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Sophia Martina Bryant is a Ride With Pride board member and owner of the incredible blind Knabstrupper, Frej, who has joined the RWP herd this year, to the delight of our students, staff, and supporters. Frej and Sophia have had an incredible journey together, one that resonates with every horse owner, and one that speaks of the amazing bond between horses and humans. We are so grateful to have Sophia and Frej as part of our program. Here is their story:
“My Blind Knabstrupper” – Frej’s Story
Many times I have been asked to write about Frej and our story. While it sounds like a good idea, I have always been fearful I will fall short in conveying how truly incredible and amazing this horse is. So here is my best shot at putting everything down on paper.
I unfortunately cannot remember the exact day I met Frej (pronounced “Fray”), but I know it was in 2013. At the time I was working as a stable hand at Cedar Creek Stables, owned by Dr. Melyni Worth which is both a private boarding facility but also Dr. Worth’s personal breeding farm for a rare breed of horse, known as a Knabstrupper. The Knabstrupper breed is valued for their exceptional temperament and trainability, their amateur friendly nature on top of their beautiful and colorful coat patterns. In the early 2000’s Dr. Worth imported several Knabstruppers from Denmark and Germany, to start up her breeding program here in the US. Frej happened to be one of the first that came over from Denmark. Frej was a gangly 3-year-old when he crossed the pond. I don’t know a lot about his early years, but he eventually went on to be sold as a Jumper. I was told he even dabbled in the Level 3 and 4’s! One thing Frej loved to do (even up to the time he went blind) was jump.
Fast forward a few years. As I said Frej was sold into the Jumper world when he was younger, and one might wonder just how he ended up back at Cedar Creek years later. Unfortunately, the story I have been told as to how he made it back home was not a happy one. Supposedly, Frej ended up in the hands of someone who in my opinion did not deserve him. This horse is by far one of the goofiest and kindest horses I’ve ever met. He loves people and is incredibly kind and gentle. He is literally The Gentle Giant in horse form. So, when Dr. Worth got a call from his current owner saying Frej was going to be put down unless Melyni agreed to take him back, came as a shock. Allegedly the reason being was that Frej was “dangerous and nasty”. A little side note about Melyni. When she sells any of her horses, especially her Knabbies she always makes it known that the horses can come back to her if they need to retire. She doesn’t want to see them end up in kill pens and for this reason she adds this to her sales agreements. Thus, this is how and why Frej ended up back home at Cedar Creek.
Once home we found out the truth about just how “dangerous” and “nasty” Frej was, which was not at all! He didn’t and still doesn’t have a mean bone in his giant goofy body! Much later I found out from Melyni that someone else from Frej’s past reached out to her and told her what really happened and why his previous owner had labeled him as such a “bad” horse. She explained to Melyni that Frej’s owner at the time was not very nice to Frej. I don’t know exactly how he was treated when his previous owner had him. However, there is one thing I can say and that is someone had to have treated Frej VERY BADLY for him to ever lash out or be nasty because I have never him be anything but sweet and gentle. However, Frej made it back to Cedar Creek and this is how he ended up coming into my life.
Frej and I continued to grow as a team. While we were never the best at anything we enjoyed everything we did because we were together. We Evented a little bit, nothing crazy and dabbled in Dressage. Frej even helped me get my First Level scores towards my Bronze Medal. Unfortunately, in August of 2016 Frej was officially diagnosed with Recurrent Uveitis. In the beginning he wasn’t really bothered by it. Occasionally he would have a flare up, but his symptoms and pain were easily managed with prescription eye ointments. Hindsight is 20/20 but what I wouldn’t give to have known in the beginning just how serious of a disease Uveitis is. Maybe I could have done more or been more proactive about everything but that is something I personally try not to dwell on. It wasn’t until March of 2017 that I found out Frej had already lost his sight in one of his eyes. Frej and I had taken a trip to our local veterinary clinic to have a bump on his hind leg looked at and to have an ultrasound done of it. Dr. Kelly Stoneburner, DVM, who I have known for many years performed the ultrasound for me. I happened to ask her to have a look at Frej’s right eye because it was pretty red, and I hadn’t been able to get it under control with his eye ointments, so I was a little concerned about it. She did a thorough exam and looked at me and said, “You know he’s blind in this eye, right?”. Shock doesn’t even come close to what I felt. There was no way he could be blind. We were still doing everything we had done before, including jumping. Frej had never skipped a beat or indicated he couldn’t see out of one side of his head. I will never forget this day; it will probably always be the day that officially started Frej and I’s journey with Uveitis.
