When Danielle Ammeson bought the 17.2-hand bay gelding in 2014, she envisioned a serious future for herself in the competitive dressage arena.
Even at just 4 years old, Danielle, who lives and rides year-round in Sarasota, Fla., knew that Casino Royale, or “Royal”, was a special guy.
Their career together started with a bang. The pair qualified for the U.S. Dressage Federation’s 2016 Regional Championships. But a freak pasture accident would erase any hopes Danielle, 28, had of making it to the horse show in Conyers, Ga., that year, and for several years after that.
Royal would end up fighting for his life against an aggressive bacterial infection.
“I had no idea it was going to lead to this,” Danielle described. “It was just a freak pasture accident. He had a cut that I thought I could wash out and everything would be fine.”
Danielle still remembers finding Royal in the pasture with an injury that would change his life forever. Royal refused to move, and would not put any weight on his right hind leg. He had an oozing, gaping wound on the side of his hock.
Danielle treated the wound religiously for a week under the care of her local veterinarian, but it wasn’t healing. Royal received three regional limb perfusions, which channeled a high concentration of antibiotics into the tissue at the site of the injury. But still, he didn’t improve.
“It got to the point that we were treating his wound more than our vet felt comfortable with,” Danielle explained. “He was there checking on him every day at this point, but he told us it was time to consider taking him to a surgical center.”
So Danielle made the decision to take Royal to the University of Florida’s Alec P. and Louise H. Courtelis Equine Hospital in Gainesville, where a team of specialists diagnosed the American Warmblood with a serious bacterial infection which had spread to his sheath, tendon, and the bone of the hock. Royal was rushed to emergency surgery the very next day.
Dr. Alison Morton performed a tenoscopy, where tiny incisions in the skin allowed her and other veterinarians to clean and flush out the tendon sheath. Dr. Morton then surgically removed areas of infected tendon and bone.
“The wound in ultrasound scans looked like when a golfer hit a ball out of a bunker in the sand,” Danielle described. “There was a huge divot in the hock. He was losing bone and the tendon was detaching. The infection was out of control.”
Royal was put back on a strong IV antibiotics, but despite weeks of treatment, his condition worsened.
As more time passed, Royal’s chance of survival was quickly diminishing, Dr. Morton said. There was a significant concern about founder, as the warmblood gelding had spent weeks bearing no weight on his infected leg.
Danielle worried about not only the physical state of her horse, but Royal’s mental state, after weeks of being under strong sedation at the hospital.
“He end up going months without putting weight on that leg,” Danielle remembered. “He was sedated all the time, but he was always his social, happy self. I’d cried my eyes out and was convinced I was going to lose him.”
One More Day
Dr. Morton and Danielle discussed the possibility of euthanasia. They decided to wait one more day to make a decision. During this time, Dr. Morton switched Royal’s antibiotics. While his condition wasn’t improving with IV and perfusion administration of antibiotics, something seemingly changed when they switched to a different kind that was administered orally. Morton said the new treatment suddenly helped stabilize the horse – Royal wasn’t getting worse anymore.
Slowly, Royal began to improve. The extensive damage to his bone and tendon were beginning to heal. But Dr. Morton and her team deemed he had permanent damage that would keep him unsound. He’d likely never return to the dressage ring.
After a month at the hospital, it was finally time for Royal to come home.
Danielle knew she was facing a long road ahead. Royal had severe muscle atrophy on his right hind quarters and overall lost muscle condition across his body. He was lame on the right hind leg, and still would not bear full weight on that limb. He would be on stall rest for months back home in Sarasota.
In November 2016, after months of rest and at-home laser therapy and massage treatments, Royal was finally able to walk with just the slightest limp. Danielle’s farrier made custom gel wedge shoes to help relieve any over-stress of the tendon.
The pair would make regular trips to UF for check-up appointments throughout 2017. Dr. Morton was encouraged by Royal’s ultrasound results, which showed progressive healing. Bone spurs formed, and went way. Bone began to regrow and the tendon healed. In March 2018, Danielle got the green light to begin exercising Royal again.
They’d long-line at the walk and trot for many weeks to help regain body strength. After nearly a year of rest and recovery, Royal was finally fit and sound enough for riding again.
“He was still super gimpy when we started, but it was time for him to start moving and flexing those muscles again,” Danielle remembered.
In 2019, the pair qualified for first level and a musical freestyle at the regional championships in October, marking the three-year anniversary of Royal’s original accident.
They placed ninth.
She credits the superb vet care and her dedication to taking it slow with Royal’s recovery to his return to the dressage ring. Danielle now calls him her “miracle horse”.
“No one could believe he recovered from this,” she said. “Now we’re planning on getting our bronze medal together.”
Photos courtesy of Victoria DeMore and Danielle Ammeson