Jillian Connolly sits astride Sugar, a chestnut colored American Quarter Horse with a blond mane and tail and a white patch stretching down the length of her nose. Connolly quickly scans the barrel racing track and they are off for what she describes as the most thrilling 17 seconds. She and her 1000-pound athlete partner round the first of three barrels before she feels a giant lurch propelling them toward the next barrel. They make a clover leaf pattern around the barrels before they sprint to the finish line.
Jillian Connolly wrote a children’s book titled “A Horse Named Sugar” in 2015 based on Sugar’s life and the trials she has overcome to come back to racing.
“We got to the professional level very quickly,” says Connolly. She earned her Women’s Professional Rodeo Association card with Sugar in 2012, one month after completing six events. For many riders and horses, that accomplishment can take years. They were also named Washington Barrel Racing Rookie of the Year and the National Barrel Horse Association Reserve Washington State Champion the same year. Together they have placed at many professional rodeos including the prestigious Pendleton Round Up in Oregon. As an accomplished barrel horse, she has lifetime earnings of over $31,000, says Connolly.
But in 2013, while Sugar was taking some time off to heal a strained tendon, she developed severe sand colic. Horses can become ill with sand colic when they ingest sand or gravel while eating hay or feed on the ground, says Fairfield Bain, WSU clinical professor of equine internal medicine. Horses with sand colic have abdominal pain and may have diarrhea, lose weight, or have other gastrointestinal distress. If not identified and managed early, it can be fatal. According to Dr. Bain, of the 80 to 100 horse patients admitted for colic each year, about 5-10 percent have ingested some sand or gravel. Surgery is recommended, he says, depending on the severity of pain and whether the patient is responsive to medication. In Sugar's case, persistent and recurrent pain made surgery the best option.
Sugar’s medical team at the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital were able to remove the majority of the sand and gravel from her large colon and she had a full recovery. “For big things like that, WSU is the place to be,” says Connolly. “I trust WSU. I have a very high level of confidence in the care we receive.
Today, Sugar and Jillian are still running professionally and are barrel racing together on weekends. “She never gives up,” says Connolly. “When something happens that could end her career, she comes back even stronger.”