In just a few seconds on a sunny afternoon last October, Italian eventing horse Iman du Golfe went from the ride of a lifetime to fighting for his life.
In late December, after almost three months of recovery at a Paris farm, the horse flew home to Europe, not just healthy but sound enough to ride.
It was a miracle that Dr. Chris Newton of Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital doubted he'd see after the horse tore open his left front leg during the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
"It's fantastic," Newton said. "He was the most significantly injured horse at the World Equestrian Games, and he's now back home. ... It really speaks well that we could have that many horses come here from such tremendous distances to compete at such a high level and not have a single horse not return home. That's rare."
His recovery has astonished those who saw the accident last fall. As rider Juan Carlos Garcia attempted to jump the right corner of the 20th fence on the cross-country course, Iman caught the edge of a log cabin roof.
Rider Garcia, 43, who appeared winded after the fall, was taken to University of Kentucky hospital, where he was treated and released. Iman du Golfe was not so fortunate: The wood shingle tore open an enormous bloody gash.
"It ripped out his muscle and skin and connective tissue from the front of his elbow all the way to the back of his elbow on the outside," said Newton, who was the second vet to reach the horse on the course.
It was as if a rough hand had scraped clean to the bone.
For nearly 45 minutes, all action in cross-country competition was halted as vets worked feverishly to stop the bleeding and get him stabilized. They got him into a horse ambulance and quickly to Rood & Riddle's nearby hospital.
"At the time, we thought he had broken his leg," Newton said. Instead, the horse had injured all the muscles used to extend his front leg forward and had torn a chip off the bone.
"When the initial injury happened on the course, I could put my hand in around the back of the point of his elbow," Newton said.
Dr. Brett Woodie at Rood & Riddle rebuilt Iman's muscles and, with his leg held together by 160 stitches and immobilized in a splint, the horse was sent to Knockgriffin Farm in Paris to recuperate in the hands of expert horse lovers with a knowledge of the sport.
'A team is a team'
Knockgriffin Farm owner Jim FitzGerald was watching the cross-country competition from inside a tent at the Kentucky Horse Park when Iman got hurt.
"I got the call the next day to ask if I'd take care of him," FitzGerald said. "When I first saw him after he came from Rood & Riddle, it was certainly devastating. He was three-legged then."
At the beginning, nobody really thought the horse could make a full recovery. But Italian equestrian officials never hesitated — take care of the horse, they said. Even if he'll only be a beautiful lawn ornament. Even when costs were soaring.
Newton estimates that the recovery cost close to $30,000, including the flight home.
"He had a bad wound, but fortunately the structures involved were not vital and the horse was able to walk on his own into the ambulance," Dr. Marco Eleuteri, Italian team vet, said by e-mail. Eleuteri said the horse, who was born in France, has returned there. He has been sent to Tours, where Iman and Garcia trained for the Games last summer, to get fit again.
Eleuteri said there was never a question of not bringing him home. The Italian Equestrian Federation must take care of her athletes, whether human or animal, he said.
"A team is a team also when things go wrong," Eleuteri said.
Eleuteri said he is confident of Iman's recovery.
"The horse is improving very quickly. Iman is a very tough guy, a wonderful athlete and he is showing it also in the healing process," he said. "Nevertheless, it will take some more months to evaluate his chances to compete again and at what level."
'Language of horse'
Italian team officials visited FitzGerald's farm before sending Iman there to make sure he was up to the task. FitzGerald, who specializes in breeding and boarding Thoroughbreds, has a deep personal interest in eventing and competed in his younger days. FitzGerald also looked after an Irish eventer, Fernhill Clover Mist, who suffered a career-ending injury at the Games, until that horse was fit enough to travel home.
"The challenge in the early stages was to save the horse's life," FitzGerald said of Iman du Golfe. "It was a very gruesome wound. You could see the bone."
The 14-year-old bay gelding, one of a breed called a Selle Français, couldn't put any weight on the leg. He quickly lost 500 to 600 pounds.
It was a bit of puzzle how to communicate with the horse, who may have been accustomed to hearing Italian or French or even Spanish (his rider was born in Colombia). "We never knew what his stable name was. We just called him 'Man,' " FitzGerald said. As in, "Hey, man, how you doin', man," he said with a lilting Irish brogue. "We all speak the same language: The international language of horse. It's an amazing love."
Gradually, the healing began.
"He was a wonderful patient, took care of himself," FitzGerald said. "Very smart horse. ... He had a wonderful disposition. He's got brains."
And Iman was smart enough to know something was really wrong.
"He got pretty depressed," Newton said. The horse stopped eating, became sullen.
So they chucked the typical isolation and quiet in favor of sunshine and bustle. FitzGerald put him in a small pen near a horse exerciser so he could see other animals, watch what was going on around the farm. The pen let him get some sun on his back. And FitzGerald had him groomed a couple of times a day.
"Horses like that are used to being pampered," Newton said. "His eye brightened right up and he came marching forward for us."
"You could tell the minute he started feeling better," FitzGerald said.
A rare happy ending
FitzGerald and Newton kept the Italians apprised of every step of recovery via e-mail, photos and video clips of Iman's progress.
"In terms of the cost, it has been worth every penny/dollar to know that Iman would be well looked after," David Holmes, Italian eventing coach, said in an e-mail. "Rood & Riddle and Jim FitzGerald have been fantastic in looking after Iman during his stay in Kentucky."
While the coach credits the vets and the farm, they credit the horse as well.
"I think a lot of people anticipated initially that he would be destroyed," Newton said. "He was lucky. He didn't fracture any of the bones completely; he never developed any severe infections. ... The medications we kept him on kept the infection under control; the other limb didn't become overstressed (and develop laminitis). ... Really, he just did fantastic."
As Christmas approached and his departure neared, the horse seemed to get an extra spring in his step. He began to trot and canter again as if almost completely sound. He flew back to Italy on Dec. 27.
"He made such a remarkable recovery," FitzGerald said. "He made astonishing progress as regards his movement."
He and Newton said they believe that the horse could compete again, not necessarily at the top world-class level, but close.
"He has the opportunity to do that if he wants to. ... What a resilient individual. That ability to never say no — that's what makes a top event horse," FitzGerald said. "Everybody hears about the sad stories. This is one of the good ones."