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US Event Horse


When Injury Takes Your Only Horse

Michael Hillman

Lt. Worf  1987-3/19/2006

One of the toughest parts about being an amateur rider is having only enough time and money for one horse. As such, we tend to bond very closely with them, banishing any thought of them getting injured or wearing out.

For those out there who are Star Trek fans, the name Lt. Worf conjures up an image of a character endowed with supernatural ability to shake off pain. A true Klingon Warrior, Lt. Worf fights better and works harder when injured or placed in a do-or-die situation. The name has proved appropriate. My Lt. Worf quickly got the hang of eventing, and no matter how bad a spot we found ourselves in, I knew that if I left him alone he would somehow get us over the fence. He wore the lumps and bumps he collected over the years as badges of honor.

I still recall returning home from an event and cringing at a massive lump that had appeared on his leg. My first instinct was to rush for the phone and call the vet, but Worf showed no signs of pain, and jogged sound. If it had been me, I would have been screaming for morphine. During an incredibly long run of three novice events, 12 training events, and 43 preliminary events, including two three-days, Worf never took a lame step.

The thought of Worf ever breaking down was the furthest thing from my mind as I left the start box to begin our cross-country run at CDCTA's Two-Day in 1997. Jumping boldly and in stride, almost without effort, he cleared fences that on the course walk I had knelt and prayed in front of. It was the best ride of my life!

Walking back to the trailer I noticed Worf seemed a bit off, but I chalked this up to having lost a shoe on course. To everyone's surprise, a new shoe failed to correct the situation. Knowing how well Worf shrugged off pain, we knew something was up.

The lameness being only slight, a lameness examination proved inconclusive. Given that Worf had just completed a grueling season and a two-day, the slight lameness seemed reasonable. So we went ahead with our plans to give Worf a well earned, four-week summer vacation. Within a week all signs of the lameness disappeared and we all breathed a sigh of relief as we watched Worf prance around the field as he played with his buddies.

In spite of his apparent soundness, I still felt leery, as if the sword of Damocles was hanging over my head. I found myself wrestling with what I would do if he broke down. Worf and I had built a great working relationship with each other and he had long ago become a pet. Over the years I had asked a lot of Worf and in return I had promised myself I would provide him a secure, happy retirement. But I had figured on a retirement in five or six years. Worf’s retirement now would necessitate purchasing a new horse, an expense I had not planned for. For the first time in my eventing career, I was faced with the fact that I might have to choose between the sport I loved or the horse I loved.

Worf returned to work as he always did, unwillingly, but absent any sign of lameness. Barely three weeks into training, he started to once again show signs of lameness. The lameness work-up again proved inconclusive, and once again, rest was recommended. With the Radnor clock ticking, my vet suggested I seek advice from a vet specializing in event horses.

After a thorough evaluation, the 'event' vet identified a sore hock as the culprit. The hock was injected and Worf was confined to a stall for two weeks. As Julie Gomena and I watched the vet disappear, she turned to me and remarked "Thank God it's a hock, if it had been a knee . . ." Worf returned from this forced vacation sound as a dollar, and once again, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. With the source of his injury finally identified and treated, I began to play catch up for Radnor.

Because of the hard ground, the injury, and the fact that Worf was more than qualified for Radnor, we opted to go easy on the fall competition schedule. A great run at Blue Ridge, however, was followed by a poor run at Middleburg, necessitating an 'insurance run' at Fair Hill. When we showed up at Fair Hill, Worf was primed and ready. After putting in his best dressage test ever, topping every other preliminary score, he jumped fast, bold, and accurately around cross-country. When we entered stadium, we had four rails in hand. While for once Worf didn't drop a rail, his stadium performance was definitely off. He felt sticky coming off the ground and his usually fluid turns were awkward and jerky. Sensing something was wrong, I sought out a vet friend on the grounds for a quick opinion. Like the earlier exams, this too proved inconclusive.

The long ride home, which should have been filled with joy, was filled instead with worry and uncertainty. His first place finish had secured him a Grade 1 standing, but I just couldn't shake off the feeling that those would be the last points Worf would ever earn. By Monday, the slight limp had turned into a major hobble and it was obvious to everyone: it was his right front knee. Radnor was slipping through my fingers.

