After Rough Entry To The World, 'Gumbo' The Colt Is Overcoming The Odds - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

After Rough Entry To The World, ‘Gumbo’ The Colt Is Overcoming The Odds

Schmidt, Gumbo, and O’Keefe. Photo courtesy Erin O’Keefe

Daniel Schmidt heard the siren behind his horse trailer, but he didn't stop. He knew he was speeding. He was rolling through the four-way stops on Iron Works Pike outside Lexington, Ky., craning his neck to peer in all directions and tapping his horn to warn any nearby vehicles that he was coming.

From inside the trailer, where she was standing over Love Not Lost, his partner Erin O'Keefe could hear it too, though she couldn't see the police car behind them. She just hoped Schmidt wouldn't slow down.

“When I heard the sirens I was trying to see if I could stick a hand out the back of the trailer or something to give the cop any indication what was going on, and ready to call Daniel to say keep driving if he slowed down,” she remembered. “Thankfully, he's a level head in non-equine emergencies and did the responsible thing, which was call the police to inform them why we weren't pulling over.”

“He called dispatch and said, I'm not stopping; you can give me the speeding ticket in the driveway of the clinic.”

As the truck barreled toward the entrance of Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, the police car cut its siren. It turned off its lights, and the officer let off the gas as Schmidt rushed into the clinic's driveway.

Love Not Lost (known as “Evangeline”) was a maiden mare, and had been the last one they had left to foal out at BTE Stables. Earlier that afternoon, Schmidt was doing some mowing at the farm, and O'Keefe had run out to grab some more milk test strips. Schmidt noticed the mare acting oddly in her paddock and brought her inside. It didn't take long before they realized something was amiss.

“I drove very fast, but I knew from having done this before that by the time I got back she probably would have foaled,” said O'Keefe. “As soon as I came in the barn and there were barely feet out, I knew it wasn't good.”

A difficult or stalled foaling is referred to as a dystocia, and it's a medical emergency. When a mare's water breaks, it's a sign the chorioallantoic membrane has ruptured, and labor is beginning in earnest. Once this part of the process begins, the mare is on a timer. She only has a limited amount of time to deliver the foal before its oxygen supply will be cut off.

Gumbo in the foreground. Photo courtesy Erin O'Keefe

It's something of an evolutionary marvel that the equine species has kept going as long as it has, when you consider the process required for a foal to enter the world. They spend most of pregnancy folded in half, nose and feet pointing toward the mare's nose. During the birthing process, the foal must turn around, twisting its body in an S as it turns first the front legs and shoulders, then the hind legs and hips to face the mare's tail. Then, ideally, the foal should present like a diver off a platform, with front feet preceding the nose and head, and the rest of the body strung out behind, leaping into life.

There are any number of ways the process can get dangerously stalled. If the foal doesn't turn all the way around; if one front leg is bent underneath the body and not pointing out the birth canal; if the front feet are pointing the right way but the foal's head remains bent downwards and stuck; if all four feet try to exit at the same time. That's to say nothing of the issues the mare encounter, like a cervix that won't relax or tissues that can be torn by a malpresented foal. Some issues can be corrected by an experienced broodmare manager or veterinarian who can reach in and reposition the foal. Mares will sometimes roll in an apparently instinctive attempt to fix something they know is wrong. But sometimes, the usual tactics don't work.

Managers at farms like BTE, located on the far side of Paris, Ky., from major equine clinics, know down to the minute how long they have before they need to see definitive progress in the foaling. If they don't, the mare needs to be loaded up and rushed to the hospital.

There, a small army of veterinarians will be waiting in case they need to run anesthesia and take the mare to surgery for a cesarian section, necessitating a long recovery for her and usually a stint in the ICU for the foal.

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O'Keefe and Schmidt are not given to panic in situations like these. Although they opened BTE in 2019, they have considerable experience foaling other people's horses. O'Keefe has been a nurse at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital and run barns and sale operations at Taylor Made and Darby Dan; Schmidt was an assistant manager at Chamerolles Farm and a graduate of the Kentucky Equine Management Internship program before he shifted his focus to podiatry.

O'Keefe was familiar enough with the process in fact, that she documented the work of the Hagyard veterinarians – a choice that would prove useful later. Veterinarians decided to try pulling the foal out rather than putting the mare through the risks of surgery.

“I was thinking, I just hope we can save the mare. I had written off the foal,” she remembered. “In my experience with foaling, a lot of times if they're not moving, it's because it's a dead foal.”

The colt's head emerged and the process stalled again as he was shoulder-locked, then hip-locked leaving the birth canal.

