Published November 20, 2014
The mare was tall and spirited and a joy to behold, galloping across the pasture with her head high, lithe and fast and fearless.
A dark bay, nearly black, with a dramatic white blaze on her forehead, everyone thought Burma — the diva of the barn — was a beauty.
But, though friendly and affectionate, the 6-year-old thoroughbred was practically impossible to handle. High-strung and feisty, she swayed impatiently in her stall, chewed the wooden doors, got tangled in her harness, stuck her nose into any box or bucket she could find. She had proved hopeless on the track, despite having a distant blood connection to the great racehorse Man o' War. She had ugly feet that required special shoes, and an alarming tendency to colic.
To 16-year-old Megan Chance, she was perfect.
"This is the horse I want," she announced jubilantly in 1998, after riding Burma for the first time at a New Jersey stable.
Her parents were uneasy, urging her to consider a quieter, more manageable mount. But Megan was sure. A tall girl who spent every free minute at the stables — grooming, riding, mucking out stalls, giving lessons — she wanted a big horse with a big personality, one that demanded attention and care, one that would truly test her ability as a horsewoman and trainer.
Her parents relented. And Burma was hers.
For six years, they were inseparable. Megan worked on pacing her new horse, calming her, grooming her, earning her trust. From the start it was clear that Burma would never be a good hunter or jumper: She didn't have the calm, steady temperament to win in the show ring. And she was sickly — Megan endured whole nights in the barn, nursing her horse through bouts of colic, an intestinal disease that's sometimes fatal. But Megan loved Burma's adventurous streak, the fact that she was willing to try anything, loved their deepening bond.
When Megan enrolled at Meredith Manor Equestrian College in West Virginia in 2001, Burma went too. And when Megan graduated in 2003 and went to work at the New Jersey stables of famed Olympian equestrian Frank Chapot, Burma accompanied her.
"She was more than my horse or my pet," Megan said. "She was my best buddy."
But, as many horse lovers will attest — and as Megan would discover — a horse who is your best buddy can break your heart.
In 2004, when Megan decided to take a couple of months to travel across the country with her friend Katie Gaylor, her biggest dilemma was who could take care of Burma.
Megan remembered a conversation several years earlier with the horse trainer who had shipped Burma to West Virginia. She is so lovely, Megan recalled the woman saying. If you ever want to breed her, please call me.
Megan contacted the woman, who ran a stable in New York's Orange County. They made a deal, Megan says. The woman would pay all Burma's costs — food, shelter, veterinary care — and in return she would breed the mare and keep the foal.
In the fall of 2004, Megan dropped Burma off at well-appointed stables in the New York countryside. They signed a handwritten contract, Megan says, and then she and her friend took off on a six-week cross-country tour. Along the way, she kept in regular phone contact with Burma's barn; returning for Thanksgiving, she visited her horse at the stables, and found her happy and well cared for — and pregnant.
Confident that Burma was in good hands, Megan moved to North Carolina to take over a stable with Katie. She kept a picture of Burma on the dash of the car and had photos of her all over the house. She would call every few weeks to ask how her horse was doing — and that was how she learned that Burma had miscarried.
She agreed to leave her at the stable for up to a year longer so the breeder could try for another foal.
Months passed. In the spring of 2005 the breeder told Megan that Burma was pregnant again.
That is the last conversation Megan recalls.
At first Megan paid little attention to the fact that her phone calls were not being returned. But when she called one day and the phone was disconnected, she panicked.
She tried to find the woman on the Internet, but she'd left no trace. She tried email, but her messages bounced back.
What had happened to the breeder? What had happened to her horse?
Katie wondered about taking legal action, or hiring an investigator. But Megan didn't have any money. They could barely afford to run the barn. Besides, as her mother kept reminding her daughter in long, tearful phone conversations, the reality was that something bad must have happened to Burma.
In all likelihood, she had died giving birth. Burma was gone.
Six years passed. On July 6, 2011, two strikingly beautiful thoroughbred mares stood in pen No. 10 at the weekly horse auction in Cranbury, N.J, calling frantically to each other, eyes wild with fear. Number 912 was a tall dark bay, nearly black, with a stunning white blaze on her forehead. Her companion, number 911, was a skinny bay. Both had unusual white branding on their necks — t-47 and t-38.
No. 10 is the saddest stall, the feedlot pen also known as the "kill pen." Horses here are destined to be shipped to a slaughterhouse and butchered for horse meat abroad. They can only be saved if they are bought, or "bailed," for a couple of hundred dollars — the equivalent of what they would get per pound at the slaughterhouse.
At her pretty horse farm in Newtown, Conn., more than 100 miles away, Annette Sullivan monitored the auction on her computer. The 43-year-old horsewoman had her hands full with summer camp, and the last thing on her mind was rescuing a horse. But something about the dark mare made her pause.
How in the world could this gorgeous creature — which, according to one Internet posting, had some connection to Frank Chapot's Olympic stable — wind up in the kill pen?
This horse has a history, Sullivan thought.
A friend connected to a rescue group offered to pay boarding costs if Sullivan would give the mares a home. Sullivan called the auction house. "I'll bail 911 and 912," she said, and paid $325 for both.
