Tonka Turns 16 Today

By Terry Golson

Happy Birthday to Tonka!

He was born 16 years ago in Texas. Both parents were champion ropers, and that would have been his life if he hadn’t been purchased by a Maine woman who happened to be in Hill Country, saw Tonka as a four-year old (where he was living in a field with his aunties) and decided that she had to have him. When she returned home to Maine, along came Tonka. Tonka lived up in midcoast Maine, and most of his rides were done out in the cranberry barrens. She also introduced him to obstacles, so when I tried Tonka, he willingly walked over a mattress.

I met Tonka when he was in his seventh year. His wonderful owner didn’t have the time for him, and she knew that he was a horse who needed adventures. This was my view between the ears the first time that I sat on Tonka. You can see his intelligent and sane nature.


Over the years we have had adventures. Tonka has been game for everything I’ve asked him to do. We have gone on trails. Alone,


and with friends.


Some trails have been easy to follow.


But we’ve gotten lost a few times. (There was a path there. Deer trail to a mountain bike trail. We’ve gotten good at finding them.)


We’ve even done a few versatility challenge classes.


I’ve taken him to training sessions to face novel obstacles. This helps to keep both of us bold and ready for anything.


But my heart and history has been with dressage. So we did that, too. We took lessons from top trainers and my little horse who was bred to be a western pony was able to do this fancy English stuff with style.


We competed. He placed at both schooling shows and USDF events. We won a lot of ribbons.


In 2016 we chased the All-Breeds Award and achieved the Vintage Cup Training Level Champion – Tonka was the best Paint Horse in that division in the country!


When I moved to Maine, Tonka came too and moved into a hunter/jumper barn. I asked the trainer to help me with our gymnastics to improve my dressage.


But Tonka made it quite clear that he wanted to jump, just like all of the other horses at the barn. So we did.


Tonka was exceptionally enthusiastic about this new endeavor. I tried to keep up with him. We went to some hunter/jumper shows. We won a few more ribbons.


I tried cross-country jumping. Tonka was game for that, too.


Tonka and I have done a lot, but I haven’t pushed him hard. It’s all been lower level activities with a lot of relaxed riding. Sometimes, though, he flies and lands hard on his own.


Horses are notoriously easy to break, and there was bound to be wear and tear on Tonka. Over the years, Tonka has had some soundness issues. The sacroiliac joint has caused him aches and pains. We’ve kept that in check by keeping him appropriately fit, and doing therapies like shock wave.


He’s had a niggling left front lameness. Careful shoeing (Tonka likes 2% angled pads added to his front shoes) has helped. But in the last half-year Tonka has been too lame to ride. He strained his collateral ligament and then got an avulsion fracture inside of his hoof. Tonka has been resting for months, but only getting lamer. I’ve been worried that Tonka’s stall rest was going to turn into a permanent retirement, or worse. So two days ago, I took him back to Tufts to get a full workup and find out exactly what is going on. Tonka is spending his birthday at a veterinary hospital.


Yesterday he underwent an MRI (which requires general anesthesia.) The conclusion is that in the last few months, the cartilage inside of Tonka’s left hoof has seriously degraded. Unfortunately, surgery isn’t an answer. However, there is a treatment. Gel (similar to what is inside of breast implants!) is injected into the damaged joint. This provides cushioning. Optimistically, this will make Tonka so comfortable that I will be able to get back into the saddle and we will continue to have adventures. Jumping is no longer in his future, but trail riding is. Kudos to the medical researchers, scientists and veterinarians who are enabling me to stay partnered with this horse.

Tonka is, I think, enjoying his birthday trip to Tufts. There are numerous veterinary students checking in on him. There are new horses and people to watch. And a manger of hay that is never empty. As always, I get reports that Tonka is the perfect patient. They love him. Tonka returns to Maine next week, and I’m hoping that by the time spring arrives here, my horse and I will be back on the trails. I’ll be sharing those between the ears photos with you.

Happy Birthday to the Best Horse! Which portrait is your favorite?

33 thoughts on “Tonka Turns 16 Today

  • Gin

    Happy Birthday Tonka. We all have a once in a lifetime horse, Tonka is surely yours. Hopefully there are many trails ahead for you.
    I like the first picture, your hat just seems to set off the colors in the rest of the picture, and just shows you and Tonka in a relaxed relationship.

  • Jan

    Happy Birthday Tonka. The one with your pink hat and arm round his neck, really shows the love between you two. Hoping the gel works and you are both able to get out om the trails again.

  • Michelle Bianco

    Happy Birthday Tonka!!!! I think all of the portaits are my favorite 🙂

    He is one special horse and so lucky to have the greatest mom!!!!

  • Nancy Valley

    So sorry to hear about the cartilage inside his hoof. Hoping the gel allows you to get back to trail riding


  • John Schaller

    Happy Birthday Tonka!

    I’d say the photo of you and he going over the pale blue crossbars, and the one of you in a pink hat and him more or less facing the camera, are tied as favorites.

    He is so lucky to have you as his human, and he looks to have been a perfect fit for you as well. Sorry to hear about some of his challenges of late, but it sounds like there are lots of trail riding adventures in his future. He always looks so poised and happy in all of his photos. Since he likes exploring the woods, including trying to convince you or your husband to go in thick brush while leading him in-hand so he can explore, I have a feeling the summers in Maine will have lots of suitable adventures over the next 10 or 20 years.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Tonka has already tried to lead Steve into the unchartered woods! I have a few new trail systems to try. Looking forward to when the footing is safe and my horse is sound enough to go exploring!

  • Shannon

    Tonka is so lucky to have you and I’m sending best wishes that the gel works and you get to have lots of trail riding adventures with your best boy. I love all the pictures. Impossible to pick a favorite. Happy birthday to Tonka!

  • Tracy

    They really are so incredibly fragile. My fingers are crossed that the gel provides enough relief that Tonka isn’t in pain. And that you two can continue your lovely walks on the trails for many years to come. I know this has been are on you both.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Seeing him in pain has been horrible, but I do think that he knows I’ve been doing what I can. He’s been so patient with the veterinarians handling him and all of the imaging. No tranquilizers needed. For a horse who’s been confined to a stall for months on end, his demeanor has been exemplary. I think because he knows we have his best interests at heart.

  • Judy

    Happy Birthday Big Boy. I love all your pictures, but I think that the last one sums up your pure joy of life and sweet impishness best!

  • Deb Odom

    So glad there are options for his health and comfort.

    And I’m grateful to have re-found your blog. Somehow got disconnected.

    I want to thank you for the inspiration and your quiet, thoughtful education on Positive Reinforcement training. You inspired me to learn more and begin to work and live this way with my horses. What a difference it has made.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      He’s at Tufts for a few days and the report is that he is enjoying life there immensely, and that the vet students are doting on him. Definitely bright eyes!

  • Laura allemand

    Happy birthday Tonka. Crossing my fingers that this new treatment will help get Tonka on the road to recovery.

  • Betsy Taylor

    Happy birthday Tonka! I just love to read about your adventures. And I love your pictures. Please feel better soon. Thanks, Terry, for sharing him with us.

  • Stephanie B

    Aw! You came up in my feed when I was researching joint injections. You probably don’t remember us, but we remember you! And I still use some of your methods for working with Tilly. (You came down to meet her and also my friend’s pony, Levi when I was having some trailer issues). This is a great story, Terry. xo to Tonka

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