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In Memoriam: Zack

2000 – January 9, 2023

Eulogy by Susan Wagner

A big horse has just left a giant gap in the hearts of all of us at Equine Advocates.

Zack was large on so many levels, not the least of which was his massive physical presence, but also by the impact he had on this organization and on the way he affected each and every one of us who had the privilege to know and love him.

We knew very little about his history and background except for a few details told to us by the head of a local SPCA in Montgomery County, NY that had taken him in after he was seized by police during a cruelty raid. That person informed me that Zack had been purchased online in 2016 by a buyer in Charleston, NY who inexplicably went on to starve and neglect Zack from the fall of 2016 until May of 2017 when the police were called in and seized him and the other animals on that property. The conditions were reportedly substandard and squalid, and the hay that Zack was being fed was “moldy.”

Following the raid, the SPCA made several attempts to place Zack into a good home, but after he was returned to them for the second time, one of the investigators on his case contacted me and asked if we would admit him into the sanctuary. I said yes immediately. He was first shipped to Cornell University Hospital for Animals in Ithaca, NY where he was examined and evaluated. He arrived at the sanctuary four days later on July 14, 2018.

We introduced Zack to a small herd of horses, and he quickly bonded with them and seemed to really love his new life here. He soon became one of the most popular equines at the sanctuary. He was this beautiful and lovable gentle giant with expressive eyes and a playful personality who just drew people to him.

Zack (far left) with some of his pasture mates early on, Ceci, Vicky, and Sylvia.

Unfortunately, some of the health issues he had when he first came here, in addition to a serious condition he developed two years after that, interrupted his ability to remain with his herd as he needed special care that required him to be moved to the Main Barn.

Among some of Zack’s serious health issues was an extreme Vitamin E deficiency which was cited by one of his vets as probably being among the contributing factors to the neurological problems that he had. Zack went to Cornell three times. The second time was in February of 2019 when cancer was discovered on the third eyelid of his right eye. Surgery was successfully performed by Dr. Nita Irby and he recovered well with no further eye issues. However, at the end of 2019, one of Zack’s biggest health problems emerged.

Canker, a bacterial infection of the foot, had affected all four of Zack’s feet. He was treated by a local podiatrist, but over time, the Canker became more difficult to treat due to his neurological issues affecting his hind end. These issues made it difficult for Zack to maintain his balance while being asked to lift his feet for treatment. He was also tested for Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM) and while he did have a very mild case, it was not considered to be the main reason for the weakness in his hind limbs.

Zack was a Belgian Draft Horse who weighed 2,000 pounds and had balance issues. When it became too difficult to lift his feet and treat him on the farm, we decided to send him back to Cornell to see if the vets there could identify the origin of his neurological problems and advise us on how best to manage them.

Under the care of a wonderful team of veterinarians headed by Dr. Marta Cercone, Zack was examined, tested, and evaluated to try to find some answers. Although he tested negative for Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM), it was recommended that he be given the drug Marquis to treat EPM anyway since tests are not always conclusive. That treatment did seem to help him. He came home from Cornell much better and we were able to treat him at home for a while.

Fast forward to the fall of 2021 – I had begun an association with the world-renowned equine podiatrist Dr. Ric Redden concerning another one of our horses earlier that year. I learned that he was an expert in the treatment of Canker and asked him if he could help with Zack since it became clear that we needed more expert help to treat this very complex health problem. He said I needed to take several important steps to prepare an area in our Main Barn in order for him to work on Zack. That included installing treatment stocks and a hoist that could lift Zack in a sling while he was standing in the stocks.

Zack standing in the treatment stocks with Dr. Redden (left) just prior to surgery. Taken on December 18, 2021.

On December 18, 2021, Dr. Redden performed surgery on Zack to remove the Canker in each of his four feet. Zack was an ideal patient and following surgery never hesitated or refused to enter the stocks for daily cleaning and bandaging of his feet, and for additional debridement procedures which sometimes lasted for hours. All of us, including his vets, were just amazed and impressed with how willing he was to cooperate and undergo treatment. During the initial surgery, Dr. Redden was assisted by one of his proteges, Dr. Jaret Pullen, also an experienced equine podiatrist. With the dedicated help of our equine staff, headed by our Equine Care Manager Melissa Murray, it was in the spring of 2022 that Zack was deemed “Canker free!” To say the least, we were elated, grateful and so happy for Zack.

