Bringing My High-Performance Horse Back from Surgery

I am feeling many emotions as I look back on 2015 and 2016. It was a time of the most amazing highs and lows in my life. In 2015, I was able to go from success to success, showing my horse Rosmarin, known as Reno, in Wellington and Europe. The high point was when we were the top horse-and-rider combination for the team competition days at the Pan American Games.

Credit: Photo by Nancy Jaffer Kim Herslow on the podium after winning the team-gold medal with Steffen Peters, Sabine Schut-Kery and Laura Graves.

But it all changed in a flash. One week after the Pan Ams, the day before I was scheduled to have surgery for an eye problem, we learned my mom had Stage 4 brain cancer. She was given just two and a half months to live, and died in October. Then in January 2016, I decided Reno needed to undergo exploratory arthroscopic surgery on his right stifle. He had been having swelling there, and no explanation was forthcoming on ultrasound or X-rays. Needless to say, it took all of the wind out of my sails. 

Credit: Photo by Nancy Jaffer Kim Herslow and Rosmarin competing at the 2015 Pan American Games.

The surgeons (Dr. Alan J. Nixon from Cornell University and Dr. Ryland Edwards from Fairfield Equine) who were advised and referred by my vet, Dr. Rick Mitchell, allowed me to watch as they worked on my boy. It was a heart-wrenching couple of hours while he was on the table, but when they came out and spoke with me about the findings, I had a glimmer of hope.

They told me it was my lucky day–they had found a cyst that was inside the joint above the cruciate ligament but in its own separated capsule. The surgeons were able to remove it and injected stem cells to help healing. Dr. Nixon told me that Reno may actually come back better than he has ever been. He had never seen a cyst in that location, but was happy with the outcome. They told me Reno may have had it there his entire life and just learned how to compensate for it.

Wow, I was blown away, but very hopeful. Though it was going to be a long road back, I knew it would be well worth the wait. I was so relieved there was an answer to the swelling that had been coming into that stifle, and that I went with my gut feeling to just do the surgery. It was a very tough decision to make, but ultimately the right one!

Reno came out of the anesthesia very well and was up in the recovery stall within five minutes. He was looking out the window at me as if to say, ‘Why am I in here, Mom?’

He walked out of that room and knew where all of his body parts were, which was such a relief. Reno walked on the affected leg as if it were no problem. He had to be completely quiet for two weeks and only was able to be hand-grazed for 10 minutes a day right outside his stall at my barn in Wellington, Florida. Then, very slowly, we started his hand-walk program, five minutes twice a day, increasing that by five minutes every week. The poor guy was so bored, by the time we were ready to head back to New Jersey on April 1, he had enough of hand-walking and was boycotting and parking his feet frequently before the second round of walking in the afternoon. Luckily, I have a covered Equiciser (walker) at my barn that has a very large diameter, so he could continue his walking on his own twice daily. He seems to enjoy that kind of walking time more there than hand-walking, thank goodness.

Reno is a sociable horse, so we also would groom, massage and graze him frequently in between his walks to keep his mood positive. Dr. Mitchell came to see him monthly to monitor his recovery. It wasn’t until June, however, before I could start tack-walking him, which I started very slowly with five minutes at a time, building up to 45 minutes by August. He was so good that I could take him out to my riding field and walk around out there, which made him much happier than going in circles in the arena. I rode him early in the quiet of the morning when he was very relaxed and I could trust him to behave. It’s also because of the partnership we have that I can trust him to listen and stay quiet with me out in the 12-acre field.

We got the okay from Dr. Mitchell to start trotting at the end of August. We did very short sets initially, slowly building up our time over numerous weeks. His trot was very weak and initially did not feel very good. Heavy feet and irregular steps disheartened me. When the surgeons went into his stifle joint, they used CO-2 to expand it, which stretches all the ligaments and tendons around it. So some time is required to get them to tighten up and there is nothing but time and slow buildup of strength for this process. I had to be very patient, counting on the fact that it would feel better eventually. It was so hard for me to have my top horse feeling so funky. I had to stay positive and kept envisioning the trot how it felt when it was good. 

Between the walker twice daily for 45 minutes, and riding him between up to 45 minutes with 15 to 20 minutes of trotting, we were ready to start cantering by October. He was so well behaved–I was happily surprised. We have been building up the canter with the 5-minute increments weekly and at our last visit from Dr. Mitchell, right before we left for Florida at the end of October, he gave us a big thumbs up to start training with Debbie McDonald by mid-November.

I am very excited to say he is feeling much stronger and even in his gaits. Dr. Mitchell even went so far as to say he could be ready to show at the beginning of the year. As I always say, that is up to Reno and how he is feeling in his work. I am so happy to feel my horse again and the power he has in his movement, I am humbled. The attitude and heart this horse has to work and be my partner again after going through such a major surgery this year has me really looking forward to what the future holds for us. 

If you want my advice when you face a situation where your horse has a physical problem, remember that you know your horse better than anyone. If something doesn’t feel right, keep searching for answers. Sometimes it means taking a year off to get the help a horse needs. But when I consider the alternative, all I can say is that I am grateful I decided to listen to my gut and have the patience to listen to Reno as he comes back to fitness. 






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