Deana Schenkel still remembers her mother’s call one spring afternoon in 2017. Fresh out of the junior ranks, Deana had recently returned to her parents’ Cheshire Ridge Farm near Rochester, New York, after a busy winter season working for show jumper Candice King in Ocala, Florida. Deana had left her 5-year-old jumper prospect, Concetto LX at home while she competed a project horse for three weeks at HITS Saugerties (New York), four hours away. Deana was walking to the ring for her first class when her cell phone buzzed.
“[My mother] called from the truck and told me that ‘Connor’ had tried to jump out of his pasture over the gate,” Deana remembered. “She was on her way to Cornell [with him], and she told me that, worst-case scenario, he might not make it through.”
Deana knew that her mother, Wendi, a former Thoroughbred breeder and exercise rider, was not one to exaggerate. Wendi had gone out to collect a rambunctious Connor from his pasture when he galloped toward the gate. Instead of slowing or turning, the young horse jumped with barely a balance check to prepare. Though he cleared the gate, his speed combined with sloping ground on the landing side caused Connor to stumble and fall. In the process, his hind leg sliced open the back of his left fore, exposing vital internal structures and leaving a several-inch-long inverted “U” shaped flap of skin hanging to the ground. Their longtime veterinarian, Dr. Erica Hutten, DVM, quickly arrived to assess the wound. Due to its severity, she referred Connor to the veterinary hospital at Cornell, an hour and a half away.
“[Hutten] could see the superficial digital flexor tendon, and she was very concerned,” Deana said. “She was scared the tendon sheath was involved. She said it was either going to be a catastrophic, life-ending injury, or something that was going to take a long time to heal, and if we could treat it right, survivable. But we weren’t quite sure because of the major structures involved.”
Deana struggled to wrap her head around the news. She hoped Connor (Phin-Phin—Oluxiapina, Lux Z) would be one to help make her name as a professional.
With her family’s assistance, Deana imported the chestnut Dutch Warmblood barely a year earlier. Bred by De Radstake Stud in the Netherlands, he was on the smaller side and a little quirky—two variables that brought the talented prospect into her price range.
“It was going to be a lot for me to get a passport and fly over there and try him, so we took a chance and just bought him,” she said.
Though she was only 17, Deana was no stranger to taking chances.
At 13, she took one of her family’s off-track Thoroughbreds to a clinic with Olympian Michael Page in Mendon, New York. Though she was eventing, Page suggested that she become a working student and study equitation, with an eye to the jumper ring. Deana took Page’s advice to heart.
“I wasn’t a kid who had the budget to go out and have a string of horses and come down to Wellington, [Florida,]” said Deana, who grew up riding the family’s OTTBs, participating in 4-H and caring for as many as 30 broodmares and foals on her family’s farm. “But I took working student positions and worked at a bunch of different places. Michael was very generous and gave me a really nice equitation horse to ride as a kid.”
After her freshman year of high school, Deana enrolled in online classes so she could travel more easily. She spent a season working for Redfield Farm and Emil Spadone in Califon, New Jersey, then worked at Silver Springs Farm in Millbrook, New York. She participated in a USHJA Emerging Athletes Program and met Nancy Snyder, barn manager for Olympian Peter Wylde. Schneider introduced Deana to show jumper Schuyler Riley, who hired Deana to groom for her in Europe. Though working as an FEI groom abroad was an amazing opportunity, Deana realized she was at a crossroads.
“I decided if I want to do this, I wanted a horse I could show against these people I’m grooming for,” Deana said. “My budget wasn’t even going to be able to allow me to get something older that had done it. I knew I would need to get a young horse and go from there and see what happens.”
Connor arrived as a green-broke 4-year-old. Deana restarted him with her sister Corryn’s help. The “spicy” youngster had a mind of his own; he promptly bucked Deana off during their first ride. Undeterred, Deana built a relationship with Connor, and after their winter in Ocala, Deana hoped to qualify him for the 5-year-old division at Young Jumper Championships in 2017.
But with Connor’s injury, Deana worried that she might never get the chance to see all the pieces come together.
