Julie Potteiger’s daughter, Sarah Lowry, is all smiles with Impre’Czario during the Amateur Handler class at Devon 2014. As a two-year-old, the flashy colt of a cancer-ridden Appaloosa mare has surpassed all expectations and has gone on to capture the Zone 2 USHJA Championship for the second time. Photo credit James Parker/The Book
Dip, dunk, splash. Bonnie, an aged Appaloosa mare, is calmly and rhythmically pulling large chunks of hay out of her flake and dunking them in her water bucket. Her soft, half-closed eyes hold a dreamy look, and her pregnant flanks move steadily to the motion of her chewing. Bonnie’s owner, Julie Potteiger of Ephrata, PA, bought her in 1997 when she was only two weeks old, solid bay, and with only a few little white spots on her rump. Now, almost nineteen years later and amidst health complications for both mare and owner, the pretty roan is the dam of a promising young hunter and in foal again.
Potteiger, a lifelong horsewoman, knew she had to have Bonnie the moment she saw her sales video. “She was the cutest thing I ever saw, and even though I didn’t know anything about her, it worked out really great,” said Potteiger. Bonnie grew to be a wonderful family horse, taking Potteiger’s daughter Sarah to 4-H States in Harrisburg, PA several times as well as enjoying lower-level dressage work.
In 2009, Potteiger started to think about what life would be like when her beloved mare passed away. “It was more than I could bear to think about, so I thought maybe we could get one baby out of her.” Potteiger added, “I know there is a lot of irresponsible breeding going on, and horses without homes, but I knew that no matter what Bonnie gave us, both she and her foal would have a forever home with me.” In early 2010, they made the plunge. Potteiger settled on Jump Start Farm’s Oldenburg stud Balta'Czar as a match for Bonnie, and started getting her ready for breeding.
Then disaster struck. Bonnie’s first ultrasound revealed a tumor the size of a mango on one ovary. Potteiger brought her to the New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, PA to remove the tumor, and even though she was recovering well when she came home, the incision abscessed. Bonnie needed around-the-clock care to keep her incision clean, open, and able to heal from the inside out. “It was this huge crater in her side; because it was so big, we had to take four-by-fours and shove them into the hole to keep it open. She was getting tons of different types of antibiotics and it took about six months until she was fully healed,” said Potteiger. “She was just so good, too, and would stand, without sedation, in the crossties while I scrubbed her with Betadine.”
Balta'Czar’s owners had reassured Potteiger that they had seen this type of thing happen before, and that they could try again next season in 2011. So that’s what they did. Bonnie didn’t catch the first time, but they short-cycled her and even with only one ovary, the mare officially was in foal. Potteiger was ecstatic. Not only would the tumor have grown unchecked if Bonnie hadn’t had an ultrasound, but now after all the time and energy spent with the abscess, a baby was on the way. Potteiger threw the mare a “foal shower,” complete with baby games and cake, to celebrate the mare’s pregnancy. In May 2012, three weeks before she was due, two tiny ears peeked over the door to her stall. Impre’Czario, or ‘Turner’ was born without help or complications and was standing up, dry, and happily nursing on his own by the time he was discovered. “Looking back, I realize he wasn’t a very cute baby... he definitely looked like the preemie he was, and he was only about fifty or sixty pounds. At the time, though, I thought he was just the most wonderful thing,” smiled Potteiger. Despite the vet’s warnings that Bonnie, an opinionated mare in the herd hierarchy, may need to be twitched in order to let her foal nurse, she turned out to be gentle mother. Bonnie remembered, “She would never correct him…he would put his head in her feed bucket and she would never chase him away. He ended up being so naughty!”
Baby fever didn’t stop when Turner was finally on the ground. Potteiger recalled going to the Devon Horse Show with her father and watching the breeding classes and young hunters under saddle. From the sidelines, she dreamed of a day when it would be her horse in the ring. She decided to give Turner that opportunity. Through Jerry Frankhouser, Potteiger heard about Emily Belin, of Magic Hill Farm in Douglassville, PA, who would go on to be an important figure in young Turner’s life. Belin came out to inspect the half-Appaloosa colt in September 2012, and judged she would start him on the line that upcoming spring.
“I was so nervous. Most people don’t like Appys, and even though Bonnie was with Turner when Emily came out, she wasn’t turned off by it,” said Potteiger. “Emily turned to me and said, ‘do you want to go to some horse shows?’”
At Belin’s farm, Turner learned his manners. He now bathes, braids, clips, and trailers without any problems, and his previous naughtiness has all but disappeared. “His first year, he was Champion Pennsylvania-bred at Devon, as well as fifth in the Other-than-Thoroughbred class that had over twenty entries. He ended up winning the Zone 2 United States Hunter Jumper Association Championship and the overall Pennsylvania-bred Championship. It’s just so incredible, because I never expected it to turn out like this,” said Potteiger. “He did the whole thing over in 2014, and in early November, we went to the banquet for Keystone Breeders. Turner was zone champion again, and he’s won all of the two-year-old awards. He’s currently second in the nation for hunter breeding, and I just couldn’t be prouder.”
