Vetting the vets
In other sports, anti-doping is a matter of fairness to one's competitors. You dope, you cheat. In equestrian sport, there is a darker side to the question. It's one thing to numb your own body and smash it to pieces in pursuit of glory. But someone else's body? Someone with no say? To dope a horse - whether by surgery or prohibited substances - is to put that horse at risk of terrible injury. The story of Anton is testament to that. We took a peek into his journals to try to figure out his story.
When Never Say Never was cleared to compete by the disciplinary board of the Danish Equestrian Federation based on statements from veterinarians Jonas Rasmussen and Terkel Kjær from Denmark's biggest private equine hospital, Højgård Hestehospital, it was not the first time a horse de-nerved at Højgård was made to compete at high level again. The same thing happened to Anton.
Anton was de-nerved on both front legs at Højgård in October 2012 in order to remove the pain from lesions to his deep digital flexor tendon and bursitis in the right front limb. His journal describes his prognosis as "poor". Neither Jonas Rasmussen or Terkel Kjær performed the surgery – that was done by Højgård's surgeon Michael Hansen - but both Mr Rasmussen and Mr Kjær were involved in the care of the horse and would have read his journal. We have approached Anton's former rider and co-owner, Kristina Brunander who confirms that Anton was indeed de-nerved in 2012 following a period of lameness.
We have asked the vets at Højgård about this case, but we are still waiting for their replies. In the meantime, here is what happened next to Anton as far as we can piece together the story.
Less than three months after Anton's stitches were removed, he was back on the showjumping course. On February 3rd 2013, Anton won a ribbon in the 1.10 m class at Holte Riding Club, North of Copenhagen. The rider was Thomas Dresler -the same rider who competes another de-nerved horse – Never Say Never – at international level. Dresler also braved the 1.20 m class aboard Anton that day. And the week after – still less than four months after the nerves were cut in Anton's front legs and less than three months after the stitches were removed – Anton jumped again. This time in a 1.30 m class, also at Holte.
Mrs. Julie Dresler, speaking on behalf of her husband, says the Dreslers had no idea the horse had been de-nerved. “There is no truth to that story” she says. “The owner, Kristina Brunander, boarded him here with us for a short while and she asked Thomas to compete the horse because he was coming back from a break. I am sure Kristina would have told Thomas if what you are saying is correct”.
Who knew what about Anton is word against word at this point. But in the interest of transparency, we should put that Mrs. Dresler works for Mr. Brunander. And that Mr. Brunander covertly shares his email correspondence with Epona.tv with the Dreslers. Kristina Brunander seems to be out of this loop. She is also the only one who will admit to having known about the de-nerving of Anton, despite Mr. Brunander's name being on the journal. Finally, Mrs. Brunander says she lost the horse to her former husband in the divorce, which was in 2012 and Mr. Dresler didn't compete the horse in Holte until February 2013, by which time the horse no longer belonged to Mrs. Brunander. "Besides" she adds. "Thomas Dresler is not exactly known for riding people's horses for free and I have never received a bill."
Anton's next post-neurectomy outing after Holte was in Tuscany in March 2013.He jumped a couple of 1.25 m classes at a CSI1* in Arezzo with Mr. Brunander. Then a few more classes before graduating in April to the 1.40 m at a CSI3*. In fact, Anton jumped three classes on April 2nd. Two of them were 1.35 m. One was 1.40 m. He was eliminated from the last one. To the extent that FEI vets checked Anton's legs for hyposensitivity in Arezzo, they don't seem to have picked up any anomalies, because Mr. Brunander can tell us that he has never had a doping case with the FEI.
Jesper Brunander – sort of - denies that his horse was de-nerved. “He has never been “de-nerved” on both front legs” Mr. Brunander said in an email to Epona.tv. “Firstly, it was one front leg that was injured and secondly, the horse was sent on a “spa stay” at Hjortlund several times in order to improve the injury.” Hjortlund is a well known rehabilitation center for horses.
It was not clear from Mr Brunander's reply how exactly these two facts - that Anton was only lame on one leg that Mr. Brunander knew of and that Anton went for several "spa stays" (the citation marks were Mr. Brunander's own idea) - can be used to rule out that Anton was de-nerved on both front legs.
According to the journal, Anton was indeed de-nerved on both front limbs. We don't know why. Sometimes horses are lame in both front legs and when the lameness on one leg is blocked during diagnostics, the lameness on the other leg turns up. In such a case, just de-nerving the leg that was the most lame would not have worked. But it's anyone's guess why it was done.
By May 8th 2013, shortly before his 9th birthday, Anton was back in Denmark for the Absolute Horses Danish Championships event. He had 8 faults with Mr. Brunander in the 1.30 m on the first day of the event. Seven months had passed since he was de-nerved.
There are no more entries for Anton in the FEI or Danish Equestrian Federation databases since that day. Instead, Anton's journal was updated at Højgård Hestehospital just two days later. It doesn't say much. Just: “Lameness”. On May 11th it says: “MRI scan”.
According to the MRI report, Anton's deep digital flexor tendon was severely damaged now, all the way from his pastern joint to where the tendon inserts under the coffin bone, with the worst parts around the navicular bursa and collateral sesmoidian ligament. The MRI showed evidence of previous bleeding, most likely from the tendon and ligament damage. There was also active damage to the navicular bone itself.
It is possible that surgeon Michael Hansen didn't know that the chronically lame horse he de-nerved that day in October 2012 would go back to competing just 4 months later. It is also possible that Jonas Rasmussen didn't know that a horse, who had been de-nerved in both front legs at the clinic where he works just months before, was jumping international classes. But when the horse came back to Højgård with even more irreparable damage to his limbs, shouldn't they have done something? We have asked the relevant authorities and made our documentation available to them. We have asked them: "what is the veterinarian's duty in cases like this?"
It's time to take a look at the roles veterinarians play in our treatment of horses. Too many people have an idea of equestrian veterinarians as apple cheeked, tweed wearing bundles of high morals and good intentions. There is a blind angle where the Frankenvets are concerned, who use their knowledge to assist unscrupulous owners in squeezing out the last drops of glory from a finished horse. In Anton's referral papers sent to the external MRI specialist, his reported history includes these words: "High level show jumper. This horse had bilateral neurectomy BF October 2012" As if those two sentences normally go together. It made us wonder: How common is this? How many horses have had this done? And in how many cases do their current riders have no idea?
The answers are not in the journal from Højgård. Anton's final entry is from July 16th 2013 and is accompanied by the initials JR. “Control. Clinical examination. The horse is lame in walk. Trot-up: The horse is surprisingly good in trot, which is to say 2-3 degrees lame. Lungeing: The same. Recommendation: Wedge shoes.”
Anton eventually died at home. Jesper Brunander informs us he was put down after several attempts to put him back to work, because his injuries refused to heal.
Next week, Denmark hosts the Nations Cup jumping in Uggerhalne. Thomas Dresler has been announced by the Danish Equestrian Federation as one of the selected riders to represent Denmark. He will do so on Never Say Never. Will the FEI allow the de-nerved gelding to compete? They probably will. Mrs. Dresler summed it all up in a celebratory hashtag last weekend when Never Say Never carried her husband to second place in the first round of the Danish Championships. She wrote: #nothingelsematters
Story was edited Fri 29-May-2017 to clarify that Jonas Rasmussen and Terkel Kjær didn't clear Never Say Never, but merely gave the testimony upon which the decision to clear the horse was based.