Hello and welcome to my blog! Samantha Osborne and Stilo Blue Native
Over the next few months, I will be sharing the experience I have had with my retrained racehorse, Stilo Blue Native, who has been suffering from kissing spine and who was operated on in September 2019. I hope my blog is useful to those who think they may have a horse with kissing spine and are searching for information to help them form a decision about a treatment path and what recovery can be like…
Firstly, I must begin by introducing my pride and joy, Blue:
In the beginning…
In April 2017, I received a text from a friend who worked for Rebecca Menzies Racing. She asked if I knew of anyone who wanted a horse – 16.2hh, dapple grey gelding, vice free and quiet to ride. I was often asked this question and for five years had ‘kept my ears open’ and accepted photos to pass on to suitable homes for retired racehorses. A few minutes later, my phone pinged alerting me to the videos and photos. I replied, ‘I will pick him up tomorrow!’
I told myself that Blue would be a summer project and that eventually he would have to be sold. As I loaded him in to the trailer, a jockey warned me not to point2point him because he would unseat as he ‘couldn’t jump’ and ‘didn’t bend his back over a fence’. Fortunately, this wasn’t on my agenda and so I travelled him 30 minutes to a field where he spent 3 months living out with some hunt horses on their summer holiday. He did amazing on the grass and new feed regime (thank you to Saracen Horse Feeds for your social media share) and in just 6.5 weeks, he gained masses of condition:
Blue has been a star over the past two years, not only becoming a loved friend and part of the family, but also helping me to tick off some of the items on my equestrian bucket list, including: having my horse on the front cover of a magazine; competing at Aintree for the ROR Championship Show (photo above), adding the champion NCPA POYS presentation photo to my photo album, and winning a coveted ROR jacket!
Spotting the signs…
We all want our horses to be pain free, happy in their work and content with life. Unfortunately, they can’t talk to us and tell us when there is a problem. Blue aims to please, and despite the intense pain he has been feeling over many years, he has soldiered on. I want to share some of the most significant things that were mistaken, overlooked or hidden over the last two years until I got the kissing spine diagnosis….
When Blue arrived to his new home the day after running his final race, he was very lean. My friend had explained that they struggled to get topline on him. At a later date, when I shared a before and after photo (below) a well known professional producer commented on a social media photo saying that he thought he had ulcers given how light he was and so I put him on to a Coligone supplement and ensured he had a sugar free diet. I ruled this theory out in February 2019 when I saved up the money to have him scoped and he showed no signs of ever having ulcers. I read a statistic that 92% of racehorses suffered from stomach ulcers and because Blue sometimes swished his tail, thrived better in summer out at grass, and scraped his teeth in the stable, I thought he may have been suffering from ulcers too. I have always really struggled to get condition on Blue despite feeding him a high quality diet advised by a feed representative. I will explain about his weight and frame later on in this blog and how it helped me to get a final answer.
When out at grass for the summer, Blue gained masses of weight as a result of experiencing much less pain. This was due to the vertebrae being less inflamed without a rider on his back and also because with his neck down as he was grazing, the vertebrae were stretched out and so he felt more comfortable. I remember taking videos of him in the field and admiring his huge trot stride and the power in his quarters. This movement deteriorated as time went on, which I will illustrate with videos and photos.
After some down time, I travelled Blue to my DIY livery yard and decided to start lunging and long reining work as part of his initial retraining schedule. Blue was quite hot headed and sharp; I believed this was down to a new environment, a different type of work and feeling well for the summer out! Over the last two years, Blue has been an unpredictable ride. Sometimes he would be horizontally laid back and I would trust a child to ride him, and other days he has been spooky, tense and a real handful! I noticed that he was much easier to handle in summer and I thought the heat capped him as well as living in the field all year round. In winter, he had rest breaks and I used a sound blocking fly veil which did wonders to help him concentrate. On reflection, he was better in summer as he had less rugs to carry on his back, his vertebrae stretched out to graze and the comfort of the summer sun.
