In September 2020, a free-jumping video of a 3-year old mare caught amateur rider Allison Calderon’s eye as she scrolled through Facebook.
“That was how everyone bought horses during the COVID quarantine: on social media,” Calderon recalled, chuckling. “I saw the video, decided that this mare was really special, and it went from there. We did the vetting, and I bought her sight unseen from Wisconsin.”
When Calderon shared Idyllic’s video with trainer Mandi Powers, it immediately piqued her interest as well.
“For me, it was ‘Ivy’s’ movement and athletic ability; everything was so easy for her,” Powers said. “That raw talent—you can’t teach that. They need to start with that.”
Originally from San Diego, Calderon, 28, has been riding horses since she was 8. As a junior, her focus gravitated toward the jumper ring.
“I went through the ‘I want to go fast and jump big jumps’ streak,” she said, “but I fell off too many times. As I’ve gotten older, I don’t want to do that as much anymore.”
Calderon received a bachelor’s degree in animal science from the University of California, Davis, and her nursing degree from National University in San Diego. She currently works full time as a registered nurse at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, doing three 12-hour day shifts a week.
“Honestly, it’s the best job to have when you ride horses,” she said. “I’m pretty lucky that I can clock out at the end of the day and not have to really think about work until I return for my next shift.”
In May 2019, Calderon began training with Powers and purchased her first horse, an off-the-track Thoroughbred called George, who was a “perfect” 2’6″ hunter. She bought Ivy the following year thinking the mare would be her future adult amateur hunter.
“My plan was never to buy and sell Ivy; I wanted her to be my long-term horse,” Calderon said. “I wanted to work with Mandi and develop Ivy over a period of time.”
In March 2021, Powers noticed that the 16.1-hand Trakehner-Dutch Warmblood cross had very swollen teats. Although the veterinarian said that could occur from exposure to clover, Powers asked Calderon if there was any chance Ivy was pregnant.
“It didn’t seem probable to me because the colt from the old farm was not near Ivy on the property,” Calderon said. “No one had mentioned anything about a pregnancy in the original vetting either.”
A couple of days later, Powers sent Calderon a video of Ivy that showed a small hoof poking her stomach from the inside. They changed her diet and immediately stopped working her to accommodate the pregnancy.
“That’s when Ivy started looking really pregnant, and it was super obvious,” Calderon said. “Ivy looked like she could deliver at any moment.”
With no idea how far along Ivy might be in her surprise pregnancy, Calderon purchased a foaling camera to put in the mare’s stall so she could keep an eye on her from home.
She and Powers were on foal watch for about a month before Ivy went into labor. On May 4, 2021, when Calderon woke up at 5:30 a.m. for work, she looked at the camera and saw that Ivy was down and actively pushing. When she arrived, the foal’s hips were stuck, and Calderon, Powers and the barn owner worked together to pull the filly out. They had the foal out by 6:15 a.m., but she was stillborn.
“After consulting with the vet, what we think happened is that the baby died in utero, and that’s what sent Ivy into labor,” Calderon said. “I know the baby was alive the night before, because I saw her kicking in Ivy’s stomach before I left the barn. We have no idea how far along Ivy was in her pregnancy, but the foal was huge, so she had to have been full-term.”
When the veterinarian arrived to check Ivy, he found a full-thickness vaginal tear and was concerned about infection. He administered antibiotics and ensured Ivy had delivered the entire placenta. Then he recommended taking her to the Tennessee Equine Hospital in Thompson’s Station.
Calderon’s vet suspected Ivy likely had been exposed to fescue, a type of grass found in hay or pastures in many states across the U.S. Fescue exposure can cause many problems in pregnant mares, including thickening of the placenta and dystocia (difficult birthing), both of which presented in Ivy’s case. Most veterinarians recommend removing fescue from a broodmare’s diet 90 days prior to expected delivery.
“From the beginning, I’d told Mandi that a baby would be awesome, but I just wanted Ivy to live through this whole experience and be OK,” Calderon said.
Instead of repairing the vaginal tear, the veterinarians decided to let it heal on its own, which they estimated would take about a month. They gave Ivy IV fluids and antibiotics to ward off any infection. The vets also did several lavages, flushing the uterus and placing antibiotics directly into it to prevent infection.
“They were constantly monitoring the tear and ultrasounding it,” Calderon said. “They were very worried about it abscessing between the organs and the medial muscles of her hind leg.”
After three days at the clinic, Ivy returned home. Two weeks later, another ultrasound revealed an infection in her uterus. For four days, Ivy’s uterus was flushed and given antibiotics.
“We also had to give her strong IV antibiotics and a shot of oxytocin because the bacteria in her uterus was resistant to several of the common antibiotics,” Calderon said.
After two more weeks, the veterinarian took a culture of her uterus, and the infection had returned. By this time, it was June.
