Secret Lives of Horses: The Heart Horse Returns

by Nancy Johnson

Tonya Amato has some very nice horses in her barn in Aiken, but none is more special to her than Bear Necessity, a 25-year-old mare that meanders around the farm. Tonya smiles as she recounts their history together.

“I worked on the farm in Ontario, Canada where she was born,” Tonya begins. “She was fuzzy as a bear from the day she was born, so we just started calling her Bear.” Tonya had ridden and shown the filly’s sire, an off-the-track-Thoroughbred, and describes her dam as a chunky Quarter Horse/Percheron cross. “I bought her when she was 4 months old; since I worked there, she was specially priced for me at $500.”

Tonya trained the filly herself and recalls, “She was so easy that I was eventing her when she was three and a half.” By the time she was 5, Bear Necessity and Tonya competed very successfully throughout Canada at the Preliminary level. She and Tonya also showed in the jumpers up to 4’3”. “She wasn’t built for speed, but she had a heart of gold and boy, could she jump!”

When Bear was 8, Tonya knew that she had taken the mare about as far as she could go in the eventing world, so she decided to breed her. She chose a big Hanoverian stallion in the hope that the foal would get his size and conformation, coupled with Bear’s disposition and heart.

“Shortly after I bred her, I advertised her for sale thinking that it would take a while to sell her. But I got a nice offer for her immediately,” Tonya recounts. “When I told the customers she was in foal, they said it was fine and they added $4,000 to their offer because they wanted the foal, too.” After Bear had her foal, which is still owned by the same family in Chicago, she was put back into work and soon was showing in the jumpers with their daughter. Bear proved a great partner for the young junior rider to learn the ropes.

When Bear was 13, she was sold to a new owner, Gail Brandt, who took her home to Minnesota. Bear and Gail were great partners; they competed for several years, predominantly in lower-level jumpers, but also did some eventing. Gail kept in contact with Tonya throughout the years.

“Gail just loved Bear and took such great care of her,” said Tonya. “When she had a suspensory injury, Gail gave it time to heal and then carefully rehabbed her and got her back to showing.”

One day, Tonya was feeling melancholy. She had just tragically lost a special horse, and she started thinking about Bear. She sent an email to Gail to check in on her and an immediate response came asking if they could talk. “I was so scared to call, as I thought she was going to give me bad news about Bear,” Tonya remembers.

While Gail’s news about the horse wasn’t great, it wasn’t as bad as Tonya had anticipated. Now both Bear’s suspensory ligaments were showing signs of deterioration. Bear was 17 and Gail knew it was time for her to retire. She asked Tonya if she would want her back. “I told her I had $10,000 in vet bills on the horse I had just lost, so basically I had no money,” Tonya recounts. “I don’t want any money for her,” Gail replied. “I can retire her here on my farm, but if you retire her, you could breed her, and she would still have a purpose in life.”

Gail drove Bear over 900 miles to return her to Tonya in Alberta. “She even paid about $2,500 in duty to bring her into Canada. Gail wanted nothing from me; only to know that Bear would have a good home for the rest of her life,” Tonya says.

The following spring Tonya bred Bear to her Connemara stallion, Get Smart. The result was a stunning buckskin colt with a blaze and two white socks. Tonya named him Smarter than the Average Bear (“Yogi”) and sold him to a woman in Ontario who is just now starting to event him.

When she was 21, Bear was bred back to “Smartie”, producing another gorgeous buckskin colt, dubbed Love Potion Number Nine (“Teddy”) due to his large, perfect heart-shaped star.

Shortly after Teddy was born, Tonya moved to Aiken, along with her husband Andy and daughter Addy. They made the arduous 28-hour trip with seven horses, but left Bear and the foal with a friend. “I just wasn’t sure Bear could make the trip, and certainly not then with a new foal. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I might be asking my friend to keep her forever,” Tonya admits. Her hope was that after the foal was weaned, she and Andy could go to Canada and get Bear themselves, making several layovers to break up the long trip so as not to overly stress the mare’s suspensory ligaments.

“But then, due to Covid, the border closed, so there was no way we could do that,” she says sadly. Tonya had just about given up on the possibility of getting Bear to Aiken when she had an idea. “I called my vet in Canada and asked what he thought about sending her with a commercial shipper, as they were permitted to cross the border,” Tonya says. When her vet said an air ride van would be the best way for Bear to travel, Tonya got to work on setting up a ride for Bear, her colt, who by then was weaned and gelded, and a pony for her daughter.

She contacted the Canadian company Ecclestone Horse Transport, which she had been pleased with previously. “As it turned out, they were coming to Wellington empty to pick up horses, so they gave me a great deal and box stalls at no extra charge,” she notes.

Tonya admits, “I was a nervous wreck the whole time they were traveling. I really wasn’t confident that Bear could make the trip. As her hind end is quite weak, I told the shippers that if she went down, I needed to know that they would euthanize her because I didn’t want her to suffer.”

It was July 2020 when Bear, her colt and the pony arrived in Aiken. “I felt like my whole family was reunited. It really was a miracle,” Tonya says with tears in her eyes. “I knew that if I could get her down here, it would be a much better life for her with the warmer weather for her arthritis and not having to worry about her falling on the ice.”

Tonya advertised Bear’s last foal for sale when he was just coming two. A customer in New York contacted her and had Carol Koslowski, the former president of the United States Eventing Association, who was in Aiken for some shows, come see him. “Carol loved him,” Tonya says with a smile. “And she told the customers to buy him, which they did. He’s 3 now and they are just getting him started.”

“I’d love to breed Bear again, but I just don’t think it’s fair with her weakness behind,” Tonya says. Nowadays Bear often can be found just wandering around the farm or out in the field babysitting the foals. “She loves the babies, and it’s perfect because she certainly can’t hurt them,” Tonya says.

The Secret Lives of Horses is a regular feature in The Aiken Horse newspaper, telling the story of a retired horse in the Aiken area, 20 years or older. Do you have an older horse that needs his or her story told? Email us!. Secret Lives is sponsored by Triple Crown Nutrition, providing nutrition beyond compare.