What seemed like a minor pasture injury turned out to be much more for retired race horse Lucian, kicking off a series of problems that left the then 3-year-old fighting for his life in intensive care at Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center. Owners Barbie and Peter Horneffer had only owned the gelding for about a month when he came in from the field at their farm in Butler, Maryland, one day in October 2021 with a cut on his left hind pastern. The cut didn’t look too serious, but Barbie asked her veterinarian to check it to be safe.
Liz Klebe, DVM, discovered “Luke” had lacerated his digital flexor tendon sheath and recommended sending him to nearby Manor Equine Hospital, in Monkton, Maryland, for treatment.
The horse needed to spend five days at the hospital receiving antibiotics and wound care. Barbie had purchased Luke from his racing connections as a potential trail riding and foxhunting partner for Peter. She was told he was level-headed and found that to be true when she tried him in the ring and cross-country. He even stood quietly when a pack of foxhounds rushed out of a nearby trailer when she went to see him.
“The whole family quickly came to love his easy and sweet personality,” she said. “My husband especially wanted just that demeanor and had grown very fond of him in the short time we’d had him.”
A few days after Luke returned home from the hospital, Barbie could tell he still wasn’t right.
“He got too mellow, even for Luke, and seemed a bit lethargic,” she said. “Then diarrhea started. I took his temperature and was horrified when the thermometer was reading 104 F.”
His temperature kept rising despite Banamine and a tub of ice for his front feet. Klebe, their veterinarian, recommended loading him on a trailer immediately to get him to Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center, a few hours away. He made the trip to the Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, veterinary hospital, where he was admitted to the intensive care unit around midnight.
The following morning, Elizabeth Nelson, BVSc, reported Luke was improving after starting treatment for antibiotic-induced colitis—inflammation of the colon due to overgrowth of Clostridium difficile bacteria, often brought on in horses and humans by hospitalization or a course of antibiotic treatment that disrupts the bacterial balance in the gut. C. diff is the most common cause of hospital-acquired infectious diarrhea in humans. Reported mortality rates of horses with C. diff-associated colitis have been as high as 42% in some studies. It is typically treated with intravenous fluids and antibiotics, including metronidazole.
“For the next several mornings I got encouraging news of progress as well as reports of what the treatment was costing,” Barbie said, adding that Nelson told her Luke had quickly become a favorite with the staff because of his sweet, gentle nature. “Every day we were asked if we wanted to continue treatment. We said yes as we were encouraged by his improvement.”
But just as Luke was recovering from colitis, he began to show symptoms of an equally life-threatening condition: laminitis in both front feet. His condition worsened for several days, but Barbie stayed hopeful that he would make a turnaround and decided to continue treatment, and he responded well.
“Luke hadn’t shown us much in the way of talent or abilities, but he had, and still has, an exceptionally calm manner,” she said. “He was just too well behaved not to try to save him.”
After an eight-day stay at New Bolton, Luke was released to go home and start his recovery, which went smoothly from there. Soon after bringing Luke back into work in March 2022, Barbie took him to a hunt meet where he behaved like a seasoned field hunter.
The Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover wasn’t originally part of the plan for Luke. In fact, his Makeover trainer, Jazz Napravnik, a professional based in Monkton, Maryland, said she didn’t like him the first time she rode him.
Napravnik has been working with the Horneffers since 2019, when she sold Barbie a different retired race horse, Legend’s Hope. Barbie and Napravnik aimed “Chester” at the Thoroughbred Makeover in 2020 and stuck to that plan even when COVID-19 delayed the 2020 Makeover to 2021. There Chester won the eventing discipline and took home the People’s Choice award, and he now events at the preliminary level with Napravnik and foxhunts with Barbie.
Napravnik did not, however, sense the same greatness in Luke when she first sat on him after the Horneffers got him back in work in spring 2022.
“He was completely unresponsive to anything I did on his back,” she recalled. “He just tootled along minding his own business.”
Despite her first impressions, she kept working with Luke and found him to be a adept student. “It wasn’t too long before he realized that all my movements up on his back actually were supposed to mean something, and he was supposed to have some sort of response,” she said. “Once he figured that out, he started coming along quite quickly.”
But even after a few months of working with the gelding, Napravnik still didn’t expect to take him to the Makeover. He wasn’t jumping yet, and she didn’t think he would shine in dressage. Then when he did start jumping, it wasn’t inspiring.
“He might have fallen over the first couple crossrails, but then realized there was something he had to do with his feet,” Napravnik said.
Around June, Luke started going to local horse shows and jumping 2′ courses just for exposure.
“He still didn’t really steer and was a little like riding a wet noodle, but he was kind and game, and he was trying,” Napravnik said.
When Napravnik watched videos of Luke’s courses, however, she recognized his jumping ability. As Luke started to understand his job, Napravnik told Barbie they could aim him at the field hunter and show jumping divisions, where jumps would be 2’6” max.
When they arrived at the Kentucky Horse Park for the Makeover, Luke settled in immediately. “You could have told me he was a 15-year-old show hunter who had traveled the A circuit his entire life,” Napravnik said.
Although he was up against stiff competition in the field hunter division—“Barbie and I looked around, and we were like, ‘Whoa, every single one of these horses could win this division,’ ” Napravnik said—Luke laid down a solid flat course and individual test and dealt with commotion between rounds very calmly as other horses spooked.
He excelled during the mock hunt. “He was foot perfect,” Napravnik said. “Stood when he was supposed to stand, went when he was supposed to go, jumped brilliantly.”
Luke’s crowning moment came when another horse spooked and its rider fell off. “We just happened to be there, so Luke and I cantered up and caught the horse on the fly,” Napravnik said. “I don’t know if we got bonus points for that or not.”
Luke and Napravnik won the preliminary competition by 21 points. “I thought it was extraordinary given the tough, tough competition,” Napravnik said. During the field hunter finale, he stopped at the first fence but handled the rest of his round professionally enough that he still finished second. He also finished eighth in the show jumping discipline.
Since the Makeover, Luke has been back with the Horneffers full time. Peter has been riding him cross-country while Barbie has taken him to hunter trials and foxhunting.
“Since Luke is still young and green, we will take it easy on him,” Barbie said. “He’ll hunt briefly when he goes and will stay in the second field while we continue schooling over jumps and on the flat.”
“I’m so grateful to the Horneffers that we’ve partnered up and they’ve honored me by allowing me to train their horses for them,” Napravnik said. “He’s going to have a wonderful, wonderful life. A life of ease, really, doing something he really enjoys.”
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.