Friday, December 26, 2014

Heather Smith Thomas — Notes from Sky Range Ranch: Breezy’s Comeback from Cancer

Author and regular blog contributor Heather Smith Thomas shares the story of one horse’s adjustment to life after surgery.

Breezy as a five-year-old
In 1996, we bought a young Morgan mare, Carmen Willow Breeze. Just started in training when we brought her home, “Breezy” finished training with my daughter Andrea, who rode her for many years.  Breezy became an excellent cow horse and Andrea enjoyed riding her because she was an ambitious traveler and loved to work cattle.

Andrea riding range on Breezy
Three years ago, when Breezy turned twenty, we bought a younger horse that Andrea has been riding and training. By that time, Breezy had mellowed and was tolerant of young riders, so Andrea’s kids started riding her. Emily (age 14 at the time) rode her a lot during the summer of 2012, helping me ride range while Andrea was gone for weeks at a time working on a fire crew. In 2013 Samantha (age 10) rode her a few times, transitioning from old Veggie (my 7/8 Arabian gelding, who was 27 years old by then and starting to stumble more often).

Sam got along pretty well with Breezy and was able to keep her from going too fast when the mare was feeling hyper. It looked like Breezy would make a good horse for her. We were hoping that Breezy and Sam could be a good team.
We had a lot of good rides that summer, with Sam riding Breezy and eight-year-old Dani riding Ed, while I rode the three-year-old filly.
Then, we noticed a growth on Breezy’s left eye. She’s always had a lot of sclera (the white part of the eye) showing in the back corners of her eyes, and as she’s aged, those areas suffered a lot of irritation from sunlight, flies, and dust. The smooth white tissue became rough and reddened, so we had a vet take a look. He said her eyes were simply irritated and not cancerous. We just kept monitoring them.

Then late that fall, when Breezy was twenty-two, her left eye showed more bumpiness and extra tissue had begun to grow over the edge of her cornea. We had another vet look at it and take a biopsy. This time, it was cancer. Since the growth was on the surface of the eye itself and the vet was unsure how deep it went, her recommendation was to either monitor it and put the mare down when it became a quality-of-life issue, or remove the eye and hope that the cancer had not yet spread. We opted for surgery to try to give Breezy more good years. Her surgery was scheduled for the end of December.

To plan for this major event, we had to help Breezy get used to what it would be like to be sightless on that side. My daughter-in-law Carolyn sewed a couple layers of denim onto an old fly mask to create a special covering the left side of Breezy’s face.
Carolyn made a special eye covering.
Breezy wore it for several weeks.
Andrea led Breezy around a few times with the covering on, to get her used to being handled on that side with no sight. We also borrowed Michael and Carolyn’s trailer and parked it here to give Breezy some practice getting in and out of the trailer (she hadn’t been in a trailer since she arrived at our ranch as a four-year-old).
Andrea led Breezy with the eye covering to get her used to being blind.
On surgery day, a cold day at the end of December, we loaded her with Ed, her old buddy and a veteran trailer traveler, for emotional security, and drove to the clinic where our vet removed Breezy’s eye.
Preparing Breezy for surgery
As soon as she was out from under the anesthesia and back on her feet and stable enough to walk, we loaded her with Ed (who had passed the couple of hours during surgery in a corral behind the clinic) and brought her home. Before surgery, we had tried to get Breezy used to being in our calving barn with another horse for company but she was too nervous and upset in there. We knew she’d be happier out in her pen where she felt more comfortable and where she knew her way around with one eye. We put the padded fly mask over the bandage for warmth and protection during cold and stormy weather. 

During the following weeks we changed the bandage until the sutured area had healed some, keeping that side of her face covered and protected from cold weather with the padded fly mask. Those first two weeks were miserable for Breezy and we kept her on Banamine (a drug to help reduce the pain and inflammation) and antibiotics for about 10 days. By the end of that time, she was doing much better.  

A new bandage for Breezy, before the padded mask is put back on
Breezy was fully healed by spring, and Andrea started riding her to see if Breezy could manage with one eye. I rode with them on Ed and, as long as we stayed on her good side where she could see us, Breezy was totally at ease on all the trails and managed okay traveling over the rugged hillsides.

Andrea riding Breezy for the first time after Breezy’s eye was removed
My granddaughter Sam started riding the mare again as soon as school was out for the summer, and they did fine. Because Breezy’s rider has to be careful not to get too close to brush and trees or a drop-off on her blind side, Sam became more conscientious, trying to be her “seeing eye” person on that side when leading or riding her.
Sam’s first ride on Breezy last spring
To watch them trotting around a mountainside or following cows, you’d never know the mare has only one eye. And Breezy now wears a fly mask all the time in her pen to protect her good eye from sunlight in hopes that it won’t develop cancer, too.
Sam and Breezy on one of their many rides this past summer
Now, a year since her surgery, she continues to do fine, and we trust that she and Sam will have several more good years of riding ahead of them, at least until Spotty Dottie, a Morgan filly I’m training, is well trained and ready to become a dependable horse for Sam. Watching Sam and Breezy confidently leading the group as we ride over the hills on the range, I am very glad that we opted to remove the eye and give Breezy a chance at a longer, happy life.
Sam riding Breezy this fall
Photos courtesy of the author

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey’s Guide to Training Horses, Storey’s Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. She blogs at Her newest book, Horse Tales: True Stories from an Idaho Ranch, published by The Frontier Project, Inc., is now available.

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