Watching Worf jog, our vet realized that he was looking at the same conditions he had seen after CDCTA, and offered that we might be dealing with a "chip." To confirm the presence of a bone-chip, x-rays were taken. Based upon the history of the lameness, the chip was believed to be an old one that had become aggravated as a result of our run at Fair Hill. Because the chip was small, the vet who had taken the x-rays recommended that we first try injecting the knee. The main advantage in this course of treatment was it would allow me to still run at Radnor.

"If necessary," the vet said, "the chip could be removed after Radnor." Having worked long and hard to make Radnor, this advice was music to my ears. Audrey, my wife with ten years under her belt as a veterinary nurse at New Bolton, my vet, and Julie (my trainer) rejected this recommendation out of hand. The chip was going to come out, and that was that. Radnor would have to wait another year.

Having long ago opted to spend insurance money on 'insurance lessons,' money suddenly became an issue. Ever since I had been involved with horses, I've heard horror stories of simple surgery bills snowballing out of control. Forewarned, we solicited some of our more experienced friends for their recommendation on vets capable of performing the operation. Following several less then heartening inquires, our vet suggested we get in touch with Leesburg, a.k.a., Virginia Tech's Marion DuPont Scott Equine Medical Center. "Ask for an appointment with either Dr. White or Dr. 'Patty' Doyle. You can't get any better than them."

A quick call to Leesburg's business office provided me the first good news in days. The total cost for a chip removal was very reasonable. The fact that they were willing to see Worf the next day impressed me. So on the day we were to have left for Radnor, I packed Worf into the van and headed to Leesburg. Susanna, the hospital's receptionist, made the admission process painless. Their first rate coffee made it almost pleasurable! I had no sooner gotten Worf off the van, than Dr. White, Dr. "Patty" Doyle and Dr. George Marble, surrounded with an entourage of residents, interns, and 4th year students, converged upon me. Their greetings were friendly and reassuring, and lots of ooh's and ah's were given as they got their first look at Worf.

While I described Worf's history, Dr. White stroked Worf as if to say, "It’s going to be ok." I'm not sure if this subliminal message was meant for Worf or me, but we both got it, and we both appreciated it. Blocks of the knee joint validated that the injury was in fact in the knee, and new x-rays were taken to get a better picture of the chip. For Worf, the whole affair was fascinating. With eyes bright and ears up, he too seemed to be hanging on every word Dr. White said.

"We'll I've seen track horses run on chips much worse than this with injections, but if he was my horse, I'd take it out." I looked at Patty. She nodded in agreement. So did Worf.

"O.K. when do you what to do it?" I said, figuring it would be some time in the next month or two.

"Tomorrow." Replied Dr. White.

While I had accepted the inevitability of a surgery, I hadn't planned on it so soon. My mind quickly began to add the cost of other vet's x-rays, what I thought this visit would cost, and the operation. Dr. White, as if he could read my mind, smiled and said, "Don't worry about a bill for today's visit, this is all part of the surgery price we quoted you."

I stopped thinking about money and started to think about Worf. Since our arrival at Leesburg, we had been treated with respect and compassion, from the receptionist to the doctors, from the nurse to the barn help. In every aspect, the staff defined the word professionalism. Worf and I had been treated like a long lost family member at a family reunion. As I looked around the bright, spotless, and state-of-the-art facility, I remembered the words of my vet: "You can't get any better then Dr. White or Dr. Patty Doyle." I handed Patty Worf's lead shank.

I was back at Leesburg bright and early the following day, arriving just in time to see Worf heading off to the surgery. Like a true event horse, none of this seemed to faze him, and if I could put words to his expression, they would have been "Do-de-do, we're off for a walk; where are we going?"

After Worf disappeared around the corner, I headed to the viewing room to watch the surgery. Worf was no sooner in the room when it began to fill with doctors and nurses. Dr. White and Dr. Marble were quickly joined by several interns and residents. Before the operation began, Dr. Marble positioned the monitor displaying the pictures sent by the arthroscopic camera so that I also could view it.

