The twin brother of a pony who suffocated after he was fed a raw potato by walkers has transformed from a “field ornament” to a multiple champion in the seven months since.
Sarra Mackenzie-Pilot’s 12-year-old Welsh section A Lightning died suddenly on 17 January, with a whole potato stuck in his throat.
Sarra told H&H at the time she was “broken” by Lightning’s death. But the transformation of his brother Thunder, whom she had never previously been able to back, has been a light in a dark time.
“A lot of people have said ‘Do you not think his brother’s with him?’” Sarra said. “I don’t believe in anything like that, but it kind of seems like he is.
“It’s like he’s just decided he’s got to step up and be the big boy now.”
Sarra said Thunder had been lucky to live at all. Scans had not shown that his dam Sophie was carrying twins, and the tiny colt was born suffering with a severe case of dummy foal, or neonatal maladjustment syndrome, which can cause a newborn foal to be slow in following expected behaviour, such as standing or drinking.
“He had a blood transfusion on day one and the vet said if he survived that night, he’d only give him a 5% chance,” Sarra said.
“He had plasma transfusions, heat lamps to warm his joint and physio every day; we were feeding him with a tube every two hours because he couldn’t suckle. On day 10, he stood up and walked on his own, but we nearly didn’t have him at all.”
Sarra said that Thunder was affected by a lack of oxygen at birth and although he was happy and well otherwise, all previous attempts to back him had failed.
“We always said he wouldn’t be more than a field ornament, but we we had a lot of grass, so that was fine,” Sarra said. “He and Lightning were best friends, like bookends, and they’d never been apart.
“When Lightning died, it was heartbreaking as he just stood by the gate screaming. We had to watch his mum and brother grieving and couldn’t do anything.”
Sarra started walking Thunder in hand, to try to keep his mind occupied, then in February, her local Oldham and District Riding Club announced it was to name two trophies after Lightning; for ridden and in-hand small mountain and moorland (M&M) ponies.
“It sounds peevish but I thought ‘No one else is going to win them’!” Sarra said. “I thought they’re my boy’s trophies and they’re coming home.”
The news gave Sarra the determination to work with Thunder.
“I took a headcollar and lead rope into the field, put them on and got on him, to my husband’s horror!” she said. “He asked what I was doing and I said ‘I’m going to ride Thunder. That’s what’s happening’.
“My husband came running up and we walked towards him. The next day, we did it again, and by the end of the week, he had a bridle and saddle on, and we were walking and trotting. Within a few weeks, we were jumping small cross-poles.”
Thunder’s first outing was to a dressage show, where he won his class.
A few months on, he is not only the riding club’s champion in Lightning’s two categories, he has taken the intro dressage and mini working hunter titles, and is reserve champion in open in-hand, which means he will now head to the STARS Champion of Champions event at Aintree in November.
“How is that possible?” Sarra said. “He’s gone from being a lawnmower to a champion in such a short time, it doesn’t make sense. When the riding club secretary told me I’d won, I said ‘Are you sure?’ It had all been such a blur, I hadn’t kept track of our points; I’d just been glad I hadn’t fallen off!
“We’ll be representing our riding club at STARS and I don’t care about winning; it’s amazing just to get there.”
Sarra said nothing has fazed Thunder, from jumping cross-country fences on a fun ride when he had never seen their like before, to a tent trying to lift from its moorings in gale-force winds at a show.
“He’s got such a happy, laid-back attitude to life,” she said. “He’s become a real favourite with children at shows; he’s a wonderful pony who just wants to be hugged and wants to please. My coach Max Prenty said he’s like the Miss Congeniality of the horse world.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams that Thunder could be so amazing. It’s like Cinderella; somehow Thunder has managed to go to the ball.
“I’d never thought I’d be able to do anything like I did with Lightning but it’s almost like it makes me 10 times prouder doing it with Thunder, because it’s like we’re doing it for both of them, like Thunder and I are doing this for Lightning too.
“Even now, people do a double-take when they see us because they’re the spitting image of each other, so it’s like Lightning is still with us.”
Sarra added that both she and Thunder miss Lightning very much, but “we’re getting through it together”.
“Thunder has excelled this year in all I have asked of him. I could not be prouder, and I am sure Lightning is looking down on us, feeling the same,” she said.
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