Around 5:30 a.m. on Monday morning following the 2021 Blue Grass Festival in Lexington, Kentucky, Geoffrey Hesslink received a worrisome call from his groom:
“Something’s wrong with ‘Mark.’ Get here now.”
When he arrived at the Kentucky Horse Park, he found his top hunter, Trademark, standing on three legs, bearing no weight on his left hind. Hesslink and his partner Brendan Williams set up cameras in their horses’ stalls, so they watched the archived footage to determine what had happened.
“Around 1 in the morning, he got stuck—‘cast’ feels like an aggressive word; I wouldn’t say he struggled,” Hesslink said. “He was stuck against wall and tried to get up. He’s a very big horse—17 hands, big and long—and in those small stalls in Kentucky, he was a little smushed. He tried to get up. It doesn’t look dramatic; he slips. He gets himself out of it, and is on all four feet, and then the left hind sorts of gives out. You could tell something was wrong.”
Shadowfax Equestrian LLC’s 11-year-old Hanoverian gelding (Balou Du Rouet—Gentille) remained essentially immobile until he was found at 5:30 a.m. Hesslink’s veterinarian Kristen Darragh, BVM&S, of Miller & Associates in Westchester, New York and Wellington, Florida, was in town and diagnosed Mark with extensive cartilage damage to the medial femoral condyle of the left stifle. He needed surgery, but they were concerned he wouldn’t be able to get on a horse trailer and instead would have to be euthanized.
“I had never really had something like that in my short career,” Hesslink said. “I had never lived through seeing a horse being so helpless and stuck in a way that was so unhelpful. Obviously it was a horrible situation, but we were very lucky. I was personally a wreck.”
With help, “Mark” was shuffled onto a trailer and taken to Kentucky Equine Hospital, where Wesley Sutter, DVM. Dipl. ACVS, performed surgery. The prognosis was unclear. The first step was to see whether Mark could bear weight on that leg. After that, determining whether he could return to a riding career or would have to be retired was a waiting game.
“There were a lot of unanswered questions and anxiety,” Hesslink said.
After a few weeks of recovery at the clinic, Mark went to Spy Coast Farm’s Rehabilitation and Fitness Center in Lexington for four months. His early rehab included using a water treadmill and swimming. Once he had progressed to doing activity six days a week, they started riding again.
“Most of the opinions we got were not promising or positive,” Hesslink said. “There was a lot of concern with damage to the bone and surrounding support structures. Obviously the stifle is a big component in sport horse. I was very emotional about it all. Every step of the way, most of the feedback was, ‘Oh, we hope: Oh, we hope we can handwalk him; it is sort of shocking he can do that. We hope he can do water treadmill. We really hope he can get ridden.’ The first time we rode him was extremely surprising. Every single time we moved to the next step, everyone seemed doubtful and waiting for his limitation. He seems to be defying them.”
Once it looked like Mark could begin more strenuous work, Hesslink, who lives in Wellington, flew up to put a few rides on and evaluate where the gelding was in his rehab. Mark then returned to Hesslink Williams LLC, where he started a slow rehab program, starting with a month of walking, followed by a month of trotting, and so on.
In May, Mark headed to Old Salem Farm (New York) to make his show ring comeback, but on the morning after they arrived, Hesslink got a similar call telling him Mark was once again in trouble. They’d put him up in a double tent stall to make sure he’d have enough room, but he managed to get his left hind leg stuck in between the bars on the upper part of the stall. To safely extract him, they cut out one of the bars and were able to lift his leg out, but in the process he gained some physical abrasions.
“We had the vet out and had basically the whole horse X-rayed. There seemed to be no damage to the bones or cartilage,” he said. “We don’t know how he got himself caught and hadn’t caused more damage. I hate to say lucky, but I think because he had lived through that earlier trauma, he knew to stay perfectly still.”
Though the scrapes delayed his comeback, Mark showed at the Saratoga Classic I (New York) the following month in the 2’9″ USHJA hunters where he swept the division. With each successive show, Hesslink jumped 3 inches higher, letting Mark dictate whether he was up for a tougher workload.
“My advice from all the vets and professionals was, ‘He will tell you what he’s comfortable with and what he can hold up to,’ so it was mostly letting him tell me,” Hesslink said. “Nothing seems to be hard for him. He seems to be extremely comfortable.”
Prior to his injury Mark rarely went without earning a tricolor either with Hesslink in the professional divisions or with owner Raina Swani in the large junior hunters. He got his hunter career started under Samantha Schaefer’s saddle in 2017. Schaefer brought him methodically from the baby greens through the green hunter divisions. Hesslink had been following him for his entire career, but during his 3’6″ green season in 2020, he started begging Schaefer to sell the gelding. After Mark won the 3’6″ green and grand hunter titles at the 2020 National Horse Show, Schaefer agreed to let Hesslink try him. After jumping one course on the chestnut, Hesslink was sold.
“He was my No. 1 horse,” Hesslink said. “He did nothing but win basically everything. He scored countless 90s. He was a born athlete.”
Hesslink will compete Mark in the 3’6″ performance hunter division and the WCHR Professional Challenge this week at Capital Challenge (Maryland). While Mark is shown sparingly, next year Swani will once again take up the reins, and they hope to qualify him for Devon (Pennsylvania) and indoors.
“He is the sweetest horse I’ve ever met; I don’t think I’ve ever seen him pin his ears. Anyone could walk into his stall,” Hesslink said. “He’s a doll. He’s kind, and even if he’s fresh or wild or has pent-up energy, he would never do anything wrong. He’s perfectly behaved. He’s very easy to work with. I think that’s why he was able to recover like he did.”
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.