Many of you who have followed my previous articles will know of Moonfire, or ‘Moo’ – my arrogant, conceited, obnoxious, yet extremely lovable and talented thoroughbred gelding. You might also know that Moo has been enormously successful across numerous disciplines in his young life, excelling in 3-day eventing. What you might not know is that once upon a time, I thought Moo’s promising career might be drawn tragically short.
From his bravery out in the country and his predator-like (chicken murdering) tendencies in the paddock, I’ve always considered Moo to be quite the little lion heart. So when an instructor told me, “Wow, he walks like a proud lion!” the nickname “Little Lion Horse” was cemented. Little did I know this nickname was soon to become far, far too apt.
After a very successful 2014 show season, Moo was selected to represent his province as the team Open Working Hunter at the national showing championships. A week before he was due to leave on the float, I walked into his paddock to find a very dull lion hanging his head and not even bothering to chase the chickens away from his food. One 40C thermometer reading and a few blood tests later, it was confirmed that Moo had contracted biliary. He was scratched from the show, and rested for the remainder of the year. Missing the championship was a blow, but a minuscule price to pay for Moo’s full recovery. The real issue came well after that, when I tried to bring Moo back into work.
Careful rehabilitation began with walking on the road, then some light trotting. When trot work began, I was rather disgruntled to notice how much fitness Moo seemed to have lost, based on the volume of his breathing. He puffed like an old man climbing a staircase just from a little trot – and it only got worse when I started to school him. For a week we continued light work to see if a little extra fitness would help, only to decide that the volume of his breathing had increased from mildly worrisome to downright unnerving. A visit from the vet concerned what we were all trying not to expect: Moo had become a roarer, and suddenly my Little Lion Horse all too close to that king of the jungle.
If you’re wondering what exactly roaring is, then I want you to think back to any equestrian event you’ve ever been to. Did any of the horses coming past you make a loud, loud noise while breathing, sounding almost like a roar, or perhaps a whistle? These horses are roarers. ‘Roaring’ or ‘Recurrent Laryngeal Neuropathy’ AKA ‘laryngeal hemiplegia’ describes a condition which affects a number of horses – particularly thoroughbreds (usually male) over 16hh – wherein part of the larynx (usually the left side) becomes paralysed. This results in the larynx being unable to open fully when the horse breathes in, loosening the vocal cords and creating the ‘roaring’ sound which is heard during exercise.
Naturally a partially paralysed larynx means that a horse cannot inhale a standard amount of oxygen, so the horse must operate under the strain of reduced air intake, which can reduce performance, particularly in racehorses and eventers.
The cause of roaring is more often than not unclear – usually assumed to be an inherited condition, except in cases where it is caused by injury to the laryngeal nerve. Whether or not biliary can cause horses to become roarers is debatable, but it is a common occurrence for horses that suffer from biliary to begin roaring shortly after, as in Moo’s case. Many people believe that a roarer can’t – or failing that, shouldn’t – compete in strenuous events like cross country. In my opinion, my Little Lion Horse has proved that this is not the case.
My initial concerns that decreased air intake might increase risks of heart attacks and the like were quickly squashed by my vet, who told me that if I want to keep competing my roarer, the best thing to do for him is to work him harder than ever, and gradually build his fitness to a level that can compensate for his handicap when he is ready to go back into the country. Thus, the long gamble over whether or not the lion could win back his pride began.
The stress of it all hit me hard. As Moo began coming back into work, I continued competing my other horse. One weekend we were entered in a jumping show, and midway around a fast jumpoff course, I suddenly found that I couldn’t breathe. I made it through the finish, slid off the horse, and collapsed – lying there, trying to catch breath that just kept fleeing. Nothing has ever been quite as terrifying as trying to make it through the finish flags while my throat closes up, and my whole body turns weak. The doctors told me it was stress-induced asthma. I think my brain is just too stubborn to let my horse go through any challenge alone. So, weirdly coincidental as it was, the two of us had to learn to breathe – or rather, to do without breathing – together.
Getting an event horse fit to gallop distances upwards of 2km while taking on over 20 solid obstacles is a difficult and time-consuming feat in and of itself. If your horse needs double the fitness? Well... needless to say it wasn’t going to be easy, not for the lion, nor his suddenly-asthmatic rider. But we never were a team to back down from a challenge. Fitness took over all our rides. Schooling for dressage? Start with a 15 minute canter before the session, end with the same. Jumping? Add 3 x 5 minute canters on each rein into the warm up. Not to mention two hard interval training fitness sessions a week in between, and regular jumping fitness sessions to test whether his performance would hold up as he got tired.
