© Heather Beach
In 2004, Virginia Tech’s sport-horse breeding program in Blacksburg welcomed a dozen new foals. Although they were destined to become hunters, jumpers, eventers or dressage mounts, the babies first would serve as a real-world education for students in the university’s equine studies program.
They were also a popular attraction. Passersby enjoyed watching the foals cavort in their pasture, speculating about their future prospects. And one youngster was particularly eye-catching. Orion, like his dam, was a loud, tobiano pinto. But his color wasn’t the only thing that made him stand out. He was also athletic and outgoing, obviously a colt who was “going places.”
Orion’s “celebrity status” was reflected in the promotional literature from the program that year, which described the colt in glowing terms: “Orion truly catches the attention of folks who drive by Virginia Tech’s horse pastures. The sale of this young fellow is already being anticipated by individuals who are impressed with his flashy appearance and impressive bloodlines.”
Heather Beach was one of his many fans. “Each day on the way to class I passed the fields where the mares and foals were kept,” says Beach, a Blacksburg native who at the time was a veterinary student in small-animal medicine at Virginia Tech’s Virginia–Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. “Orion was almost a perfect miniature of his mother. His dressage pedigree is very impressive and the program was expecting him to bring a high price at the sale. I had been talking to my fellow vet students about him and even inquired about when he was going to be sold.”
Realistically, Beach knew she couldn’t afford the fancy foal. But she could always daydream.
Beach’s daydreams gave way to a nightmare that autumn. “One of my friends was in the middle of her large-animal rotation in the teaching hospital,” recalls Beach. “She came and found me one day and said that the ‘little baby horse’ I liked was in the hospital as the result of a terrible accident.” As soon as she had a break in her schedule, Beach went to learn more.
Orion and a group of other newly weaned youngsters had been moved to a pasture near the football stadium. Frightened by the loud noises of the next home game, the small herd had panicked and stampeded around their pasture. By the time caretakers could settle the group, Orion had been injured, apparently by running headfirst into a fence post. He had lacerations across the front of his face, but even more disturbing was that he was holding his neck at an odd angle, bent slightly to the left.
“They had taken radiographs and found some very severe damage,” Beach says. “He had multiple fractures of the cervical vertebral bodies and articular processes, but there was minimal displacement of the vertebrae themselves.”
The good news was that Orion’s spinal cord seemed to be unaffected. The weanling showed no signs of incoordination, although he was reluctant to move due to the pain. “He was obviously very sore, despite anti-inflammatory medications,” says Beach. “But he appeared to be perfectly able to move if he decided he wanted to.”
The treatment options were limited. The fractures in his vertebrae were extensive enough that the bone fragments could shift and damage or even sever Orion’s spinal cord. Immobilizing a horse’s neck in a cast isn’t possible, but surgery to stabilize the spine would be extremely challenging. Buried deep within the muscles of the neck, the cervical vertebrae can be difficult to access. But even the logistics of getting the young horse into surgery without further injury would be nearly impossible. “When you knock horses out for anesthesia they go down pretty hard, even in a padded stall,” says Beach. Orion hadn’t lain down on his own since his accident, which had protected his neck and spine from too much movement, but going down under anesthesia would likely be fatal.
The veterinarians at Virginia Tech discussed the treatment possibilities with colleagues at another university hospital renowned for its equine neurosurgery facilities. After extensive review of the radiographs and long conversations about their options, the consulting surgeons were in agreement: “They basically said, ‘Either leave him be, or put him down,’” says Beach. “They were afraid that he would become paralyzed if they even attempted to do the procedure.”
Although he had improved in the two weeks since his accident, the university breeding program couldn’t maintain a foal with such an uncertain future. Orion was scheduled for euthanasia.
Beach was devastated. She had been spending as much time visiting Orion as she was able. “He was really friendly with all of us, and he particularly liked the girls,” she said. “He liked to rest his chin on our shoulders. Girls were about the right height for him to just prop it there and leave it. He was really sweet that way; if he liked you, he’d come over and just kind of fall asleep like that. It must have been comfortable and given him a chance to rest since he wasn’t lying down.”