Our first winter together…
After a few months of strengthening work, building a relationship from the floor and allowing him to unwind from racing and to adapt to new tack and ways of working, I finally had my first sit on Blue! I decided to keep it steady and for the first few weeks, I just walked and trotted. I planned to work towards an Intro dressage test in December. Blue was very well behaved when travelling and working in at the dressage competition and finished with a score of 64%, which I was very happy with to say that he had only been in ridden work for about 8 weeks. The main thing I struggled with during the test, was turning up the centre line. I believed this was because he was such a large horse and that with schooling he would become more supple and confident with tighter turns. It felt like his quarters were drifting/ swinging away from me and that he wasn’t quite tracking up right. I had to ride very sympathetically and quietly to avoid him popping in to canter if I tried to guide him with my leg aids. Had I pursued dressage through winter, I may have been presented with some bigger issues but as I arrived to get Blue in from the field at 4.05pm instead of 4pm one evening, he had decided to have a panic attack and gallop around the field flat out until I could finally get hold of him (typical racehorse knowing his routine to the second)! The next day, I arrived to a very swollen hock and that was the first day of a four month box rest period. Without a rider on board until the end of April, the inflammation and pain will have decreased through winter, and he laid down more weight for the rest. By this time, he was a year out of racing and the issue had not been diagnosed…
Blue’s first showing season…
I was anxious about Blue’s first outing. For starters, it was my first time back in the racehorse showring since I had ridden Stevey’s Lad at HOYS in 2013 and it was something I feared facing. Secondly, with Blue out of action all winter after a short spell of work at the end of the previous year, I still felt our partnership was very new and he was still quite green – often struggling to get the correct canter lead on the left rein no matter how hard I tried. I made a last minute plan to enter on the day at the Northern Racing College ROR Show as it had one of the last novice qualifiers in my area. I was a nervous wreck! Blue was fairly wound up by the millions of bugs on the showground and I was conscious of his sensitive skin hence having fleece lined girths and numnahs to keep him comfortable. I was absolutely overcome when he won the class after giving the judge a beautiful ride with not a wrong leg in sight; (there was a lot of tears)! Blue felt quite relaxed and as the photos show, he was able to sit up and ping (no signs of discomfort but perhaps adrenaline was high as it was his first outing). Thank you to Equestrian Life Magazine for covering this win as his showing magazine article debut, and to my 2019 sponsor Amy Griffiths Photography for photos that I cherish.
At Blue’s second show, he qualified for the Horse and Country Racehorse Final at Grandslam. Due to using transport hire and the rings running massively behind what I had first planned, I decided to call it a day after the inhand class and so he wasn’t put to the test under saddle. The show was only 30 minutes away and he was free moving and full of beans inhand…
After two outings and two wins, I was starting to get my showing mojo back again! I planned to take Blue to NCPA Yorkshire Branch Show as I like to support the society and also I needed to return Bow’s trophy as he was supreme champion there in 2017. Blue was very challenging on this day thanks to sharing the show ring with a mare and foal! I believe he was gelded late and can be a little hormonal still at times. He was a handful but won both of his inhand classes and took reserve champion for the second show in a row. I tacked up very promptly for the ridden class and had to go in the ring with no working in.
Blue was a little highly strung still from the foal scenario but to say there was no working in and it was a crazy thunderstorm with torrential rain outside, he completed the class with just the odd squeak as I asked for canter. As the photos show, he was quite able to work in the tiny ring with the other horses and we had ticked indoor schools off the experience list…
After making it a hattrick of reds, I entered the novice final at ROR Championships, Aintree. To prepare for this, I decided to enter Blue for Osmotherley Show to see how he coped with a buzzy atmosphere. Blue managed to hold on to 2nd place and pick up his novice ticket for 2019 to a very experienced horse despite being stung in the ring and coming up with the bite swelling the size of an apple, which really upset him.
When I watched the video back of the class, he was bouncing around a little bit and I blamed this on everything from the speakers to the bouncy castles.
I decided to take Blue to an ROR club night at Northallerton Equestrian Centre to prepare for working in an indoor school with others at Aintree. Blue was difficult to load and reared up, which was a little strange as he normally travelled and loaded ok.
Blue had had the saddle fitter the day before, and so when I got on Blue and he felt wrong, my initial reaction was to wonder if there was an issue with my tack.
The instructor at the club night was adamant that I was being tense and sending it down the reins, and that I should have been doing more shapes. I guess it is true that you do know your own horse best. Although I continued with the lesson, I wished I had ended the session early because I felt very anxious and unhappy with the experience. Blue was inconsistent in his head carriage and felt restricted in his movement, which is why I was trying to go large to send him forward and open up without complicating things. This session was the first event that made me troubled about Blue’s condition.
As August progressed, and ROR Championships was just a week away, Blue’s symptoms became more apparent. I gained access to a very large outdoor school and Blue came on leaps and bounds (at first swinging his quarters in and struggling to remain straight on the long sides). During a schooling session, he became very lame behind on his near side. His quarters looked like they were in spasm and I thought he had pulled something or injured his stifle area. His regular physiotherapist came to see him at the drop of a hat and said that he was very sore and to give him the rest of the week off. I knew Aintree was no longer possible and so I decided to run a bute trial. With up to 4 bute a day, Blue still wasn’t comfortable. I turned him out for two weeks and used my range of Equilibrium Products massage therapy to relieve the tension.