“We did the same aggressive multiple day treatment again, and then we decided to do a Caslick’s procedure,” she said. A Caslick’s procedure is when the upper portion of the vulva is sutured closed until the tissue heals together. It’s a procedure used in some broodmares that allows urination but prevents bacteria from entering the reproductive tract. The procedure is considered permanent, but a veterinarian can reverse it if necessary. “We did that and then opted to monitor her for any more signs of infection,” Calderon said.
Once Ivy’s sutures were removed 10 days later, Calderon gave her a month to recover.
“At one point, I decided to let her trot around in the round pen,” Calderon said. “Ivy looked terrible, like her right leg wasn’t even attached to her body. I had my chiropractor come out, and she watched Ivy move.”
The chiropractor suspected Ivy had nerve damage from the vaginal tear, and she recommended starting Ivy on a Vitamin E supplement to help with the healing.
Calderon was beginning to feel helpless.
“Even though I was ecstatic that Ivy survived the infection and was healing well, the whole situation was getting to me a bit,” she said. “Mandi had to talk me off the ledge several times.”
No one could guarantee that Ivy would have the same movement or range of motion that she had prior to foaling, and it was possible she wouldn’t be sound enough for pleasure ring.
“It broke me to have this horse who had this whole bright future ahead of her, and now she looked like she had three legs,” she said. “They told me if Ivy stayed sound and wasn’t in pain, she might be able to jump in the future. But no one knew for certain.”
In addition to the Vitamin E supplement, Ivy received chiropractic adjustments once a week and had several PEMF (pulsed electromagnetic field) treatments.
“Once it was cleared, I hand-walked her over poles in our riding ring so her brain could figure out how to move her right hind leg again,” Calderon said. “Near the end of the summer, we started to work her lightly on the longe line to build back some fitness.”
In September, Ivy was cleared to walk under saddle. “We took it slow; we didn’t think about much else except tack-walking and a little bit of trotting for at least a month,” Calderon explained. “We had to exercise a lot of control over the situation and keep things light for a long time.”
“In the long run, it really paid off to take Ivy’s rehab process slow,” Powers said. “I treated this like how a human athlete would recover: You push and then back off some to allow time for recovery, and you just keep repeating the process, week by week. Ivy has come a long way, more than ever expected.”
By November, Ivy began cantering again and working over poles—a phase of the rehab process made more complicated by how green Ivy was.
“Before we discovered that Ivy was pregnant, she had barely started cantering under saddle,” Calderon explained. “She was so green; she sometimes understood, but she was like noodle-legs. She just did not know very much, so the rehab was way slower than for an educated horse. It was some trying times!”
From start to finish, Ivy’s rehab took about six months. Calderon gives a lot of credit to Powers, who never gave up on Ivy.
“There was a point where Ivy was going through a rebellious period, and I wanted to throw in the towel,” Calderon said. “Mandi refused to give up, and she worked with Ivy as much as she could to correct the problem. Throughout this entire process, Mandi has gone above and beyond. Mandi is my compass in this journey; she knows Ivy so well.”
In May 2022, they took Ivy to her first local horse show at the Silent Run Show Series at The Park at Harlinsdale Farm in Franklin, Tennessee.
“Ivy did exactly what she was supposed to,” Calderon said. “The first day, we just trotted all of the jumps. But when we cantered everything the second day, we were champion in our 2’ division. It was so full-circle for me; I’m planning on making a shadow box with Ivy’s first champion ribbon. It’s a big deal!”
As a trainer, Powers stressed how rewarding it was to watch the two of them compete. “When I saw them show, I could feel the reward of all of the hard work they’ve put into this journey,” she said. “They owned that ring and were so confident at the show. Ivy likes to work, and she wants to work, so we just try to give her the confidence to do her job.”
Looking back, one of the biggest lessons Calderon has learned is to loosen up on her rigid expectations.
“For me, the unknown factor was the most difficult thing about this process,” she said. “It was such a bizarre injury and unusual scenario that no one could really predict what was going to happen next. I’m a Type-A personality, so this was very challenging for me. Some days I just had to accept the fact that we were not achieving what I wanted, like turning left or trotting straight. Sometimes I just had to be OK riding Ivy with no expectations.”
Ivy made her baby green hunter debut this summer in local shows, and Calderon plans to take her to Brownland (Tennessee) in September. She still hopes that Ivy will be her adult amateur or amateur-owner hunter, but Calderon is content with letting Ivy dictate when that will happen.
“Now I’m not on a timeline with her,” Calderon said. “I’m waiting for her to tell me what she can physically do. She looks so much better, and she’s grown so much. Ivy is so confident in herself and her job now; she owns it. We’ve come out better because of the adversity we’ve overcome.”
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.