I was so mesmerized by what I was watching that I never heard Dr. Fregin, the director of the hospital, enter the viewing room. "How's it going?" asked Dr. Fregin. My reply of "I'm not sure," alerted Dr. Fregin to the fact that I hadn't a clue about what I was seeing. Much to my surprise, for the next hour, he provided commentary on what we saw on the monitor. By the time he left, any doubts that I might have had about Leesburg doing the surgery were banished forever.

Following the surgery, Dr. White joined me in the viewing room to discuss the surgery and Worf's prognosis. Based upon past experience, Dr. White felt the chances of Worf returning to the event world were "good, but only time will tell." As far as Dr. White could tell, the chip was five to six months old, which placed its origins back to our run at CDCTA.

The recovery from anesthesia was uneventful, and as Worf was led back to his stall, I could not help but smile at the look on his face, which had changed from "Do-de-do" to "Ouch! What was that…Ow…all about…ow." 

The following day, I returned to retrieve Worf. After receiving my discharge instructions from Dr. White, I headed down to the barn where I was greeted by a nurse putting on the finishing touches of a three-day-event-quality grooming job. As I was loading Worf, Dr. White, Dr. Doyle and Dr. Marble came out to wish me luck. With the hopes and talent of a great staff behind us, I turned my trailer and its precious cargo toward home and the long winter to come.

Having spent the past two months conditioning for Radnor, Worf walked out of the recovery room in peak condition. Only the foot-wide bandage around his knee marred the picture of fitness. As it is my wife Audrey's routine to a limit a horse's turnout in the weeks prior to a three-day, Worf, who was already being confined before the injury, saw little change in his daily routine after returning home from the hospital. Except of course, the absence of work, which, needless to say, was more the okay with him. So everything went well at first.

The post-operation instructions seamed fairly painless: two weeks of stall confinement, followed by two weeks of five minute hand walks, twice a day. Then two weeks at ten minutes, two weeks at 20 minutes, and four weeks at 30 minutes, followed by a month of unlimited turnout in a small paddock.

Being a bit lazy by nature, Worf thrived in an environment where all he was expected to do was eat and gaze out his stall. Eventually it occurred to him that instead of it taking 20 minutes to eat his grain, it was now gone in minutes, (his feed had been cut dramatically). Well as far as he was concerned, messing with his knee was one thing, messing with his grain was something totally different. It was time for action!

Limited in his retaliatory options, Worf thought long and hard. Figuring that since we weren't allowing him out of his stall, keeping us from coming in was good pay back. Working all night, he managed to pile all his bedding into a five-foot high mound in front of his stall door, effectively preventing access to his stall. Audrey swore that she saw a snicker on Worf's face as she toiled away, relaying the bed. That afternoon Worf once again piled his bed in front of his stall, creating what we soon call 'Mt. Worf.'

To keep us on our toes, Worf would periodically pile his bedding in different parts of the stall. Sometimes it would be evenly piled into all four corners, other times it would be against a single wall. No matter where he placed it, you could be sure Worf would always be found in the center of his stall, admiring his latest creation.

Because of my work schedule, the hand walking duties fell to Audrey. Experienced beyond description, Audrey took no risks. With a chain shank securely wrapped around his nose, Worf had no option other than to be a perfect gentleman. I on the other hand, was still in my delusory world and walked Worf as if he was a faithful old dog. A habit I would soon come to regret.

One day while leading him through a narrow gate, Worf bolted. As he cleared the gate, he leaped into the air, kicking out with all four feet. I would have found Worf's antics cute had his left rear foot not made contact with my right forearm. It was over before I knew it. Worf was running free and I was left holding a bloody arm.

Audrey was not too pleased with me. I'm not sure if it was having to deal with me and my compound fracture or the thought of now having the sole responsibility for hand walking Worf through the dark rainy winter months to come. Of course it didn't help when she would return dripping wet and shivering to find me sitting in front of the fire, reading a book, and drinking a hot rum cider. Needless to say, she wasn't very receptive to requests for back scratches. Spring could not come fast enough for Audrey.