However, before the start of Turner’s star-studded two-year-old year, both Bonnie and Potteiger’s strength plummeted. Potteiger, who is employed at Lancaster General Hospital, started noticing a recurring pain in her hip. As it worsened, she finally saw a doctor who took x-rays of the area. The doctor thought he saw a lesion, and promptly ordered an MRI. What the doctor actually saw was a tear in the tendon of Potteiger’s gluteus medius. Her orthopedic doctor treated the tendon conservatively at first, with rounds of cortisone shots and physical therapy, but the pain only grew.
Potteiger repeated the MRI of her hip, and then again of her back, thinking the fusion she had a few years ago might be the cause of the hip pain. Both MRIs came back normal, so she continued her physical therapy with no improvement. The doctor decided to try to lengthen Potteiger’s IT band, which connects the hip to the knee, via surgery. She healed well, but then broke her foot overcompensating from the pain. Months passed, and her doctor ordered her third MRI of her hip and a second MRI of her back as the original pain itself had not decreased. This time, the MRI showed Potteiger’s back had herniated and compressed the nerves above her fusion. The doctor scheduled an extension of the fusion within a few days, and Potteiger recovered normally as with her previous surgeries. But the hip pain lingered. For seven months, Potteiger could barely walk from the pain. In frustration, she turned to her family practitioner. She couldn’t go to the barn, much less ride, and couldn’t do anything she enjoyed without the nagging pain. Potteiger was referred to the University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Kamath confirmed that the tendon could only be treated with surgery. As he was operating, Dr. Kamath realized the tendon no longer was a partial tear, but had fully ruptured off of the bone. Afterwards, Potteiger had six weeks non-weight bearing recovery in a wheelchair, and then another six weeks partial-weight bearing with crutches. Potteiger is still currently in therapy, and predicted she will continue for at least another year. The whole time Potteiger was battling the pain and healing, Turner was learning to carry a rider as well as winning on the line with Belin.
“I couldn’t have done it without her,” said Potteiger. “I mean that with my whole heart. I couldn’t be doing what I am with Bonnie and Turner without their support. She will text me a photo or a video of Turner snoring, and I wonder how she knew that it was exactly what I needed at that moment. I trust Emily so much—she’s the absolute best—and I never have to question her judgment because I know she has the horses’ best interests at heart.”
Potteiger says the same about Sherry Mersky, owner of Windy Mansion Equestrian Center in Reinholds, PA, where Bonnie is kept safe and sound. “Around the same time that I was going through everything with my hip, we found a lump on Bonnie behind her left front leg, on her elbow,” said Potteiger. “The vet came out to look at it, and he said it was probably just a fatty tumor. It bugged me though, so I decided to just have it removed.” After he went in and removed the lump, the vet ominously didn’t have much to say. They sent the lump to the University of California, Davis for pathology, and the results were not good: it was cancerous.
With Belin’s connections, Potteiger was able to get Bonnie in for an appointment at the New Bolton Center right away. The staff ultrasounded every inch of her body and radiographed her lungs, looking for the telltale, finger-like traces that would mean the cancer has spread. Not finding anything, the staff made arrangements for a bigger resection of the tumor area, and Bonnie stayed at New Bolton for ten days recovering after her surgery. Mersky has been key in monitoring Bonnie while her owner was out of commission. “There was another scare this past spring, when the vet thought he felt something on her shoulder, so we brought her back to New Bolton for more ultrasounds. This time, however, we were given a clean bill of health,” said Potteiger happily.
While the possibility of the cancer returning is always in the back of her mind, Potteiger was excited to breed Bonnie back to Balta'Czar. “She’s due April 27th, and we’re hoping for a girl this time. We already have a name picked out—Tiffany. I know it’s corny, but I love the idea that ten or fifteen years down the road, we will still have a little piece of Bonnie,” said Potteiger.
That’s not the only exciting thing going for Potteiger—after months of struggle with physical therapy and multiple surgeries, she was finally able to sit on Turner at the end of October. “It was at his retirement party, celebrating his last training session as a two-year-old before his winter break. I’m not supposed to be riding, and I’m ‘not,’ but I couldn’t resist this. Emily made sure everything was as safe as possible, from switching out the short mounting block for the taller one to walking beside me as we went around. Turner and I even trotted a little bit, and it was just amazing. I thought I would be nervous, I hadn’t ridden in over a year, but I wasn’t. It was almost like looking out through Bonnie’s ears, just with a different color coat. It was the best day ever.” Potteiger’s voice caught in her throat, heavy with emotion. “It made everything worthwhile.”
Turner will now have the winter off to grow and play, and will return to under saddle work in the spring as a three-year-old. “He was sent through the jump chute this past summer, and even with this little tiny jump,” Potteiger gestured to a pole not even two feet off the ground, “he had his chin between his knees and was loving it. I hope I’ll be able to be a part of everything in the spring.”
Raising both Bonnie and then Turner has been an extremely personal journey for Potteiger. “I will have these horses their whole lives. Emily comes to me and says ‘this person wants to buy Turner, or this person wants to buy Turner,’ and that’s not what it’s about for me. This is my dream come true.” Potteiger encouraged further, “It just goes to show that you don’t have to be a big breeder with tons of money, or part of a big-name barn to be successful. You just have to really want to do it and have the right people helping you.”