Papers identified the dark horse as Burma's Lady, the 15-year-old granddaughter of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. Her companion was 18-year-old Ready to Cry, who had been on the track a few years but had no such famous lineage.
Lady was the beauty, but also more shy. Ready to Cry was her protector and muse, nuzzling Lady, stepping in front of her when anyone approached. Touched by the bond, convinced that the dark horse had a story as compelling as the fictional Black Beauty, Sullivan renamed Ready to Cry "Anna" — after Anna Sewell, author of the classic novel.
The horses seemed healthy and in good shape, but with one puzzling trait: Though they were broodmares, their teats were maiden. They had never given birth.
Curious, Sullivan emailed the stables listed as their last owner — All-D-Reiterhof Farm in Long Valley, N.J.
What she learned disturbed her deeply.
The farm operates a federally approved quarantine station where imported stallions are tested for contagious equine metritis, or CEM, a venereal disease that is treatable but can be devastating if it spreads through a barn. Because stallions show no symptoms, they are bred to two mares. If the mares are not infected, the stallion is released from quarantine.
For at least five years, Lady and Anna (known only as t-47 and t-38) had been used as test mares, bred over and over by foreign-born stallions entering the country. Each time, they were injected with hormone drugs and their reproductive organs were swabbed and flushed to ensure that they didn't get pregnant.
Sullivan had never heard of CEM — and was horrified by what her mares had endured.
Armin Wagner, who owns the farm, was equally horrified to learn that the horses were alive.
Why do you have my horses? I sent them to slaughter, Sullivan recalls him saying over the phone. He also stressed, in emails to Sullivan, that it was crucial not to breed the mares. Their organs had been compromised by all the testing, he wrote. And Anna had a serious uterine infection.
Wagner refused to discuss the test program on the record. But equine experts and veterinarians associated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which mandates and oversees the little-known program, said the mares are well cared for. It is the only way, they said, to ensure the disease is kept out of the country.
"The mares are well treated and pampered," said New Jersey State Veterinarian Dr. Manoel Tamassia, whose office was familiar with Burma and Anna. They spent most of the time, Tamassia said, eating hay or out in the pasture. When they are bred to the stallions a few times a year, he added, they are doing what is natural.
"It is a good life for a horse," he said, "better than being stuck in a stall."
The vet said Anna's infection was not a danger as long as she was not bred, and both horses began quickly adjusting to the daily rhythms of their Connecticut home. But the mystery of Lady's past haunted Sullivan.
The horse rode beautifully. "She has carriage and floats with you and engages," Sullivan said. "You could feel the energy. There was something so special about this horse."
Twelve-year-old Haley McNulty, who had been riding at the stable for years, fell in love with Lady, too. Her parents had promised her a horse for her 13th birthday in October, and there was no doubt which horse she wanted. Haley loved Lady's sweet-natured personality, the way she stuck her tongue out as though she was laughing. And though she had "vices" — chomping on the stall door ("cribbing") and weaving in the stall — Haley was moved by the mare's story and all she had been through.
And so Haley started riding Lady several times a week, baking her oatmeal cookies and visiting almost every day. At Halloween, Haley dressed as a witch and stuck whiskers on Lady as her cat.
Sullivan was thrilled at what seemed like a perfect match, but she had nagging doubts about Lady's health. The mare's girth was expanding daily: She looked pregnant. But how could that be? Wagner had assured her it was impossible for a test mare to get pregnant.
Somehow, it had happened. A vet confirmed the pregnancy in late September: Lady would likely give birth within a month.
Sullivan's heart sank. Lady's uterus was too compromised to carry a foal to term. Even had she been in full health, she was old to be giving birth for the first time.
Sullivan braced herself to break the news to Haley: There was a good chance Lady would not make it. She might die giving birth, or her placenta could be so toxic she might have to be put down.
On a sunny morning in October, Megan Chance Adams dropped her son at kindergarten and checked her computer in Washington, N.C. She clicked on a Facebook link forwarded by a friend and saw a picture of a horse, a beautiful tall dark bay with a familiar white blaze.
"I found Burma," she screamed on the phone to her mother. "Oh my God, she's alive."
"Are you sure?" her mother asked.
"Of course I'm sure," Megan said, sobbing hysterically. "I know my horse."
She called Sullivan, who listened patiently as the weeping young woman described everything about Lady — from her messy stall to her bad feet to the quirky way she stuck out her tongue. There was no doubt: Lady was Megan's Burma.
Sullivan assured Megan that the horse was safe and well, but added that she had been through a lot. Gently, but without sparing any details, she described the test facility where Lady had spent five years, her rescue, her dangerous pregnancy.
Next Sullivan called Haley's mother and left a message saying Lady was no longer available for adoption. Then she went to the barn. Stroking Lady's forehead, she offered a silent prayer that the mare would survive.
Over the next week, Megan and Sullivan talked nearly every day. Megan told her about the contract with the farm in New York state, about how the woman and Burma had vanished. She told her how heartbroken she had felt, how guilty for letting her horse down. Now 29, Megan was married with a 4-year-old son and working in a pharmacy. She had taken some time off working with horses to focus on being a mom. But she had never stopped thinking of Burma.
