Nearly a year to the day after a mysterious illness threatened Chilly’s life, the Thoroughbred competed in his first intermediate at the Virginia Horse Trials with rider Lillian Heard. His illness and recovery baffled a group of world-class veterinarians, and his return to competition feels nothing short of miraculous to those that care for him.
Chilly (Jockey Club name Ladron, Zanjero—Tax Rob), 9, an off-the-track Thoroughbred gelding owned by equine veterinarian Steve Berkowitz, has been in Heard’s life since 2017. She first met the gelding when she was teaching a clinic in Oklahoma.
“I told the girl, ‘That’s a nice Thoroughbred. If you ever want to sell him, let me know,’ ” she said. Berkowitz, 65, of Unionville, Pennsylvania, was getting back into riding after several decades away and had asked her to be on the lookout for just such a horse.
When Berkowitz first saw Chilly, then 5, at Heard’s barn in nearby Cochranville, Pennsylvania, he seemed quiet and looked like he had potential.
It turned out that Chilly wasn’t so chill after all.
“He would buck after jumps; he would bolt and run away, and I got scared,” Berkowitz said. “I had a couple of good professionals work with me, and we couldn’t fix it, so we decided he wasn’t the right horse for me.”
The plan was to have Heard sell the horse, but after riding him for a week, she decided to buy Chilly back herself.
“It was springtime, and I always stress before the Kentucky Three-Day Event, and I shop,” she said. “Normally, a lot of Amazon boxes come, but this time I bought a horse!”
Berkowitz immediately regretted selling Chilly, and bought him back a few days later, hiring Heard to be his rider. She was fine with that plan.
“Normally I have to ask people to co-own horses with me, so I was like, ‘Heck yeah!’ when he asked to give me the money back,” Heard said. “Now I teach him on his (new) horse, too, and we have a good relationship.”
Berkowitz, realizing his own competitive limits, saw owning an upper-level event horse as his opportunity to stay involved in the sport in a more personal way than just working as a veterinarian.
“As an owner, I get to meet all the eventers, who are such nice people, and really be part of it from the inside,” he said.
An Unexplained Illness
With Heard in the irons, Chilly moved from novice up to prelim in a couple of months’ time, and everyone was excited about his future. But one day in May 2020, he stumbled and fell while they were schooling cross-country. He could barely get back to the barn.
Chilly was intensely ill. He spiked a fever of 106 degrees, but nobody could figure out why. The fevers continued popping up for weeks, baffling his owner and every other vet who looked at him.
“We took him to (University of Pennsylvania’s) New Bolton Center and they did every test imaginable,” Berkowitz said. “They even tested him for the COVID virus because they found lung damage in X-rays. He had a number of X-rays of his chest, ultrasounds of his abdomen, his heart, a liver biopsy. They did everything. Lillian went through bottles of Banamine injectables and paste, and he was on several IVs a day. But there was no accurate treatment because there was no diagnosis. At one point, both of his eyes got cloudy because his immune system was so damaged that his body started attacking his eyes.”
The one small relief was that no other horses in Heard’s barn got sick, indicating that whatever was happening, it wasn’t contagious.
“I, for sure, thought he was going to die,” Heard said. “He kept eating, and I think that’s what saved him. I don’t think most people could survive that kind of fever— sometimes it was only as low as 104 because we were controlling it. I thought for sure that he was going to lie down, and that would be the end of it. I’d give him the Banamine, and he’d perk up for a couple hours, but then he’d be sick again. Steve’s wife, Sue, was always so positive; she thought he’d get better the entire time. But I wasn’t so sure.”
New Bolton Center
Chilly became something of a regular at New Bolton Center. They presented him at rounds, trying to figure out what was going on, so all of the employees at the prestigious veterinary school came to know who he was.
“Drs. Amy Johnson and Nikki Scherrer were just wonderful. We’re so lucky in this area to have these guys who are the best in the world; they really, really helped me,” said Steve, who also said he feels fortunate to have so many connections in the veterinary industry. “This horse means so much to me, and Lillian loves him, too, and it means the world to us that he made it through this. They did everything— how often do you hear that New Bolton ran out of tests? The good part was he was never hospitalized, and he never had surgery, so it wasn’t too expensive. He had some medicines, but they weren’t that expensive, mainly it was the Banamine; I should see if they would sponsor him!
