Dressage Life: Cloud Nine Destroyed by Illness

This dressage rider's goals were usurped by her horse's mysterious illness.
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This dressage rider's goals were usurped by her horse's mysterious illness.
Erika Urff and Focus | Photo courtesy of Erika Urff

Erika Urff and Focus | Photo courtesy of Erika Urff

On April 28, 2002, when Focus was born, I looked at her, a mere 12 hours old, and said I would do anything to have that horse. I dreamed of taking this home-bred mare with me to Germany to compete in Young Riders. Later, Focus was given to me as a reward for a year of successful competitive swimming. Before I knew it, I was graduating from high school and Focus was turning 5. I decided that, instead of going to directly to college, I would try to fulfill my lifelong dream of training in Germany.

After a summer of planning and a trip to Germany for an interview, I was accepted for the position and would move in September 2007. Getting myself and the horse to Germany was relatively stress-free. Focus started going to shows in the first summer, and she won with scores of 8.0 in Dressurpferde L and placed second with 7.5 in Dressurpferde M. Every show she entered ended in success. Halfway through the summer, I received an offer to stay another nine months. After a week of considering all my options with school, money and the horse, I agreed. As the second winter went by Focus got stronger. We had planned to show her at Prix St. Georges for the first time during her last month in Germany, at only 7 years old.

But, with the sudden onset of a 40-degree (Celsius) fever, we had to scratch the show. It was a Monday morning when I went into the barn and saw that Focus wasn't eating. As I took her blanket off, her hair stood on end, and she started shaking. I took her temperature, and she had a fever. The vet came and gave her some medicine to bring the fever down and boost her immune system. Later that night, her fever had climbed even higher. After another emergency call to the vet, she received stronger medicine to help the fever so she could at least get through the night.

The next morning, her fever was down. But, suddenly, her fever spiked up 39.4 degrees Celsius, and she was shaking again. Once again, I called the vet and Focus received another round of medication. From this point things improved, and she got through Wednesday with no fever. On Thursday, we took Focus to Frankfurt, where she went into a three-week quarantine. The trip was fine, and her fever stayed down. Not being able to see her for three weeks was not easy, especially after the stress of the previous days.

Two weeks had gone by. Every time I phoned to check up on her, everything was OK. In what was supposed to be my last week in Germany, I made plans to travel to Frankfurt again to see Focus on a Monday. As I arrived in the stable, I had never been more excited to see my horse. It was the longest I had ever gone without seeing her. I looked at her in the stall, and she had the same happy-go-lucky look in her eye. She even nickered to me as I called her name. There is no better feeling than that of being reunited with your best friend.

As we brought her out of the stall, I noticed Focus was unusually stiff. I thought it could possibly be that they worked her a little harder in the recent days. Then, while leading her to the indoor, I noticed that Focus was walking strangely. As the rider started to trot, I could see immediately that Focus was not OK. Not knowing better, I said, "Put her in her stall. I will come back tomorrow, and we can have a look again."

That night, I did not rest easy, not knowing what was wrong with her. As I pulled Focus from the stall the next day, I saw that her condition had rapidly deteriorated. Not only was she stiff in her hind legs, she was dragging both hind legs on the floor and swaying left and right without coordination. I called the vet immediately. He informed me that it could be one of three things: a pinched nerve, in which case we would need a chiropractor, a broken vertebrae or Equine Herpes virus. The treatment for all three things would be the same but, if it was herpes, she would need an immune system enhancer and a blood test. We drew blood and started the treatment.

After another two sleepless nights, I returned to the barn. The good news was that she had not gotten worse the previous day when I was not there, but this day, Thursday, we thought that she was in heat. The vet said, this could be the next symptom, loss of bladder function. Therefore, we did a test and determined that she was in heat.

Friday started normally, until about 11 a.m. Just as I was about to leave for a show, the vet called, saying that Focus was not in heat; she had lost bladder function and it was overflowing. He told me that the risk of infection was too high and that he no longer wanted to assume responsibility, because he couldn't keep this problem under control. He said that Focus should go directly into the university clinic.

In the clinic, they inserted a catheter and drained 12 liters of urine. Later that night, they catheterized her again, draining another 10 liters. The vets informed me that it looked like she had contracted the herpes virus and, when it progressed, I would have to consider euthanizing her.

By Sunday, she was able to urinate on her own again. Although she had regained bladder function, she was still not able to walk and did not trust herself to lie down or roll. The idea of losing Focus was too much; I did not know what to do. After a week in the clinic, Focus was a little better but still not well. Finally after 10 days, Focus regained coordination in her hind legs but lost her balance through turns. She was still stiff and dragging both feet on the ground. After 12 days, I was able to take her out of the clinic and put her back in quarantine. Once she was back in the quarantine facility, I was able to fly home.

I am back in Canada after two years in Germany. All I can do for Focus is hope. It is still unclear if she will be rideable again. In these two years I sacrificed many things: my university education, my life savings and myself. Focus had reached the Young Rider level, and my goals had been to complete at the Canadian Young Rider Championships this year, the North American Championships next year and, if all went as planned, the Young Rider World Cup in Germany. In the blink of an eye, it was all taken away. In the course of three weeks, I went from being on Cloud 9 with the world in front of me to being depressed from not knowing if I will ever be able to ride Focus again.

To this day, we do not know where or how Focus caught the virus. We know that the strain she caught is one that cannot be vaccinated against and is also not contagious. Just like in people, many horses have the virus inside their bodies. But it is through stress, illness and other combined circumstances that the virus becomes active. In Focus' rare case, it mutated and became the extreme neurological form.

I am now looking forward to getting Focus home, where I can nurture her and give her the best chances for recovery. I am hoping that somehow good will come out of this horrific situation.