When Donegal V stepped into the Grand Prix ring Feb. 9 during Week 5 of the Adequan Global Dressage Festival, in Wellington, Florida, it was a big moment in the 15-year-old gelding’s career. It’d been nearly three years since the Dutch Warmblood (Johnson TN—Remy, Gribaldi) had last performed a test, and for a long time, owners Jaimey and Tina Irwin weren’t sure he’d survive—much less return to the ring—after an adverse reaction to stem-cell treatment threatened his life and soundness.
“He’s had a rough go over the years,” Jaimey said. “He’s seemed to be like if anything could go wrong, it would go wrong with him. But he’s a great horse, and he’s done a lot.”
The Irwins found Donegal in the Netherlands as a 3-year-old and put together a syndicate, the Team Irwin Supporters Group, to support the gelding’s development with an eye towards Olympics, World Cup Finals and World Championships. Despite some setbacks and injuries along the way, Jaimey moved the gelding up to Grand Prix in 2018.
But his progress came to a halt in 2020. Two weeks after the Irwins returned to Canada due to COVID-19, Donegal had a gastrosplenic colic that required surgery. Shortly after he returned to work following that ordeal, he suffered a soft tissue injury to his front leg. His veterinary team suggested injecting umbilical cord blood stem cells into the median artery of the leg to treat it.
“The idea was the stem cells were to go where the inflammation was, and that is why we chose to do it,” Jaimey said. “Instead of sort of pinpointing one area, it was to go wherever the inflammation was.”
However, the day after the procedure, the gelding’s leg blew up with swelling from elbow to foot. While his team was able to bring down most of the swelling, some remained near the hoof, and he was too painful to walk. His vets were unsure why he had such a reaction to the treatment and were concerned he may have developed thrombosis, which occurs when a blood clot blocks an artery. Ultrasound showed good blood flow in his veins and arteries, but nonetheless, Donegal seemed to have lost circulation to his hoof.
“He couldn’t stand on it; he couldn’t put weight on it,” said Jaimey, adding that the foot was “ice cold” to the touch. “He was lying down all the time until we figured out what was going on and could rectify it.”
An X-ray revealed a possible gas pocket indicating an abscess, but Donegal’s outward symptoms all pointed to a serious circulatory event of some kind: Along with the hoof being cold to touch, rings of purple, blue and red developed near the coronet band. “We basically thought it was going to fall off,” Jaimey recalled.
With Donegal’s future uncertain, the syndicate that owned him dissolved, and the Irwins purchased him for $4.
“We gave everybody in the syndicate a dollar each,” Jaimey said. “We didn’t know if he was going to survive or not, but we had to give him the chance.
“I appreciate their support with Donegal,” he added. “If it was not for their support, I would not have been able to take him to where he is now or even have him.”
They started Donegal on aspirin to help thin the blood, and with that treatment the temperature in his foot began to return to normal, indicating renewed blood flow. However, the circulatory issue left lasting effects. Because founder in the opposite foot was a major concern, they took frequent X-rays to monitor his foot.
“Eventually he started to move around in the stall, and then we would take him out and walk him down the aisle once and back in—that was all he could do,” Tina said. “Then it just progressed very slowly from there to arena and longer and longer and then enough that he could go back outside. He’s very smart because he wasn’t going to do anything to make it worse, let’s put it that way. He was very careful.”
Last winter, when the Irwins traveled to Florida, Donegal stayed in Canada with Tina’s mom to continue healing.
“We bought him a special boot to protect it as much as we could and really tried to make sure that the footing was somewhat decent, but it was really difficult in the winter,” Jaimey said. “We just thought, OK, he needs time; we’ll give him a year off, and if it grows back and he’s sound that would be great. And if he doesn’t, well, we tried and just make him as comfortable as possible. Fortunately, touch wood, he came back. He’s very sound on it, and functioning, and he’s very much enjoying being back to work.”
Donegal returned to work seven months ago, with Jaimey slowly building his fitness. Because the gelding is notoriously quirky, Jaimey entered him in the national Grand Prix at AGDF 5 to see how he would handle being back in the show ring. They scored 70.38% to finish second.
“He was a very good boy,” he said. “He seemed to actually enjoy being out and at the shows and kind of in the center of attention again.”
Donegal has a big personality, but his quirks require careful management.
“He’s very sort of relaxed until he’s not—and when he’s not, he can be walking on the lead shank like he’s going to fall asleep, and the next thing you know he’s gone,” Jaimey said. “There’s no warning, and there’s no chance.
“The other thing is that you can’t approach him on the righthand side, especially if he doesn’t know you,” he continued. “I think something must have happened to him when he was young, because he’s been like that since we had him, and we’ve had him since 3. But even when I’m riding with other horses, and somebody kind of comes at a certain angle on his righthand side, he freaks out. He’s special, and he was the type of horse I felt like I could never fall off, because if I did, he would probably never let me back on again. It would scar him for life.”
Jaimey described Donegal as being akin to an elephant who never forgets. He tries to make the gelding feel safe, which required a creative solution at a show in 2018 when Donegal was feeling particularly explosive. Their groom Penny O’Neill spent several days leading the gelding while Jaimey was on his back before Jaimey felt confident that Donegal could do some light flatwork without exploding. Once he could do a flying change successfully, Jaimey knew the gelding would be fine.
“It was what he needed, and it worked,” he said. “Ideally it wasn’t going to be like that, but you have to do what you have to do to make a good experience. Because he does remember everything, any bad situation would come back to haunt you if you let it happen.”
With a positive return to competition at AGDF, the Irwins are feeling optimistic about Donegal’s future.
“If he continues to progress and do well, that’s great, and I’d still have the goals to do Pan Ams and Olympics and World Cup, and those things depending on how he is and time wise if it works,” Jaimey said.
While it’s been a long journey to get him back in the ring, they feel it was worth the time and money.
“He’s worth it; he’s so talented,” Tina said. “The piaffe/passage—he got two 9s for his piaffe at the last show, and that’s just easy. Jaimey could get on and do it in his sneakers. And he always tries. This horse never says no and is always wanting to do the job. He’s so good that way, that he will always do his job. You can’t ask for more than that. He’s special, but he’s special also in the way he goes. You want to keep going because he’s really worth it.
“Basically he just needs to stay healthy,” she added. “We know he can do it, but he’s had like nine lives. It feels good. It feels positive. He’s in a really good way right now.”
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.