After a short break in the field and some hacking work to break from schooling for Blue and a mountain of sport psychology for me, I decided to go to NCPA POYS to try to end the season on a good note. This was the furthest I had asked him to travel and I decided to try ear plugs and calmers for the first time to see if it had an impact on his performance (still wondering if it was my nerves as the instructor said or lack of mileage and tension in buzzier atmospheres). Due to traffic and road closures, I didn’t have much time to work in. Blue won his two ridden classes and inhand class. He was a little over reactive to my leg and was tail swishing a bit in the ring. I had time to give him more work in time for the championship and during this warm up, he kept occasionally dropping a back leg but the bits in between felt better than at other shows. He scooped reserve ridden horse in a big championship but during rosette presentation he was barely able to stand and was violently swishing his tail. At the time, I thought it could have been a combination of the following: 1. Anticipating the lap of honour and struggling to stand as most racehorses do when in their early days of retraining. 2. Being sensitive skinned and having sweated a bit that he had become irritable, especially with the flies around. 3. He had had enough as this was the most I had asked of him in terms of class numbers at a show before.
With light hacking work and no further problems at home, I headed 5 minutes down the road to Northern Spectacular to end the season. My aim was to try and get a championship win as Blue had picked up three reserve championships in the three championships he had competed in. When he came of the horsebox, he was absolutely dripping in sweat. I didn’t believe 1 thin rug would have caused him to become so warm and so I wondered if he anticipated pain. I allowed him to graze inhand and walked him inhand for an hour before my class. He stood beautifully in the class and went on to win and take the horse championship as well as reserve champion NCPA member to a former HOYS winner, and so we competed in our first ever supreme championship. Blue seemed relaxed and happy to be at the show. I had entered the ridden and decided to tack him up ready for the class. He was kicking forwards with his back legs and the minute I got on he catapulted in to the air. He was on a lot of feed to gain condition, he hadn’t had any lunging to work him in, there was lots going on and he had only left the yard a handful of times… but I knew this was more than high spirits and nerves. I got off straight away and took him home.
After showing a vet a video of him working, he believed his hocks were the issue and the back soreness was secondary. I asked a vet to do a flexion test, which he passed with no signs of lameness. I decided to give him the winter off to see if the rest helped…
Life isn’t always as it seems on social media! The vast majority of people only share the good things that are happening. On the surface, Blue was enjoying a well earned winter rest after making a really positive start to his showing career. On Facebook, I was able to share lots of great news over the winter starting with Blue winning the ROR HEART THROB HEART AWARD! It isn’t every day your horse is selected as the most beautiful ROR by legend, Clare Balding! I enjoyed an amazing night at the ROR End of Season Party and picked up a trophy, certificate and the most beautiful ROR embroided rug – something every ROR owner dreams of winning. This led to him starring in Showing World Magazine for the In The Spotlight double page rider feature as well as the NCPA show report. The next month, Blue and I had a 2 double page spread feature in Equestrian Life for their ‘5 minute with…’ article but to top the season, Blue’s face made the front cover!
These achievements are priceless, highly valued and begin to reflect the admiration I hold for Blue but on the flip side I felt under huge pressure to improve and to keep winning in 2019. My self esteem was anxiety levels were fragile but I bought a journal, large white board, new sport psychology reading material and a showing wall planner – time to target set!
After three months of rest, I started to lunge Blue over raised poles and used the Pessoa training aid to strengthen his back muscles, as advised by the physio. By this stage, Blue had had his teeth done, several physio appointments, a bit change advised by my local bit bank, the saddle fitter out twice, fleece and gel lined everything, pain relief trials, field rest and a variety of work.
Blue was immediately wrong on the lunge. Of course, I wouldn’t put a horse straight back in to canter work – but try telling this to a fresh horse in December weather when on the lunge!
In this time, I observed that he was bunny hopping with both back legs, bringing them forward equally, which made it look like he was running down hill. I showed my vet the video who maintained that it was his hocks and to try a liquid anti inflammatory in his feed. It had no effect. I did a lot of online research as I had not experienced this in the past. I spoke to a few friends and most symptoms seemed to point to a sacroiliac issue. I sent the video to another vet and asked him if he thought it could be a sacroiliac issue and if we could try medicating the area to see if it helped.
The vet injected his back, which was very sore and suggested that the sore back was potentially secondary to the sacrum issue. I followed a program to get him back in to work and he was instantly much better – no bunny hopping and much more settled.
I entered Blue for the online sponsorship competition for the 2019 Amy Griffiths Sponsored Rider opportunity. In January, he was selected as the winner! I was thrilled with this start to the season and decided to give the rest of the year my all despite the knock backs and difficulties at the end of the previous summer.
In February, I decided to scope him for ulcers to make sure he had a clean bill of health. Much to my surprise, he scoped clear. Now I could crack on and get to work!
Over the next few months, Blue made good progress with his schooling, gained weight and we enjoyed hiring local indoor schools. It was a huge milestone for me to compete in a HOYS Racehorse2Riding Horse qualifier again for the first time in six years and so I aimed to go to Osboldeston in April 2019. My aim was to make it to the end of the class without being sick or bottling it! Had I had the choice of riding the outsider in the Grand National or riding in that class on that day, the National seemed like a less daunting option!
