I cannot believe that this horse survived…
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His legs are heavily bandaged. His right side is a patchwork of bald and raw skin. And he flinches when strangers touch him.
But at a ranch in the hills outside Clermont, a horse that six weeks ago fell out of a moving trailer onto I-75 and was left for dead is getting a second chance at life. And this time around — with 24-7 care from a young woman who adores him — is infinitely better than the first.
Teddy Bear Highway, as his rescuers named him, seems to sense it.
“He’s still a little shy,” says Loran Wheatley, the 25-year-old co-founder of DreamCatcher Horse Ranch & Rescue Center in Lake County, where the horse is recovering from two surgeries and extensive road rash — the result of his high-speed tumble onto the interstate. “But he likes his head rubbed and kissed on. He is such a sweet boy.”
She nuzzles him under his chin as he gently leans in her direction.
On the last day of November, Alachua County deputies had found the horse along the highway after a series of calls from alarmed motorists. The horse was bleeding, limping and missing large chunks of his coat.
“It was a miracle he survived,” says Shannon Beach, office manager at Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic, west of Gainesville, which was summoned to pick him up. “In the beginning, we really didn’t know his prognosis. We didn’t even know what happened.”
In the weeks that followed, as Teddy Bear Highway became a social media darling to thousands of people cheering for his recovery, tips began to come into the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office. And deputies began to piece together the story.
The 15-year-old gelding, it turned out, had several previous owners. He was named Spartan at one point and Jet at another — apparently for his black coat — but early on Nov. 30, he was being transported north to be euthanized. Authorities believe the destination was an illegal slaughterhouse in Georgia.
The trailer hauling Teddy Bear Highway made it just past Micanopy.
As the story spread, a fanciful version of events emerged, claiming the horse had “escaped a death sentence” in a bid for freedom. In fact, Wheatley says, the trailer’s rear gate likely wasn’t closed properly or the latch simply failed, and Highway fell out at what some speculate was 60 mph. No one knows precisely how fast.
The driver, according to the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, kept going. A trucker saw the man later stop, walk to the back, close the gate, then continue on his way.
“The fact that he’s alive, that he didn’t break a bone, that he didn’t get hit by a car, that he survived the surgery and that he is healing so well and being so sweet — it is just amazing,” says veterinarian Erin Denney-Jones of Florida Equine Veterinary Services, who comes to the ranch every other day to check his wounds. “He is so brave. You can see he wants to live.”
You can also see, she says, that he knows he is safe in his new home.
Wheatley, who has had chronic health challenges since she was a teenager, underwent major spinal surgery last May. She knows something about a painful recovery.
She was smitten with the horse from the beginning. Even before the Alachua sheriff’s office had located his former owner, Wheatley was calling to offer to adopt him, despite the expensive veterinary bills to come.
“I knew from Day One I wanted him,” she says.
Wheatley has spent most of her life on the ranch. Her mother, Alison Wheatley, a native of England, bought the place in 2006 and turned it into a nonprofit rescue center in 2010. It is her income as owner of DreamCatcher Realty that often covers the bills, and Loran now runs the operation.
In eight years, it has saved more than 120 horses, nursing them back to health and often, it seems, happiness. Most of them would have been killed otherwise.
“They have every reason to hate people,” Loran Wheatley says. “But they don’t. Some people say, ‘This horse is dangerous.’ Or ‘This horse is mean.’ It’s usually the environment they’re in. It’s usually an abusive owner — unintentional abuse. You can’t tell a horse what to do. You ask them. And you ask them nicely. They’re bigger than you.”
Highway, as she calls him, is about 900 pounds now, having lost weight from surgeries and stress. A week after he was moved to the ranch in mid-December, the worst of his injuries — a raw wound atop a joint on his front leg — became infected. The day after Christmas, he was transported back to an Ocala veterinary hospital for a difficult surgery.
“They told me to say goodbye because he had a 5 percent chance, and he probably wasn’t going to make it,” she says, barely getting the words out. “Sorry — this part always gets hard. They said he has, um… God, this freakin’ horse, man… I don’t cry — ever. But… he’s just… he’s special.”
She told the hospital to wait until she got there and immediately drove north with her mom. The surgery involved a foot-long incision and removing a 5-inch section of infected tissue over a tendon. After all that Highway had been through, it was a lot to ask of his battered body.
A week later, though, he was able to come home again.
His care is expensive — about $15,000 for the two surgeries and $200 to $300 for each veterinary check-up three times a week. Springhill Equine launched a GoFundMe campaign that brought in nearly $8,900, and Facebook donations to the Highway the I-75 Miracle Horse Facebook page have totaled about $4,000 — money that won’t be distributed until next month.
Meanwhile, the ranch credit cards are covering the shortfall, but Denney-Jones, the veterinarian, says Highway is not out of danger yet. Officially, his prognosis is “guarded.” But she and Wheatley are optimistic.
“Right now, we’re asking for people not to come visit him so he can rest and heal,” Wheatley says. She strokes his braided mane gently. “He’ll never be ridable. He’ll just be our pet — right, bud? You’re just going to live here with me and be happy.”
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