With Moo fit and ready, we gradually moved back into competing. Aside from roaring like a lion, it was like he hadn’t missed a day. The king quickly rose to the top, winning or placing in every event we entered. As it neared the end of the season, I made the decision to enter the Little Lion Horse in his first CIC* event. It was the longest, toughest course Moo had ever faced, not to mention having a much tighter time limit, and now he had to face it with half of his airway obstructed. I planned, of course, to pull up if he got too tired and started tapping jumps (an eventer must be ever cautious to the possibility of flipping over a jump), but we had worked hard for the chance to compete in the big league, and before giving up, Moo and I decided we’ll give it all we’ve got.
The ever-reliable OTTB dressage pony, Moo was lying in the top three going into the country, with no room for error. I knew that if I took the course fast there was a chance Moo’s stamina wouldn’t last, and that we’d have to call it quits before the end; but we were fit, we were ready, and we wanted to win. Right from the starting box, we set a solid one star pace. Moo was a machine, flying over everything in his way, and even as we approached the technical lines toward the end – with me gasping and wheezing on his back as I struggled through breathlessness to keep him between his flags – Moo was keen, clear and confident. With a final blistering gallop stretch and clean pop over a raised downhill rolltop, Moo came through the finish 15 seconds inside the time, roaring louder than any lion I’ve ever heard, but still so full of energy he could have taken on the track again. His recovery time was excellent (wish I could say the same for my own), and when it came time to jump, his performance showed no sign of the strain of the country. With an easy clear, the Little Lion Horse roared his way to a win. At this stage Moo’s roaring was already at grade 3-4 (nearing the worst case scenario) with the left side of his larynx fully paralysed. Nevertheless, he had done it. He had proven that his talent exceeded his handicap. And for that reason, we decided that it was worth the risk of having that handicap removed.
Roaring can be fixed with two operations, commonly known as a tie back (wherein the paralysed flap of the larynx is tied out of the way to allow the horse to open his larynx completely) and a hobday (the cutting away of the vocal cords to increase breathing room). Now, obviously we had not avoided these operations to prove some kind of point, as you might think from my pride in Moo’s accomplishment, but rather the point had to be proven before the decision to have the operation could be made. Although they are largely successful, the exact success rate of tie backs is debatable, since they can be judged on numerous different criteria. Considerations range from 45% - 95%. However, as with any surgery (especially on a horse) the operation was not without its risks and possible complications. Since Moo had never undergone surgery (at least not while in my care), there was the ever-frightening (though slim) possibility that he could react badly to the anaesthetic, and I might lose him completely. Even if all went as planned, there was still the risk of infection and, following that, the possibility of him inhaling his food even after the healing process was complete. Moo is my best friend, and I didn’t want to put him at an unnecessary risk. But it would be more of a sin, I think, to waste his talent on fighting a handicap than to take the risk to remove it. He loves his job. We’ve worked hard. I wanted the chance to see where Moo could take me.
I’m happy to say, in this case at least, that the decision was a good one. The operation went smoothly, and so did Moo’s recovery. At first he was fed only high up, to allow the wound under his throat to drain (it was left open to heal, and a gruesome sight, let me tell you!), and after it had closed, he was fed only low down, to prevent food from entering his lungs.
Aside from some sever emotional damage (when he mutely whinnied to his girlfriend with his mutilated vocal cords and got completely ignored) Moo came out of the operation a perfectly healthy horse, and so we began his slow and careful rehabilitation. After two weeks of box rest, we started daily 5 minute walks. The next week, 10 minutes, then 15, and so on until he was walking for almost an hour at least 5 days a week. Then we started gradually introducing trot. Two minutes, then five, and so on. Finally, 8 months after the initial operation, I had Moo back in full work, his breathing clear as a bell.
So now my lion horse doesn’t roar any more, but he’s still the bravest soul I know (unless he sees seaweed or, god forbid, a cow), and I’m happy to say that he’s come back into his competitive career with more enthusiasm than ever. So much, in fact, that after his last event I’m starting to think his days of doing cross country in a snaffle are over. As I write this, my lion horse is just coming out of a week’s break after a 3rd place in the national eventing championship, 1m. Yesterday, he took me for a breathtaking gallop down the beach. It doesn’t matter, I still can’t breathe that well anyway. But Moo? He feels like he could gallop forever without stopping for air. God knows he tried!
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