The morning of the show arrived and Blue looked a million dollars. He had been working the best to date all week and I was as ready I felt I could be. When I got to the show and brought him off the lorry, his back looked a little dipped and he was walking a bit crabby behind. I grazed him inhand to settle him as lunging is not allowed at these shows. I had purchased some new ear plugs, which he didn’t seem very impressed about and so I removed them after working in. I stood up off his back and gave him a canter around the indoor school working in arena. I spoke to a friend who produces show horses as we worked in together. She suggested changing to a double bridle instead of a Pelham and to medicate his stifles too. Weirdly, I had discussed changing to a double as I felt he had become a bit numb to the starter pelham, which I first put him in as he used to stick his tongue out (with hindsight this was pain evasion) but it was too close to the show to change bits. The help was massively appreciated but I also felt very anxious about him looking wrong for her to pick up on an issue. It was his first outing and perhaps he was tense and I was expecting a lot for a novice horse to work like an open horse? We had found the problem and medicated it which should have lasted at least 6 months minimum? He had worked so well consistently at home and away from home so perhaps he couldn’t handle the long distance travelling?
Blue rushed a lot on the go round. He then wrong legged with the ride judge on his better rein twice, which was very out of character. I had struggled to master the left canter strike off but had always got it right on the day. She reported that he felt a little heavy in the hand, which again was very untypical as he has a soft mouth but linked in to my feelings about the Pelham previously mentioned. On reflection, he was probably trying to go deeper in the frame to a more comfortable place. Due to often doing the horses on my own, I never get chance to see them from the ground and so I was unable to see problems with my own eyes.
I felt tearful after the class. He still wasn’t right and I didn’t know what to do next. I burst in to tears as he stood swishing his tail not eating at midnight as we got back from the show. If only he could tell me what was wrong. My friend advised an osteopath rather than a physio to try to investigate further…
I was very lucky to get an appointment the next day due to a cancellation and so travelled him to York. The osteo picked up on a number of issues but the main problem he stressed was a hip trauma, possibly caused from a fall racing. After several cracks, lots of getting on and off him, he felt like a new horse to ride! I couldn’t believe the difference in him. I got a massively improved left bend and he was striking off on the correct leg every time. The osteo explained that travelling would have been difficult as he couldn’t lock his back leg properly and to expect big changes in his shape and way of going after the work he had done. I felt elated!
I decided to go back to basics and get some miles on the clock at local shows to build both my confidence and Blue’s. We started off by heading to Equestrian Life Championships. When we got there we realised that the indoor school was like a sales ring (he had previously been sold through a ring at Brightwell’s) and the entry numbers were big. With screaming babies in the viewing gallery and Welsh stallions running toward him in the other ring, he was a little more animated than I had hoped for but coped well in the inhand section, winning his class and taking reserve champion. The novice ridden section followed my inhand and so yet again I had very limited working in time. The rules stated that he had to be in a snaffle bridle, which was another new experience at a show. As I entered the ring, he started the extreme tail swishing again but he hadn’t done this in the working in arena.Was this his way of communicating nerves and giddiness? He managed to win a huge novice class and went on to take ridden novice champion, bagging some beautiful rosettes.
I found another local show the following weekend: Ardsley Horse and Pony Show. The show had a range of suitable ridden classes, without having to put a judge on board, and this time the rings were on grass. Blue arrived at the show in plenty of time. I lunged him on the Pessoa for half an hour and practically had to chase him round as he was so chilled out! I tacked up and got on to have to ride around the working in and parking area at a fast canter until the leaping stopped!
He presented as cold backed for the first time. After a few minutes, he worked in his normal way and was happy for me to get on and off at several points during the day with no further antics! He won all three classes and took supreme ridden champion of the show. He stood in line perfectly. He didn’t wrong leg once all day. He didn’t swish his tail once. Perhaps it was mileage that he needed? Perhaps he prefers horse shows on grass? May be the osteo did the trick?
After two outings for education with lots of wins, an osteo appointment, a confidence building photoshoot with our new sponsor, a new double bridle set and a new browband to mark a fresh start, we headed to Hambleton Show for our first ROR affiliated class of the year…
I arrived at Hambleton 4 hours before the class to ensure no stone was left unturned with the planning for this novice class – it was our only chance.
When I arrived, I lunged Blue for 30 minutes on the Pessoa training aid. He was very relaxed and focused on his work. I took the mounting block with me and jumped on. He worked in beautifully and I was able to ride off one hand and have a few gallops in the large working in area with no problems.
