August 2015 - The Comeback Kids
Written by Kim F. Miller
Tuesday, 04 August 2015 21:54
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A positive outlook helps Sarah Braun and Perfect Intentions endure harrowing health ordeals, then kick on to Advanced Level win in June.

by Kim F. Miller

By the time Sarah Braun and Perfect Intentions made their long-delayed debut at Advanced level eventing, with a win at Copper Meadows in early June, the four-foot jumps and fast tracks were mere child’s play as obstacles go. The pair had planned to move up to Advanced in 2012, after a successful run in the Two-Star division as members of Area VI’s gold medal team at the North American Young Riders Championships, where they finished individual fifth.

That plan, however, derailed two days after returning to Temecula, where Sarah is head groom for international eventer Hawley Bennett-Awad. Perfect Intentions, aka “Candy,” had broken the point of her right hip in a pasture accident. “She would always walk up to me when I went out to get her in the field,” Sarah recounts of that dreadful day three years ago. “But that day she just stared at me from a distance as I approached.”

Suspecting a below-the-stifle issue, Sarah didn’t notice the big-boned mare’s slightly concaved hip at first. She and others were able to help Candy three-legged hobble back to the barn, where Chris Huth, DVM, of Temeku Equine, used an ultrasound wand to determine that she had broken off the tip of her hip bone, the tuber coxae.

There was no way to know whether Candy could compete again, but Sarah’s main concern was that she be able to live a happy, comfortable life and there was a good chance of that.

Several months of stall rest, in the peak of inland Southern California’s hot season, lay ahead, but the broken hip was only the beginning of Sarah and Candy’s odyssey. A severe colic, repeated bouts of pneumonia, coughing fits that led to a hernia in her abdominal incision and a case of kissing spine arose for Candy in the two-and-a-half years between the pasture accident and their remarkable return to competition early this year. And that’s not to mention the broken foot Sarah sustained, but chose to mostly ignore, last fall.

If there is anybody well suited to handle all that, it’s 22-year-old Sarah, says Dr. Korin Potenza, who owns San Luis Rey Equine Hospital with her husband and fellow DVM, Nick Huggons. “She took it all in stride,” says Dr. Potenza. “You could tell she was disappointed when each new issue came up, but she always kept a positive attitude and she went with the flow. We really believe in the power of positive thinking and so does she.”

The veterinarians’ admiration for Sarah, as a person and a horseman, has grown into a family-like relationship. Sarah now campaigns two of their horses and the couple takes great joy in supporting her accomplishments. Their hospital, located in San Diego County’s Bonsall, is busy, but the whole staff finds time to root Sarah on at every chance and to share in her victories.

A Gift Horse

Candy, a Canadian Thoroughbred, was supposed to be a Christmas present for Sarah, from her mom, Betsy Braun, in 2007. A shipping delay turned her into a New Year’s present instead but did nothing to dampen Sarah’s enthusiasm for her first horse after outgrowing her pony. Candy had been going Novice at the time, but “not too well, so I took my time with her.” The pair moved up a level every year and, after high school, moved from the Bay Area to Temecula to continue their progress with Hawley, with whom Sarah started as a working student.

Sarah, left, and Hawley Bennett-Awad with a healthy, (if sleepy) Candy this past March. Photo: Kim F. Miller

Sarah’s patience in training Candy through the levels laid the foundation for the patience she would need from the pasture accident forward. Time is the only healer for a broken hip and besides pain medication, there was little Sarah could do for her mare. Complete stall rest was the prescription and Sarah complied for the first five or six months. She would occasionally help Candy on a short walk to the wash racks for a cool bath or a good grooming, noticing that her gait was gradually improving. After about six months, Sarah couldn’t stand seeing Candy so bored and confined, so she got the vet’s OK to move her into a 30’ by 30’ paddock. After four months there, Candy was cleared for hand walking, first for 10 minutes then gradually increasing to 30 minutes, then with the added weight of tack.

There were some upsides to Candy’s year-long confinement. “She was a really picky eater before,” Sarah says. “She learned how to eat because she was so bored. Now she’s become a little Miss Piggy.”

About 14 months after the broken hip, Sarah had been able to bring Candy’s fitness back and start jumping. In January of 2014, they ran a Training Level and, in February, a Preliminary.

Two weeks later, colic struck.

Colic & Complications

It was an unforgettable night on many fronts. “We had a massive storm in Temecula,” Sarah recounts. “I went to the barn to check on things and Candy was lying in the middle of a mud puddle. Her blanket was soaked, she was shivering and acting really colicy.” Sarah got her into a stall, put dry blankets on and called Dr. Huth. “He tubed and oiled her and told me to keep an eye on her.” For the next few hours, Candy seemed much improved: interested in food and no signs of stress or discomfort.

