Canada's Cross-Country Comeback Kid Flies High on Rebuilt Tendon

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by Fran Jurga | 1 October 2009 | The Jurga Report at

It's not over 'til it's over. And it's not over yet for Jessica Phoenix and her talented event horse named Exploring.

When I heard that this horse had injured a tendon just before leaving for Hong Kong to compete in the Olympics last summer, I thought I had surely heard the last of him. But, lo and behold, he turned up on the entry list at Blenheim*** Horse Trials in England a few weeks ago and completed the arduous event.

This is surely a sign that he is not only back, but in world-class form. Jessica finished 24th on her horse Exponential and Exploring's 40th place completion was good enough to qualify both horses to represent Canada in the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky.

Exploring returned to competition this July, just a year after stem cell treatment to repair his damaged superficial digital flexor tendon (SDFT). At the Maui Jim Horse Trials near Chicago a flowing dressage test combined with foot perfect cross country and show jumping rounds took them to fourth place; at Wits End CIC 3* World Cup Qualifier in Ontario in August, they achieved 10th place.

Exploring, known at home as Digby, is 16.2hh, 12-year-old Thoroughbred gelding and is Jessica's top 3* horse in a string of five that she owns and rides. Purchased as a four-year-old, Exploring has steadily bounced up the grades with his determined rider. In 2007 they were members of the Canadian Pan American eventing team in Brazil before they were selected for the Canadian Olympic team in 2008, but then disaster struck.

Jessica recalls: "Following our last gallop just before heading out to Hong Kong for the Beijing Olympics we noticed heat in Exploring's left foreleg. Our team vet, Dr Christiana Ober, promptly scanned the leg and diagnosed a classic core lesion of the SDFT. It was one of the most heartbreaking times of my life."

Dr. Ober referred Exploring to the Toronto Equine Hospital near Jessica's home for stem cell treatment.

Under the expertise of Dr Peter Vatcher, bone marrow (which is a rich source of stem cells) was taken from Exploring's sternum while he was under sedation. The stem cells were isolated and multiplied to in excess of ten million and then injected into the site of the injury. This process is licensed under the British company VetCell, and is now available for horses with leg injuries all over the world. The aim is to promote re-growth of the flexible tendon tissue rather than allow less pliable and more injury-prone scar tissue to form.

After treatment Dr. Ober monitored Digby's progress with ultrasound and oversaw his rehabilitation program which involved a slow, incremental exercise plan, culminating in a return to full flat work by the end of January 2009. Ober traveled with Jessica and Exploring to their first post-treatment events and was impressed with their performance. She said: "The leg looked super at Blenheim and we are now looking forward to him competing at the Rolex (Kentucky) 4* next spring."

Canada did not win that gold medal in Hong Kong in the show jumping by accident. They have a lot of exciting talent in all the disciplines and they are gunning for WEG. How wonderful that Exploring and Jessica will have another chance, and so soon after the injury. In "the old days" he would have been laid up much longer, and with much "iffier" results. Technology has put that horse back in the running.

Thanks to Sarah Shepherd of Bright Bay Public Relations in England for the superb photo of Jessica and Exploring at Blenheim, and for her help with this article.