I took Blue back to the lorry and washed him off. I used my Equilibrium Products massager to relax him and then applied witch hazel to his back in case there was any sore areas for the increase in working in. My first class was the ROR Open Inhand qualifier. Blue walked quietly to the ring but as soon as a mare arrived from the yard where he is kept, he became very unsettled and incredibly difficult to deal with (striking out at me, screaming for the mare and barging in to me). We managed to get through the inhand class with a qualification bagged (me dripping with sweat). Outside of the ring, I got changed under a rug (the glamour of showing horses) and quickly put his saddle on. The judges were waiting but I knew I was in for a rough ride! I asked my groom to leg me on (potentially a little daring as he does associate this with the parade ring at the start of a race) but I had no other option. No sooner had I put my feet in the stirrups, Blue launched in the air several times until I could turn him and send him forwards. I rode a few laps of the working in arena stood up off his back as he put his head between his knees and bucked and catleapt. After scattering the working in arena with most people surprised by his circus performance, I came back to walk, put my girth up and entered the ring. I had already given up before riding my go round as the judges had seen the whole thing and I felt pretty embarrassed!
Blue held it together ok on the go round with just a little bit of silliness across the rein change. We were pulled in in any order and so I decided to go last to give him time to wind down. This went in my favour as we were asked to do our own shows rather than the judge riding. I made sure I did a strong gallop and knew that his conformation could potentially pull him up the line. We were sent off large and I was pulled in top; I couldn’t believe it! The judges loved him, saw his potential and reiterated that it was a novice class. I knew that if I could overcome that working in experience with all eyes on me then I could do anything if I put my mind to it! As Blue had worked in so beautifully, this rodeo show was put down to his reaction to the mare and so again the problem was missed…
Knowing that Blue seemed to do better for an increase in work, I decided to take him to the Cumbria HOYS R2R qualifier and North Yorkshire County Show very early and gave him a few hours of working in. Both days were very hot and so I felt this too could have helped to tire him out enough to put a judge on his back safely (however I have learned that nothing seems to tire Blue)! He worked in well, cantering serpentines on one hand easily and I felt really positive; however, the minute I entered the R2R indoor school ring with 15 horses nose to tail, his ears went back, his mouth opened and he evaded in every way possible meaning that I couldn’t ride one side of him! Was he unable to handle bigger entries? Did he feel claustrophobic indoors? Had I done too much working in? Was he ever going to have the brain to become a show horse? The class was a disaster – the worst he had gone to date. North Yorkshire County was a similar story – a hot go round but pulled in top for him to boil over when the judge chose a sharp left change of rein (his bad rein that I had always struggled with canter leads on). Mentally, I was starting to resign from ridden showing…
I entered him for some amateur classes in the hope that omitting the judge ride would help him to settle. Unfortunately, a mid season non print rule was introduced mid season which ruled me out of the classes as a result of being a brand ambassador for several companies and so I was forced to compete in inhand classes only for the remainder of the season; this again masked the kissing spine problem as Blue was happy to show inhand.
Blue won a class of 15 at Huby and Sutton Show, followed by bringing home the ROR Champion trophy at Cleveland Show after winning another class, and finally he made it a hattrick by taking 1st and champion at Aldborough and Boroughbridge Show, picking up the lovely According To Pete Memorial Trophy. Although Blue was happy to do inhand classes and I struggled to keep up with his big striding trot, his weight was starting to decrease. I blamed this on an increase in shows done over the summer, less hard feed to try and give him less energy and cooler weather in comparison to the previous summer.
As the photos show, he looks well but in comparison to the previous summer (image below) his withers look more prominent and his quarters more angular. His tummy looked less deep and his topline was disappearing.
A friend visited the week before ROR Championships. I had entered for the second year and was determined to go. I had given Blue very light ridden work to ensure he wasn’t too fit for a ride judge and too much of a handful for me to deal with as I had been suffering from a shoulder injury since April and was in a lot of pain. I asked my friend to do a ride judge practise for me. She jumped straight on and he was very mannerly and straight forward for the first five minutes but as soon as she became more confident and tried to ride him rather than sit on him, he began to do one time changes with his back legs. I hadn’t seen him do this before and wondered if it was mixed messages with a strange rider onboard as he can do flying changes very easily with the lightest aid.
The school surface at the livery yard gets very deep in summer and hadn’t been levelled for weeks. Was he struggling with the tiny school and deep surface? Was he thrown by the new aids from a new rider?
It was the week of Aintree and the timetable was released…. oh God… the inhand final and novice ridden final over lapped. This meant a 7.30am class start and no working in on a racecourse and having to go down the start from the parade ring on a novice sharp racehorse – I couldn’t have had more to juggle! With no expectations and trying to paint my face with a smile rather than the stressed and exhausted dread I was actually feeling, we travelled through the night and got to the show with enough time to get ready and get in the inhand class for the crack of dawn. Blue was selected for the evening performance of 10 horses from a line up of 48 entries including some big names and famous horses we hadn’t imagined getting by, and took 3rd place on the night!
