Rodeo of a Lifetime
by Mary Ball
“It’s the chance we take, that makes us great and turns our lives around” -Watertown
In the summer of 2015, Rodeo VDL, a 7 year old Dutch gelding, had just begun a rising career as a jumper. He was a beautiful bay gelding, sleek and strongessentially a very healthy young horse. A talented jumper, he had a very promising future with the Grand Prix classes on his horizons. Owned by Liz Atkins of Benchmark Stables, a young Grand Prix rider and trainer as well as an established horsewoman. Liz had high hopes for Rodeo’s career. Rodeo was coming along nicely in regular work, and showing routinely in the jumper divisions. While at a show, it was noticed that Rodeo had what appeared to be a sore on his penis. A show vet quickly looked at it and told Liz to contact her regular vet when they returned home.
Once home, Dr. Trisha Lewis (Fox Valley Equine Practice), a gifted, multi-skilled veterinarian came out to see what was going on. Upon evaluation, Dr. Lewis recognized immediately it was not an ordinary mass on his penis. She biopsied the mass and with a sinking feeling confirmed what she had feared. Rodeo had lymphosarcoma, an aggressive form of cancer, rare in horses, with little known treatment success.
With Liz in agreement, Dr. Lewis got to work on Rodeo. By September he was started on a course of steroids, with hope to shrink, the now mass(es). He had also developed dry scaly skin, surrounding his muzzle, eyes and girth. Dr. Lewis removed the masses from his penis, and injected the site with Cisplatin, a chemotherapy agent. Once the steroids had stopped, the dry skin returned, and along with it, an even larger mass. By now it was November and it was at this time Dr. Lewis realized-it would indeed be a rodeo getting this monster of a disease under control.
She began vigorously researching treatment possibilities for Rodeo. Eventually she came across a case study that proved to be extremely helpful, it was about a horse successfully treated by a chemo drug given via nasogastric intubation, called Lomistine. The drug was quickly ordered and by December of 2015 Rodeo was being treated with 4 little pills once a month, along with a continuous course of steroids and a topical for his penile mass.
Up to this point Rodeo was able to continue his training, and keep competing. He went to Wellington, Florida for the month of February and seemed to remain stable. His attitude was good, and he seemed cheerful and willing. However it was noticed that without the steroids, his skin became dry and scaly again. After returning from Florida, Rodeo’s Lomistine treatments continued monthly.
By June of 2016 his penile masses were completely gone. He seemed to be doing fine, until he developed a mysterious case of hives. When normal treatment was unsuccessful, Dr. Lewis realized they were small hard masses under his skin. He also developed swelling in his lower legs and by his sheath. June was his last month of chemo treatment with the Lomistine. That July Rodeo competed in Traverse City, after he returned Liz noticed a major change. Rodeo was lethargic and was rapidly dropping weight, Dr. Lewis biopsied one of the skin lesions, and to everyone’s great disappointment, it came back as cancerous. Dr. Lewis immediately restarted the Lomistine, but after a few treatments it became evident that Rodeo was no longer responding to the chemotherapy. The lymphosarcoma was back and with a vengeance.
Rodeo began a very quick downhill spiral, exhibiting a dramatic weight loss, was running daily fevers, his skin was scaly and began losing pigment around his face and muzzle. His large, once bright eyes were now dull and listless. Liz made the difficult decision to pull him out of work. He was turned out daily to enjoy the green grass and sunshine. Meanwhile, Dr. Lewis was at a loss as to what to do. Lymphosarcoma in horses is rare, and had very little research and treatment success. She spent many sleepless nights worrying about Rodeo and researching for anything that could help him.
There began to be concern about his quality of life, euthanasia was discussed. Dr. Lewis contacted many oncologists seeking advice. Finally she reached out to the Veterinary Oncology Consultants, based out of Australia. Together Dr. Angela Frimberger (Veterinary Oncology Consultants) and Dr. Lewis came up with a rigorous and intense chemotherapy protocol, that included weekly chemo treatments and careful blood value monitoring. But the chemotherapy was very costly and there were no guarantees it would have any success. It all came down to Liz, and her decision to treat him. When Dr. Lewis presented the plan to Liz, not knowing what to expect, Liz responded with- “We owe it to him to try.” That was all Dr. Lewis needed to hear to start his treatment. By September of 2016 Rodeo was started on antibiotics and Prednisolone, along with rotating chemotherapy agents that he received once a week.
By October he was impressively improved. Liz and Dr. Lewis breathed a little easier, he was responding to treatment. His subcutaneous masses were nearly gone and his skin was completely healed. Slowly he started gaining weight, his fevers ceased, his coat became glossy. Within six weeks of his first treatment of the new protocol, Liz was able to start Rodeo back into regular training. For a total of four months he received alternating chemo treatments each week. January 2017 he was able to return to the show-ring. Rodeo was thriving, and feeling better all the time. While he was at a show, Dr.Lewis received an encouraging message from Liz- “He’s so excited and energetic! It makes me so happy! So grateful for all you have done to get him healthy!.” Dr. Lewis knew her hard work on this special horse was paying off.
In February of 2017 Rodeo cantered into his first 1.40 meter jumper class, in Ocala, Florida. As he eagerly approached the first fence with his ears pricked and hooves thumping lightly on the sand, everyone knew that Rodeo had a very bright future. When he landed triumphantly on the backside of the final fence, Liz knew for certain her leap of faith- a gamble of a lifetime, had paid off for this phenomenal young horse. And on the sidelines of the show-ring, who had persisted against all odds, was Dr. Lewis.
Rodeo has responded wonderfully to this course of treatment, and will continue treatment every 2 weeks for 3 more months. There is always a chance the cancer could return, but Dr. Lewis remains optimistic and continues to carefully monitor his progress.