Eventually spring did come and with it the end of the recovery period. To our misfortune, Worf, while better, was still not 100 percent. So, once again we returned to Leesburg. Returning to the trailer after checking in, I was surprised, and in a way, saddened, to discover Worf shivering. As it was a warm day, one could only surmise that the shiver was a result of fear. No amount of consoling or petting would calm his shakes. It wasn't until Patty Doyle began to 'ooh and ah' over him, that Worf's confidence returned.

The lameness examination went smoothly. In spite of the notable limp, Dr. White and Dr. Doyle expressed little concern. The stiffness was expected they said. To ease any inflammation, an anti-inflammatory were administered, and a strict conditioning regiment was proscribed.

As the weeks passed, Worf's unsoundness quickly faded, and his fat, flabby body began once again to bristle with muscles. Within weeks of his first event, his dressage work was exceptional and his jumping was just about where it needed to be. To test the waters, we chose to run Loudon as a combined test. Worf's second place standing after dressage was encouraging, as was his clean show jumping round.

Two weeks later we tried our hand at Menfelt. Again, things seemed to start off well. Standing in second place after dressage, Worf leaped out of the start box and around the preliminary course as in days of old, but four dropped rails in stadium set off alarm bells. Sure enough, that evening a definite limp had returned to Worf's trot.

This time, Drs. White and Doyle greeted the news of the limp with concern. Zero X-rays soon relieved the culprit, an osteophyte growing near the site of the old chip. Attached on one end to the bone and on the other end to the joint membrane. Extreme movement of the knee, such as jumping, was causing pain.

Osteophytes, while rare, are not a totally unexpected response by the body after a bone injury. After discussing options, which included giving Worf a year off, I opted for a second surgery. (Least you fret about the cost of a second surgery, as the appearance of the osteophyte was tied to the first surgery, its removal was considered a 're-enter procedure,' and was thus charged at a significantly, very significantly, reduced fee.)

Like the first surgery, I was surprised by the quick response to my inquiry about the timing of the surgery. After verifying that a stall was open, Dr. White offered to perform the operation the next day. The sudden realization that he was going under the knife again, and under it the next day no less, nearly sent Worf into cardiac arrest.

After removing the ostephyte, Dr. White reexamined the site of the original chip. While the bone was resurfacing, he was not pleased with the progress. The scope of the operation was quickly expanded, and the original injury site was once again cleaned and repaired.

Later, as I waited for Worf to return from the recovery room, Dr. White expressed concern that in spite of the fact that we had gotten to the injury earlier, the bone degeneration was more advanced that he first thought. He gave Worf's chances of returning to eventing at less then 50-50. Worf, oblivious to Dr. White's prognoses, walked out of the recovery room like a pro, and two days later, returned home, shining from the many groomings he had conned the nursing staff into giving him.

Unlike his confinement following the first surgery, where he appeared more then happy to be inside, out of the cold rain, the timing of the second confinement, just as the grass was beginning to turn green, quickly took its toll.

While the other horses were enjoying daylong turnouts, indulging themselves in lush spring grass, Worf could only gaze out longingly. The hay we put in front of him went uneaten, as did the small amounts of grain. More often then not, we would find him, standing in the corner, head down. He quickly began to drop weight, and the body tone he had begun to develop evaporated almost overnight. The downturn in Worf's demeanor affected everyone. You couldn't enter the barn and not feel his sadness.

Upon hearing of this, Dr. White immediately expanded his definition of confinement to included unlimited hand grazing. Worf whole heartily concurred, and his moral quickly improved. It was soon impossible for anyone to walk through the barn without being grabbed by Worf and nudged in the direction of his lead shank.

Surprisingly, even with all the experience I've had with horses, especially Worf, I found myself nervous, almost freighted, the first time I grazed him. Every time he flinched, I jumped, which needless to say, made him jump even more. With the plate in my arm still aching, it would be months before I would once again feel at ease hand walking him.

The second recovery period was over before we knew it. Of course that's easy for me to say, given that again, the majority of the work fell on Audrey. While we had discussed the option of bringing him back for a second try at Radnor that fall, in the end, we all agreed that the best opportunity for full recovery lay with giving Worf the rest of the year off. Again, Worf agreed full heartily.

