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No obstacle, even a lost eye, could keep a determined trio — horse, trainer and owner — from reaching the 2020 NRHA Derby Open Finals

By Warren Wilson / Horsetrader staff

Trainer Marty Bales and White Tye Affair, aka “Sparky,” owned by Robert Heindl. (Shezashootingstar.com photo)

TEMECULA — Marty Bales saw White Tye Affair’s potential as a National Reining Horse Association Open Finals horse the first time she saw the yearling in a sale video. What she didn’t see—what nobody could have imagined—was the 4-year journey that would get him there, on the floor of the Coliseum in the NRHA Open Derby last June.

After a promising start through his 2-year-old year, White Tye Affair (Smart And Shiney X Cowgirl Affair) hit a series of setbacks that would demoralize most horses, not to mention their trainers and owners.

3-year-old Year

After a start filled with promise, “Sparky” went to his first show in April 2017 to kick-off his 3-year-old campaign. The morning of his first class, he colicked.

“I believe his liver had slipped behind his spleen,” Bales says. “We had to take him to the hospital because they thought they were going to need surgery to bring it back over and tack it back to his abdominal wall.”

Fortunately, two days of medication reduced inflammation and allowed the organs to reposition without surgery. Unfortunately, Sparky contracted an infection and had to stay hospitalized.

He had pneumonia, and the owner would return him to the barn where Bales would care for him around the clock, sleeping in the barn the first two weeks. It would be more than three months before Bales could ride Sparky again. Once healthy, they took him to school at the NRHA Derby where purchase offers came—big offers, Bales says. But the plan was to show him at the NRHA Futurity that fall, even with half the year’s training wiped out.

“He was a little green when we took him to the Futurity, obviously, because we had all that time off,” says Bales. “He showed well there, but he had a little bit of bad luck holding the ground. He was such a big stopper and a little green, trying to learn how to use himself.”

Encouragement came both in and out of the arena. One judge approached Bales after the day’s classes to share his thoughts on Sparky.

“The judge told us what a nice horse he was and what a great job we had done because he was showing so much heart out there and had so much talent,” recalls Bales. “He’s definitely a horse people want to stop and look at.”

4-year-old year

The spring of 2018 started much like the previous spring did—full of anticipation and big events on the calendar.

But a new concern surfaced when Bales recognized Sparky was not moving normally.

“He was running like he was protecting himself,” she says. “He’s a big stopper and a strong runner, and he wasn’t running like he should. So, we took him to the vet, and we couldn’t find a soundness problem. We took him home.

“About two weeks later, we’re, like, ‘no, something’s not right’. We went ahead and x-rayed.”

Bales says that an OCD, missed on Sparky’s pre-purchase exam, had broken off and settled in his hind joint. As a result, Sparky would miss his entire 4-year-old year. To this point, the sum of his riding was his 2-year-old year, half of his 3-year-old year, and none as a 4-year-old until the fall, when Bales started riding him again.

New owner, old colleague

Robert Heindl and Bales crossed paths several years ago when he was a client of Tom Foran and she was an assistant. Later, when Heindl moved from reiners to trail horses, Bales rode his horses while she was working under another trainer, Bob Avila. Heindl, a corporate pilot, would briefly leave the U.S. for a position in Asia, telling Bales he would call her upon his return in a couple years.

“About seven years later, Robert calls me and he came by,” says Bales. “He was, like, ‘oh, I’m just going to trail ride.’ He came out and rode a couple times. After he bought a mare, he bought Sparky.”

Says Heindl, “A little bit of an addition. When you get on reiners and then you start to work with them a bit, it’s a little addicting.”

White Tye Affair took Bales to her inaugural NRHA Derby Open Finals in June. Owner Robert Heindl (inset) enjoyed bigtime NRHA success in the 1990s with his Dun Buggins 086. (Waltenberry photos)

Heindl has tasted bigtime NRHA reining. In the early 1990s, he bought his first reiner, a stud colt named Dun Buggins 086, who was trained at Garth and Brenda Brown’s barn in Bend, Ore. He paid $5,000 for Buggins, who won the 1994 NRHA Superstakes and was an Open Finalist in both the NRHA Futurity and Derby.

“It was a long time ago,” says Heindl. “After that, I got out of it for a bit. Just kept trail riding. Then, when I came back from Asia from flying, I decided I want another Buggins.”

Similarities exist between the two studs, especially their willingness, he says. One difference, though, was the medical history Heindl was walking into with Sparky. Two thorough pre-purchase exams allayed those concerns, and he had his “new Buggins.”

“When Robert first considered buying a bigtime horse, there was another one we were looking into that was a real nice horse, same age. A talented horse. But every time we would go look at something, he would always come back to Sparky and be, like, ‘there’s just not a horse minded like this.’ So, he took a chance on him.

“Then, when he lost his eye…”

5-year-old year

The 2019 Reining By The Bay in Woodside seemed a good fit for Sparky’s progression. He never showed, though, after Bales noticed in the show stall that his right eye was bothering him, and he was sensitive to light.

“Three emergencies with horses,” she says, “Legs, colics and eyes.”

She called the vet, who gave the horse a steroid treatment. The next morning, Bales found Sparky’s eye had swollen, and she sent a photo to her Southern California vet. A second vet was recommended and went to Woodside to examine Sparky. Heindl says use of a synthetic steroid on the scratched eye led to the eye’s demise.

“We were a long way from thinking we would lose the eye,” says Heindl, who hired five experts in 10 days to assist. “It got worse and worse. We tried as hard as we could to save the eye. There was nothing to do. I was deflated.”

He pauses.

“We thought we were done,” he admits.

Bales regards the eye episode as perhaps the most difficult one she has experienced with any horse.

“You know how big of a heart and how sweet the horse is, and to watch him go through that and do everything to try to save something—and then to ultimately lose the eye,” she says. “And as a trainer, it was also hard to have a client and a friend I had not seen in seven years—who took a chance on something he initially didn’t want to take a chance on—then to have an accident and lose his eye. That was hard.”

Sparky is flanked by (from left) Robert Heindl, Marty Bales, and her parents Phyllis and Glenn Bales. (Shezashootingstar.com photo)

The Latest Comeback

How does a bigtime performance horse overcome loss of an eye? How does a reiner unable to see to the right perform a rollback that direction? Bales sought, mulled over and consumed advice.

“What I do is give him a little more feel on that side, and I use my leg a little bit more for a release, so he feels me more than he is worried about the void.

At the NRHA Derby, Bales and White Tye Affair punched their ticket to the Open Finals with a strong go-round performance. Three days later, a slight hesitation caused a penalty in an otherwise solid run.

“He was having problems with the extra set of judges in his circles in the first go, so we ran and stopped, and he couldn’t see the extra set of judges,” Bales says. “I think he was a little bit nervous about that.

“He ultimately rolled back—and it was a pretty roll back – but that was enough of a pause for him to have gotten a penalty for the freeze-up. We’re still working on it—I know that I have to work on that some more.

“I thought I had it pretty solid, and in the go-rounds I thought it was pretty solid,” she adds. “So, it kind of surprised me when it happened (in the Finals). But you know, you live and learn. And you go on to the next one, and you don’t make the same mistake.”

Bales and White Tye Affair have two events on their August calendar – the Arizona Reining Horse Association Inside Slide Aug. 11-16 in Scottsdale, and the National Reining Breeders Classic Aug. 26-Sept. 6 in Tulsa, Okla.

“The story is not over yet,” says Heindl, smiling. “It’s just starting.”

More online: https://bit.ly/08meetsparky

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