If you watch David Wilbur and Charismo snapping their way around the high performance division today, your eye might be drawn to Charismo’s diamond star, perfectly pricked ears or impressive airtime. The bay hunter stands out for all the right reasons. But back in 2013, just a few years into his career, a devastating injury meant his most likely future would be standing in a field.
David and Maari Wilbur spotted the Dutch Warmblood (Veron—Verianne H) in 2011 just after Emil Spadone imported him as a 4-year-old. For David, the gelding checked all the boxes. He’s tall, standing about 17.2 and therefore a good match for David’s significant height. He comes to the first fence slowly but sharpens up immediately, with naturally expressive knees and a bright eye.
The pair competed in the WCHR Developing Pro Challenge in 2012 at Capital Challenge (Maryland), finishing 11th overall. “He’d been good all year, but that’s when we were starting to realize he was really a special horse,” said David.
The Wilburs kept Charismo’s show schedule light, realizing they had a talent on their hands. Then, in early 2013, David and Charismo were warming up for a class in Ocala, Florida, and David felt the normally surefooted horse falter over a 2’6″ warm-up fence. Wilbur tried again and got the same response. Charismo wasn’t lame, but something wasn’t right.
Their veterinarian diagnosed a bone bruise that needed a few weeks to mend. But Maari soon realized it was more serious than they first believed.
“We weren’t working him, but we’d take him for re-checks every other week,” she remembered. “He was getting worse. By the time we were home in April he walked mostly sound, but when you jogged him, it was pretty significant. It didn’t look like something that was going to heal easily.”
At that point the Wilburs had returned to Connecticut, and their regular veterinarian, Dr. Thor Hyyppa, DVM, did an MRI on Charismo. Diagnostics revealed a lack of cartilage in his right hind fetlock.
“Most of the resident surgeons told us it wasn’t something you could repair because you can’t regenerate cartilage,” said Maari. “They said we could try to fuse it, but we weren’t sure what that would do.”
It’s unclear why Charismo was missing so much cartilage at such a young age, but his prognosis was grim. Most veterinarians the Wilburs spoke to agreed—Charismo could eventually be pasture sound and live a retired life, but jumping and showing were out of the question.
The Wilburs had a field for him in Florida where he could live out his days, but Hyyppa suggested they try some regenerative therapies first. Charismo was insured, so the Wilburs had the budget to take a chance.
“Thor had been our vet a really long time and had been a good friend of ours,” said David. “He knew this was a very talented horse but also that we were willing to try anything to see if it worked.”
“Thor had a smaller practice, and this was interesting to him,” echoed Maari. “We weren’t in a hurry. We didn’t really care if in the end it didn’t work out. There was no pressure, so Thor was willing to take the time to try to fix him. He said it was going to be a lengthy process.”
Hyyppa created a program of stem cell and platelet-rich plasma to inject into the joint, as well as a regional bisphosphonate perfusion to the affected limb to protect the bone while they worked to repair the joint. Either the program would work and get the gelding back to full strength or it wouldn’t; Hyyppa didn’t expect much of an in-between.
Charismo stayed at the clinic for roughly five months, hand-walking and grazing. Nearly a year after the original injury, the Wilburs were able to sit on him again.
“He pretty much did three months of each gait. He walked for three months under tack, for three months he trotted, and for three months he cantered,” remembered Maari. “We wanted to take care of the joint, but the other consideration was building up everything around the joint and getting his whole body healthy again. If he did have anything to compensate for, we didn’t want the rest of his body to be affected.”
The Wilburs held their breath, checking in on his soundness periodically. With Hyyppa’s blessing, they gradually added in small jumps. Charismo went back to Ocala with the rest of their string for the 2015 winter season to begin a slow build-up over small fences.
“I was kind of nervous the whole time,” said Maari. “You want him to come back, but you also don’t want to have come through all of it and then have something silly happen and create a setback.”
In January 2015, David and Charismo were cantering around a ticketed warm-up in Ocala when the normally docile gelding landed and threw a couple of incredible bucks that unseated David. To the couple’s horror, Charismo jumped out of the ring and took a 10-minute galloping tour of the showgrounds. In hindsight, it seemed like a scene out of a movie, where an anthropomorphized horse tries to express his readiness for a new challenge.
“The next day, he came out fine and hasn’t looked back since then. He turns out every day; he longes when he has to,” said Maari.
At the end of 2015, Charismo was back at Capital Challenge to cap off a laidback return season, and since then he’s continued to blossom.
This past year Charismo competed at the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship (Kentucky) and won the high performance stake at the Pennsylvania National in what David calls “the highlight of my riding career, by far.”
“In the horse business, everybody works really hard, and there’s a lot of pressure and stress at times. But if you have something you really look forward to—I really look forward to showing him—that makes it all right,” said David.
Thanks to Hyyppa and Dr. Kate Stephenson, BVMS, Charismo is still going strong. He gets minimal maintenance in the fetlock and keeps a light training schedule between shows. He doesn’t do lessons; he doesn’t double division, and he requires little schooling. Maari ices his legs after every ride, and he gets TheraPlate sessions regularly.
Since Charismo has remained sound, the couple chose not to put him through anesthesia for another MRI, so to this day they’re not sure how much the stem cells were able to repair the injury. Instead, they do routine radiographs to check for signs of arthritis.
Charismo is about to enter his eighth year with the Wilburs, and he’s become one of the family. He’s known around the show circuit for his slow amble up to the show ring (seriously, David says, he has to allow double the normal amount of time to get to warm-up), his interest in chatting with passersby, and a touch of haminess around cameras.
“If he hadn’t had this injury we probably would have ended up selling him,” said David. “He was a fancy young horse, and there were people interested in him, especially after he did well at Capital Challenge.”
Instead, David gets to enjoy his fancy horse and will aim him for some big goals in 2019 including Devon (Pennsylvania), a return to the Derby Championship, and another attempt at an indoor tricolor.
Do you know a horse who returned to the competition ring after what should have been a career-ending injury or illness? Email Kimberly at firstname.lastname@example.org with their story.