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Bucking the odds

  • Reinder and his owner Kari Hill

    Bucking the odds

    Reinder the horse overcomes life-threatening foot injury with treatment from Piper Equine Hospital

    Photo by Kara Hakanson Photography

In the five years she’s owned him, Kari Hill has become very familiar with how her horse Reinder operates. 

“He’s pretty full of himself and his abilities,” she says with a chuckle. “But he’s really hard-working. It’s one of those partnerships where he gives you his full attention. I've never had a partnership with a horse like him before.” 

The 15-year-old Friesian is one of three horses owned by Hill, the others being Reinder’s half sister, Bria, and a colt named Gus. The three reside at MonCheval Training Center located in Cannon Falls, Minn. 

A longtime show horse, Reinder has a lot of experience under his belt. He participates in dressage competitions, which require riders and their horses to perform a series of predetermined movements from memory. It takes a lot of coordination and practice, but Hill says Reinder is always willing to put in the work. 

You can tell he enjoys having a job. He enjoys figuring out puzzles. It doesn’t frustrate him. He’s always one to greet you and is ready to go. He wants to get going to work.

Kari Hill

“You can tell he enjoys having a job,” Hills says. “He enjoys figuring out puzzles. It doesn’t frustrate him. He’s always one to greet you and is ready to go. He wants to get going to work.” 

Observing his confident and playful demeanor, one would never know the outlook on Reinder’s future was once bleak. Nearly three years ago, a major injury sidelined him from the work he loved so much. 

Solving a mystery

The trouble started Memorial Day weekend of 2018. On a scorching day with temperatures reaching triple digits, Hill and Reinder were in Mason City, Iowa, for a show. The usually spunky horse seemed subdued. Hill says he still performed as asked, just without his usual vigor. 

Reinder with Kari Hill
Kari Hill and Reinder

“Two days later, we were supposed to have a clinic but he was lame—significantly lame, like he was not really able to walk,” she recalls. “He also had an abscess that had burst through his coronet band on his left hind leg. We just assumed that’s all it was. We treated it for a while but the lameness never really got better.”

The coronet, also known as the coronary band, is the area on the horse’s leg where the hairline meets the hoof capsule. Abscesses affecting this area are a common cause of lameness in horses, but the condition typically improves once the abscess has burst. 

Growing concerned, Hill brought Reinder to the Piper Equine Hospital a few weeks later in early July where he was examined by Fausto Bellezzo, DVM, DACVS. There, Reinder received a battery of tests.

Testing revealed the cause of his pain: a broken navicular bone in his left hind foot. The navicular is a small-disc shaped bone located behind the hoof and functions similar to a heel bone in humans. Injury to the bone and its surrounding soft tissue structure, called the bursa, results in lameness, which Reinder was experiencing. How Reinder broke the bone is unclear.

For a human, breaking a bone in the foot might mean surgery or a corrective boot. For a horse, the outlook is not as rosy. Injuries to the navicular used to mean retirement for the affected horse, but advances in diagnosis and treatment are helping veterinarians and horse owners better manage a horse’s pain. 

Facing reality

Reinder’s diagnosis kicked off a long road of recovery. He received medicine to help manage his pain and reduce inflammation in the injured areas of his foot and was put on stall rest, which meant he needed to remain as still and as quiet as possible—a tough ask for a boisterous and vocal horse. 

A bar shoe was placed on Reinder’s left hind foot as part of the treatment plan. This device prevents the contraction of the heel, in turn providing some relief to the potential pain caused by the expansion and contraction of the heels during walking. A wedge that elevated Reinder’s heel also was incorporated into the shoe to reduce the pressure the broken navicular bone was putting on a nearby tendon. To balance out the added height, his right hind foot received a regular steel shoe with a wedge. 

Bellezzo, Hill, and Reinder’s trainer at MonCheval Training Center, Mindy Price, worked as a team to monitor and treat the horse. Progress was slow, and Hill’s thoughts were often consumed with worry. Her once plucky horse seemed withdrawn and detached. 

“I went through a period of grieving,” she says. “He was my partner. He was still there but you didn’t know what his future was going to be like, you didn’t know what his quality of life was going to be. It was really hard to get through that because there weren’t any answers. You just had to wait and see.”  


Back in the saddle

Hill visited Reinder at MonCheval often, doing what she could to keep him comfortable and encourage progress. She worked closely with Price, who owns and operates MonCheval, and has extensive experience with creating rehabilitation plans for horses. 

Early on, walking the short distance from his paddock to the barn for brushing would exhaust him. In late fall of 2018, Reiner had made enough progress for Hill to begin hand walking him for short periods of time. The first few times she brought Reinder out for walking, she said he seemed like he was in disbelief that he was allowed to participate in the activity. 

Hill riding Reinder
Kari Hill and Reinder

Hill found herself in disbelief a few months later in January. While at work, she opened up an email from Bellezzo telling her that Reinder had progressed enough that she could ride him for a few minutes at a time. 

“I remember being at work and was like ‘What? You told me I might never ride him again!’” she says. “I reread it, I reread it again, and then I was like ‘Oh my God, I have to go, I need to leave work, I need to get to the barn!’”

Reunited as rider and horse, Hill cycled between walking and trotting Reinder as part of his continued rehabilitation. It was tough at first, with Hill constantly concerned about hurting him during a ride. Still, the pair pushed on and she would send videos of his progress to Bellezzo, who says he couldn’t believe he was watching footage of the same horse. 

“I was really not very optimistic about his prognosis of coming back to his same level of performance, and did tell Kari that the more likely scenario would be retirement,” Bellezzo says. “I was wrong, and I am happy that I was.” 

Every single opportunity to be by him and ride him in general is such a miracle. He’s a miracle horse.

Kari Hill

Reinder’s progress inspired gratitude in Hill, who admits she shed many tears over the thought of potentially losing her partner. Seeing him push through his recovery made her realize any time she got to spend with him was a gift. 

“I feel like it completely changed my perspective. No matter how terrible of a ride it is, if we’re not clicking, that’s fine,” she says. “If he wants to be a jerk today, that’s fine, it doesn’t matter. If he feels like bucking, that’s great, at least he can buck. Every single opportunity to be by him and ride him in general is such a miracle. He’s a miracle horse.”

The showman returns 

Looking at Reinder today, it’s hard to guess that he was once battling a major injury. In the summer of 2019, he made his debut back on the horse show circuit. Hill brought him to an event hosted by the Central States Dressage and Eventing Association. Reinder competed and won the title of Fourth Level Champion. Fourth Level refers to the highest national level of dressage tests. 

Reinder in his stall

Both Hill and Bellezzo credit one another for Reinder’s recovery. 

“I am glad that he proved me wrong and never looked back,” Bellezzo says. “But credit must be given to Kari. She never gave up on him and did everything she could to make his recovery complete. Her dedication to him was no small part of his recovery.”

For Hill, she says she’s grateful for Bellezzo’s hands-on care during their visits to the St. Paul campus, explaining how he had no problem helping with tasks such as feeding Reinder, playing farrier when his horseshoes needed removal, and taking him out for short walks. The hospital staff also were very accommodating, welcoming Hill and her family for an evening visit before a big day of medical tests for Reinder.  

I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much in my entire life. It was pretty crazy. Yes, it’s a horse, but he’s family.

Kari Hill

“It’s those kinds of things that make you feel comfortable, that make you feel like your horse is important,” Hill says, adding that she felt the staff was incredibly caring and supportive of not only Reinder, but of her as she navigated his difficult road to recovery. “I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much in my entire life. It was pretty crazy. Yes, it’s a horse, but he’s family.”

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