Thoroughbred Makeover Diary: Staying Positive in the Face of Challenges

Magoo with Erin after his surgery. (Courtesy Daniel Schmidt)

Staying positive throughout everything happening in the world can be difficult. When your horses decide they want to be BFFs with the team at Hagyard, it can be even harder. This has been another month of ups, downs, curveballs, and not much riding. After the gauntlet that has been the last few months, my new theory is that if I target the Makeover with three or more horses, I might make it with one.

Phantom gets post-diagnosis cuddles with his owner Daniel Schmidt. (Courtesy Erin O'Keefe)

I’m a “bad news first” person, so we’ll start with an update on Phantom. Phantom had been progressing nicely and we had been hacking around the farm, working on building confidence and fitness, while still keeping things light and easy. All was well until, last week, I went to bring Phantom in for a nice hack with his “brother” and noticed he was noticeably off on his right hind. Thankfully, one of the (many) vets on our roster, Dr. Anna Dunlap of Creek Hollow Veterinary Services boards at our barn, and was able to evaluate him the next day.

Unfortunately, that exam revealed significant, unlocalized lameness, and we knew further diagnostics would be required. So, while Magoo had surgery for his knee chip, Dr. Liz Barrett from Hagyard Equine Medical Institute came out to perform a lameness evaluation on Phantom. Radiographic and ultrasonic evaluations were performed on his stifle. We knew it wasn’t a good sign when Dr. Barrett showed her intern his other stifle on ultrasound so he could “see what it’s supposed to look like.” The results were not what we wanted to hear.

At this point, he has some degree of a torn collateral ligament in his stifle (the joint below the hip), with an unknown amount of damage to his meniscus or other structures within the joint capsule. Due to the swelling from the initial injury, we weren’t able to get a long-term prognosis. Phantom will have 30 days of stall rest and then we will rescan to evaluate the extent of the damage. It is unlikely he will make the Makeover, and it is possible he may never be sound to ride again.

The injury occurred while he was turned out in the field. He was probably playing too rough with his friends, and twisted his leg the wrong way. Right now, we are staying positive and hoping for the best. His owner, my boyfriend Daniel, has bought him just about every toy a horse can have in their stall, which is fitting because Phantom has the demeanor of a toddler. His current favorite is a hard plastic treat dispenser that he rolls around his stall all day long. Phantom is blissfully unaware that any plans we had were derailed, and has settled right in next to his stall rest buddy, Magoo. Barring an entirely unexpected result at his 30-day check, Phantom will not be making the Makeover. However, I am not scratching him yet, because of the news I got just a few hours later.

For a few hours, I wallowed. Both of my original Makeover prospects were sidelined, both with the possibility of never being sound to ride. That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I applied. But then Dr. True Baker, also from Hagyard, called to fill me in on Magoo’s surgery and discharge notes. Not only did surgery go very well, but the recovery time was SIGNIFICANTLY shorter than expected. Due to the anomaly that led to his Houdini knee chip, they were able to remove it very easily (once they knew what they were dealing with), and he only requires three weeks off before he can “resume normal activity.”

We are on week two of strict stall rest, and he is still tolerating it very well, though you can tell he is ready to start hand walking again. Next week he will hand walk, and then he is FREE to roam the fields. We are still guarded in our expectations, and will be taking his recovery carefully, but if he stays sound, we will be competing at the 2020 Makeover! He has a wonderful team supporting him (big thanks to Dr. Anna Dunlap who does chiropractic work and laser therapy on all the boys, and racehorse trainer Phil Schoenthal for consulting on a fitness plan for Magoo), and we are going to do everything we can to keep him happy and healthy. He will start with some turnout, and then we will start ponying him so he can jog and build muscle before we start to ride. Slow and steady (hopefully) gets us to the Makeover!

Methuselah at NTWO (Courtesy Erin O'Keefe)

Is your head spinning yet? Have you lost track of which horse is rehabbing from which injury, with which surgeon? The last part of my update is a little easier to follow, and is the total silver lining good news. Officially, both Magoo and Phantom are still entered in the Makeover. I know it is unlikely that both will make it, so I am continuing to work with NTWO (National Thoroughbred Welfare Organization) to bring along a foster horse. Best case scenario, both horses do the Makeover and an NTWO horse got some extra training — everybody wins.

There are several horses at NTWO that made my (rather odd) short list. Several of them have already been adopted, which helps narrow down my list even more! My current leading contender for the Makeover is the one eyed wonder, Methuselah. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a 17 hand plain bay from NTWO, after all that describes my first OTTB. Maybe all my cheering for Finnick the Fierce on the Derby trail has me feeling the love for the one-eyed oddballs. But I’m having fun with this guy. 

Methuselah has a sweet personality, and learns new things quickly. We have worked on lunging and ground manners, as well as trotting over poles. Though he was initially hesitant to step over the poles, he figured it out very quickly and never looked back. Our lunging progress has been an interesting journey, and has led to me needing to be more creative as a trainer. When his eye is on the inside of the circle, he is able to perceive direction normally. Despite not being able to see what is to the outside, he does not spook, and maintains focus. Upon switching directions, he can no longer see me, and all visual cues are useless. We are working on verbal cues to help with this, and he has been doing well in hand. Methuselah is a personable, goofy horse; it has been fun to learn his personality while helping him navigate his new life as a riding horse.

In addition to his one eye, Methuselah has some osselets in his front fetlocks. Osselets are bony calluses that can form due to extensive racing. They can be purely cosmetic, or limiting to their future careers. In Methuselah’s case, they will prevent him from having a high level jumping career, but he will be able to jump up to three feet. Because of his willing and inquisitive nature, I currently plan to target Competitive Trail with him. As he progresses, I will see if he may have any other preferences, and we will target whatever discipline allows him to shine.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!