Emma Fletcher was sitting at the table at her aunt’s house for Thanksgiving dinner last year when she received a phone call from the barn manager at her family’s Grazing Fields Farm. Her equitation horse Conspicuous was colicking.
Worried, Fletcher, 17, drove home and called out a veterinarian. They scoped his stomach but didn’t find anything too concerning, so the veterinarian gave “Conan” medication to keep him comfortable and suggested a wait-and-see approach. But the closest veterinary hospital was an hour and a half away from their farm in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, and Fletcher worried about the distance. So they shipped Conan to Tufts University in North Grafton, Massachusetts.
“It’s worth saying that that was a total precaution on my behalf,” said Fletcher. “The vet thought he was going to be fine to stay there. There was really no reason that he should’ve gone up, but I felt kind of weird about it.”
Her feeling proved prophetic. Within an hour of arriving at Tufts, Conan’s organs were failing. He’d developed endotoxemia, which occurs when the toxin lipopolysaccharide—a molecule that exists inside naturally occurring bacteria in the horse’s gut—is introduced to the bloodstream. Endotoxemia often develops as secondary condition to another illness. In Conan’s case, the team at Tufts believed it was related to his treatment for a tick-borne disease called Ehrlichia.
“We think the Ehrlichia medication contributed to the symptoms progressing so quickly,” said Fletcher. “The doctors really didn’t think he was going to make it through the night, so they told us to keep our phones on.”
Conan stayed in isolation for about a week due to his high fever, and then his condition deteriorated again. The endotoxemia led to ileus—a lack of intestinal motility—and he experienced significant gastric reflux. His stomach had to be pumped every two hours, and he received glucose via a saline IV since he couldn’t eat normally.
“[The veterinarians] didn’t know if he would survive the situation,” Fletcher said. “It really wasn’t a matter of what they could do for him; it was just hoping that he would pull through. At the time he recovered from the organ [failure], there was a chance his small intestine had so much irreversible damage that they were going to have to put him down. It was a matter of waiting and seeing. The doctors did say that when his fever was so high and his organs were failing that the only reason he really lived was because he wanted to—it was that serious for him.”
After three weeks at the clinic, Conan recovered enough to go home, but his return to sport was still very much in question. After a few weeks Mark Holman, DVM, of Boston Equine Associates, cleared Conan to begin tack walking, and a few weeks after that he went back to light work.
“We had to be really careful,” said Fletcher. “Since he had sustained so much organ damage we couldn’t get his blood pumping too much or anything because his body wouldn’t be able to handle it. So it was a matter of being seriously cautious when we were working him. And then a few weeks later Mark said he was OK to jump, and that was a big deal.”
Conan spent the winter season incrementally building his fitness, but it was slow going, as the illness damaged his ability to self-regulate his body temperature.
“For a while, we couldn’t feed him hay, because we weren’t sure if he could handle it, and his GI tract was really messed up,” said Fletcher. “And the amount of fiber he had we had to be really careful with. When you were riding him you had to be super careful about his respiration and his heart rate until he slowly got fit enough to be able to recover himself. He just couldn’t do anything super stressful. Especially in the wintertime, it was super important to keep him warm.”
Conan returned to the show ring in late April, and a month later Fletcher attended her first Devon Horse Show (Pennsylvania), where she rode him to fourth place in a section of the ASPCA Maclay and seventh in a section of the WIHS Equitation Classic Jumper Phase.
“If you looked at him now you would never know a thing,” said Fletcher. “He went from being literally on his deathbed to progressing to being able to be the show horse he was and better.”
Fletcher got Conan six years ago after Amanda Flint imported him from Argentina, and the now-11-year-old Argentine gelding of unrecorded breeding didn’t immediately impress.
“When we got him he was skinny; he was awkward; he was clumsy,” said Fletcher. “He was a far cry from what he is now, but it was really all my family could afford, so we bought him. It was my first horse that I ever owned myself, and I was really green. He was really green.
“I think it took about three years for us to successfully compete in the equitation,” she continued. “I remember my first regionals we had eight rails. He was very clumsy. He took a while to grow into himself, but then we started to succeed more and more, and he became the horse that he is today.”
Under the guidance of her mother, Kathy Fletcher, and equitation trainer Linda Langmeier, Emma transformed the gelding. Those hours building a relationship kept Emma fighting for him when the situation was dire.
“Because I have invested so much in Conan, he’s kind of just been my rock,” she said. “I know, for a lot of trainers’ kids, horses come in and out. You can’t really get attached to a single one, and while I was riding other horses Conan was my horse. He was my type; he was like part of our family.
“I struggled a lot with thinking about continuing riding [when he got sick],” she said. “I didn’t get seriously into riding until I was 9 or 10 or 11, somewhere around that age, when I got my first pony, because my parents wanted me to be able to have options, and if I were to ride it would be for the love of the horse and riding itself versus the competition. For that reason I didn’t really compete seriously until I was 12 or 13. But I think because my riding is based on such an emotional connection with my horses that it was really hard for me to picture riding being the same without him. So I struggled a lot during that, but being able to see him through that gave me a lot of home, and if anything I was just continuing for Conan.”
Emma rode another horse, Bournedale, in most of the equitation finals, but she knew she wanted to be sitting on Conan for her last equitation class at the ASPCA Maclay Final at the National Horse Show (Kentucky).
“I wanted to finish up my last year with a horse that I just adore,” she said. “I also think the Maclay Finals is very symbolic of horsemanship, and I think that reflects best with Conan.”
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.