Dustin Bird was minutes from losing his bay dream ride Dolly this fall to an infection that about swelled her throat shut. Bird had no way of knowing about the perfect storm brewing in the back of his prized mare’s throat that caused the crisis that came to a scary head on a Sunday up in his Montana home country. An emergency tracheotomy performed by Dr. Caleb Lund of Lund Equine in Billings saved Dolly’s life.
“Dolly was at the Williams Ranch all summer in Hammond (Montana), where she was getting bred and hanging out,” Bird said of My Frosty Cocoa, who’s known far and wide in the roping and rodeo world as Dolly. “They said she was kind of losing weight and showing her age. When she showed up in Billings, where I was going to pick her up, she couldn’t breathe all of a sudden. When she stepped off of the trailer, she was wheezing, like something was stuck in her throat.”
Bird had arranged for Dolly to be dropped off at the MetraPark Arena in Billings, where he was in town from his home in Cut Bank for Dennis Tryan’s Wrangler Team Roping Championships. Dolly was in such sad shape when Dustin’s wife, Alicia, loaded her right back up to race her to Lund Equine while he stayed behind to rope and take care of his steers that he hugged her neck for what he thought might be the last time.
“I gave Dolly a hug and a kiss goodbye, because it looked like that might be the end,” Bird said. “I didn’t know if I’d ever see her alive again. Horses don’t live forever, so we all know it’s coming someday. But you can never be prepared to lose a Dolly. For 10 years, we went everywhere together. She was a trooper.”
According to Dustin, what Dr. Lund discovered upon arrival at his clinic was that, “The flapper in the back of her throat, which is kind of like a human’s tonsils, had a puncture in it from something she’d eaten, and was infected. When she was just hanging out, she was fine. But the stress of the trailer ride about killed her, because she couldn’t get any air.”
The folks at Lund Equine sprang into action, and started shaving her neck as Dolly was stepping out of the trailer.
“Dr. Lund said he couldn’t even get his pinky through Dolly’s airway before he cut her open,” Dustin said. “They said as soon as he did the tracheotomy, she took a big, old, deep breath and had immediate relief. She laid her head on Alicia’s shoulder, and was fine.”
Dolly just turned 23 on Jan. 1, and is wintering with Dustin, Alicia and their little boys, Stockton, 5, and Sampson, 3, in Wickenburg, Arizona right now. Breeding season didn’t go as planned, and she’s open this year. But Dolly makes the annual migration to where it’s warmer, because she’s part of the family.
Dr. Lund followed up the tracheotomy with antibiotics and steroids. Dolly was released from Lund Equine a week after the trach that saved her life. With the infection under control, she could breathe comfortably on her own after that hole in her neck was sutured shut.
“Dolly gets so much of the credit for my career,” Bird said. “I was mainly just a circuit and Indian rodeo cowboy, but I turned into an NFR cowboy because of her. She’s the perfect size—Dolly’s about 15 hands and weighs about 1,200 pounds. She’s built so stout, and has such quick feet, which let me be super fast on her. When the head loop went on, she got ahold of steers so fast. It was easy to be quick on Dolly.”
Bird rode his gray horse Yahtzee at his fourth and fifth NFRs in 2016 and ’17. He bought Yahtzee from Kaleb Driggers in 2014, and sold him back to Driggers in 2018. Bird retired Dolly in 2019.
“The last steer I ran on her was at an American qualifier in Texas that year,” he said. “I could just tell that she was starting to show her age, and I said that was enough. I didn’t want to ride Dolly until there was nothing left.”