On Oct. 26, a cold and rainy night, Burma went into labor.
For hours she heaved and sweated and moaned. Several times, Sullivan and the vet wondered if they would have to euthanize her. The foal was stillborn and twisted, its legs backwards. Even after sedating Burma, it took the vet, her assistant and Sullivan all their strength to wrap chains around the stunted fetus and pull it out.
They tried to present it to Burma, so that she would understand her baby was dead. But she didn't want to know. She screamed and reared and banged at the stall, yanking out her IV.
In desperation, Sullivan went to Anna's stall. She walked the mare over to Burma. Anna nuzzled her friend. She sniffed her. She whinnied softly. Burma grew quiet, and stopped banging at the sides of the stall. She looked at her companion with such sadness that Sullivan wept.
"I was mush," Sullivan said.
Megan was a wreck, too, anxiously waiting by the phone in North Carolina, fearing the worst, willing her horse to survive.
Sullivan kept her updated with text messages. Both knew that the next few hours were critical. The placenta was toxic. If it didn't expel soon, Burma could go into shock and would have to be put down.
About 24 hours after the birth, Sullivan messaged Megan.
We have placenta!
Megan collapsed in sobs. Burma had pulled through once again.
On the day after Thanksgiving, Megan drove from her mother's house in New Jersey to Zoar Ridge stables in Connecticut.
She was about to see Burma for the first time in six years. And she was terrified.
Would Burma recognize her? Would she forgive her?
Heart pounding, she walked towards the pasture where Burma was grazing.
"Burma," she called softly, "Burma."
The mare flicked her head and looked up, ears pointed, curious. Slowly she ambled over. Trembling, Megan reached out and stroked her. It was hard to believe, after all this time, that she could touch the horse she had never stopped grieving.
In the barn, Burma didn't take her eyes off Megan. It was as if she was trying to remember, to piece together all that had happened.
Megan and Sullivan agreed that Burma would stay through the holidays to continue her recovery, and move to North Carolina in the New Year. There, a beautiful new barn awaited her. After retiring, Megan's father-in-law had built a small pleasure horse farm on a 70-acre tract in Washington. At the Lazy A, Burma would have a warm stall, plenty of companions and lots of hay. And Megan would visit every day.
For Megan, the reunion brought back a flood of memories — and questions.
Though she had long forgotten the name of the woman she had entrusted with Burma, she did remember the name of her shipping company: Horsefeathers. It turned out the business had once belonged to Kim Martin, a horse trainer in Warwick, N.Y. Martin, who goes by several other names, remembered Burma well, but she has a very different recollection of her deal with Megan.
There was no contract for a foal, Martin said. "She gave me the horse because she didn't have the money to keep it."
After running into legal and financial difficulties in 2005, Martin said she gave the horse to her friend, Wagner, who runs the test facility.
"I'm glad she got her horse back," Martin said. But she insisted: "It was mine to give away. It was never lost or stolen."
Martin's account infuriates Megan's husband and other family members who had watched her suffer over the loss of her horse. But it matters little to Megan.
At midnight on Jan. 11, a throng of friends and family gathered at the Lazy A, cheering as a horse trailer pulled into the stables.
Burma was home.
Sullivan watched the homecoming on her computer in Connecticut. It had been bittersweet to say goodbye to her rescued Black Beauty. But happily, the mare's saga was over.
Except it wasn't quite the ending.
After Sullivan posted Megan and Burma's story on Facebook, and local media in Connecticut and North Carolina picked it up, a Kentucky horsewoman came forward to say the real Burma's Lady was happily grazing in a field on her farm.
"I don't know what Burma she has," said Cheryll Frank of Georgetown, Ky., a few days after Burma's arrival in North Carolina. "But Burma's Lady by Tsunami Slew is sitting outside my window, and I have all the papers to prove it."
Frank's announcement launched a frenetic series of email and phone call exchanges between Frank, Megan, her mother, Sullivan and others. They checked the lip tattoo numbers of both horses against data with The Jockey Club, where thoroughbreds are registered. They checked with the American Equestrian Association and the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau.
Together they solved the mystery.
Megan's Burma is actually Burma's True Love, four years older than her half-sister, Burma's Lady. They were born to the same dam, or mother, but have different fathers. (Burma's True Love is not descended from the great Seattle Slew.)
Megan had only ever called her horse Burma. The name Lady appears to have been added when the horse was stabled with Martin.
For her part, Megan couldn't care less about her horse's name or lineage. All that matters is Burma is back where she belongs.
At the Lazy A, Burma has settled in happily with Lacey, a pony, and Dano, a gelding. Lulu, the 13-year-old chestnut mare, has become her new friend.
"I intend to spoil her and love her and pamper her and watch her grow old," Megan said one recent sunny afternoon as she cleaned the stalls. "She's going to be my princess, aren't you, Burma?"
Hearing her name, Burma trotted over. Pushing her nose against Megan, the princess mare — Burma's True Love — cheekily demanded another carrot.
Helen O'Neill is a national writer for The Associated Press, based in New York. She can be reached at features(at)ap.org.