The Flying Horse
Vet surgeon takes to the skies to see Adorabell safely home to Florida
BY ANDREW VOWLES
|Prof. Judith Koenig, right, poses with OVC '07 student Kadri Uukkivi and former OVC patient Adorabell, a three-year-old thoroughbred that is now safely back home in Florida thanks to care received at OVC and on board a 727 jet.|
A horse, a jet, a groom and a vet. That's what it took to see a thoroughbred safely home to Florida last month after the horse's surgery and lengthy recovery at the Ontario Veterinary College.
The vet was Prof. Judith Koenig, Clinical Studies, who was still shaking her head over her once-in-a-lifetime weekend a week later.
It's a fairy tale, she says more than once as she relates the story of her overnight trip to take Adorabell home.
Normally when Koenig says goodbye to a surgical patient, she doesn't cry. Typically, the horse is loaded into a van outside the large-animal clinic and she bids a dry-eyed farewell as the patient heads home. But both she and Adorabell's owner Kiki Courtelis, a developer and horse breeder balked at the idea of subjecting the prized animal to a 22-hour ride all the way to Gainesville.
Someone suggested they break up the trip by stopping at the owner's farm in Kentucky. But then came another idea: Why not fly the horse home? Courtelis thought it over and agreed to charter a plane, then had one further request: Could Koenig go along for the flight?
That's how the veterinary surgeon ended up shivering in the tail end of a flying horse stable for a two-hour hop from Buffalo to Ocala, Fla., last month.
The three-year-old chestnut filly first arrived at OVC in November after breaking a leg on the Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto. Screws were inserted to fix the fracture, and the horse went back to Toronto. Three weeks later, three screws broke.
Koenig operated this time. During the 2½-hour procedure, she put in three new screws, a tricky feat what with the existing screws and little bone left to manoeuvre in. If you make a mistake, that's the end, she says.
She didn't know then that the horse belongs to a woman whose family owns a large thoroughbred breeding farm in Florida. Nor did she know she was operating on a one-time sweepstakes hopeful whose bloodline still made the animal worth more than $700,000. But Koenig says that's not the point in the operating theatre.
It doesn't matter whether it's a $2,000 backyard horse or a Triple Crown winner they get treated the same.
For the next four months, she shared post-op care of Adorabell with clinical studies professors Don Trout and Kelly MacLellan and others. The patient convalesced in a stall just around the corner from a row of stalls housing Koenig's research horses.
She's studying the use of shock-wave therapy to help speed up wound healing, an idea that has shown promise in medical research by an Austrian physician. (A D.V.Sc. graduate of Guelph, she returned to OVC five years ago as a clinician; her faculty appointment began two years ago.)
Adorabell's fracture healed nicely, says Koenig, and although the horse's racing days are over, it will still have a lengthy second career. She'll be a very valuable brood- mare.
The vet bill at OVC totalled about $20,000. That was a bargain compared with the cost of the plane flight and expenses, including Koenig's overnight stay at the Gainesville Hilton.
A horse van from Buffalo picked her up at 3 a.m. one Saturday morning in late April. They loaded up Adorabell and headed for the Canada-U.S. border. Koenig says passing through customs was a challenge, even with the obligatory veterinarian on duty at the border. There were papers to check, vet narcotics to inspect and IDs to verify both Koenig's and Adorabell's (thoroughbreds bear a characteristic lip tattoo that serves as an equine passport).
At a private airport, they boarded a plane owned by a Kentucky-based charter company that specializes in flying horses. Ordinarily the 727 jet carries up to 21 horses at a time, all lined up in padded berths filling most of the cabin. This time, however, Adorabell was the only horse on board. Her groom spent the entire flight sitting in front of her stall.
As for the U of G vet, she had three rows of seats at the tail end all to herself. Sounds glamorous, but all she remembers is a cold, noisy flight. Horse planes are left without insulation to keep the passengers' metabolism low and to keep them calm. I felt like I was sitting in a freezer.
Once in a while, she went forward to check on Adorabell. Koenig had been worried about how the horse would react to flying. At Guelph, the patient had been temperamental; having its hooves trimmed had turned the animal into a galloping 480-kilogram menace in a sling.
But for the horse at least, the flight turned out to be a dream. She was eating the whole time, says Koenig. Her own in-flight service consisted of a Styrofoam container with cold scrambled eggs and bacon and iced tea, flown in that morning from Kentucky.
Touching down in the sunshine was a relief. The vet accompanied the horse to its home farm, where she met Courtelis. She had tears in her eyes.
Koenig flew home the next day, but not before visiting the University of Florida's veterinary college. Its equine teaching hospital is named for Courtelis's mother, Louise, and late father, Alec. The family operation, called Town and Country Farm, was formerly the leading Arabian racing and breeding farm in the United States; it's now devoted entirely to thoroughbred breeding.
By late afternoon, the U of G vet was back home at her three-acre property in Puslinch. She returned without a horse but with a standing invitation to vacation at Kiki Courtelis's farm or beach house.
Less than a week later, Adorabell's stall at U of G was still empty, but probably not for long. Nine out of 10 patients treated in OVC's large-animal clinic are horses. Last year, the clinic saw 1,600 of them. Still, the odd one stands out. Recalling her farewell on that Florida farm, Koenig says: As I said goodbye, I cried. We called her the princess because she behaved like one.