Frej and I will forever be grateful to Dr. Stoneburner for all she did for us during the long battle with Uveitis. She was the one who really helped us get through everything. She was proactive and incredibly supportive and for that I cannot thank her enough. She recommended Frej go to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia to get a cyclosporine implant in his remaining “good” eye or his left eye. Since Uveitis is a bilateral disease, we knew his left eye would eventually be affected but our hope was to prolong his sight in the eye. Dr. Stoneburner was able to help us get an appointment by the end of March and off to Blacksburg Frej and I went. Thankfully, Frej was accepted as a recipient of the cyclosporine implant, and we scheduled the surgery for May 2, 2017.
Frej made it through surgery beautifully and the vet staff at Virginia Tech took exceptional care of him. The implant was put in but it would take a bit of time to determine if the implant would start working or work at all. Frej was sent home, and we had a follow up appointment in June. Frej had to be on stall rest for 2 weeks and after a recheck by Dr. Stoneburner he was released for turnout and to go back to his normal routine. Everything seemed fine and thankfully the implant seemed to be working because Frej had no flare ups in that eye. June 14th rolled around, and we went back up to Tech for his final recheck. We were given the final ok that everything seemed to be working as it should. The vet’s said the implant definitely seemed to be working and it could last up to 6 years! So, they hoped they wouldn’t want or need to see us again for a long time, though they said they would miss Frej, as he had quickly become the vet student’s favorite. Virginia Tech is a teaching hospital so many of the vet students got to follow along with Frej’s surgery and recovery. Frej and I went home thinking we may have finally gotten this disease under control; however, we were sadly mistaken.
Fast forward a week to June 21st, 2017. Dr. Stoneburner came out to Cedar Creek for regular routine shots. Frej was on the list per usual as were all the other horses out at the farm. Frej received his normal vaccines, including his Lepto Vaccine which he had had previously and on a regular basis. Yes, I am aware that the Lepto Vaccine is given to horses to help prevent Uveitis. Frej obviously had Uveitis, but Dr. Stoneburner and I had asked Virginia Tech if we should still be giving him the vaccine. They felt it would be a good thing for him to have because they hoped it would only aid in keeping Frej’s Uveitis under control. They hoped his own immune system would continue fighting off the disease and then the cyclosporine implant would help keep the flare ups controlled. Sadly, this was definitely not the case and June 26th, 2017, will forever be burned into my memories.
I want to start off by saying that I do NOT lay any blame on Dr. Stoneburner or Virginia Tech Veterinary Hospital for what happened to Frej. All of their actions were only in Frej’s best interest and what happened was something that no one could have foreseen coming. Five days after Frej received his Lepto vaccine he had a severe immune response that resulted in a massive Uveitis flare up. So severe that his left eye was destroyed in a matter of days, and he went completely blind. I still remember that day like it was yesterday. I remember walking into the barn and hearing Frej scream. That is the best way I can describe it and to this day I hope I never hear it again. All the other horses were in so I had no idea why he would be so upset or sound so full of fear. I walked around the corner to his stall and saw him spinning and crashing into the walls. I called his name and the whinny that he returned broke my heart. He was clearly scared. I ran over to his stall and instantly it hit me that he couldn’t see. He was frantic and clearly upset. After getting a hold of him and helping him calm down I took a look at his “good” eye. It had shrunk into his head and was red and inflamed. I waved my hand in front of his eye and there was no reaction, no blinking, nothing. I just cried. I called Dr. Stoneburner immediately and told her Frej was blind. Luckily, she was very close by and rushed over as fast as she could. I knew it wasn’t good when she turned to me with tears in her eyes. I don’t really remember her saying he is blind. My world went numb, and I just cried. I was so upset because we had done so much to try to save Frej’s sight, but it was all in vain, because I felt that in the end Uveitis had won. We were out of options, Frej would forever be blind, and it broke my heart. To think he would never be able to see the sun, or the stars broke me. I have to thank Dr. Stoneburner again for not only helping Frej through this rough time but for also helping me, especially mentally. She helped us move forward, to see the positive that at least Frej is still alive. However, Frej’s left eye was extremely painful. He ended up having 3 large Ulcers in his left eye. While Dr. Stoneburner and I couldn’t save Frej’s eyesight we could at least make him comfortable again and help stop the pain so that became our goal. Make him pain free.