“I literally watched his tongue turn blue,” she remembered. “His face was there but he was still stuck. I thought, 'I'm watching him die.' She went down, and then he moved his head. That wasn't what I was expecting.”

The reason for the dystocia became evident quickly. He was big, but he also had congenital flexural limb deformity in both his front legs, more commonly known as contracted tendons. The tendons that run down the backs of his legs were pulled taut, the way they might be if he were bending his knees while leaping into the air, except he couldn't straighten them. Contracted tendons exist as a gradient – in some cases, foals can stand and walk with just a slight hitch or oddity, which are easily corrected. Then there are cases like this one.

Schmidt works on Gumbo's special shoes as O'Keefe looks on. Photo courtesy Erin O'Keefe

“He had multiple issues,” said Dr. Arnaldo Monge, field care veterinarian for Hagyard. “He was a little project. A lot of people got involved with this horse, but we told Erin, 'Don't give up.' This is a nice baby. Structurally, he looks like a nice individual.

“I don't think anybody has pinpointed the exact reason why this [contracted tendons] happens. It's a little fight between the flexors and the extensors. If you see a video of an equine fetus, how they move their heads and move the legs, they're pretty active. If something happens that doesn't allow that natural process to develop, we get secondary problems.”

While many contracted tendon cases can be corrected with time, there's no magic bullet to speed the process. The foal had other things working against him, too – his hind end was also weak, and that combined with the perpetually folded front legs meant he couldn't stand on his own.

Then there was his mother.

“She had no interest in being near him,” said O'Keefe. “I used every trick I learned from the clinic to try to bond foals and mares. We couldn't sedate her, and needed her to move around to push the fluid [from a retained placenta] out.”

From her perspective, of course, it wasn't any wonder. She'd had a miserable afternoon, topped off by a quick trip to a foreign place with IVs and chains attached to the foal to physically pull him out, only to be stuck with this tiny thing that laid in the middle of the stall and couldn't interact with her. With no prior experience to draw on, she seemed to see him as a hindrance rather than a responsibility.

When Schmidt and O'Keefe returned to the hospital to pick up the mare and foal, they knew they had a long journey in front of all of them. The easiest and most cost-effective thing to do with such a severe case could have been to give up on the little bay colt. But the long road ahead didn't intimidate them. They gave him a nickname – “Gumbo” in honor of a Louisiana State graduate who helped him enter the world – and got to work.

They decided their best approach was a multi-faceted one, combining traditional and alternative treatments – therapeutic, customizable shoes, corrective splinting, physical therapy, and acupuncture.

Schmidt's podiatry history proved useful as they supervised the addition of splints created from bandages and casting material, with glue-on plastic shoes that helped Gumbo's hooves, drawn backward and angled as they were, reach the ground.

The traditional approach to a contracted horse is corrective casting. Veterinarians will pull a front leg gently and apply a cast to try to hold it as straight as possible. It's a fine line, encouraging the soft tissues to slowly stretch without overdoing it and causing a new injury. Gumbo had 36 hours in a cast, and 36 hours out to encourage improvement without overstressing the young tissues.

“Throughout 24 hours, the cast will relax a little bit, which is why you have to keep putting them on,” Schmidt explained. “There are things that can happen when you do it, but I don't know if there's a hard line on when you can stop making improvement on soft tissue. Because you're not actually lengthening the tendon, it's just muscle tightness. The majority of what you're doing is loosening that muscle tightness.”


@forrest_gumbo1 Meet baby Gumbo❤️ #thoroughbred #foal #contracted #thankyouveterinarians @btestables ♬ original sound – lennnie

Schmidt would hold Gumbo up, and help him balance and assist him in moving his legs as much as he reasonably could to help strengthen his muscles. He needed to strengthen his hind end while relaxing the muscles controlling the backs of his front legs. The special shoes helped, but required extra monitoring of his tiny feet.

“Toe extensions are a little bit of a gamble because you're putting a lot of stress on the laminae, so you're worried about laminitis,” said Schmidt. “In this case in particular, we had to figure it out or he wasn't going to make it anyway.

“Usually, doing the physical therapy, you'll eventually get the result you want but the question is whether they're going to make it that far.”

Monge brought alternative therapy to the mix with electroacupuncture, which he had begun using successfully on other foals with contracted flexor tendons.

“One day I got to thinking, what if [this problem is] a primary weakness of the extensors? And what if I could use acupuncture to help with that?” said Monge. “To my surprise, they responded extremely quickly. In less than a week, some of them were 50% better or more. Some of these horses, when we did it early enough, in a matter of three or five treatments, they were close to normal.”

