Less than six months after importing Foreign Exchange as a 6-year-old from the Czech Republic, Britney Leger took the Selle Français gelding of unrecorded breeding to his first show at the Huntington Beach Summer Classic (California). The pair came home champions in the baby green hunter division after sweeping the division at the August 2017 show.
His future looked bright.
But on Oct. 28 of the same year, when Leger took “Calvin” out of his stall, he fell out into the aisle and down to the ground. At first, she thought the lighting and shadows in the barn might have caused him to falter.
“We were like, ‘OK, that’s super weird.’ He got up, walked a few normal steps, and then just seem super, super uncoordinated,” Leger said. “He, like, was kind of swaying as you would walk. We put him back in his stall, and he just kind of leaned on one of the walls. He couldn’t stand on his own.”
Leger and her mother, trainer Lisa Wall, of Long Beach, California, put in a call to veterinarian Stewart Hales, DVM, who responded immediately. Hales observed the gelding and took his temperature, which was 104.5 degrees.
“He would stare into space a little bit as well, as being uncoordinated,” Hales said. “It was pretty obvious there was something neurological happening.”
Hales drew blood and performed a spinal tap to draw fluid for testing. Leger recalls being terrified looking at the enormous needle and remembering her vet’s warning: “He’s probably not going to make it anyway, Britney.”
Testing the spinal fluid and blood yielded their first clues to Calvin’s diagnosis. A microscopic exam on the spinal fluid found lymphocytic encephalitis, which could be a sign of several diseases, but most importantly told the Hales the horse had inflammation and infection of the brain area and some of the spinal cord region as well.
Hales began a first-line treatment of intravenous DMSO, an anti-inflammatory, and ponazuril (brand name Marquis), which is used as a treatment for equine protozoal myeloencephalitis, along with the antiviral drug valacyclovir. He also added large doses of vitamins B-1 and E.
“We didn’t really know what was going on,” Hales said. “I figured it was kind of a long shot.”
Along with the medication, the veterinarian recalls a lot of prayers being said for the horse whom the family bought in April 2017 as a resale prospect. As a trainer’s daughter, Leger was used to training and showing horses until they were sold. But there was something about Calvin that was different, especially once his future became so uncertain. Leger kept thinking about the video they’d seen that inspired them to buy him.
“He has the most incredible jump,” she said. “It’s a very classic natural hunter style jump, and he’s very rhythmic. The fact that I had an opportunity in my hands to have a really nice hunter was really, really exciting to me.”
The mother and daughter first considered Calvin for a client, but when that didn’t work out, they decided to buy him themselves.
Once he got sick and his neurological symptoms persisted, his uncertain future became even more so after Dr. Hales got lab work back with a definite diagnosis: Calvin had West Nile Virus.
“There is really no definite treatment, and the veterinarians will try everything that we think might help,” Hales said.
Calvin was insured, and Dr. Hales broached the difficult conversation with mother and daughter about his future.
“He told us, ‘You know, he’s never going to jump again, and he’s probably never going to be ridden again, so you guys have a decision to make: Do you want to put him down? Because the chances of him having any semblance of life are very slim,’ ” Leger recalled.
But they weren’t ready to give up on him. “We decided to give him the best fighting chance we could,” Leger said.
Looking back, Hales has a theory about why Calvin recovered. He had received his first West Nile vaccine about three weeks before coming down with the virus, which the veterinarian believes saved him—especially given that the farm was adjacent to an area where mosquitoes had tested positive for West Nile Virus that year.
“For some reason a lot of the horses that arrive from Europe are not vaccinated for West Nile,” Hales said. “I would encourage my veterinary brothers and sisters over there to vaccinate for West Nile if they’re sending horses to America.”
After about seven to 10 days, there were signs of improvement, and within a month, Calvin appeared mostly sound. But his recovery was far from over. It was about a year before all his symptoms went away, said Leger, 28.
When she started him in light work, progress was stop and go—literally—with moments where Calvin would halt abruptly when he saw a shadow, owing to changes to his eyesight from the virus.
“Depth perception that was the biggest thing,” Leger said. “I don’t know what it was that he was seeing, but it was not the same thing [as me], so I flew over his head numerous times in the process of getting him back into regular work.”
Eventually, she introduced ground poles, which were another challenge as they caused Calvin to stop sometimes. The pair spent months walking, then trotting and eventually cantering over poles, during which there were more moments where Leger fell off because of his lingering challenges. The process was discouraging, and she lost her own confidence.
“There were some times when I really just wanted to give up, because it was it didn’t feel like there was a light at the end of the tunnel after that much time,” she said. “I kind of had to deal with some mental hiccups and getting over not trusting him and not getting frustrated with him.”
Things started to change under saddle when Leger decided not to worry about his form, acknowledging that he had issues he had no control over. She realized he needed her to be more confident.
“My mom was like, ‘Look, he was never supposed to jump again; he’s jumping. Let’s see if we can try and beautify this and get that horse that we know is in there back,’ ” Leger said.
Calvin learned to trust that Leger would get him to the right spot to jump. They persisted, and in 2019, she started taking him to small shows again, jumping at 2’3” or 2’6”.
“Looking back on it, it was definitely a few steps forward and a few steps back,” she said. “It wasn’t pretty; we weren’t placing.
“That video we bought him on was everything you want a classic hunter to be, and in my head, I thought, ‘If I can get him back to 50 percent or 75 percent of the horse we bought in the video, I’m happy,’ ” Leger added.
In February 2022, she competed in the 2’9” USHJA hunters at the Desert Circuit IV in Thermal, California, and topped the class of 28 entries.
“He marched around like an absolute soldier,” Leger said.
Making it even more meaningful was the size of the class. “It brought me to tears, and I don’t cry very easy,” she said. “[That] was the moment that I realized he’s recovered, and there’s a very, very bright future ahead of us.”
Looking back, Leger credits Calvin with helping her learn to get past her frustration and persevere.
“You can’t ever get angry; you can’t throw in the towel,” she said. “By nature, I’m not a very patient person. I’m kind of an instant gratification person. This definitely taught me that instant gratification isn’t going to get you anywhere, and the long slow route is sometimes the better way to go.”
She’s hoping to keep showing and enter him in some derbies at smaller shows. “And hopefully, I want to start showing him in a 3’3” performance,” she said. “Getting him into the national hunter derby is definitely a big goal of mine.”
As a trainer’s daughter, Leger often stays home when her mother goes to shows with clients and, as a result, doesn’t show as much. She also understands that horses are the family business and some come and go—but after all they went through with Calvin, her mother made an exception.
“She was like, ‘This horse is not going anywhere. He fits in our program. This is your horse,’ ” Leger recalled. “For me, as a young professional, having my own horse that my mom helps and supports me with is huge, because it’s not easy financially for trainers to have a bunch of their own horses. I’m eternally grateful for her and all of her support with him and encouraging me to never give up with him and being the reason we still have him. He’s my little miracle horse, that’s for sure.”
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.