Thankfully, it did not take Frej long to adjust to being completely blind. I think it took me longer to accept it than it took him. My new goal was to make sure he could live a happy and have a pain free life, but I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I would say Frej was fully adjusted to his new world in about 2 months. Thankfully he has a very relaxed disposition and I truly think this is what helped him adjust so quickly. Of course, he still bumped into walls, but he quickly learned to use his other senses to navigate this new world. In July, Frej went back to Virginia Tech. Dr. Stoneburner had been in contact with them as well as the Vaccine Company about what had happened. We (Dr. Stoneburner and I) figured we could at least hopefully learn something from what happened and maybe Frej’s experience could help other horses dealing with Uveitis. Frej went back up to Tech so that they could pull DNA samples, blood, Lepto titers and many other samples that hopefully could give insight as to why this all took place. I am proud to say that shortly after Frej’s experience the Vaccine Company changed their label to say that it is not recommended for horses that already have Uveitis. I like to think Frej had a part in making that happen and hopefully prevent other horses from going through what he did.
However, life is challenging, and time keeps going no matter what happens. Frej and I now had to learn to adjust to this new life we both had. Frej does and has done so much for me, and I couldn’t give up on him now. We slowly started to go back to normal. I eventually decided to try riding him again. Those first few rides were definitely nerve-racking. It’s not every day you say you go cantering around on a horse that cannot see at all.
However, I am proud to say that now if you didn’t know he was blind you would never know by looking at him. He is so confident, and we are able to do so much together considering. Over the years I had Frej’s eyes removed. They were still causing him so much pain even after he couldn’t see out of them. After having his eyes removed you would have thought he gained 10 years on his life. Plus, I achieved my goal of making sure he would have a happy and pain-free life. May of 2023 will mark 6 years since Frej went completely blind and this June he turned 21 years old. Over the years Frej and I were able to work up to schooling Fourth Level Dressage. While Frej is not the most athletic creature on the planet, what he lacks in ability he makes up in heart. I definitely wouldn’t say we were “good” at Fourth Level, but we were trying. Considering I never thought Frej could ever get up to that level, to say he did it while being completely blind speaks volumes. I decided at the end of 2021 to retire Frej “officially” from dressage. He is now happily enjoying being a part of the Ride With Pride team as a therapy horse. He LOVES having a job and loves being doted on by his students. He is thoroughly enjoying his retirement, doing a few RWP lessons a week and living his days out with his best friend and pasture mate, Afton.
While Frej’s story may be considered “sad” I don’t like to think of it that way. I like to think of it as a story of perseverance, determination, and love. Frej and I couldn’t have gotten through it all without the love and support of friends and family. Though I think the one who got us through it the most was Dr. Stoneburner, and Frej and I will be eternally grateful for all she did. I now hope that Frej can be an advocate for not only the Knabstrupper breed but also for blind horses. Being blind is not the end of the road and Frej feels like he is anything but limited! I also hope the data and information collected from Frej’s experience can be used to help prevent and maybe one day find a cure for Uveitis.