Updated: February 18, 2014 at 5:13 am
Early on a March morning in 1993, an Appaloosa filly was born on a small California ranch with devastating birth defects.
The filly, named Kitty Silverwings, had a severed radial nerve in her right front leg, rendering that leg useless, and her breast bone was twisted to the left; in addition, a contracted tendon kept the bottom of her hoof bent and she lacked muscle tissue in her right shoulder.
It was a miracle she had not been stillborn. It would take another miracle for her to survive; Kitty's owner, Patti Ansuini, was told that the filly would gain enough weight in a matter of weeks that she could not live on three legs.
But as Ansuini would tell her vet at one point, "I don't believe in miracles. I rely on them."
Ansuini will share her and Kitty's story Saturday at Colorado Springs Horseman's Day, an annual event created in 2010 by Colorado Equine Veterinary Services. The free event, initially held at Falcon High School, has grown and is now held at the Norris-Penrose Event Center in Colorado Springs. This year's Horseman's Day will run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and will feature vendors, horsemanship clinics, kids' activities and other speakers - most notably Temple Grandin, a Colorado State University professor who was diagnosed with a form of autism at an early age and has played a major role in the livestock industry.
Horse owners - and probably any animal lover - will be moved by Kitty's story. I challenge you to take a look at video online (kittysilverwings.com) of the filly struggling to get around and not at least get a lump in your throat.
Ansuini was urged to euthanize Kitty, who on top of everything else soon developed abscesses in her crippled leg. But Ansuini refused to give up so soon.
"When she looked at me, I just saw something in her eyes," Ansuini says. "She wasn't ready to die."
Improvements came in tiny increments. The abscesses began to heal. Kitty started to push out her right leg, could rest the point of her hoof on the ground.
At six weeks in, Ansuini got on her knees and, with one hand on Kitty's neck and another on her shoulder, did what she calls "the Lazarus prayer."
"I asked God to help out. She's just a filly, but she's fighting with everything she's got."
Ansuini had been sleeping regularly in Kitty's stall, but that night she slept in the house. The next morning, she walked through a shroud of fog to Kitty's stall to feed her. Kitty, who had been waiting, twisted her body to directly face Ansuini and walked to her. It was a key moment and, from there, progress picked up; Kitty even regenerated her missing muscle tissue.
Kitty Silverwings not only survived, but thrived and became a show horse - an award-winning show horse. She earned eight California state championship titles and in 1998 won a top 10 world title at the ApHC (Appaloosa Horse Club) World Show in Fort Worth, Texas.
The bond built between horse and human did not just help Kitty survive; it also helped save Ansuini, she says. She was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2006 and underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. While in the hospital, her husband taped a picture of Kitty to the foot of the bed "so that every time I would open my eyes I would see Kitty. Doctors, nurses, the techs, they would all ask about the beautiful horse, and I would tell them the story of how Kitty would never quit."
Ansuini would not quit either. After three months, she left the hospital; Kitty, she believes, helped her beat the cancer.
Today, Kitty is one of nine retired show horses on Ansuini's ranch in Gilroy, Calif. "She usually draws a crowd," Ansuini says. "She's a hambone; she loves people."
Ansuini's message is a simple one: "to never, ever give up. No matter how terrible the odds and everyone in the world disagrees with you, when you think you're right, you should hang in there."
Ansuini will be signing copies of her book, "Spirit of the Warhorse: Kitty Silverwings, an Appaloosa Story," at Horseman's Day; for more information on the day's events, go to coloradospringshorsemansday.com.
See you there.
Bill Radford and his wife live in the countryside east of Colorado Springs with a menagerie that includes one horse, one mule, two goats, three dogs, two cats, a half-dozen chickens, two rabbits, two guinea pigs and two parrots. Contact him: gazettebillradford on Facebook. Follow his blog at blogs.gazette.com/thecountrylife.