The accident occurred on the relatively short haul from the Miami/Dade Winter Dressage Competition--where dressage horse Much Ado (called "Q" around the barn after Quattro, his sire) had scored above 72 on every test--to Carol Lavell's home in Loxahatchee. Rain and mud had not deterred the 17.3-hand Dutch Warmblood, who powered through his tests barefoot when other competitors were using studs.
But "he wasn't a good shipper," says Carol. "Nothing we did to keep him from kicking and misbehaving in the trailer seemed to work."
Carol's rig, a gooseneck slant-load, had almost reached the turnoff for home when Q's bucking caused him to lodge his right hind foot through the bars of the window in spite of the care with which Carol and her husband Tom had padded and covered it as a safeguard against Q's antics. Carol pulled over immediately, but it was half an hour before help arrived in the form of a passing motorist who happened to be equipped with bolt-cutters that could be used to remove the window bars one by one. Q spent the long wait with his foot trapped high above the trailer floor.
"When we got home he was perfectly sound getting off the trailer, no swelling, but he had a big dent in his rear end," Carol says. After some bute and three days of rest he looked and felt normal under saddle--until she asked for the canter.
"He couldn't canter on the left lead. I knew something dreadful was wrong." Her fear was confirmed by lameness specialist Dr. John Steele, who diagnosed damage to major muscles in Q's right hind. Carol's competitive plans for her eight-year-old (she had planned to move him up to Prix St. Georges during the late winter and early spring) went on hold. When she began riding Q again after several weeks, it was to walk him on a loose rein for an hour twice a day as therapy for his injured muscles.
"No turns, no circles, no walk/halt," says Carol. "It was the worst regimen for a Type A personality like myself to have to do. Finally I started wearing shorts (we were still in Florida), sneakers, and no gloves so I couldn't do any work. It was hot and Q got very lazy and quiet. It was awful."
Meanwhile, Carol and Tom had their trailer professionally modified to try to make Q happier. "We made a slant-ride stall for him over the rear axle, where the trailer experts told us the ride would be most comfortable for him. Q would face the rear and see out a window on the side or the back window. We covered any windows he might reach with his feet with 3/8-inch aluminum." After some short, uneventful trial hauls around Loxahatchee, Q seemed ready for the trip north to what was then Carol's summer base in Vermont (she and Tom have since relocated to North Carolina). "He went all the way home -- 1700 miles -- without a peep. And he's been that way ever since."
During and after the months of her horse's rehabilitation, Tom (now retired from his career with IBM) became "Q's best friend," Carol says. "Tom loves to do farm work but he never was involved with handling the horses. Then when he got involved with this horse on a personal level, everything changed. There were times during Q's walking therapy when I asked him to hand-walk and graze Q in the afternoon because I was so tired of walking. Then he learned to jog Q for the vet checks because the horse's stride is so big I can hardly keep up with him at walk! Then we decided he would go as my groom to Pan Am, so he spent time learning to put on the full bridle, adjust it, and so on. He was just soaking all those skills right up."
Back in work at the end of the summer, Q got good scores at the Regional ABIC/USDF Fourth Level Finals, but Carol could feel that "he'd lost the ability to raise his back up, lower his hips, and carry himself in downward transitions from extended gaits. He had plenty of push but when he had to come back into collected trot, he lacked the muscle."
She reached back to her early years in eventing to design a strengthening program in which short intervals (at first) of intense work alternated with periods of walking. Weekly sessions for Q with equine massage therapist Robert Salvetti helped her chart his progress.
"When Sal started working on Q he told me the muscles on one side were more sore than the other," says Carol. "Later he said, "They're all the same now."
The muscles that were damaged in the accident haven't fully recovered, says Carol, because the nerves that activate them were damaged too and those nerves can take two years to regenerate. But the big gelding has learned to compensate using other muscles to do the job. Carol is always aware of how Q is working from behind.
"When he has to do something that's really hard, I'm very careful to encourage that leg to do its job. I'm always thinking about where it is and how it works. He has to be worked in a way that makes him stronger there all the time, and fully 50 percent of each day's training is devoted to that."
Update: Carol and Q helped the U.S. earn a team gold medal at the 2003 Pan Am Games and placed sixth individually. Read the full story about Carol's discovery of two-year-old Much Ado in Holland, and the exciting process of developing him to FEI levels in the October 2003 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.