When Darcie Grote receives her copy of US Equestrian magazine’s annual Horse of the Year issue in mid-April, she’ll have an extra reason to celebrate her horse’s championship in the United States Hunter Jumper Association Zone 9 Thoroughbred hunter division. Brenin—or Nickie, as he’s known around the barn—lost an eye in January 2018 to a cancer so rare that he is the only horse ever documented as having it. But that didn’t stop him from having a successful season, and Grote says the experience has only strengthened their partnership and her respect for his stoicism and big heart.
Nickie was in training at an eventing barn before Grote bought him, but “eventing wasn’t his forte,” said Grote. She met the chestnut while he was a sale prospect with her trainer, Shauna Pennell at Silver Crest Stables in Moorpark, Calif. Grote discovered he had a “sweet, loving” temperament and a calm willingness to try new things.
“I started riding him, and we just clicked,” recalled Grote, who lives in Meridian, Idaho, but competes in California. “I had Thoroughbreds before, and I’ve always loved them. He reminded me a lot of one of the first horses I had, who was off the track. For a Thoroughbred, he’s pretty lazy and really mellow. I liked his personality, and we just clicked.”
Grote bought Nickie, then seven, in 2012.
“When we first got him, he was a little bit cautious, but the more I rode him, the more we started to mesh and started to trust one another,” she explained. “He just started blooming and fairly quickly turned over a new leaf. I loved his willingness to try whatever we threw at him, and I don’t think you can ask for much more than that when trying a horse. So we took a chance and I bought him. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.”
Grote and Nickie competed in the hunter ring, collecting ribbons in the adult amateur hunter and equitation sections.
“I joke that both he and I prefer riding and jumping around inside the ring instead of outside it,” Grote said. “I hate trail riding, and he didn’t like cross-country, so it all worked out really well. He has a nice, easy way of going with how he kind of just lopes around the ring, and I think he’s pretty pleasant to watch.”
In October 2017, Grote was preparing to send Nickie from Idaho back to Pennell’s barn in California for the winter and early spring of 2018, hoping to earn enough points in competition to qualify for a few different year-end adult equitation medal finals for the 2018 season.
“Just before we were getting ready to leave, I got a phone call from one of the assistants at the barn here who said that she’d noticed that his left eye was green,” Grote remembered. “We made arrangements to get him into the clinic the next day, and they determined that there was quite a bit of pressure on the eye. After a lot of testing, they also determined that he could not see out of the eye, and they could see that there was some sort of mass behind the lens, but they couldn’t tell what it was. They didn’t know if it was a blood clot or what they referred to as ‘debris.’ With all that going on, he remained so stoic, and I remember the vets saying they couldn’t believe how he was handling himself, as they knew he had to be in a lot of pain.”
The initial diagnosis was uveitis and a cataract in the left eye. On the advice of Nickie’s California veterinarian Dr. Marta Granstedt and famed equine ophthalmologist Dr. Dennis Brooks at BrooksEyes LLC in Florida, whom Granstedt consulted with, Grote decided to remove Nickie’s left eye when it did not respond to treatment. It was also clear that Nickie was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. During that procedure, surgeons discovered that Nickie’s problem was more complicated than the uveitis and cataract. He had a tumor behind the eye, as well as a detached retina. Subsequent investigation by Brooks revealed something even more startling: Nickie had a malignant retinal pigment epithelium tumor, a type of cancer that had never been diagnosed before in a horse and has only been recorded less than 20 times in humans. Luckily, it had not metastasized.
“We were dumbfounded,” Grote recalled. “Removing the eye was a good call. It was a hard one for me to accept at first, but I knew deep down it was the right call. I am truly grateful to have had Marta and Shauna there to support me through the whole process. There were so many unknowns and emotions that I was feeling, as I had never experienced anything like this before, and, to be honest, I was heartbroken. I had no idea what the future would hold. I wasn’t even sure if we could compete again. Both Marta and Shauna assured me that it would be ok, and that Nickie was going to be fine, but most importantly he’d be pain-free, which, of course, was the most important thing. Boy, were they right. Once that eye was removed, it was like night and day. His whole expression, and his whole demeanor, changed.
“Within a month, we were back in the ring, and within a couple of months, we were back in the show ring. From that point on, he hasn’t missed a beat.”
Grote and Nickie maintained a steady show schedule, competing mostly in equitation, and by the end of the season they’d picked up the Zone 9 USHJA Thoroughbred hunter championship. “I remember wondering how the judges would accept him in the hunter ring when we first started back up, but they never seemed to have a problem with the fact that he only has one eye,” Grote said.
Grote credits Granstedt and the veterinary team for successfully removing Nickie’s eye and solving the mystery behind it, and she credits trainer Pennell and her team for helping the gelding return to competition.
“This type of situation reinforces how important it is to be with a trainer that has a ton of experience, a true knowledge of horses—everything from health to nutrition to training—and what is most important: consistency,” Grote said. “The team at Silver Crest is truly amazing, and the horses always come first. I truly believe that it's this type of top-quality care that led Nickie to a pretty quick and painless recovery. I also believe it allowed us to jump back into the show ring quickly and with success.
“In October of 2018 we went to the LEGIS Adult Amateur Equitation Medal Finals and ended up reserve champion, then on to the LAHJA Adult Amateur Equitation Medal Finals, where we ended up seventh,” said Grote. “The LAHJA Final is a tougher final, in my opinion, so I was pretty proud of him, especially since he only has one eye!” Grote said.
“We’ve had a long show career, and my plan is to continue with the equitation so long as he stays sound and is willing and happy.”
Until the day his eye had turned green, Grote said, “you would never have known that there was anything wrong with the horse. He looked perfect and had been going along like normal. When I think back, though, there were a couple of instances where he was a little spooky here or a little spooky there, which was a little out of character, but I had just chalked it up to being a little fresh. But, with hindsight, we think he was going blind in that eye during that time while the tumor was growing, prior to the eye turning green. I realize now that he was slowly getting acclimated.”
During that time, Grote recalled, she and Nickie had been showing as usual, even competing at one of the summer shows at Thunderbird Show Park in Canada in July of 2017. He was champion in the adult amateur equitation section there, not long before his left eye problem became obvious.
“For him to continue to do his job for that entire year—and successfully, I might add—while the tumor was growing and he was losing his sight just shows me what an incredible horse and sweet soul he truly is. He trusts me, and I trust him,” Grote said. “I appreciate him and our partnership even more and feel incredibly lucky to call him mine.”
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