At Cornell, veterinarians did fluid taps and ultrasounds which revealed that Connor had avoided slicing the superficial digital flexor tendon by mere millimeters. The high risk of infection became their primary concern.
Dr. Normand Ducharme, DMV, MSc., and Dr. Jackie Hill, DVM, DACVS-LA, surgically reattached the skin flap on the back of Connor’s leg. The flap extended from both sides of his fetlock to almost halfway up the cannon bone. Surgeons hoped the flap would protect the wound from infection, though the size of the wound was cause for concern.
“There would be so much tension on the leg when it was sutured, if the skin died or opened up, or there was any problem in there, it could be the end of him,” Deana said. “The other problem was if scar tissue encroached on the tendon sheath or flexor tendon, he wouldn’t be sound because he wouldn’t be able to flex the leg properly.”
Post-surgery, Connor wore a compression wrap extending from above his knee to the bottom of his hoof, which helped to minimize movement and protect the wound. He spent a week at Cornell so veterinary students could keep close watch on him.
“We needed him to keep his leg straight and not bend it too much,” Deana said. “You had to be really careful in his stall, because we didn’t want him to get loose or do anything dumb.”
Once home, he spent the next two months recovering in a former stallion stall. Deana, who was committed to work for King for the summer Saugerties circuit, traveled back and forth while Wendi managed the youngster day to day.
“The first two months were just making sure things stayed together,” Deana said. “After two weeks the stitches came out, but it was such a big wound that there was still a risk of it reopening. The first month he was in the cast, to keep it all together, wrapped and closed. The second month was precautionary.”
No one knew if Connor was sound—the nature of the injury precluded an assessment. Shortly after veterinarians cleared Connor to resume small paddock turnout under light sedation, Deana slowly re-introduced walking under saddle, then trotting. Connor never took an off step. She continued to work with him under saddle into the fall, but when it was time for the 2018 winter circuit in Wellington, she opted to leave Connor behind.
“He had lost most of his 5-year-old year; he was a little green to start with, and he wasn’t ready to horse show,” she said. “Rather than putting him through the stress of going to Florida, I left him home. When I came back in May 2018, I started to get him fit and ready to start showing.”
Connor made his North American show debut later that year in the 1.0-meter classes. Deana admits she struggled with her own ambition.
“When you are 19, 20 years old, you really want to get going,” she said. “He was my only show horse. Being a young professional, it was an eye-opening opportunity and taught me a lot. I had these goals in mind for him. … Being a young person, you have these ideas, and maybe you could think of rushing them.
“In his 5-year-old year, I had to step back and say, ‘I have to be happy he is tack walking and trotting and riding sound. We are not going to jump the 6-year-olds, and I’m going to be OK with that’,” Deana continued. “And I’m going to be OK with doing a meter, and he might go in and spook and take rails. At least he is jumping—because before, I didn’t think that was going to happen.”
Connor now has successfully competed through the 1.35-meter level, and Deana, 24, bases in Wellington year-round. His left fore bears a nearly 8-inch-long scar, but it has no impact on his performance in the ring.
“Now, he is phenomenal,” she said. “My goal was to go out and jump in these top classes, and he is the first horse I’ve been able to do that with. Being down here in Wellington, you walk into a 1.35-meter class, and [one] week it was Jessica Springsteen, Tiffany Foster and Erynn Ballard who squished me in the list for the order of go. For me, who started as a 4-H kid, that’s really something, and it is such a great opportunity.”
Deana has enjoyed developing Connor so much that her business now focuses on starting young horses.
“There is something so rewarding about the young ones—even if you go in and have three rails, just getting through the timers, and knowing where they’ve come from, is what I really enjoy doing,” she said. “Over the summer, I worked for Double H Farm and Quentin Judge, and it’s really something when people like Quentin say, ‘I really like your horse—he’s so rideable.’ And to know I have done that myself. Connor is a really cool horse to me.
“He was purchased to help me grow into a professional career, and he did just that,” Deana continued. “He taught me to be patient and take your time—and that we don’t always get to follow a plan with horses. Sometimes, they just have an idea of their own.”
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 email@example.com with their story.