They dragged the air mattress into the center aisle of their foaling barn. They constructed a crib out of straw bales and blankets where the colt could lie in between treatments and feedings. And, for 12 days, they became his constant companions. They would listen for sounds of his shuffling in the straw and lift him up so he could move, then help him lie down when he was tired. Every two hours, they turned him over to prevent sores and lung problems. They created a schedule for his many IV medications. They coordinated treatments for casting and bandaging, shoe adjustments, and acupuncture treatments.

It's safe to say Gumbo has worked his way into his owners' hearts. Photo courtesy Erin O'Keefe

Professional horsemen find a way to separate their emotions from their work. It's the only way to manage, especially with horses who aren't your own, particularly when decisions are inextricably linked to the large and long-running investments in those horses. Gumbo was different.

“Once he came home, he was by no means out of the woods, but I don't think there was any way to stay detached with the level of care he needed,” O'Keefe said. “Ultimately, it was a love of Thoroughbreds that led me to a career in this industry. I have always invested everything I can into the horses in my care, whatever that might look like. Rather than trying to stay detached because things go wrong, I do everything in my power to make sure that when things do go wrong, I know that there is nothing I (or anyone else) could have done differently to achieve a better outcome.”

Horses are not designed to lie down for long stretches, especially in their first days of life. Staying on one side reduces the lungs' ability to inflate, increasing the risk of pneumonia. The pressure of lying down can cause bed sores. If those sores got infected, a foal can go septic. The gastrointestinal tract doesn't stay motile when a horse's body isn't moving regularly. There were all kinds of risks.

The magic of the very young is they are blissfully unaware and unafraid of risk.

Gumbo grew slowly more independent. At a week into life, he couldn't stand on his own, but slowly became able to walk once someone picked him up. At two weeks old, Schmidt and O'Keefe found him a nurse mare (who was hormonally-induced to lactate, so there was no nurse mare foal) and sent Evangeline out with other mares. He spent early summer afternoons snuggling with O'Keefe on a blanket underneath a makeshift awning so he could rest without fear of overheating in the bright sun. They were bottle feeding him, milking off the nurse mare, supplementing his diet, medicating him and applying creams to his sores.

“The body automatically finds the set point of what normal is supposed to be,” said Monge. “The body knows. You just have to help the body heal itself. The body has some innate knowledge of how to heal. You just have to stimulate that process.”


@forrest_gumbo1 Replying to @avianmetal ♬ Sunroof – Nicky Youre & dazy

“We both had a moment where his legs weren't straight yet but I thought, 'Okay. He can exist like this. If they never get any better, he can live and be a healthy, happy horse.' I didn't think he could be a racehorse yet, but he could survive and be happy in a field.”

His shoes came off, and he began standing up on his own. At Day 81 of life, he finished his last dose of medication for a lingering umbilical infection. And although O'Keefe and Schmidt are keeping their expectations low, they have hope that this story will turn out to be a fairy tale.

“We still could have ramifications that could show up from this that could make soundness for racing a concern. I can say confidently I think he could be a dressage horse,” said O'Keefe. “He could have a job. Whether that's racing yet, I don't know. He has not walked 100% normal … because there's still strengthening happening. But conformationally, if you saw him from the side, if you wouldn't know.”

They also have no data to go on telling them whether contracted foals end up as successful racehorses.

“Part of it too, is so many people are so hush hush when this does happen and the horse goes on to be a racehorse, that I don't know,” said Schmidt. “I've been told by vets that they know of some that have gone on to be racehorses.”

Even if he never makes it to the Derby (or even the starting gates) though, Gumbo is slowly gaining his own type of fame. O'Keefe made him a TikTok account to share his journey with the many horse lovers on that platform.

“Rather than spam people on my Facebook with pictures of him every day I thought I'll just put it on TikTok, and if they don't like it, they don't have to follow it,” she said. “Obviously, I'm quite attached to him now, as his TikTok can attest to.”

So far, Gumbo's account has picked up 28,000 likes on TikTok, after one video of him lying down for a nap went viral with 163,000 views. If he does nothing else in life, he will warm the hearts of people who never fed him from a bottle or napped with him in the sun. He can teach people in far-off places about podiatry and orthopedics. But perhaps most crucially, his story can demonstrate the one thing the Thoroughbred industry most desperately needs to convey to the broader world – love.


@forrest_gumbo1 Replying to @roockencrazyrobyn Gumbo is on his way to “normal”#thoroughbred #foal ♬ Happy Mood – AShamaluevMusic

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