Miracle Horse: Caracas 89
Written by Kim F. Miller
Wednesday, 11 October 2017 17:18

Talent Search champion’s recovery from a 27-pound tumor makes him a “Milagro.” 

by Kim F Miller

Jim Hagman knew something was terribly wrong the moment he stepped inside the barn. As his eyes adjusted after coming in from the sunny Winter Equestrian Festival show grounds in Florida, Jim saw two of his top equitation horses standing nose to nose. Vancouver was in his stall, a territory the otherwise gentle horse was known to defend aggressively. Caracas 89 was tied up nearby. The founder of the top show barn, Elvenstar, was terrified that Vancouver would attack Caracas.

Instead, he was saving his stablemate’s life.

Caracas 89 and Halie Robinson winning the USET Talent Search Finals West in late September. Photo: McCool Photography

Jim called out to his grooms to move Caracas. “Caracas had his lips on top of Vancouver’s stall bars and I’m freaking out,” he recounts. “Then, Vancouver looked at me, turns back to Caracas and puts his nose on his, turns back to look at me, then goes nose-to-nose again with Caracas.” Jim didn’t need to get any closer.

“I called our barn manager, Javi (Abad), and told him we needed the vet right away.” The vet had just been there an hour ago, so Javi asked why it was so urgent. “I told him to get the vet back right away because Caracas was dying. Javi asked me how I knew and I told him, ‘Vancouver told me.’”

Jim knows this part of the story sounds crazy, but he has no doubt of its accuracy. After a year of occasional, undiagnosable “not quite right” days and incidents, Caracas was finally succumbing to an “artifact tumor” that had likely been growing since very early in the 9-year-old Holsteiner’s life. The veterinarians, Dr. Axel Beccar Varela and Dr. Meg Miller Turpin, who responded to Elvenstar’s urgent call in Florida came armed with an ultrasound machine that identified a mass in his gut. They confirmed Caracas was a very sick horse. “Even I could tell looking at the ultrasound that the mass was very large and that it shouldn’t be there,” Jim recounts.

Off he was rushed to the nearby Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital.  Scans and tests generated an extremely poor outlook for removing what turned out to be a 27-pound tumor “the size of a Thanksgiving turkey.” Not having dealt with this condition before, the veterinarians wouldn’t know much until they opened Caracas up, but they pegged his survival odds at less than five percent.

Euthanasia was insurance company’s recommendation.

“Yet, on the other hand, this horse is strong,” Jim explains. “He hadn’t lost any weight, he hadn’t been colicy. I felt this horse wanted to live.” He told the vets, “Save this horse if you can, but he is not to suffer.” The vets agreed to operate, cautioning Jim of four situations that would make it a lost cause:  The tumor was entangled with small intestines or other organs or attached to an area of major vascular tissue; if there was an internal infection; or he lost too much blood during the procedure.

Dr Lisa Fultz with Equine Medicine Specialists of South Florida co- managed the case with Dr. Jose Bras, who performed the surgery.

Seven and a half hours later, none of those conditions presented themselves. Ninety minutes after surgery, Caracas had come out of anesthesia and was able to stand on his own in his stall. “He didn’t thrash, he didn’t struggle,” Jim reports. “Within three days he was on his full diet and we’ve never looked back.”

Caracas with Taylor Griffiths after their third place finish, among a field of 52, in the Talent Search East Finals in Gladstone, NJ.

Fulfilling His Purpose

“Never looked back” is an understatement. Seven months after his February surgery, Caracas did what he was purchased to do: help an Elvenstar team member win the challenging four-round USEF Talent Search Finals. On September 22-23, that team member was longtime Elvenstar rider and working student Halie Robinson, who took top honors in the West Finals, while Caracas earned the judges’ vote as best horse. Two weeks later, he helped Taylor Griffiths into the top four among 50-plus starters in the USET Talent Search Finals East in Gladstone, NJ, where they finished third after the horse-swapping final round.

Jim bought Caracas in Germany in July of 2015. He was a 7-year-old doing well in the 1.35M and 1.4M jumper divisions. Per his practice, the trainer was not looking on behalf of a specific client, but simply for a good horse. “If I find a horse I like, I find a way to buy him.”

He was a tad hesitant to turn the “lovely jumper” into an equitation horse, but recognized Caracas as perfect for the Talent Search, which seeks to identify and prepare riders aspiring to the international jumper track. Intelligence, tractability, scope and a great jump were the horse’s key qualities.

