No pain, lots of gain
Yesterday, the 16-year-old KWPN gelding, Never Say Never jumped in the finals of the Danish Showjumping Championships. He even placed and won a ribbon. Earlier this year, he competed at FEI events in Arezzo and Linz. Never Say Never did so despite having been de-nerved to relieve caudal foot pain in 2015. The Danish Equestrian Federation knows. So does the FEI. If he is allowed to continue to compete, it will set a new precedent for riding de-nerved horses in elite competitions.
Never's return to international showjumping has not been without controversy. Frank Nalepa, Never Say Never's farrier since he was a young horse, says he felt bad for the horse and tried to persuade the owners, the Dresler family, to retire him. “I knew Never had been de-nerved because Thomas Dresler took me aside and let me know to be careful because the horse had been de-nerved. He said they had to do it twice because the horse still wasn't sound after the first time.” Mr. Nalepa said he was asked by Thomas Dresler, Never Say Never's rider, to keep this knowledge to himself. Each time the horse came back bandaged from the clinic, the official story was that Never had been to the spa.
According to Mr. Nalepa, he raised the issue with Mr. Dresler. “I told him I thought the horse had served him well and didn't deserve to be treated this way. His right front foot is finished. If Thomas had wanted to let his daughter ride the horse over one meter jumps, I wouldn't have said anything. But I think what they are doing is wrong and I told him so. In the end, I stopped working for him. I had 20 horses there but I couldn't be part of that.” It was Mr. Nalepa's call to the Danish Equestrian Federation that alerted officials to the fact that Never had been nerved.
Although they concede that Never Say Never has indeed undergone neurectomy, the Dresler family sees the matter very differently from their now former farrier. Thomas Dresler was not available for comment but his wife and business partner, Julie Dresler, says that Mr. Nalepa is only bringing up this issue because he holds a grudge against her family. She maintains that Never's foot injuries healed themselves and that this is why the horse is able to jump again. “I have no doubt this is what happened” she says. “If I did, we would not be riding him. We have had him since he was three years old and he is a member of our family. We look after him well and we trust our veterinarians”.
Veterinary Surgeon Michael Hansen from the equine hospital “Højgård” in Fünen, Denmark, provided us with a copy of the standard discharge papers used for horses who have undergone neurectomy at his clinic, including Never Say Never. They state: “you are reminded that the horse's ability to feel pain in the caudal foot is not present, and it is therefore of the utmost importance that the hooves are checked daily and the legs palpated for swelling or heat. If there is any doubt, your practicing vet must be called at once. You are simultaneously reminded that horses who have undergone neurectomy may not be trained for or take part in competitions.” Højgård's discharge papers also state that the purpose of a neurectomy is to: “remove chronic pain in the back part of the hoof of a limb which medical treatment had failed to heal.”
Mrs. Dresler is not worried that putting Never back into the sport is putting him at risk. “The horse has been through countless clinical exams and scans and nobody has any doubt he has feeling in that leg. He has been given the time he needed to heal and because of this treatment he has not been in pain. That's why he can go to shows again. We have it black on white that he is allowed. We have followed recommendations from the vets and the Danish Equestrian Federation has cleared him to compete.” You can read about the Danish federation disciplinary ruling here.
The Danish Equestrian Federation's veterinary consultant had recommended that Never Say Never should no longer be eligible to compete, due to the de-nerving procedure and the uncertainty surrounding the available methods of measuring sensitivity. Aside from any competitive advantage, de-nerving a horse allows him to fully load otherwise painful and likely damaged tissue. Hence, de-nerving a horse in order to get him back into competitions is illegal in Denmark. But that does not apply in Never's case, according to Mrs. Dresler, because she believes he has regained full sensitivity in his limb due to regrowth of the cut nerve. “Of course, a veterinarian needs to check it first like it happened in our case. Professional riders treat their horses with incredible respect. The performance horses I know are treated better than our old people are in a retirement home. We trust our vets and always consult them first.”
