After her prized Lusitano stallion slipped and fell in the snow, his owner faced a devastating diagnosis and dimming prospects. She and her horse persevered, against all odds.
Miss the first part of this series? Read part 1 here.
By Tracy Durham
By the time Voluntario decided to lie down again, he was exhausted. He stayed down for five hours and was again unable to rise. After many frantic attempts to get up, he was finally sedated so that Dr. Lang and her staff could lift him with the sling.
After the episode, Voluntario was depressed and painful. He was bearing less weight on his left hind leg, and his right hind leg was swollen. Within 48 hours, he was no longer willing to walk out of his stall.
When Dr. Lang called me at work with this news, I felt certain that the time had come to let my dear friend go. He had fought so hard for so many months, and I couldn’t bear the thought of prolonging his suffering. I was sobbing as I scrubbed in for surgery at work, trying to determine how quickly I could get to Cornell to make the decision I had staved off for so long. My good friend and colleague Dr. Suzanne Smith heard the news and booted me from the scrub sink. She took over my surgical duties that day so I could make the tearful trek to Cornell.
When I arrived, Dr. Ducharme asked me to wait 48 hours before euthanizing Voluntario. He was hopeful that the cause of my horse’s distress was the breaking down of some adhesions and the subsequent creation of localized swelling—painful in the short term but not actually life-threatening. Dr. Ducharme thought that 48 hours would be sufficient to prove (or disprove) his theory.
I took his counsel to heart and consented to another 48 hours of care. I stayed in Ithaca for the next two days, hovering outside my horse’s stall, searching for any sign of improvement. Each day Voluntario was a little brighter and bore weight more evenly in his rear limbs. On May 31, 72 hours after our vigil began, he was able to walk to the wash stall for cold-hosing and was regaining his normal cheeky attitude. We had survived another crisis.
The Financial Toll
In early June, five months after his fall, Voluntario was still living in his sling at Cornell. He was being hand-walked, cold-hosed, and groomed out of the sling, but the previous month’s scare had taught us that he could not be allowed to lie down.
Voluntario was cheerful and enjoying his exercises. I, on the other hand, was anxious about the future and running out of money. It was time to make some hard choices.
Before he got hurt, my stallion had been trained for standing semen collection, and he already had produced a number of offspring. We assumed that Voluntario would be able to resume this activity if he survived his ordeal, but with his future still uncertain and veterinary bills mounting, I decided to try semen banking. Representatives from Cornell’s Theriogenology Department performed a chemical collection for semen freezing. The results were successful. One way or the other, Voluntario’s career as a breeding stallion would continue.
Meanwhile, however, I could not afford to keep my horse at Cornell for another month, never mind for the length of time it would take for him to rehab completely. I was frantic with worry until a Cornell resident allayed my fears, pointing out that my cooperative, adaptable horse could conceivably spend his days out of the sling and his nights in it for the foreseeable future.
To continue Voluntario’s recovery at home would require major modifications to his stabling. The hoist-and-sling system required 14 to 16 feet of head room, which is much higher than the average horse-barn ceiling. Voluntario also required a surface with excellent traction—no concrete and slick rubber mats. His old home, I knew, would not work. I needed to locate the perfect rehabilitation facility.
Thankfully, I found veteran performance-horse rehabilitation expert Karen Myers, a Morgan breeder and award-winning reining competitor who owns and operates Myers Performance Morgans in Binghamton, New York. Karen’s facility was tailor-made for Voluntario’s needs: a barn and attached arena with 30 feet of head room, custom-configurable stalls, dirt floors, sand arena footing, and lots of grassy hills.
Karen was undaunted by the herculean task of caring for Voluntario outside of a hospital setting. She took one look at my horse and said, “He wants to live. I will help.”
Mario Palumbo, a local farrier with mad welding skills, and his son spent 12 hours at Karen’s farm in sweltering heat, welding a massive set of I-beams into a support for Voluntario’s hoist, which fit over a specially configured 20′ x 20′ stall. On June 16, Mike Kurty, our savior all those months ago, trucked Voluntario to his new home.
The next few months passed in a stressful haze. For several weeks, I took Voluntario outside only when someone else was available to help make sure he didn’t lie down. As time went on, I became more confident leading my horse up and down the hills, and he gained strength. But one warm, sunny summer morning, Voluntario decided he was too tired to stand another moment. Despite my jumping up and down, shouting and slapping him with the end of the lead rope, Voluntario lay down for a nap at the very top of the hill.
I screamed for help, terrified that Voluntario would roll down the hill when he tried to get up. Karen and her assistant, Paul, came running. We let Voluntario try to rise on his own, but even with his strength gains he still couldn’t get up by himself. We went to plan B: sedation and a deft tractor assist from Karen.
Luckily, Voluntario was no worse for wear. I knew I couldn’t leave him in the sling or in his stall forever, so I carried on with our outdoor rehab with my heart in my throat. We had one more incident requiring sedation and the tractor, and afterward Voluntario did the sensible thing and stayed on his feet!
As winter approached, we added gentle long-lining to Voluntario’s repertoire, hoping that the new activity would keep us both interested during the cold months. Mother Nature gifted us with a mild and dry February, and Voluntario was able to graduate to a few hours of turnout each day.
My horse had learned to communicate his needs perfectly, and he seemed content with his new routine. When he got tired, he’d line himself up with his sling support and stand stock-still until someone came to tuck him in (thanks to video monitoring, he never had to wait more than five or 10 minutes). If he wanted to remain loose, he would walk the perimeter of his stall, carefully avoiding the sling lest anyone mistake his intent. He still couldn’t get up on his own, but he had learned to allow us to drag him under the sling and attach part of it while he was lying in lateral recumbency. He would dog-sit to enable us to attach the remainder of the sling and then return to lateral recumbency, lying quietly until we turned the hoist on and shouted, “OK!” He was very proud of his participation and so demonstrative that we could hardly unhook him once he was on his feet.
Tracy Durham, DVM, is a small-animal veterinarian at Vestal Veterinary Hospital in Vestal, New York. A longtime student of 1992 US Olympic team bronze medalist Carol Lavell and a dressage trainer and clinician herself, she is a USDF bronze, silver, and gold medalist who has earned national and regional titles from Training Level through Grand Prix.
Continue reading this amazing story with Part 3 here.