Back from the brink – how a steeplechase horse recovered from surprise collapse

This week, Horse and Hound studied an ‘unknown case’. Steeplechase horse ‘Spirit Son collapsed at home, for no apparent reason. Ellie Hughes investigated and give us the full story of diagnosis, treatment and recuperation:

In 2011, Spirit Son’s career was getting better with every race. Having come home with four impressive wins from five starts, the 5yo, trained by Nicky Henderson, had been widely tipped for Champion Hurdle glory at the Cheltenham Festival last year.

Sadly, a tendon injury in the run-up to the festival ruled him out. This was a major setback but there was no reason to assume the gelding would not return to the track.

Following treatment for his injury, Spirit Son was sent to Charlie and Tracy Vigor’s Hillwood Stud to recuperate. However, on 22 April last year, Spirit Son collapsed in his stable and was unable to get up. No one knew what had happened or what had caused this, but the consensus was that if he did not improve by the afternoon, he might not make it at all.

Critical Manoeuvres

Intensive care expert Dr Celiea Marr from Rosdales Diagnostic Centre in Newmarket arrived at Hillwood Stud to find Spirit Son lying on the floor unable to move. Usually a horse unable to move would indicate a neck fracture or paralytic herpes virus.

When a horse is down, no matter the cause, it is vital to get him on his feet within 24hours, any longer and his chance of survival plummets. However, Spirit Son was very weak, he struggled to maintain his balance and was suffering from proprioceptive deficits, which meant he had lost the sense of where his limbs were.

Over the next few days, progress was slow. A marquee was put up over Spirit Son’s tarpaulin and he lived under it for five days until he could be moved to a box. But until he could be transported offsite it was impossible to ascertain what exactly caused the collapse. It seemed unlikely that he had fallen in the stable and fractured his neck, yet equine herpes seemed equally implausible.

Spirit Son was given round-the-clock attention and needed help to rise and support once he was up. Day by day he continued to gain strength. Around 6 weeks after his initial collapse, the team felt he was strong enough to be transported to O’Gorman Slater Main equine hospital in Newbury for a bone scan. This would confirm whether he had fractured his neck.

Difficult Decision

The Scan revealed that Spirit Son did indeed have a neck fracture. The necessary general anaesthetic that would need to be administered would be extremely dangerous for a horse with poor balance and weak hindlimbs.

Spirit Son was taken to Rossdales Diagnostic Centre. After being anaesthetised, he was positioned into the CT scanned so Celia and her team could see exactly where the damage was. The CT scanner is designed for humans, fortunately the injured area of Spirit Son’s neck just fitted in.

The scan revealed that Spirit son had two fractures – one either side of his neck.

Long-term prognosis unclear

Celia had to decide whether to gibe the unstable fracture more time to heal on its on or whether to operate immediately.

She decided to give him the surgery. The procedure was very unusual and is normally only ever performed on horses with wobblers syndrome. John Walmsly of Liphook Equine Hospital performed the operation, which involved inserting metal implants across the joint between the fifth and sixth cervical bodies to stabilise the area,

Again, the procedure involved a general anaesthetic, with its associated risks. Fortunately, the surgery went smoothly. After a few days to recuperate, Spirit Son could return home.

The road to recovery

Nine months after his collapse, the gelding is making slow but steady progress. It can take up to a year for his nerves to repair fully. Initially, he had to be supported by two people every time he walked out of the stable, but now he is much more independent and is lead out a couple of times a day by one person on the end of a rope.

It is extremely unlikely that Spirit Son will race again. Unfortunately, top sports horses do obtain a lot of career ending injuries because of the level that their body functions at, sometimes, collapses can be fatal. Spirit Son is a  successful case, and although he will not race again, he is still only a 5yo and will have a long, prosperous life ahead of him.


Hope you enjoyed reading this article, it was very interesting for me as you hear things like this happening quite often in the showjumping world, although i have never looked into the details of them.

New article will be up next Thursday 🙂

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