry Ford

The powerful presence of our 2,000 pound draft horse, Janyck, belies a sweet disposition, which, along with his broad back, makes him the heart and soul of the vaulting team I coach. Vaulting is gymnastics on the back of a moving horse and our team is no less special than their horse. Janyck has changed the lives of the disadvantaged children he works with and they have come to love this horse. Abandonment, abuse, depression and anger are something these kids know all too well. Courage, strength, confidence and accomplishment are what Janyck introduced to their world. The events of one bitterly cold day in February 2002 would show his team and our entire community, just how special this horse really is.

It began with the shrill ring of the phone while we were getting ready for work and school. It was our neighbor across the road calling. Sometime in the early morning hours, Janyck had escaped from his stall and wandered over into their lake and fell through the ice. As we raced out of the house, three news helicopters and almost a hundred rescue workers had converged on the scene. The battle to rescue Janyck had begun. People from all over the area poured onto the farm to help in any way they could. One attempt after another failed to secure straps around our wet, frozen horse. Time ticked by with no success, each passing minute placing one more nail in our horse’s coffin. The 16 degree temperature wreaked havoc with oil in the hydraulics on tow trucks and winches. Horse specialists where phoned for suggestions on how to attempt the rescue. As we huddled helplessly on the edge of the frozen pond, live coverage of the entire event was broadcast from circling helicopters. People jammed phone lines at the news stations, breaking records on the number of calls. They were late for work or called in sick and refused to leave the drama that was unfolding as they sat glued to their televisions waiting and hoping for a successful rescue.

Time and time again, Janyck was almost pulled to safety when the frozen straps would slip from his body and cast him back into the lake. Rescuers in bright red suits, contrasting against the white ice, brought out chainsaws to cut larger holes. One worker without a suit slipped and plunged into the frigid water next to the flailing horse and had to be rescued.

Two broken tow trucks and nearly three hours of agony later, our struggling half-frozen Janyck was finally dragged from the pond by a backhoe and the battle for his survival took a new turn; would he recover from being immersed in icy water for so long? This was no ordinary horse. He was the most important member of our team, and our children, their parents and their families were all depending on his survival. We dragged Janyck on a piece of plywood almost a quarter of a mile to an indoor arena that was part of the neighbor’s farm. A large crowd circled around him. Construction workers from all over the local area showed up with space heaters. We pumped hot air onto him from every outlet in the arena while spasms racked his giant body as it tried to thaw and recirculate blood into his limbs. My husband curled next to him desperately massaging his frozen legs, trying to get them working again. If a horse that size lies down for too long, his lungs begin to crush from his weight and hewill die. Several times, he pulled all his strength together and attempted to stand, but he would wobble and crash face first into the dirt. His lips were bloody from crashing into the hard surface and each time he would fall, the entire group of onlookers would gasp and cry out in support.

I watched tearfully, feeling helpless, no more than a spectator, until I could watch no longer. “You get up, damn you, just get up now! I’m not going to lose you like this!” My horse and I have a very special connection and when he heard my voice, he lifted his head and made a giant effort to get to his feet. He struggled valiantly, failing again and again until finally, to the amazement of everyone, Janyck gave a tremendous push and steadied himself on giant, trembling legs. He stood, on shaking legs, but he stayed up. The crowd cheered and people grabbed one another, hugging and crying. I made it over to my husband and kissed him, then kissed my horse. No one would leave the scene until Janyck was on his feet.

Janyck was almost out of the woods. Hours after his rescue, covered in several blankets, his body still shivered. Waves of media showed up at the barn beaming live coverage on the noon, six and eleven o’clock news. At five the next morning, a news crew arrived to do a follow-up for Good Day Philadelphia. Exhausted, my husband and I listened as the anchor made a quick reference to local upcoming weather. We glanced at one another when he announced that a huge snowstorm was brewing in our area. Focused with concern for our horse, this was the first we had heard of the impending storm.

Two days later, four feet of snow blanketed our town. We had been making trips between our home and the barn preparing our little farm for the storm. My husband was plowing the driveway as the last of the storm was dumping its load of snow when my phone rang. The roof of a barn on our road with thirty horses in it had just collapsed due to the weight of the snow. There was only one barn on our road that fit the description and that was the barn with my recovering horse in it. The wail of police and fire engines filled the air as we raced toward the barn.

We could see the collapsed roof of the indoor arena where Janyck had regained the use of his legs and the partially collapsed roof pressing down on the stall area of the barn where we knew he would be. The frantic owner of the stable came running out of the barn with three horses in tow, yelling at us to get our horse out of the barn, now! Once again, we were racing against time and no one knew what horrible fate would follow if we lost this race. I started moving other horses to safety as my husband carefully extracted Janyck. Spooked by the screaming sirens of the emergency vehicles, Janyck bolted and dragged my husband for several hundred feet. He was unable to hold on as the powerful, scared animal raced away fromthe engines, directly toward the frozen lake. Some memory of what lay below must have surfaced because he stopped at the brink of the hill whilemy husband raced up to him and led him to the safety of our farm. Some of the neighbor’s horses shared our small barn that snowy night, while others were shipped to nearby farms.

So began the second phase of our physical and emotional recovery. With hours of loving care from his teammates, Janyck regained his strength. In July, the American Vaulting Association hosted the 2004 National Vaulting Championships at the Lexington, Virginia, Horse Park. Janyck and the children who worked so hard on his recovery, and spent hours training and practicing in our very unique sport, joined hundreds of vaulters from around the country to compete for the top championships in their divisions. One of those vaulters was a twenty-year-old athlete from California, Blake Dahlgren. Blake would represent the United States in the World Equestrian Games in Stradl Paura, Austria, later in the month. Timing of the two events required Blake to ship his horse to Europe a month in advance of the World Championships and he had no horse to compete on at our own National event. When he arrived in Virginia, Blake walked around the various teams and spotted Janyck with his small, unknown team of vaulters practicing in earnest. Not knowing Janyck’s story, he approached us, explained his dilemma and asked if he could try out our horse. Having a championship vaulter compete on Janyck was an honor and a thrill. Blake and Janyck spent a few days practicing before Blake defended his title on a new and unknown horse.

The final night of the competition arrived. Blake and another top competitor, who was able to compete on his own horse, tied for the championship. The last round of their individual Kur freestyle would be the tie breaker. Each man performed his one minute Kur routine and pulled out all the stops. They performed demanding routines that tested the incredible strength, flexibility and balance that this sport requires. The scores came in and the two men’s performances were tied, equally. The tie breaker would come down to the score the horse received for his performance.

There are few horses that can balance themselves and carry a rider of Blake’s weight and six-foot frame without wavering through a difficult routine. But Janyck’s large heart, his amazing soul and his strength of will shone through once again. As the crowd waited in tense anticipation, the horse scores were announced. Janyck received a 7.8, the competitor’s horse a 6.5. Janyck’s horse score had won Blake the 2004 Men’s Gold Championship title the day before he journeyed to theWorld Championships in Austria.

After Blake Dahlgren received his trophy and championship ribbon at the awards ceremony that night, he fought his way through the stands and found me. He pinned the championship ribbon on my shirt and simply said, “This is for Janyck. He deserves it.”

Alison Gieschen

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: Alison and her team competed at the 2005 National Championships in Denver, Colorado, and against all odds, the little team that could and the horse with the amazing heart were victorious and won the title of “C Team National Champions.” They are only the second East Coast team in the thirty years of AVA nationals to win this title. The victory would not have been possible without Janyck and the patience he displayed as the girls practiced for up to six hours a day before the competition. The victory has only deepened their love and respect for this great animal.]

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