I tacked up quickly; he put his back right up but we didn’t have any further shenanigans – phew! I was able to give Blue a quick trot and canter in the small indoor working in arena and he was hot but about as good as I could expect. As I entered the buzzy indoor school with about 16 others, he went up a few gears and had the odd silly moment with his mouth but generally went as well as I could ask for given the circumstances of the season and the show to that point. The main frustration I faced was him not wanting to stand for the judge to get on. This now makes sense – he was in pain and didn’t trust someone new to get on! I had practised leg ups a thousand times at home problem free but couldn’t get him to stand at a show. A friend producing another racehorse in the class commented on how much more settled he seemed to the HOYS qualifier. I had to remind myself that several horses in the class had been competing in novice classes for up to five seasons and many were veterans and so he really was low mileage in comparison. Perhaps he just needs time and experience?
With just one show left (Burghley) I focused on trying to get more condition on him and having some fun to try and desensitise him as the evening performance at Aintree blew his mind somewhat! We did some galloping in the stubble fields to prepare for his first big ring experience and I popped him over some jumps (up to 1m10cm spreads with ease) – he thoroughly enjoyed this, taking fences on with his ears pricked and never stopping once.
The Final Piece of the Puzzle…
Burghley: an emotional show for me with memories of Stevey qualifying; the furthest Blue had ever travelled; the lorry still off the road after breaking down en route home from ROR Championships; Blue’s first big ring experience; the last show of the season; him striking in to himself a few days before when a JCB on the livery yard entered his paddock to dig it up without warning… the odds were stacking against us… but we had overcome the obstacles at Hambleton and so I decided to go…
I changed the approach again: no hard feed two days before the show, no working in, a dressage show the day before and a whole host of new lucky charms… Dressage was pretty frustrating as his scores were no better than two years ago! One judge commented about me needing to put more leg on and clearly believed it was a rider issue; I wish I could go back to tell her what the underlying issue was. A friend who was reading my tests, gave me a pep talk after having a short sit on Blue earlier in the year and saying: ‘I take my hat off to you; I had no idea he was like that’ as she realised just how difficult he has been.
Blue walked down to the ring fine after being as quiet as a lamb to get ready on my own on the lorry. When I got on he was the quietest he had ever been at a show. The 5 minute working in ring was electric and although he became a lot hotter, he was still manageable. When I entered the ring, he changed instantly and started to snatch the contact, bounce with his back legs, go quarters in and from the floor it probably looked like I needed to let him go on a stride but the truth is I had very limited control or say. At this point, I thought he was just mentally unable to cope with the atmosphere. I did want to leave the ring when in the line up as he began to tremble and I could feel his heart beating in my calves! He started to violently shake and nothing I was doing was reassuring him. I decided to stay in the ring until dismissed for fear of it upsetting him further to leave the others and I didn’t know how to get back to the lorry park. At this point, I said to my showing friend in the line up that I didn’t want to put him through this ever again.
With a few days to reflect, watch the videos, look at the photos and piece everything together, I started online research again. The only thing left to rule out was kissing spine or arthritic changes and sacrum damage beyond repair (the steroid medication was now at the 9 month marker). I called the vet who had scoped him for ulcers earlier in the year (Kimry at New Generation Vets) and asked her to xray his back. I needed some final answers before I lost my mind altogether!
The following Wednesday, Blue’s back was x rayed revealing two vertebrae at the withers which were causing a 9 out of 10 pain rating every time a rider had been on his back. I had prepared myself to put him to sleep that night. I hadn’t slept for a week with worry about what the x rays would reveal for him to act so extremely at Burghley. I was presented with a bit of a grey area and some big decision to make for the horse that I love so dearly…
- Blue wasn’t insured for vet bills. I didn’t have a penny of savings in the bank. How much would an operation cost? How would I afford it?
- Would he ever recover mentally if I went ahead with an operation? As a stressy lively sort of horse would he always anticipate pain and how would he cope with the recovery period?
- What secondary damage had been caused with the problem going back for at least half of his life? Would he be able to do a job again of any description? Was I facing trying to keep him as a field ornament with huge DIY llivery bills each month? Would it be fair to expect an athlete animal to spend the rest of his days unemployed in the field and bored? Could he handle wintering out? I don’t know anyone with a field that I could turn him away in to.
- Was it fair to retire him to a 1 or 2 out of 10 pain grading? Was it more selfish to put a horse through an operation when I couldn’t explain to him what was happening? Had he suffered enough pain already? Is GA too horrific for horses to experience? What if there were further complications during surgery?
- Would I feel differently if: a. He was younger than 11? b. He was easy to do in all ways and problem free? c. I had a comfortable amount of funding and help to manage the treatment and recovery work? d. I had a retirement field/ horses at home to make the retirement option a valid option?
- After trying everything and only getting short term results, what if nothing ever worked? This is meant to be my hobby and fun! I spend 50%+ of my salary on these horses and I am getting constant heartache and stress! Do I want to quit altogether?!
