Warmbloods Today — September/October 2012
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Catch A Star's Meteoric Comeback
Amber Heintzberger

One year after suffering third-degree burns, Catch a Star and her partner Caitlin Silliman miraculously conquer their first three-star event.

In May of 2011, life as they knew it changed for Caitlin Silliman and her gray Holsteiner mare Catch a Star, fondly called Hoku. The pair was entered to compete at the Bromont three-day event, having just placed second in their very first CCI** at the Jersey Fresh Three-Day Event. In addition, they were aiming to compete at the Fair Hill International CCI*** that fall.

Hoku (by Cafi, out of the Thoroughbred Star of History) was born in 2000 at Kingsway Farm in Temecula, California. (Incidentally it was the same farm and year that Gin ‘n Juice, Canadian Hawley Bennett-Awad’s 2012 Olympic horse was born.) Caitlin had purchased Hoku in partnership with Brad Johnson in 2010. By all accounts, the mare’s eventing career with Caitlin on board was progressing extremely well, beginning with a first place win at Bucks County Horse Park (PA) in September 2010.

Unfortunately, the 2011 Memorial Day fire at True Prospect Farm was devastating and altered their plans in a big way. It took a year for the pair to finally make the trip to Canada to compete at Bromont. Not only did they finish fifth in their very first CCI*** at Bromont this past June, they also came home with the best-conditioned horse award. Given that Caitlin’s beloved mare sustained the most severe external injuries of the surviving horses in the well-publicized fire, her comeback was nothing short of amazing. (For full coverage of the fire, see “Rising from the Ashes,” in the November/December 2011 issue of Warmbloods Today.)

That Fateful Night

On Memorial Day weekend last year, Caitlin and her boyfriend, event rider Ryan Wood, were woken by friend Lillian Heard yelling that there was a fire in the barn. The three of them were sleeping upstairs in an apartment above one of the barns at Olympian Phillip Dutton’s True Prospect Farm in West Grove, Pennsylvania, a barn which U.S. eventing team member Boyd Martin was leasing.

Though they managed to get five horses out of the blaze, six horses—including Lillian’s mare Ariel—died in the fire that night. Three surviving horses were rushed the seven miles to University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center: Boyd’s four-star event horse Neville Bardos; Otis Barbotiere, his mount for the 2012 Olympic Games; and Caitlin’s 12-year-old grey mare Hoku.

Of the horses admitted that day, Hoku suffered the most extensive exterior burns as well as smoke inhalation and lacerations to her face. After Caitlin was released from the local hospital for evaluation, she didn’t leave her horse’s side. And even though the outlook was uncertain, she never lost faith in the mare. That faith in her partner, together with the expert care available at both New Bolton and the Fair Hill Therapeutic Center, helped bring Hoku back better and stronger than ever.

Boyd remarks that he has admired Caitlin’s commitment, heart and no-quit attitude in caring for her horse. “She never had a day were her spirits were down and she always worked towards getting her mare back to the thing she loves best: eventing.”

Rehab

It was a long, tedious process to heal Hoku’s wounds and then bring her back to the highest level of fitness. Caitlin recalls, “She came back much faster than anyone anticipated, but it was still quite a process. After the fire she was in the hospital almost three weeks, out at the end of June.”

While Neville Bardos had no significant external injuries from the fire, he suffered from smoke inhalation. Hoku’s lungs were in better shape than Neville’s, but her skin was a horrible mess.

Dr. Samantha Hart, who treated Hoku, explains that the mare had third degree burns (full thickness burns through all layers of the skin) covering approximately 15% of her body. “The early prognosis for her for survival—that is, surviving to discharge from the hospital after intensive treatment—was good, as she was relatively systemically healthy and did not have any evidence of significant smoke inhalation injury,” says Dr. Hart. “But the prognosis for her to be able to be ridden again in the future was poor.”

The greatest extent of Hoku’s burns were across her dorsum (topline, around the withers and over her back), which is the most common area for burns to occur in horses. According to Dr. Hart, unfortunately, when severe burns like these heal, they usually heal with sub-par quality tissue. It is not normal skin that returns; it is more like scar tissue which is very prone to being re-traumatized. “Most of the time,” she says, “horses that recover from severe burns like this are not able to be ridden because of the continued trauma to this weaker tissue.”

Treating Hoku took patience and ingenuity. Caitlin treated the burns with about a pound of silver sulfedine cream twice a day. In addition, Hoku was on meds to manage the pain. She was only allowed outside when it was dark because of her burns, and one of the big risks was for laminitis because there was such trauma to her body. Since her skin hurt she did not often lie down, so Caitlin had to get her out of the stall and move her around as often as she could.

