A Man And His Horse…

The connection between human and horse can be a curious thing. Some feel no more than a sense of ownership, maybe some fleeting pride in its shining, flexing form. For others, that horse could be their child, their mate, or their right hand man. Corey Milnes’ horse, Frank, means all of that to him and more.

One misty morning in 2005, Corey saved Frank’s life. The 4 year old jumper fell during a steeplechase and badly ruptured his deep digital flexor tendon in his left foreleg (similar to an achilles tendon in a human). As stable foreman, Corey knew Frank well, he was a favourite because he was easy to ride, a real gentle giant. “Everyone wanted a piece of Frank, he’s got the biggest softest eyes on him – he’d be like an unbroken two year old, then within seconds he’ll have his head down for a scratch or pinching a sandwich out of your hand.” Corey had always told the owners that when they retired Frank, he’d be interested in taking him, so after the accident they phoned as a last resort before having to put him down. Corey didn’t hesitate but he arrived home a severely broken animal. “Very sick, skinny, lethargic, he couldn’t walk because his fetlock was basically touching the ground.” Put straight back on the float to the vets for a scan, they said there wasn’t much hope for him. Despite that, Corey took him home and started researching how he could heal Frank’s leg. He kept him in a confined yard, with the leg heavily bandaged, going out several times a day to feed, and say hello. After three or four months, Corey began using supportive plates and gentle flexion/extension exercises to strengthen the leg. Every week, the yard got bigger, until one day, Corey came out to find that Frank, true to his original calling, had jumped out of the yard and was grazing leisurely in the nearby paddock. Starting slow they headed further afield. “As soon as he’d put in a short one or two, we’d go home again.” Corey says it’s been a long recovery but now he’s completely sound.

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After that, if Corey travelled away to ride trackwork for any length of time, he’d transport Frank with him. In fact, he was with him up North on the fatal day Corey had a horrifying fall and broke his back. He too, was given a bleak prognosis, and told he would never walk again. Rehabilitating at the Auckland Spinal Unit, Corey admitted he got to his lowest point, but when he came back to Christchurch, Frank was waiting for him. Corey said it gave him something to look forward to, something to get up for. “You knew you were going out to see your mate. I’d go out to the paddock every day and brush and pat him from my wheelchair.” Corey says he didn’t really understand how much horses knew until he had Frank. “He knew exactly what was going on. He’d be bucking and kicking around, but as soon as I wheeled into the paddock, he’d walk over with his head down and stay completely still, so gentle. I could wheel under him and he wouldn’t flinch, but as soon as I left he’d be straight back to his antics.”

Among the lucky ones, Corey’s injury turned out to be severe bruising around his spine, not a tear as originally thought. “When I was lucky enough to start getting sensation back and that took a while, I was able to stand up and brush him, then I was able to get on his back, and we’ve never looked back.”

Not only have they never looked back, but they’ve gone on to make a huge contribution to racing and their community. Corey’s personal experience led him to join St John as an ambulance officer. After a traumatic time during the Canterbury Earthquakes, he asked to come off the frontline for a while, attending a few community events. At a two day cross country event, the ambulance got stuck in the mud, severely obstructing access and treatment. Having heard of medics on horseback in World War I and II, Corey had the initiative to ask the event coordinator if he could bring Frank in the next day. The pair were a hit, and the following Monday his boss rang and said “I hope you’re not busy, because you two are booked for the next three weeks.”

The initiative has offered major benefits for thoroughbred racing as a whole; easy, rapid access through tough terrain (the horses have lead ropes so they can be easily secured to a rail at the scene), better visuals with the extra height, and it allows the officers to be part of the racing community as opposed to sitting in an ambulance away from the crowd. Corey says it’s also broken down barriers between St John and race meet organisers. From there, he has made incredible progress with a further eight Mounted Medics around the island. All the more impressive when you find out that all this work is entirely voluntary. Corey believes there is a common misconception that they get paid to be there, adding that things have become a little easier of late, with help from some thoughtful racing related sponsors donating or discounting products. His efforts have been recognised by a recent appointment to the position of National Mounted Medic Manager, with the purpose of finalising a national training programme.

Frank and Corey are living proof that there is life after racing. “You can be a retired jockey, a strapper, or a track work rider but you can still be involved in the industry. All I ever wanted to be was a jockey, but I got to an age where I realised I had to stop living that dream, I had to find something more financially secure with more structure so I could achieve things.” Corey feels there’s a perception that once they’ve finished racing the horses are no good for anything. “Some just aren’t suitable to be re-homed, but a guy like this who just needed an opportunity can turn out to be your best mate, and he can help others too.”

Their story is emotionally moving with an amazing symmetry. “There’s a huge parallel… I’ve looked after him and he’s looked after me and now we’re both giving back.” The bond between the man and his horse is undeniable. Rolling up his sleeve, Corey’s devotion is clearly illustrated in a tattoo of Frank on his upper left bicep – “He’s my main man, alright.”

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