Standing with Orion’s head on her shoulder one day, Beach decided she couldn’t let him be put down. She inquired about adopting the gelding---in part to buy him some more time to see if he would heal from his injuries well enough to have a reasonably comfortable and active life. No one really wanted to put down the young horse, especially if someone was willing to give him a chance. The program agreed to let Beach adopt Orion.
The veterinary student suddenly found herself the proud owner of her favorite flashy little horse, although not on the terms she had originally imagined. “I still didn’t know whether he’d survive at that point,” says Beach. “Nobody knew.”
Beach’s parents lived nearby on a seven-acre property with other horses. “I didn’t own a horse trailer then, but the barn staff at the vet school volunteered to trailer him home for me,” she says. “He fit in really nicely. He did fantastic with the other horses there.”
Orion was confined to a stall for another eight weeks, still on pain medication and anti-inflammatories. “He never seemed to be in terrible pain---he always ate and was social,” Beach says. “But he would move very carefully, almost as if he was protecting himself. His water, hay and feed were all elevated so he didn’t have to lower his neck.”
Over the weeks, however, Orion began moving about more comfortably, with confidence and gusto, even as he was weaned off of his medications. “I don’t remember seeing him lie down for the first time,” says Beach, “but I noticed bedding on his back, so he must have managed it just fine.”
Finally, he was turned out in a round pen, where he seemed to relish his freedom, unbothered by his neck. “He started trotting, cantering and cavorting like a regular youngster,” says Beach.
A stark reminder of the accident remained, however: Orion had a bulge in the right side of his neck and held his head at a slight angle, with his right eye slightly in front of his left. But that didn’t slow him down. After another few weeks, he was turned out in the larger pasture with two resident Tennessee Walking Horses to start his new life.
Nine years later, Orion is still with Beach and doing well, although his neck injury has left him with a startling appearance. “As he grew, his neck became more and more crooked,” she says. The small bulge on the right side of his neck took a large, dramatic twist: “I never had another set of radiographs taken because we didn’t have an easy way to transport him, and that information would be purely academic---it would not change any outcome or treatment---so honestly nobody knows how he healed up. But it’s pretty safe to say the vertebrae aren’t aligned and the ligaments and muscles around them have contracted as a result, giving him his twisted neck.”
Orion is unable to bend his neck to the right and has only a limited ability to turn it left. “He can’t turn around and nip at flies like other horses,” says Beach. “But he’s got a great tail for that.” Orion relies on humans to help him with another limitation: “Because of the bend, he has no way to scratch the middle portion of the left side of his neck. He can’t even rub it on a tree, so he absolutely loves it when we scratch him there.”
To graze, Orion must adopt an unusual stance. “He has to stand with his right leg very far forward and twist his shoulders a bit to reach the ground,” says Beach. This, in turn, means that Orion requires more frequent farrier visits than normal. “He puts abnormal pressure on his hooves,” says Beach. “So we have them make sure they are in really good condition because of the way the pressure is.”
Beach worries that Orion’s grazing stance may eventually cause him to develop shoulder or leg lameness, but so far he’s not showing any signs of trouble. “It’s amazing. He can walk, trot, canter, rear, buck and play,” says Beach. “He’s got a little Mini Horse buddy right now. They’re hugely good friends, and they will just fly around and kick out and all that. Looking at him, it’s clear there’s nothing neurologically wrong with him; he’s just severely deformed.”
One thing Orion will never do is carry a rider. “Trainers are understandably nervous about the risk of injury to themselves or him,” says Beach. “He’s fine on his own, but adding the weight of a rider might affect his balance so badly that he’d be unsafe.”
But Beach will never require Orion to be anything more than he is: “He’s a beloved pasture ornament and pet, and I’m so lucky he’s mine.”
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #439.