That didn’t last.

A wee hours call from the barn owner saying that Candy was “upside down in her stall and unable to stand” sent Sarah speeding back to the stable. A broken waterer suggested the mare had been trashing around and the flooded stall added to an already scary scene. “She was looking in bad shape, trying to go down again.”

Arrangements were made to get Candy to San Luis Rey Equine Hospital immediately. “They put a needle into her abdomen cavity and it came out blood tinged, which was not a good sign,” Sarah recalls. “She needed to get on the operating table right away.”

Exploratory surgery revealed approximately 20 feet of small intestine “that was pretty much dead,” Sarah explains. That’s the most complicated and expensive part of the intestine to operate on, and Candy was given a 50/50 chance of surviving the procedure. Even when they cut out those 20 feet of intestine, there was a question whether the “angry” tissue at each end would fuse together successfully. It happened that Sarah’s mom was visiting, and a quick conference between Sarah, Betsy and Hawley resulted in a green light that others might not have given.

Candy emerged from surgery and recovery later that day and was faced with five or six days on IV fluids only. A nasogastric tube helped her eliminate the stomach contents she could not pass naturally.  Once she stopped refluxing and started passing manure, she was able to start eating and it seemed like Candy might be over the hump. Instead, she began having coughing fits that were eventually traced to a persistent fungus in her lungs. Those fits fatigued the incision and caused Candy to develop a hernia at the site.

All in all, Candy spent close to a month at San Luis Rey. Sarah can’t say enough about the high quality of care, kindness and generosity she received from the hospital’s owners and their staff, but she was thrilled to get Candy home.

Another few months of stall rest and close observation of the incision site followed. While at home, the mare had bouts of pneumonia and the last one required her to return to San Luis Rey Hospital for another 12 days in early May.

Later in May, she came home for good and was able to make another gradual return to work. She was walking under tack by June, cantering by August and jumping a little by September. Dreams of returning to competition at Galway

Downs that November, of 2014, began to seem realistic until, two days before the show, Sarah got stepped on and broke her foot.

“I was not very happy!” says Sarah, whose laugh today only hints at the heartbreak of yet another setback. She took only a fraction of the time off her doctor recommended. “I went back after three weeks. I just could not stand it!” The foot still hurts and is a little numb, she admits. Yet it pales compared to what she’s already been through watching Candy suffer and recover, time and again.

That latest bit of bad news was counterbalanced by the very good and well-deserved news that Sarah had earned the US Eventing Association’s Christine E Stafford Groom of the Year award.

A New Attitude

“Candy has a different temperament after all this,” Sarah says. “She always loved to work, but now she really does. She’ll trample me to get into the trailer and she wasn’t like that before. She doesn’t want to be left behind.” Similarly, Sarah’s appreciation for Candy and for the sport has grown from already huge to unquantifiable. “Every day I come out to the barn and I just love my horse more and more.”

As for practical matters, Sarah is grateful for her policy with Markel Insurance. “It actually covered way more, about $10,000, than we thought it would and they were great about it,” she says. In the heat of deciding whether to approve the colic surgery, Hawley advised Sarah not to let costs stand in the way. The trainer spearheaded fundraising efforts that raised close to $7,000. There are still bills to pay, but the hospital has been more than generous, Sarah says.

Returning to high-level competition and winning their first Advanced, no less, have hopefully put the health issues behind them. “That was really special,” Sarah says of their June Copper Meadows victory. “It was icing on the cake.” From here, it’s one show at a time. Advanced and/or Two-Star competitions through the fall are possibilities, but the main goal is enjoying each day with her now 15 year old Candy.

The value of patience and faith in her instincts were the biggest lessons Sarah learned through Candy’s two-and-a-half-year ordeal. “During Candy’s colic, several people told me I needed to make a different decision and that I should not put myself through the pain,” she shares. “I’m so happy that I didn’t listen to them.” The experience also “showed me how many people really support me, how many friends we have. It brought us all closer together and we made new friends along the way.”

San Luis Rey’s Equine Hospital’s owners, Drs. Potenza and Huggons, have become “a huge part of my life and I can never thank them enough for what they’ve done for me,” Sarah reflects. In addition to sheparding them through Candy’s health crises, the veterinarians have provided Sarah two horses to develop.  During Candy’s recovery last summer, she took on their off-the-track Thoroughbred Crowning Event. She brought him up to his first One-Star and continues to campaign him. More recently, Sarah added the couple’s Swedish Warmblood stallion, Shipwrex, to her string.

“Sarah takes care of them as if they were her own,” Dr. Potenza notes. Backing her as a rider has “become a really special part of our lives. She has a great attitude and outlook and we make a good team!”