Within a few months of settling in at Elvenstar in Ventura County’s Moorpark, Caracas established himself as a star for several riders. He helped Kayla Lott win the USEF Hunt Seat Medal Finals Regional and the LAHJA Junior Medal Final and a top 10 finish in the ASPCA Maclay Regionals. Samantha Gastelum and Hailey Link were among others partnered successfully with Caracas during the following year.

The first hint of trouble surfaced in the spring of 2016. He was sometimes harder to get quiet, didn’t want to stand still and had a few awkward jumps when “it looked like his back legs forgot to leave the ground,” Jim explains. “For a horse with such a naturally talented jump, we wondered where that was coming from.” The first of a few sporadic days when “he just felt weird” occurred.

At each strange behavior, Caracas underwent thorough veterinary exams that never identified a problem. He hadn’t lost weight, wasn’t lame or colicky and, until the very last, never had a fever. He was carefully monitored and used sparingly. Successes were interspersed with out-of-the-blue occurrences that defied explanation. In the August of 2016 CPHA Junior Finals, Samantha finished second with him. That September, he and Halie Robinson’s USET Talent Search quest was stymied by another weird jump in the gymnastic phase.

On balance, Caracas seemed fine and joined the Elvenstar crew at the Winter Equestrian Festival in January. He was leased there by the Link family, who, Jim recounts, “did everything right by Caracas” in the unexpected events that arose.

Always Something To Learn

The year-long mystery began to reveal itself when Jim got a wee-hours phone call that Caracas had a 103-degree temperature. At the time, January of 2016, there was an outbreak of EHV-1 virus in California and Jim worried that might be the source of the fever. That test came back negative, and the fever initially responded to antibiotics. He was lethargic and slept a lot, but showed no signs of a cold or flu. After four days without a fever, Caracas went off for a morning ride that didn’t last long. “Halie called me to come look at his canter,” Jim says. “It was like a one-inch stride. I got on to trot and canter him and I’ve never felt anything like it.” He got off right away to call the vet again, even more scared that it might be the EHV-1 virus. “There was no logic to it.”

More tests came back negative for herpes, but did show a slightly elevated white blood cell count, indicating an infection. Jim eschews overuse of antibiotics and agreed with the vet’s suggestion of immune system boosters and the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, Banamine. Close monitoring and stall rest followed for a few days, with Caracas eating normally and seeming to feel better but still not quite right. It was the next morning that Vancouver and Caracas had their tête-à-tête in the barn aisle.

The infection was the body’s response to necrotic tissue. The tumor was dying because it could no longer be fed by Caracas’ vascular system. Had they not gotten him into surgery that afternoon, a fatal rupture awaited, Jim explains.

Along with his life, Caracas was given a nickname that day by Elvenstar’s grooms: “Milagro,” which is Spanish for “miracle.”

Caracas stayed on in Florida with Dr. Varela to recover, returned to Elvenstar in May and was easily returned to form for his third show back, the USEF Talent Search Finals West. It was Halie’s last year of eligibility and she and Jim were thrilled to feel that Caracas was up to the task.  A study-abroad student in Holland at the time, the Chapman University junior received her counselors’ permission to come home for the competition and the pair dominated the four-round event held at the Oaks Blenheim venue in San Juan Capistrano.

After the top four riders completed a shortened course on each other’s horses, Halie was the winner and Caracas was voted Best Horse by the judges. Having both earn those top honors was “certainly the carrot on the cake,” Jim says. The cake was “seeing the joy in his jump and watching him go with all the other kids in the rider switch. They were all thinking he was going to be the hardest horse to ride, yet he was amazing.”

Jim sensed that Caracas knew what he had accomplished. “Horses are smart. They have instincts and feelings and they know when they’ve done something well.”

Having Vancouver convey the urgency of Caracas’ condition is the latest example of an unusually tight horse-human relationship, Jim explains. Five years ago, Jim refused to give up on the horse after a potentially career-ending fetlock injury. Vancouver has since partnered several riders to medal finals victories and top placings nationally and regionally. “He’s an interesting horse,” Jim reflects. “He’s half-human and he knows me really well and vice versa. The way he looked right at me that morning. He was saying something was really wrong.”

Only 9 years old, Caracas has a bright future. “If he could do all he did with a huge tumor in his stomach, imagine what he can do without it,” Jim shares of one of his instructor’s observations.

In the end, Jim sees old-fashioned horsemanship as the key player in Caracas’ survival. Modern medicine’s technology is a huge help, but not a substitute for experience and wisdom gained by listening to what horses have to teach us.  “There is always something to learn if you really want to know.”