An event horse who fractured her shoulder in a fall has astonished vets with a “miraculous” return to ridden work.
Jack Drewery, who owns and competes Stormhill Fairy Tale, was initially told he would have to put the then-10-year-old mare down following the fall in the British Eventing intermediate section at Bishop Burton in 2018.
Not only did the fracture extend into the joint — usually leading to an extremely poor prognosis — but she also faced a second threat to her life when the joint became infected 10 days after surgery.
Fairy Tale, who is by the Russian sire Kremlin, is Jack’s first event horse, whom he took from the start of her career to CIC**. She went from BE100 to intermediate in one season in 2016 and had a brilliant record of cross-country clears at the time of her accident.
“The cross-country was her strongest phase,” said Jack, who previously showjumped up to 1.40m but “fancied a change”.
“We were four from home and we’re not sure what happened. We do have some video and you can’t see clearly, but we think she overreached before take off and didn’t lift that leg — there was no shoe on that foot afterwards. She hit the fence and fell,” he said.
“I didn’t realise how badly she was hurt as she ran off, but then I saw them put the green screens up round her and the ambulance arrived very quickly.”
The 16.3hh grey was transferred to Rainbow Equine Hospital, where vets X-rayed and broke the bad news to Jack.
“They said I the best thing I could do was to put her down and I was in shock, I pleaded with them not to and said ‘can’t she be a broodmare?’” Jack said.
Surgeon Jonathan Anderson was called in to look at the x-rays, and felt that as the mare was walking relatively comfortably on bute after 12 hours, there was a chance he could successfully operate.
“She had fractured the bottom of scapula right at the level of the shoulder joint into several pieces,” Mr Anderson said. “We couldn’t tell how many pieces but we could tell it was pretty badly fractured. When it involves the joint, there is a very big risk of arthritis.”
Jonathan was able to perform an arthroscope and remove the pieces of fractured bone with the help of ultrasound. Although some “big meaty fragments” were taken out, arthritis remained a major concern.
Fairy Tale looked on the road to recovery but 10 days after surgery she went lame. Jonathan tapped the joint to get a sample of fluid, which showed an infection.
“With an infection in a joint the prognosis isn’t good, especially in a large joint like the shoulder. I said to Jack ‘we have another crunch point’ but we went ahead and flushed it,” he said.
Following the infection, vets expected her to be field sound at best. Jack took the mare home by which point her shoulder had started to show dramatic muscle wastage and a lengthy road of box rest and rehabilitation began.
He started walking in hand after three months and when they returned to Rainbow for a check-up, she was sound in walk but still lame in trot. Jonathan asked to X-ray her shoulder and was surprised by what he saw.
“He came to us smiling like mad and said ‘I can’t believe it, the joint is clean’,” Jack said. “He told me if I could get the muscle back, I could get my horse back.”
But Fairy Tale went lame again and Jack embarked on a programme of acupuncture, physio and water treadmill sessions. At her fourth water treadmill session, as she was sound in walk again, it was suggested to Jack that he got back on.
“I thought rather than keep paying for the water treadmill, I would take her to the beach and go in the sea,” Jack said. “I did and she was sound in trot and canter.”
Jonathan remembers the moment Jack messaged him to tell him about the mare’s astonishing recovery.
“I had originally said we’d aim for broodmare status with her but he kept sending me pics,” Jonathan said. “Three months post-op I saw her turned out and she actually looked pretty good and the muscle on her shoulder was starting to come back.
“For me though, I think the most wonderful part of the whole thing was on Christmas Eve when he sent me a series of WhatsApps of her cantering on the beach. She looked magnificent, the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up.”
Jonathan added that they had continued to check on her progress with X-rays of the joint and that as it had remained clean, he suggested to Jack that he start working her towards an event season.
“Jack slammed the brakes on and said he wanted to put her in foal to give her more time off,” he said, “so that is what he has done.”
He added that recovery from the type of injury Fairy Tale suffered, and a joint infection, is rare.
“It is not an uncommon injury but it usually ends in euthanasia or a chronically lame horse. This is 100% a case you would expect to be comfortable as a broodmare but lame if asked to trot,” he said.
“It is a bit of a miracle in some respects. The post-operative X-rays showed not a hint of arthritis, which is down to the horse and pure luck. I did the butchery and Jack did the rest!”
He added that because the tendons and ligaments in the shoulder were intact, and there was muscle and scar tissue to stabilise the joint, there was very little risk of dislocation and she should be able to return to competition.
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Fairy Tale, whose full brother Stormhill Kossack evented to four-star (now five-star level), is in foal to Contendro, and is due in May next year. Jack is still hoping that after the foal is weaned, she will return to a competitive career.
“I didn’t want to be tempted to do too much too soon, so thought we may as well have a foal out of her,” he said.
“She’s a special horse — hot to ride but so calm on the ground and she literally didn’t move throughout her time on box rest. I wanted to do what I could for her.
“The plan is now to have her back out eventing in 2021.”
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