By the end of the summer, my lean, mean, eventing machine had so much fat on him that when he walked, it rippled. Worf must have thought he had died and gone to heaven, with the one exception that his feed bucket only contained what dropped into it while filling other feed buckets. Worf had nothing to complain about. His ears were always up, his eyes were bright and alert, and for the first time in years, the massive wind puffs that had surrounded his ankles were gone. He looked perfect. Fat, but perfect.

Fortunately I had a young horse to keep my attention. Unfortunately, I had a particularly difficult young horse, who, as it turned out, really didn't want to be an event horse. By the end of a less then fulfilling fall season, mired at the bottom of the novice ranks, my eventing hopes were pinned now more then ever on getting Worf back into shape and into action.

By early winter, Worf was playing with his buddies as if he was a three-year-old. With the limp now a distant memory, I chanced a hack. It was as if two old friends had suddenly been reunited after a long estrangement. The frustrations of the fall's season were quickly banished, replaced by hopes of a possible spring season on Worf.

Eager to put him back into work, I jumped at an opportunity to study in Charlottesville for the month of January. South of the freeze line, the footing would be perfect. Weary of pushing him too hard, I started off with long walks, and then gradually, trots. By the beginning of the third week, I was breathing a little easier. On the forth week however, I began to notice a limp when turning to the right. Lounging reviled my worst fears: the limp was back. Dr. White and Dr. Doyle were dismayed when they heard the news. Zero X-rays revealed no progression in the healing of the joint surface. I was faced with three options. Inject Worf and continue to ride him, do nothing and retire him, or operate one final time. I chose the latter. Riding him on steroids would only hasten the bone degeneration. Doing nothing would mean a retirement in pain. A surgery at least held out hope of relieving the pain.

Before the surgery, everyone agreed that no matter what the outcome, this would be the last, and that after it, no attempt would be made to bring Worf back. Given this, I agreed with Dr. White's request to try a new technique called Micro-Fracture - where tiny fractures are made in the bone to allow cartilage surfacing material to emerge easier from below the bone's surface. It seemed like a good shot, at worst, it might help perfect the still experimental technique.

Considered an old pro by the now familiar staff, Worf settled in quickly this time around, even offering to hold his own knee out as it was shaved. The surgery went as planned, though Dr. Doyle was a bit miffed when Dr. White fainted, leaving her to close and clean up . . . but I'll not go into that here.

Figuring that this was going to be a regular thing, during recovery Worf sat up, looked around, and lay back down. It was only after one of the staff called him a cow, did the lazy bum finally get up. By the time I returned the next day to get him, Worf had settled in so well and was so happy with the adoration lavished upon him by the attentive nursing staff that he refused to get in the trailer and go home!

Having learned the downside of hand walking from the first two recoveries, we borrowed a round pen for the third. With the exception of the necessity to daily move the pen, the last recovery period proved almost effortless, though I'm sure Ashley, my compatriot in the daily moving of the pen, might view it differently.

While the last surgery did not return Worf to 100% as we had hoped, it did nevertheless dramatically improve his soundness. Today, he's sound enough to lead his herd in daily charges around our large turn out field, and when he feels like it, he still jumps our the three board fences to see if the grass is really greener on the other side.

The way I look at it, I made a deal with him many years back. I asked him to give his all, and in return, promised to care for him till he was old and gray. I hadn't planned on him breaking down in the prime of his life, but no one does. My goals with him had been to do intermediate, a three-day, and to get him graded. He never did an intermediate, but he did carry me around three three-days, and in doing so, earned enough points to hold a grade one ranking. I think that well enough.

Worf now lives out his days as the best looking lawn ornament in the neighborhood. Every once in a while I put a student on his back and let him show them how it's done. He doesn't seem to mind, in fact, he seems to enjoy it. It's hard to see another rider on him. It's even harder to watch him move so well. He's fit, his legs look great, and his attitude is the best it's every been.

Every time I get the urge to get on his back and put him back into work, I remind myself: the third surgery was for him, not for me. Instead, I brush him, give him a pet, and turn him loose to enjoy his well-deserved retirement. I'm happy that he's happy, and will be for the rest of his life. After all, isn't that what horsemanship is really all about?

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