“The biggest problem was nobody could come up with a diagnosis,” he continued. “You couldn’t say, ‘We’ll treat him, and in two weeks he’ll get better,’ or ‘This is really bad, and he might not make it.’ We just didn’t know. He’d have a day or two without a fever, or it wasn’t that high, and then it’d be 105 again. Here we go again. He went through bottles and bottles of Banamine, so we were worried about his kidneys and his veins. Lillian was there with him every day, watching him lose weight, his eyes all droopy, and the girls would check on him to take his temp, so it was hard on them, too.”
Heard recalled that Chilly’s temperature would drop at random times, which would lull her and her barn staff into a false sense of security.
“We’d think we were on the right track, and then it would go up to 105 again. That much Banamine is scary; he had two to three doses every day for about six weeks. If he didn’t have a fever one day, we didn’t know whether to give it to him anyway, or check him at 3 a.m. It was horrible. I think it was horrible for Chilly, too, poor thing.”
Then, It Stopped
“Every day was the same, until one day it wasn’t. He just stopped having the fevers,” Heard said.
“We didn’t give him the Banamine, and it hadn’t gone up the next morning,” she recalled. “We kept stressing and checking, and it didn’t go up again. Every couple of weeks, there had been a day it didn’t spike, so we didn’t even tell Steve because I didn’t want to get his hopes up. But then he went a few days without a fever, and that was the end of it.”
Chilly had dropped 200 pounds, so the Berkowitzes brought the horse home for six weeks and turned him out in a big pasture, on good grass, and let him put some weight back on. Gradually, he returned to good health and finally went back to Heard’s barn where he was put back in a fitness program.
“Chilly looked like a 25-year-old pasture horse; it really ate away at him,” Heard said. “We just put him out in a field and let him get fat. He came back like a chunky little pony. There was concern that his lungs would be damaged because he had pneumonia, but so far, he seems completely fine. He’s a naturally fit horse; at the prelims he feels like he could run around twice. He raced a lot and is a Thoroughbred, so he has a good base of fitness. I haven’t ridden too many Thoroughbreds for a while, and I forget that they are tough like that. I think if this happened to a warmblood, it could have affected them more long term.”
Even if Chilly couldn’t have been ridden again, Steve said he’d have been happy to turn him out in the pasture at home and look after him forever. But he is thrilled that his horse has returned to competition and excited about what the future brings. Other horse owners, whether they own one horse or a string of Olympians, have welcomed him to their ranks, he said, and he’s having a lot of fun seeing where all of this takes him.
Back in Action
Chilly had done a couple of preliminary horse trials before he got sick. After recovering, he returned to competition in January with a training-level horse trials. After several more preliminary and two-star outings where he never finished lower than fifth place, Heard was ready to move the horse up to intermediate.
Chilly was supposed to go to Fair Hill (Maryland) in early May, but Heard sprained her ankle when she fell at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event in April. She didn’t want to be at less than 100% for Chilly’s first intermediate, so she rescheduled him for the Virginia Horse Trials in Lexington at the end of May.
Virginia didn’t go as planned: Heard said she rode badly to the 10th fence on cross-country, a straightforward galloping fence, Chilly clipped it with his back end, and she toppled off.
“He was awesome in the dressage,” she said. “He was actually pretty competitive: He had one rail show jumping and felt good on the cross-country that we were able to get around.”
He’s schooled cross-country confidently since then and now is aimed for a second shot at his intermediate debut at the Horse Park of New Jersey, June 19-20.
“He hasn’t had a lot of runs, and while he’s naturally good at it, I’m just going to play it by ear,” Heard said. “He’s pretty awesome; he’s just a laid-back dude. He also has the Thoroughbred engine. He can work for long periods, but he isn’t hot-tempered, and he really wants to please his rider. He can get nervous about something new, but he’s a quick learner. He’s soft; he’s pleasant to ride. When he’s coming back from vacation, he gets a little hot and kicks out after the fences, but that’s about as wild as he gets.”
Heard, who has competed extensively at the upper levels with a variety of horses, hopes Chilly will be one of her next five-star horses.
“He doesn’t have that many miles on him, and I just have to be careful not to rush him,” she said. “As long as he stays sound and continues to show confidence and promise, he has all the parts to be a top horse. I’m not just riding him because I happen to have him in the barn; he’s the kind of horse that I couldn’t just go out and find another, that’s how special I think he is.”
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.