Kady Abrahamson couldn’t believe her luck when her longtime mentor, New Zealand Olympian Sharn Wordley, suggested she try Rye Val De Mai. An amateur rider, Abrahamson, 22, had competed in the grand prix ring, but she was excited to ride the stallion, who had extensive mileage in Europe and Stateside, where he earned a reputation for blistering fast jump-offs with Wordley.
Their partnership got off to a promising start when Abrahamson and “Rye” won the $10,000 open prix in their second show together at the Ocala Holiday Classic (Florida) in December of 2019.
But just a few weeks after that initial victory, Rye underwent emergency surgery to remove his right eye, and Abrahamson feared her new horse’s jumping career was over.
Tiny But Mighty
In 2016, Abrahamson’s high school graduation present had been a trip to compete in Europe, and there she watched the 15.3-hand powerhouse compete under Belgian rider Nadège Janssen.
“I remember at one show sitting in the VIP tent, and there was a triple combination coming straight at us,” said Abrahamson. “You couldn’t even see Rye when he was in between the jumps; then you’d just see him pop up. He has such a big heart. He’ll jump anything.”
While in Europe, Rye experienced his first bout of uveitis in his right eye. Uveitis is an autoimmune disorder characterized by chronic internal eye inflammation. For many horses, an initial acute episode is then followed by a period of remission, with occasional relapses over time. But some horses experience subclinical symptoms, without any obvious external evidence of a problem, until the damage becomes too severe to correct. The chronic inflammation that comes with equine recurrent uveitis causes secondary damage to the structures of the eye, resulting in glaucoma, cataracts, retinal degeneration and more. Management can mitigate episodes, but ultimately the course of the disease’s final stages is difficult to alter. According to “The Merck Veterinary Manual,” ERU is the leading cause of blindness in horses.
Later in 2016, Wordley imported Rye and worked with Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital near his base in Lexington, Kentucky, to keep his uveitis in check. Rye wore a black mask anytime he wasn’t in the show ring to protect his eye from the sun. When Abrahamson saw the bay Selle Français (Helios De La Coer II—Jonquille D’Elle, Type D’Elle) competing with Wordley, she recognized the horse instantly.
“He is super fast, super careful, and he wants to win,” said Abrahamson. “He is ready to go anytime he goes in the ring.”
Abrahamson was in Ocala when she first sat on Rye. “I tried him, fell in love immediately, and went to take him back to Sharn’s barn. He was like, ‘Oh no, he’s yours now,’ ” said Abrahamson. “I rode him to my farm, which was next door, and said to my grooms, ‘We have a new horse.’ It all happened very fast.
“I had never sat on a horse with a jump like that,” Abrahamson continued. “You can feel his heart bursting anytime, at any height.”
After winning with Rye in December, Abrahamson eagerly anticipated jumping in their first grand prix at the Florida Horse Park Winter Classic in January.
Rye jumped well in a warm-up class, but the morning of the grand prix, barn manager Matt Wildung noticed some cloudiness in the stallion’s right eye. Jorge Gomez, MVZ, DACVS, treated Rye. His eye appeared mildly irritated, but staining revealed no evidence of a scratch or other damage. Gomez administered eye drops and ointment, and the team agreed to monitor it closely. As the day went on, his eye seemed to improve, and Rye went to the warm-up ring wearing his mask. He seemed normal, but when Abrahamson took the mask off, his eye was completely opaque.
“It was as blue as the sky,” said Abrahamson. “I waved my hand in front of it, and he didn’t react. He couldn’t see out of it. I just started crying. I loved him, and now he couldn’t see out of his eye. I didn’t know what was going to happen to him.”
The staff at Peterson & Smith Equine Hospital in Ocala, Florida, spent nearly two weeks trying to save Rye’s right eye. The internal pressure was at 60 mm HG; normal pressure is in the teens. In addition, fluid had built up behind the eye, contributing to the pressure and obscuring the view of other structures. Veterinarians told Abrahamson her horse was likely in tremendous pain.
“They said his migraine must have been the worst,” said Abrahamson. “It just shows his heart. He had been showing and acting normal. He is super tough.”
The first step in assessing his eye was reducing the internal pressure, but nothing they tried worked. After a week, Peterson & Smith called on retired veterinarian Dennis Brooks, DVM, Ph.D. A world-renowned equine ophthalmologist, Brooks drained fluid from the back of the eye until he could perform an ultrasound of internal structures. The retina was completely detached, and the swelling was extensive. Rye would never see from that eye again, and keeping it would only cause him further pain.