Apart from the Dreslers' own vet, Linus Camitz, the veterinarians who cleared Never to compete - including Danish team vet Jonas Rasmussen - represent the same equine hospital, Højgård, where the procedure was performed in the first place. The Dreslers don't see this as a problem, Julie Dresler explains.“The horse has been checked by our own vet every 14 days since the procedure” says Mrs. Dresler. “We didn't choose to send him to the team vet as well. That was the equestrian federation's decision”.
Mrs. Dresler doesn't think it has any relevance that the vets who cleared Never to compete work at Højgård. “The procedure was done by a different vet. There are many vets over there” she points out.
Højgård Hestehospital (the last word means horse hospital) is a very large practice – Denmark's largest, most prestigious equine hospital where many top horses go for treatment. Danish team vet, Jonas Rasmussen, who is also part of Højgård, denies any conflict of interest. “We were two veterinarians examining the horse and we mostly agreed in our observations. We have no interest in whether the horse competes or not and we have gained nothing by his return to competitions. We just described our treatment of him and his status now” Jonas Rasmussen said.
All this leads to a few unanswered questions (which we're working on): If the conclusion to Mr. Dresler's disciplinary matter with the Danish Equestrian Federation had been that Never Say Never was indeed doped as a result of the neurectomy or neurectomies when he went back to competition, what consequences would that have had for Højgård Hestehospital where the – in such a case – performance enhancing surgery had been performed? And how would such consequences affect a Danish team vet who worked at the same practice? How would it have affected vet Terkel Kjær who is a part owner of the hospital? Finally, to what degree might such possible consequences affect the objectivity of the Højgård vets to perform a test so vulnerable to even subconscious bias as a skin sensitivity test. Finally, there is the question of how much an expertly done neurectomy to a distal part of the limb would affect skin sensitivity on a permanent basis.
Mrs. Dresler stresses that Never's neurectomy was not done for hers or her husband's sake but for the horse's welfare. "We did it to save him. Never's rehabilitation went so well he almost came back stronger and he feels great now. That's why we've competed him three times now with great success" she says.
We asked Jonas Rasmussen how common it is for a navicular bone to heal itself as it is claimed Never's did in this case. “We have done several MRI scans on Never Say Never and we have therefore known exactly what injuries he had and been able to give him the best possible treatment in order to heal. We do lots of MRI scans every year and a number of horses have similar injuries and luckily we are able to get some of them sound with the right therapy.”
This statement contradicts the notice from the discharge papers sent to us by Højgård surgeon Michael Hansen and the words of Mrs. Dresler. These sources have not yet had time to answer the following, but here goes: If neurectomies are done to remove pain from horses with untreatable, chronic foot pain, how is it that 16-year-old Never Say Never is allegedly jumping better than ever due to quality diagnostic imaging and excellent veterinary care? Will these incredible clinical results be published? And what happened to Mrs. Dresler's statement that the Højgård vets were not the Dreslers' own vets but the Danish Equestrian Federation's choice for ruling out that performance enhancing surgery made Never's comeback possible?
Mrs. Dresler believes that veterinary science has now perfected the de-nerving procedures to a point where the equestrian federations need to change their rules to accommodate riders with horses like Never Say Never so they don't necessarily have to be retired post neurectomy. “Never is fit for fight. He is well. When that's no longer the case, he will of course retire with us at home. The rules need to be modernised in step with the progress and I feel certain that is going to happen. I think the disciplinary ruling in our favour is a step in the right direction” she says.
Frank Nalepa hopes that Never Say Never will soon get to be retired. "I have shod him almost all his life" he says. "I put on his very first set of shoes and I like him a lot. He is a nice horse."
"I have nothing against the Dreslers. This is not personal, it's about the horse. I actually agree with Julie Dresler that he jumps better than ever. But you have to ask yourself why that is."