Horse in Training After Bout With Ataxia

Euthansia recommended for incoordinated yearling, but after rehab, he's in training.

By Liz Brown

Racehorse owners Suzanne VanderSalm and Ellen Bennett of Hickory Corners, Mich., weren’t about to give up on Navigator, their Thoroughbred who became ataxic (incoordinated) suddenly as a yearling three years ago. VanderSalm had come home from Great Lakes Downs for the weekend to discover her bright yearling, which she had raised from a foal, wobbling as he walked.

“He was mopey, depressed, and seemed very weak in the back end,” said VanderSalm.

She immediately called her primary-care veterinarian Dr. Rachelle Bennecke, who suggested a few causes for the ataxia, including wobbler syndrome, West Nile virus, and equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM). Blood work didn’t provide a solid diagnosis, but they decided to treat Navigator for EPM with a combination of sulfonamides and pyrimethamine.

Determined to help Navigator, VanderSalm and Bennett consulted seven veterinarians across the country. None could determine the cause of Navigator’s problems, but six of the seven advised the pair to euthanize the horse.

Over the next three days, Navigator’s condition worsened. “At that point, he began acquiring other injuries from the falls,” VanderSalm said.

Exasperated, VanderSalm asked for X-rays, which revealed some damage between cervical vertebrae 2 and 3. The consensus was the damage was not causing Navigator’s ataxia. Instead, the veterinarians believed the damage was sustained during a fall caused by the ataxia.

After five days of ataxia and no diagnosis, VanderSalm looked for a way to stabilize her horse. One of her clients, an auto mechanic, brought over a hoist with a chain. An engineer friend in New Zealand drafted plans for a makeshift sling using a rope, breast plate, and Western girth. VanderSalm and Bennett built the sling and lined Navigator’s stall walls with mattresses to restrict his sideways movement.

They secured Navigator in the sling to prevent him from falling. Bennecke, the only veterinarian who was willing to give Navigator a chance, said the horse was “remarkable” during this time. “He was extremely cooperative and tolerant,” she said. “If he hadn’t been this way I would have also recommended euthanasia.”

Now fully recovered, Navigator is in training to race.

Slowly, Navigator began to regain his coordination and strength. As he became stronger, VanderSalm began loosening the sling. Seven months later, Navigator told his owners he was ready to ditch the apparatus.

“I was cleaning his stall and when I turned around, he had unhooked himself,” said VanderSalm. “I said, ‘OK, Navi, you’re on your own.’ ”

In the first three weeks Navigator was out of the sling, VanderSalm worked with him in the round pen to rebuild his muscle strength. Within 30 days, Navigator was cantering, and by the time he was 2 1/2 years old, VanderSalm was riding him. Today, Navigator is 4 years old and preparing for his first race.

No veterinarian was ever able to give VanderSalm an answer to why Navigator was ataxic. VanderSalm is just glad she never lost faith in her horse. “I just have this belief system that if you’re going to raise these animals, you have to do everything possible to keep them going if they’re comfortable and showing improvement,” she said.