In a twist of fate, Abrahamson’s father, Dr. Rick Abrahamson, is a top human ophthalmologist in Cincinnati, Ohio, and after Rye had been in the hospital for 10 days, Rick and Brooks consulted over the best course of action.
“Dr. Brooks tried so hard to save [Rye’s] eye,” said Kady. “But finally he said, ‘I think it’s time.’ ”
Rye underwent a standing enucleation; a surgeon removed the entire globe of his eyeball and sutured the eyelids shut. He left the hospital a few days later with his head wrapped in gauze, but once the initial surgical pain wore off, Kady immediately noticed a change in the 15-year-old horse’s demeanor.
“He was like a new man,” said Kady with a laugh. “It was like he flipped a switch and was like, ‘I have so much energy now. I know I’m a stallion now! Look at me go; look at my new face.’ It has been a blessing in disguise. We will never have to worry about it ever again.”
But what about Rye’s future as a show jumper? His left eye was still healthy, but Kady’s father had reservations about her riding a one-eyed horse.
“Losing an eye for a person is hard,” said Kady. “A horse losing their eye is not as devastating as a human. You just have to give them time.”
Rye returned to light flatwork a few weeks post-surgery. Under saddle, he was obedient but kept shaking his head. Veterinarians suggested a modified racing mask that covered the right eye socket with a protective bulb, and that seemed to solve the issue.
When the day came to jump Rye again, his first few efforts felt more like a 3-year-old just starting out than those of an experienced grand prix horse.
“Sharn said, ‘Just keep going. He’ll get used to it. He’s smart; he’ll figure it out,’ ” said Kady. “We did a 2’ course, and every jump was better and better until it felt normal again.”
In hindsight, veterinarians believe Rye had been experiencing subclinical uveitis symptoms since his arrival in the U.S.
“For the pressure to build in the eye high enough to cause the retina to detach, it had to be building for a while,” said Kady. “He likely had blurred vision in one eye, and we didn’t even know. I had tried him, showed him during that time—it must have been so hard to jump.”
By late February 2020, Kady and Rye were back in the show ring, competing in classes at the Ocala Tournament. Then COVID-19 suspended the winter season. Kady had noticed Rye had trouble turning right to a fence, especially bending lines and rollbacks. After the pair crashed through a fence set off a right turn, Kady knew she needed to find a better solution.
“He can’t see where he’s going until he’s about two strides out,” said Kady. “You have to help him lock onto the jump. I taught him at home over poles that when we were two steps out, I’d give him a little boot with my left leg. It was just repetition, repetition, repetition. Ever since I started doing that, we’ve had no issues. I have never had such a bond with a horse, for him to pick up on our own language so he knows where he’s going.”
“You Are His Eyes”
Over the summer, Kady and Rye were waiting to contest a jump-off at the Tryon Charity Horse Show (North Carolina); it was their first time back in the ring since winter and only a few months since surgery, and the course included a right-hand rollback to a combination with an oxer as the first element. She admitted to a friend that she was nervous.
“She just says to me, ‘You are his eyes; be his eyes,’ ” recalled Kady. “I really took that to heart. I am his eyes. I was with him through the hardest of times, and we had the time between losing his eye and during COVID to get to know each other and really grasp the jumping with one eye thing. We bonded so much at home.”
This summer, Kady shared Rye with junior rider Remi Fry.
“They fell in love with each other, and Rye thought it was the greatest thing ever,” said Kady. “I would go watch him with tears in my eyes. He is like my child, my prized possession, jumping around with this kid in the meters. I have never had so much fun in my life.”
Kady graduated from college with a degree in sports business and a minor in marketing. She’s currently working in marketing for EnviroEquine & Pet, as well as helping her parents run their race horse business. She hopes to continue using Rye sparingly in classes that suit him best. While he still turns quickly, she tries to go a little slower and wider on the right turns to give him time to lock on to his jump. In addition, she wants to breed Rye to one of her family’s jumper-line mares next year. She hopes his story of recovery can offer some hope to other owners dealing with uveitis.
“Once they have it, it doesn’t go away,” said Kady. “You can do everything you can to help the horse, but if it’s going to take the eye, it’s going to take the eye. Every horse is different, and you have to give them time to adjust. Some horses get used to it in a day; others take years. But Rye is such a good boy. He is thriving now. Sharn calls him ‘The Pirate.’ But I don’t care what he looks like, as long as he’s happy.”
Do you know a horse or rider who returned to the competition ring after what should have been a life-threatening or career-ending injury or illness? Email Kimberly at firstname.lastname@example.org with their story.