From left to right: Dr. Jaret Pullen, Dr. Ric Redden, Zack, and me immediately following Zack’s surgery to remove the Canker from all four of his feet. Taken on December 18, 2021.

All seemed to be going well except for Zack’s neurological issues which were not improving despite different medications and treatments as prescribed and directed by some of the best equine veterinarians in this part of the country.

I could go on to discuss more of the details of what we did for Zack with all the ups and downs that followed, but all I can say is that we truly believed that with his Canker Disease and other hoof issues now under control, he was well on the road to recovery. He did enjoy a few hours with a buddy in the pasture from time to time as long as the footing was dry and he simply adored his large double stall and all the attention he received while living in the Main Barn.

Zack grazing on October 12, 2022 with his stablemate, little Gloria.

Young elementary school students who came here for our Humane Education classes fell in love with him, including a young child in a wheelchair who was delighted when Zack put his massive head in her lap so that she could pet him. He loved kids and responded to the endless fascination they had for him.

These students enjoyed meeting Zack during a Humane Education tour.

Our hopes for Zack’s future ended abruptly on Sunday, January 8th when his hind end issues took a dramatic turn for the worse. He suddenly became extremely unsteady on his feet and he lost his balance. He also seemed to lose the ability to walk normally. Despite his health history, this was still a shock because he had been doing so well otherwise. However, the reality of this situation quickly became clear. As we did not want him to injure himself, the decision was made to humanely euthanize him which we did the next day. Tears flowed and plans were dashed, but we had no other choice. It was the right thing to do.

It is hard for me to put into words how much Zack will be missed. He was larger than life. He was smart and sensitive, and he knew how much we wanted to help him. He just got to all of us emotionally and moved us in such a personal way to where we would have done anything to find a way to free him from the health issues that had plagued him for so long.

Like so many equines, Zack was extremely stoic and never let his problems stop him from enjoying life. He loved being groomed and fussed over. He looked forward to his meals, his treats, his evening hot mashes, and the special attention he received from us, including one of our Board members, Regan, who came regularly to visit and groom him and our other horses. My sister Karen, who runs Equine Advocates with me, also had a special bond with Zack. His loyal sponsor, Sheila, had been there for him since Day 1. Many of our supporters, volunteers, and visitors, as well as elementary school students who came here for Humane Education classes, would always come to see him.

One of Zack’s favorite things was being scratched with a rake. Melissa Murray, Equine Care Manager at Equine Advocates Rescue & Sanctuary, was happy to oblige.

As for myself, I am so glad that we gave Zack a home and did all we could to try to help him live a normal life. He affected me in a way that has happened before with other rescued equines, especially some of our PMU mares, the majority of whom had been very badly abused and neglected. Anything we could do to provide an equine with love and a quality of life, even if it ends up not being a very long one, is worth it because it makes a difference in the life of that animal.

I will always remember the two very serious conversations I had with Melissa Murray when I discussed what would be involved and required of her and other members of our staff in order to handle Zack’s intensive aftercare treatment if we were to go through with the Canker surgery. There was never any question that she and our entire staff supported this decision and were committed to getting him well.

In the end, we at Equine Advocates were truly the lucky ones to have had Zack in our lives. One of my favorite documentaries of all time was the awarding-winning 2020 film, “My Octopus Teacher.” On many levels, Zack was our teacher as well. In the nearly 27 years that we have been in existence, we never had a horse develop Canker before. We learned so much about this disease because of Zack, including the fact that veterinarians do not yet know exactly what causes it. However, we got to work with experts who knew how to treat it which helped extend Zack’s life for more than a year. That was a gift.

Also, through Dr. Redden, we began a wonderful association with Dr. Pullen, who continues to come to the sanctuary to treat our animals that require the special services of an equine podiatrist, which is an individual who is both a proficient farrier and a licensed veterinarian. Over the past four and a half years, we’ve worked with equine veterinarians from multiple practices, all of whose work and expertise contributed to Zack’s progress and quality of life.

I have had many equine teachers in my life and know that there will be many more. The best lesson that Zack taught me was to always have hope and to never ever give up. To quote the late, great Tom Petty, “Well, I won’t back down, no I won’t back down…”

Susan Wagner
President and Founder

Photo by Melissa Murray.