Having stood by Caitlin through Hoku’s rehab, boyfriend Ryan Wood, who works as an assistant rider for Phillip Dutton, says, “Never give up, never stop trying. No matter what people told Caitlin, she kept believing in Hoku and cared for her day and night. Caitlin’s life revolved around Hoku’s recovery and care, even hand grazing her until midnight for months and months. Theirs is an unbelievable comeback demonstrating the bond between the horse and person. It’s horsemanship at its best.”

The barn at True Prospect was a write-off. The surviving horses were transferred to Delaware Equine from New Bolton and eventually to a new property that Boyd Martin and his wife Silva had planned to slowly develop into their dream facility, Windurra USA. Those plans had to be expedited with affordable stabling so that Boyd’s event horses would have a place to live.

Vital Skin Protection

At Delaware Equine Caitlin rigged up screens around the stall so that no bugs could reach Hoku. When Boyd moved his horses to his new farm, Caitlin took Hoku to neighbor Suzanne Kloud’s barn across the street, because it was nice and quiet and dark.

The burns blistered badly and infection was a huge concern. “We left the flaps of skin over them until the new skin looked healthy, and then [Dr.] Kevin [Keane] started cutting off bits of skin,” Caitlin explains. “Finally the skin sloughed off and she lost most of the hair on her body, except for her head and legs. We were lucky, because the ash and debris was a cause of concern for her vision, but her eyes were fine.” Photo courtesy Boyd Martin Photo courtesy Caitlin Silliman Photo courtesy Boyd Martin

Following the fire, Amy and Bruce Jackson at Fair Hill Therapeutic Center let the horses that survived use their hyperbaric chamber. “I think Hoku’s skin healed well because of that, and I also think that’s a big reason Nev made it to Burghley,” says Caitlin, referencing Neville Bardos’ amazing and well-publicized return to the highest level of eventing competition, finishing seventh at the Burghley CCI**** in England only eight weeks after the fire.

“I took Hoku in to New Bolton again before we went to Aiken last winter, and they told me that she is not likely to grow much hair because the pigment in her skin changed. Even if it grows, it’s likely to get rubbed off. They encouraged me to try riding her and said if her skin didn’t hold up, we could talk about skin grafting.”

Today much of Hoku’s hair has grown back, but she has no hair and pink scarring from the bottom of her withers to the middle of her back, and lots of scarring on both shoulders. “She also has all these little lines all over here where the hair didn’t grow back,” says Caitlin. “Luckily it’s all black skin, so she can spend some time in the sun. I put cream on her now and then, but the skin needs to get tougher, so I don’t overdo it. I also put something like Aquaphor on it before cross-country, and she still has to be covered up all the time. Ryan found all these cotton sheets from Australia that keep the horses cool and protect them from the sun.”

To protect Hoku’s skin while riding, Caitlin puts a Fleeceworks-brand sheepskin pad under her regular saddle pad and the saddle over that. She also uses a frictionless saddle pad, made by Ecogold, with no seam down the middle. “Nothing has rubbed her, so I don’t want to change anything I’m doing!” she says. “After Bromont, though, I think we’re in good shape with her skin, so that’s exciting.”

Besides the care Hoku received at New Bolton Center to begin her road to recovery, Dr. Hart believes that Caitlin’s dedication was essential to the mare doing so well. “We are talking about months of intensive care to ensure the healing tissue stays moist and clean, making certain Hoku didn’t go outside in any adverse weather conditions. Caitlin could not allow her burns to be exposed to sunlight or anything that would cause damage or discomfort,” she says. “I kept in touch with Caitlin throughout the rehabilitation period and was extremely impressed with her dedication.”

Conditioning Program

One of the main concerns for any horse or human that has been through a fire is smoke inhalation. Fortunately Hoku’s lungs were in great shape which made it possible for Caitlin to bring her back to peak fitness in only a few months’ time once her burns had healed.

“One of the things I was most concerned about at Bromont this year,” Caitlin continues, “is that while I was walking cross-country with Boyd and Phillip, they kept talking about how the horses would be so tired. So naturally I thought that if their horses were going to be tired, what would Hoku be feeling? Most of the horses at Bromont had done the fall three-day, while Hoku didn’t do her first gallop until March (eight months after the fire). Suddenly I was worried we were in way over our heads. I was also worried about how hard I could ride her. It was a real credit to Boyd’s fitness program that she was even fitter than his horse! He had her perfectly fit to do a three-star in just a couple months, which is so impressive.”

