‘I thought there was no hope’: horse who broke neck makes successful return to competition

  • A young mare who broke her neck in a loading accident has made a successful return to competition – and is enjoying life to the full.

    Lizzie Burford was loading her five-year-old mare Nova Zembla (Poppy) after a lesson, this time last year, when she slipped and fell heavily on to the concrete of the car park. The Dutch warmblood initially seemed uninjured but later became unsteady on her feet.

    Poppy was referred to Liphook Equine Hospital, an 130-mile drive away, where she underwent a three-hour operation performed by vets Matthew Sinovich, Russell Parker and David Lloyd, all European specialists in equine surgery.

    Matthew said the fracture to Poppy’s vertebra was displaced and a fragment of bone had drifted into the muscle below, which made repairing it more complicated.

    “Before going into surgery, we used our CT scanner to image Poppy’s neck so we could get a clearer picture of the injury and locate exactly where the bone fragment was sitting,” he said.

    “Reaching the fracture site involved making a large incision on the underside of Poppy’s neck, about half-way between her chin and chest. This was extremely delicate to perform because we needed to cut through a lot of soft tissue and muscle and there are a lot of vital structures in that area, including the trachea [windpipe] and oesophagus, as well as important nerves and blood vessels.

    “Once we’d located the fragment we repositioned it, using X-rays to guide us, and then it was fixed in place with a metal plate and screws.”

    Poppy was moved into a padded recovery room, where usually ropes and pulleys are used to support horses as they get to their feet. The vets were unable to use these on Poppy as they could not put any pressure on her neck but she managed to stand unaided.

    After 10 days of care at Liphook, Poppy was allowed to go home for a few weeks of box rest, and then turnout. She has since made a full recovery and is back in the dressage arena.

    “When the broken neck was diagnosed, I was shocked and absolutely devastated,” Lizzie said. “I’d spent all of my savings on Poppy and I was looking forward to enjoying many happy years with her as she is my dream horse.

    “Luckily, my local vet Ollie Timms had worked at Liphook Equine Hospital previously and he said they have amazing vets who could help Poppy. It was a three-hour drive to get her there, but Ollie had given me a glimmer of hope and I didn’t hesitate to make the decision.

    “I spoke to Matthew before the surgery and he was really positive that they could fix Poppy’s fracture. He made me feel very confident and I had no worries at all about Poppy going into theatre. Even so, it was a huge relief when Matthew called me to tell me the surgery had been successful. The hospital then kept me updated on Poppy’s progress, including sending me lots of photos, until she was ready to come home a few days later.”

    Lizzie said it had been a long road to recovery; she took it slowly with plenty of groundwork. She was back in the saddle three months later, and the pair came second at their first competition, at Moreton Morrell.

    “I was absolutely over the moon – it’s amazing to just be riding Poppy again, but for her to go so well is very exciting as she has a lot of talent and I have high hopes for her,” she said.

    “When I was told the extent of Poppy’s injuries, I thought there was no hope, but to look at her now you couldn’t tell that just a few months ago she broke her neck. It’s all down to the incredible team at Liphook that I still have my horse and I just can’t thank them enough.”

    Matthew added: “We are delighted with Poppy’s progress and her owner has done an excellent job in taking things very slowly and following a phased rehabilitation programme.

    “Without surgery, Poppy’s future would have been uncertain. Her injury would have been career-ending and, as well as putting her at a higher risk of arthritis in her neck, it was potentially life-threatening as we couldn’t be sure how it would affect her long-term.

    “The surgery to repair the fracture has ensured she is comfortable and has a better quality of life, with a full range of movement in her neck. It’s great to hear she’s competing again and is enjoying life with her devoted owner.”

    Do you have a horse who has beaten the odds to return to competition? Let us know at hhletters@futurenet.com, including your name, nearest town and country, for the chance for your letter to appear in a forthcoming issue of the magazine.

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