Community pulls together to help injured stallion
At five in the evening, on Feb. 5, Alexia Jason, barn manager at Willow Farm in West Tisbury, started her check of the seven horses in her care. The stalls had been "picked" (cleaned) for the evening, and the horses were enjoying the new shavings on the floor. It was business as usual until Alexia reached Royal Belvedere (nicknamed Winston by owner Debbie McGoldrick), the seven-year-old son of international dressage champion Royal Diamond. Winston was Debbie's favorite horse, purchased just over a year ago for his beauty and athletic potential.
As Alexia approached, she noticed that he was standing on just three legs. A huge, majestic, dark gray stallion, Winston had had his share of frustrating injuries in the past but he had been deemed 100 percent healthy by both veterinarian Angela Jasper and trainer Martijn Stuurman. But suddenly Winston was injured, alone in his stall.
Winston. Photo by Lisa Pyden
"It was a freak accident," Martijn explained. "He had been totally healthy, and I was planning to ride him in an upcoming dressage clinic at Willow Farm this week. We can only assume that he was rolling in his shavings as he loved to do. When he went to stand up - always an awkward movement for a horse - he must have lost his footing somehow. No one saw or heard anything. It's a terrible, terrible thing."
Alexia called Martijn immediately to come and examine Winston. Although he feared the worst, he hoped it was a simple muscle spasm or strain. They contacted veterinarian Angela Jasper, who was off-Island. She got to the ferry as quickly as she could and made her way to Willow Farm. Meanwhile, veterinarian Steve Atwood of Animal Health Care Associates near the airport offered any resources necessary to treat Winston. Several veterinarians from Vineyard Veterinarian Clinic in Edgartown also came to examine the horse. They concurred that Winston may have suffered bone fractures. Because it was well into the evening now, they decided to wait until morning to make treatment decisions beyond trying to manage the stallion's pain.
David Schuster, manager of Willow Farm, spent the night in the barn with the ailing horse, while Alexia and Martijn tried to get some rest.
"My phone rang at 4 am," Martijn said. Alexia and David had decided to transport Winston by trailer to Tufts Veterinary Hospital in Grafton, as early as possible. Martijn dressed quickly and returned to the barn in the dark. "Now we had to figure out how to get an injured 1,500-pound horse out of his stall and into a trailer for a boat ride and long drive."
Despite the early hour, David Schuster decided to call Neil Galligan, owner of Doyle Construction, for help. Neil had done some projects at Willow Farm, and David knew he could count on the contractor. Neil's crew was about to head over to Chappaquiddick but he called and asked them to come instead to the farm. Within 20 minutes, a dozen men and as many pick-up trucks assembled at the barn.
"I couldn't believe how quickly the guys arrived," David said. "I've never lived anywhere like the Vineyard - where people just drop everything and pitch in to help. We owe Neil and his crew a huge thanks for their efforts."
The men devised a tarp and rope system that could transport Winston to the trailer while The Willow Farm staff spoke to the specialists at Tufts a final time before sedating the horse. Tufts advised against sedation, instead recommending that Winston arrive standing. With trainer Martijn's firm coaxing, the stallion made his way on three legs into the trailer.
Island carpenter Rick Brymer said, "It was a sad situation. The horse was obviously uncomfortable. He was shivering. I was glad to offer help. It's a close-knit community. People on the Island always come together at times like this."
"The Steamship Authority was great," said Alexia. "We called ahead so they were prepared, and they took us on an emergency basis. They let us go in front of all the stand-by vehicles so we could get Winston the level of care he needed as soon as possible."
The Tufts diagnosis: a fractured pelvis and internal bleeding. More x-rays are needed but cannot be completed until inflammation of soft tissue around the breaks has diminished. He cannot lie down and therefore cannot be tranquilized. On a brighter note, he has begun to eat and drink on his own again. According to owner Debbie McGoldrick, they should have more information on his prognosis within the next two to three weeks.
"We're in a waiting mode," she explained. In a phone conversation from her home in England, Debbie's voice alternated between hope and sadness. "A week ago I was really upset. But since then I've learned more about injuries like Winston's. If it's only a fractured pelvis he can heal. He would need a year in his stall for recovery, but it's possible. Maybe he'll never be the tremendous athlete he once was, but if he can be a great pleasure horse, I would be happy with that. Winston is a very special horse. He just wants to work and please. I didn't buy Winston to ride him - I just love to look at him. He is magnificent."
While Debbie admits that she would have loved for Martijn and Winston to achieve international status in the world of dressage, the athletic training of both horse and rider in a series of movements, she will be ecstatic if he can return to a pain-free state of health. "You know that old cliché, 'Every cloud has a silver lining'? Our silver lining was the response we got from our staff, the veterinarians and the people of the Island. Our hearts go out to everyone who helped."
According to veterinarian Steve Atwood, the real hero of the story was colleague Angela Jasper. "She doesn't even live on the Island any more. She dropped everything and came over to treat the horse at night."
As Winston struggles, Martijn, the Dutch dressage trainer who came to the Island to work with the McGoldricks' two top horses and the four retired racehorses the family rescued from Hong Kong, has his own struggle.
"I have to remain stoic," he explained. "Debbie and I shared a long cry on the phone, but I have work to do here. Winston is my other half. There were nights when he would lie in his stall with his head in my lap. I hold out hope, but I have said my goodbye. He was a brilliant dance partner."