My conscience couldn’t rest with giving up on him in any way…
The vet said it was a very bad kissing spine xray but that surgery was an option and that she was pretty certain it had been the cause of all the symptoms so far; to recap:
- Not wanting to stand for mounting.
- Cold back moments / rodeo riding when I first get on at shows
- Swinging quarters in, struggling to get the correct canter lead, not managing centre lines, rushing and snatching through the bridle.
- Weight loss and poor topline
- One time changes and bunny hopping at the peak of his ridden periods of work.
- Walking tracks in the field or stood not eating for long periods then when in the stable scraping his teeth on the walls
- I had never seen Blue roll over fully
- No pain relief, osteo, physio, steroid injections or home therapy treatments worked long term.
How did I prepare?
I watched both types of KS surgery on Youtubeto get my head round the procedure. It is quite grim but revealed that the operation was carried out under local anaesthetic not general, which was one of my initial concerns.
Next, I spoke to some friends with ROR experience who were able to share success stories of friends who had had KS surgery. The before and after photos were very encouraging. I also read blogs (which inspired me to put this piece together).
I phoned Rainbow Equine Hospital for a quotation and feedback on the referral. Jonathan was amazing! He was very compassionate, reassuring and clear about the cost (much less than I first anticipated) as well as the recovery period. He said if all went well that I would be back on for Christmas! Jonathan called me on Thursday night to explain that he had a space to operate on Monday and so I decided to go ahead with the operation. I took Blue to the vets on Sunday night – I hated leaving him and have never trusted anyone with caring for my horses before but the decision was made.
Thank you for reading my opening chapter. Next month, I will be sharing my experience of Blue’s surgery and sharing some of my moments at the equine hospital with him. I will also be talking about the aftercare plan in place and how Blue coped with his first night back at home after surgery.
Wednesday – Diagnosed
Thursday – Booked in
Friday – Prepared myself and the horse for his surgery and his return
Sunday – Took Blue to the vets
Monday – Operation took place
Tuesday – My first visit – he was overjoyed with lots of whinnying and cuddles! Please check out my Instagram page: SamanthaOsborneEquestrian to see videos of my first visit!
Wednesday – My second visit – this time armed with fruit and vegetables. Blue was so affectionate and this was our key bonding session!
Thursday – I collected Blue who was very ready to come home. The vets discharged me with bute, antibiotics and spare bandages and dressings for the wound.
Friday – Box rest and recovery began! A welcome home parcel arrived from Equilibrium Products who sent me their magnetic and hot and cold therapy products to aid Blue’s recovery. Please visit their website for more information
Video clips – Arriving to see Blue for the first time after his surgery and he greeted me with a whinny and some hugs!
Blue travelled home well and was very pleased to have his home comforts and his best friend, Bow. He tucked straight in to his hay.
It was a bit of a shock to the system to go rugless after being used to wearing his unicorn rug all summer but of course the back needed time to heal.
The next morning, before work, I walked Blue for 7 minutes (15 minutes split across the day) and he seemed quite happy although he hadn’t eaten much through the night. The vets instructed me to do 1 month of box rest with 15 minutes of walking per day. He was to have 1 bute a day and 60ml of antibiotics.
On Friday evening, Blue looked pretty uncomfortable! His bed was all over the place and he was on the floor. At first, I thought he was cast or struggling to work out how to get up comfortably. I put on a headcollar and pulled him up. He did his 7 minutes of walking but then the minute I put him in to the stable, he started digging the bed up and getting up and down from his bed. With the signs of colic clear, I called Kimry at New Generation Vets, who advised me to give him another bute and to keep walking him for a further 20 minutes. I allowed him to have a bucket of grass and then he had a good drink. I went back to the yard again to check him at 10pm and by which point he was bright eyed and much happier. We decided to stop the antibiotics as we believed this may have given him an upset tummy and he had by this stage had 5 days of it in his system.
By Saturday morning at 6am, Blue was ready for another walk, droppings were in his bed and he was tucking in to his Equilibrium Products Calm Munch block!
One week on…
After the colic scare on his first day home, Blue continued in good form – in fact, better than I have ever seen him! He has developed a new love of food and every time I feed him, he licks the bowl clean and then shouts for more! I used to leave him a variety of high calorie feed and hope that he would pick at it through the night (before his surgery) but now he has become very vocal about his food and travels from his hay to his lick (which he has painted his full body in and so he currently looks like a coloured!) and then on to his feed, Equilibrium Munch block and of course his favourite: his football filled with Equilibrium Products Crunchits! I can already see a big difference in Blue’s condition, despite the cold temperatures and having being naked for the past month. The second main thing I have noticed a change in since he had the surgery is his sleep pattern.
He has taken to lying down often and having a good night’s kip, whereas previously, he would often sleep stood up in the corner of his stable. As a result, he is certainly fresh faced each morning for his fifteen minutes of inhand walking; however, he seems keener to pull me to grass than doing his exercise!
