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.
By Tracy Durham
Ups and Downs and Ups
The summer of 2015 brought us a new challenge: Voluntario became episodically angry and frustrated—so much so that he wasn’t always safe to work around. We provided more enrichment and a companion pony. My horse seemed happy to have a constant friend, but the angry outbursts continued.
Voluntario had been on gabapentin for 18 months. In humans, this medication has been linked to aggression, agitation, behavioral changes, and mood swings; there are far less data on its effects in animals. After consulting with my colleagues, I began to wean Voluntario off the gabapentin. While we found he needed a modest dose (25 to 30% of his therapeutic dose) to remain comfortable, his personality improved dramatically in a matter of days. I was so relieved! I was heartsick to think we’d done so much to heal his body only to have his temperament fail.
That summer also brought another revelation on the road to Voluntario’s recovery. For months, he would “roll” in his sling after his stall was freshly bedded. It was both alarming and comical to see a 1,200-pound-horse rolling in midair. Unfortunately, the few times that Voluntario couldn’t resist rolling for real, he couldn’t get up, so we’d have to drag him to his sling, wrestle with the strapping, and hoist him up.
Karen proposed an experiment: Drop the sling closer to ground level when Voluntario wanted to roll. She hoped he would figure out how to help himself up, knowing the sling was there for support. I gave Karen my blessing and told her to try it when I wasn’t present. I lacked the fortitude to watch!
Karen called me a few days later: Her experiment had been a success. The first time she lowered Voluntario to roll, he struggled to place his front feet in a useful position, but he quickly realized that spreading his front legs out to the side gave him more stability to push himself up. Karen hoisted him as he pushed himself upright. My horse was very excited with his feat, and for the next few weeks he made a game out of repeatedly rolling and being helped up with the hoist. He reminded me of a little kid saying, “Do it again! Do it again!”
Voluntario reached a tremendous milestone that September. For the first time since his accident, after he rolled while out of his sling, he was able to get up nearly unassisted; Karen merely helped lift him by his tail.
About a month later, yet another alarming setback occurred. Tied in his stall as usual for stall cleaning so that he would play with his toys instead of pestering the worker, Voluntario got a bit too rambunctious with his toys, lost his balance, and fell back, breaking his tie. The momentum allowed him to pop back up without assistance, but it was immediately apparent that the mishap came with serious consequences. He had swelling over his right eye, right elbow, left stifle, and left hock, and he was nearly non-weight-bearing on his left hind leg.
When Dr. Cable examined him, she found mostly soft-tissue bruising, but she also determined that Voluntario had sustained a patellar fracture as well as a second fracture, an avulsion of peroneus tertius, in his left stifle. Surgery might have been recommended had Voluntario been a performance horse, but Dr. Cable and Dr. Ducharme agreed that he didn’t need a patella to function given the preexisting trauma to his left hip and pelvis, so we carried on with conservative management. Repeat radiographs five weeks later revealed a remarkable degree of healing and no arthritic changes—an excellent outcome under the circumstances.
Voluntario remained able to rise with manual assistance as his patellar fracture healed, and a few days before Christmas, I received the most incredible news: My horse had taken a nap and gotten up with absolutely no assistance.
An Amazing Journey
In January 2016, exactly two years after his catastrophic fall, Voluntario came out his sling for good. He made it clear that he was not going anywhere near it, pinning his ears with a snake-like shake of his neck when Karen tried to talk him into “going to bed.” We agreed to let the horse call the shots and left him out of the sling.
The next 18 months were something of a roller coaster as Voluntario gained strength and mobility, with each bit of progress being followed by some sort of mishap. He sustained two more injuries to his left patella before the adhesions broke down sufficiently to allow more flexibility in his left rear limb, and he became cast in his paddock and suffered multiple broad abrasions and localized hematomas.
After almost 36 months on NSAIDs, Voluntario was diagnosed with ulcers and had to be taken off the medication altogether. We hoped that joint protectants and a tiny dose of gabapentin would be sufficient to keep him comfortable. It was yet another “do or die” moment: If Voluntario couldn’t safely take NSAIDs but was painful without them, I would once again be faced with a quality-of-life decision.
Voluntario fared surprisingly well off NSAIDs, and the remainder of the year passed with limited drama—so the following January, three years after the accident, we had a party! Almost everyone who had a role in saving him was present. Jeff Peabody, the driver who had lifted Voluntario with his articulated wrecker, fed Voluntario carrots and told me a story that left us both in tears. Jeff had been raised by his late grandfather, an avid horseman. The day of the accident, Jeff was struck by Voluntario’s nobility and warrior spirit. He prayed to his grandfather, asking him to protect Voluntario because the horse was too special to leave Earth prematurely. To this day, I silently thank “Grandpa” every time Voluntario and I successfully navigate another hurdle.
By April 2017, Voluntario had been off NSAIDs for almost a year and had also been weaned off the gabapentin. Despite a permanent asymmetry in his gait and conformation, he was strong and agile, and he had become bored in his small paddock, despite the constant presence of his companion pony. Karen set up a much larger paddock with an Amish mini-barn in the center of the farm, giving Voluntario views of the other paddocks and both riding arenas. We installed an all-weather surface and moved Voluntario and his pony friend to their new digs in July.
To this day, Voluntario remains king of the farm. He receives no medication other than joint protectants, and he spends his days hanging out with his pony and a guinea hen, and chasing sparrows and crows (he’s nearly caught a few!). As a sire, he has produced a handful of tall, elegant babies with his striking good looks. The year 2020 brought the gift of two very special foals: a Voluntario son belonging to a dear friend, and a grandson for me. My friend and I hope to raise and develop the boys together. My pipe dream is for them both to have the Grand Prix dressage career that was stolen from Voluntario by a tiny slip more than seven years ago.
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.