Explaining Boyd’s conditioning program, Caitlin says, “In the winter we do 3.5 minutes of slow cantering, or about a mile, with 30-second rest intervals. Then there’s a fantastic hill here in Pennsylvania over by Bruce Davidson’s farm called Nelson’s Hill. It’s a long hill and takes anywhere from a minute and a half to two minutes to climb up. It’s a long, steady climb and really works the horses hard; we trot up once, then canter slowly up, then do maybe prelim speed. Boyd has it figured out and can tell you how many times your horse needs to go up and at what speed. A lot of racehorses use it too and they keep the grass really well groomed, so the footing is good. We’re lucky to be able to use it, and this spring the footing stayed perfect.”

She adds that Boyd also makes sure the upper level horses walk for 30 to 45 minutes a day before or after they work which contributes to their fitness. Boyd also uses swimming to condition his event horses, but Caitlin was worried about what might happen to Hoku’s skin in the pool. Since even a mild irritation would have meant she couldn’t ride the mare, she didn’t take the chance.

Other than the hyperbaric chamber, Caitlin has not used any alternative treatments or therapies for Hoku. “I’m hesitant to change her program since it’s working,” she says.

Ultimately, Caitlin thinks that Hoku’s break and time off was actually a good thing for the mare, who is not generally an easy keeper and who was already trim and fit for her first two-star at Jersey Fresh when she lost even more weight in the hospital. “New Bolton restored all the vitamins she needed to help her body and skin heal, but she didn’t eat much for a while. Out at Suzanne’s, she became really fat and hairy—she looked like an old, fat horse. I think having the extra weight on her made a big difference in bringing her back.”

Return to Competition

Caitlin is Boyd and Silva Martin’s longest standing employee, having started as a working student for Silva six years ago and eventually working up to assistant rider for Boyd. “Everyone has been so amazing,” says Caitlin. “Boyd and Silva are my bosses, but they are also family to me now. Without Boyd’s positive attitude I probably wouldn’t have made it to the three-star so soon.”

By March this year, Caitlin decided she and Hoku were ready to compete again. She decided at the last minute to enter the CIC at North Carolina’s The Fork, held in April. “I thought I’d never get in, it was such a late entry,” she recalls. But the secretary must have been at her computer because she responded about three minutes after I emailed her and said, ‘No problem, do you want to do test A or B?’ During the long drive home from Aiken I panicked that I had signed up for Advanced! I was calling all my friends for reassurance but instead they all confirmed, ‘The Fork is really hard!’ which didn’t help. But Boyd gave me a plan and luckily it all worked out.”

In preparation for this, their first Advanced event, Silva helped Caitlin by riding Hoku on the flat, bringing the mare’s dressage up to par. “She really took care of her and put a lot of effort in for me,” says Caitlin. “I’ve been a part of their team for so long that we all work together so well—it’s really cool. At The Fork, when I saw the look on Boyd’s face, I could tell he was proud of me for getting around cross-country. I definitely couldn’t do it all without them coaching me—it was a fast track to my first three-star with only one advanced experience leading up to it. All of Boyd’s expertise certainly helped in the whole process.”

The “firsts” have continued for Caitlin and Hoku. In May, they finished ninth at their first CIC***, the Jersey Fresh event. And in June, it was on to Bromont for their first CCI***, a more difficult event where they placed a respectable fifth.

Heart of a Champion

“I think that Hoku is an amazing horse. She has the biggest heart and is the bravest horse—it gives me chills,” Silva remarks. “She wants to get better and improve. I think she’s a different horse just because she’s gone through all this. I’m sure she appreciates being alive!”

Silva continues, “Caitlin is an amazing person—she has hung in there for so many years. She’s had the worst luck, with lame horses and everything you can imagine. Every morning she shows up and tries a hundred and ten percent, and even after the fire she never talked about quitting or giving any less than hundred and ten percent. If I have a busy schedule and can only help her at 5:00 a.m., she’s ready at 4:30 and has the horse walked and ready to go. That’s why she’s going to be a champion—she’s going to make it, that girl!”

While Boyd was away in England preparing to ride at the Olympics, Caitlin remained at home in Pennsylvania keeping his young horses going and eventing every weekend with continued training from Silva. This fall Caitlin is aiming Hoku for the Fair Hill International CCI***. If they continue as planned, the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** could be in their future—the pair has already qualified for 2013.

“This whole experience has been awesome—I’m so proud of Hoku. Her success at Bromont shows how much this horse loves her job!” says Caitlin fondly. “Hoku enjoys what she does and she’s such a ‘tryer.’ My ultimate dream is to take Hoku to Rolex Kentucky next April. If we get there, I couldn’t ask for a better partner.”
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