During Blue’s fifteen minutes of hand walking in a straight line daily has been challenging at times. Dodging heavy downpours or peak times of yard traffic were problematic. Blue let out the occasional squeak and squeal and towards the end of week two began to leap the height of my head with excitement but generally was very well behaved for his exercise routine. His best friend, Talisker Bow Bells, has stayed in with him to keep him company. Bow has been very patient and appears to have also enjoyed the special treatment each day.
One of the biggest challenges I faced in week 2 was getting his bandages to stay on. I ran out of bandages after 6 days and although the wound was dry and healing well, the surgeon wanted me to keep it covered in case he knocked it as infection would have been a huge knock back. I have been at the yard as late as 9.30pm changing fiddly dressings (often tearful and swearing with tiredness). It was a fiddly job having to thread through tiny stitch holes to secure gauze in place but I started to adapt to my new part time vet nurse role! I cleaned the area with anti bacterial wipes and so far he isn’t reluctant to have gentle pressure applied to his back. I covered the back wound with gauze and used a giant sticky plaster over the top of this. At the front, Blue had a big roll of gauze secured with some cotton thread (as pictured). The dressings get changed every other day and after two weeks they were removed.
It has been very encouraging to know that this blog has already helped some people with their concerns about their horses. Thank you for the feedback to those who are following my blog and have made contact with me so far.
Almost three weeks since his operation, New Generation Vets visited Blue at home and removed the stitches that were holding the protective bandages in place. As you can see in the photo above, the wounds are healing really well.
The scabs and scurfy skin will disappear in their own time – for now I don’t want to disrupt the area; however, it began to drive me mad to have a dirty fluffy horse when I am normally OCD about how clean he is! I recently gave in and got some no rinse shampoo to get the majority of stable stains from his sides.
Blue became a little more giddy in his third week of box rest! Firstly, he become a handful to walk inhand each day and so I upgraded to a chifney to give me a little more control. In his defence, I am on a yard that currently has a huge building project in place and there are lots of spooky materials everywhere. It is always windy at my livery yard and Blue is very sensitive to this so that has been another excuse for the odd squeal and jump in the air! Secondly, Blue’s love of food has continued to grow – he is now eating his hay every night whereas before the surgery he picked at bits and the left overs would often end up getting polished off by my Highland pony! Blue has been kicking the door and shouting for another feed the minute he finishes a manger bucket full! He devours his horse ball full to the brim with sweets too! It is lovely to see him pain free and enjoying his food.
Over the course of week 4 of box rest, I started to use my Equilibrium Products hot and cold therapy, massage therapy and magnetic therapy to speed up the healing process. He enjoyed the extended grooming sessions to try and control his polar bear coat. Since starting my Instagram page last month, I have been asked to review some new products and as part of this, Blue will be doing some winter modelling for Bring The Bling Browbands. I am so excited to product test and it will give Blue a job over the stable door as he is on his holiday – especially now that boredom is clearly starting to kick in, and his personality continues to grow larger by the day now that he is free from pain!
Week 4 has mainly been focused on getting Blue ready for lunging work and turnout. I decided to give him a full clip because I didn’t want him to sweat up with a full coat when back in work. I also thought it was best to continue to keep the area clean in case he rolls in the mud! It has healed well and the scabs have fallen off so there is just the hair to cover and the small lumps to reduce in size and then there will be nothing visible remaining. He is very itchy and loves me to rub the wound area – his top lip starts twitching and he starts to groom me back so is clearly very grateful for extra grooming in this area. I also pulled his mane as he was starting to give Bow a run for his money with the length of his mane! He looked so much better for a makeover and it felt good to be able to wrap him up warm in a new rug, especially with the weather getting colder and wetter as the month progresses.
Next week, I will be sharing Blue’s progress with:
- returning to his field and extending his turnout periods
- Beginning lunge work and how he takes to an increase in work
- Weight gain and top line change with hard feed and the introduction of Pessoa lunge work
- How the wound continues to heal and cover in picture
Over the lunging and turnout period, I have observed the following changes:
- Blue is bucking bigger than ever on the lunge and his movement is opening up. He must feel more supple and well in himself.
- No tail swishing during work – I hope this indicates that he doesn’t feel any pain.
- He is gaining top line and is starting to work more uphill. I hope his neck will build over the next few months as a result of improved carriage.
- The wounds have reduced massively in size. The ligament cut areas were the most proud to begin with. Below is a photo of them after 2 weeks of lunging (6.5 weeks since the operation).
How Blue’s lunge work has progressed
My first sit on Blue and how he responds to having a saddle on. I have ordered a Saddle Pad Company special saddle pad and will review this product in my blog.
How Blue responds to riding and any differences I notice or problems I encounter
How Blue’s shape changes with work and feed over the next month