Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Laminitis-Surviving Rodeo Star "Vegas" Is Back: Turtle Powell's AQHA Roping Horse of the Year Returns to National Finals Rodeo

Back at it: 2010 AQHA Team Roping Header Horse of the Year RA Sonoita Silver (a.k.a. "Vegas"), was back in his namesake town last week for the comeback of a lifetime. The horse survived severe laminitis and was helped back to the arena by Lubbock, Texas farrier Blane Chapman. (Photo © Molly Morrow Photography, used with permission.)
World Champion Team Roper Turtle Powell was back in the saddle of his favorite horse last week. And no one at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) even noticed.

In the world of rodeo, bad news travels fast. When the ropers on the circuit heard that Turtle's outstanding horse "Vegas" had spent three months in vet hospitals in Montana and Washington because of fever and, eventually, severe laminitis, they shook their heads and said, "Too bad." They knew they'd never see the horse again.

Blane Chapman is a farrier in
Lubbock, Texas (© Hoofcare +

So when Powell showed up in Las Vegas last week to ride in the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) and defend his world champion title, they all thought he had a new horse. "I actually had to tell them it was Vegas," he admitted. "The announcers didn't even recognize him."

Vegas has been sick--very sick--and lame--very lame.

You can read the story of how Vegas became ill and hospitalized in Montana and Washington on the Spin to Win Rodeo Magazine's Equisearch web site. Our story begins when Turtle brought the horse back to Texas, took out his phone and shot a video; he sent it to Lubbock, Texas horseshoer Blane Chapman and asked him to help the horse.

This is the video he sent:

"I knew he was bad," Powell said on Tuesday night. "We got home (Stephenville, Texas) and he looked around and perked up but he was laying down for weeks. He'd nicker at me, and I just knew I had to help him.

"He hurt so much that when he did need to get around, he'd walk backwards. That's how he did it. He couldn't go forward. I knew I had to get someone to help him.

"Blane has a lot of experience around these horses. As soon as he saw him, he knew this was a special horse. 'Do not give up,' he told me, when he started working on him."

Blane's shoeing solutions for the horse's severe chronic laminitis were straightforward, and the horse responded. A year ago, Turtle was leaving for the NFR without his top horse. But he was surprised that the horse walked up to the gate and nickered as he was pulling out. Did the horse know where he was headed? That little walk to the gate was improvement in itself.

When Turtle pulled in next, he owned the World Championship title in team roping. The sickly-looking gray horse in his barn had been the AQHA/PRCA Team Roping Header Horse of the Year just twelve months earlier. Know no one would recognize him.

"I was only hoping that he'd recover enough to be pasture-sound, that's all I wanted," he recalled.

Vegas was on the road to recovery by the fall. Blane videotaped the horse who could only walk backwards a year before. Turtle wondered if it would be possible to ride his favorite horse at the Finals in Las Vegas where he would defend his World Championship roping title.

Blane Chapman--who is one of three horseshoeing sons of laminitis pioneer Burney Chapman--said that the horse was a sinker in both front feet. When a horse "sinks", the hoof wall is completely detached from the coffin bone around its entire circumference. The foot is unstable and the bone is displaced vertically within the capsule, rather than the classic rotation seen in "normal" laminitis, although some horses will both sink and rotate, too.

As with so many chronic laminitis cases, Blane made frequent trips to adjust the shoeing, which was usually a Natural Balance shoe with an aluminum hospital plate and a frog support riveted in place.

Turtle was shocked one day to arrive and find Blane riding Vegas. He admitted a big part of his shock was that, unbeknownst to Blane, he had never allowed anyone to ride the great horse.  Ever.

Turtle didn't tell anyone he planned to ride Vegas in Vegas. Plenty of things could go wrong, so he kept it quiet. And they did. After two nights of roping in the Thomas and Mack Arena, Vegas was sore. Turtle found that one of the hospital plates was bent and putting pressure on the horse's tender soles.

Vegas wore Natural Balance shoes with hospital plates and frog supports. In this photo you can see the his full toe resections are growing down. (Blane Chapman iPhone photo)
Blane wasn't far away--he was roping at another competition at South Point--and when he went to work on the horse Sunday afternoon, veteran laminitis farrier Gene Ovnicek stopped by to lend a hand. Ovnicek was in town in support of one of his clients, barrel racer Christy Loflin.

Blane had several clients qualify for NFR; he described them as "horses that need some extra care", and he was there if they needed him.

A frog support cut from plastic (foot surface).
Blane Chapman iPhone photo
Blane's decision for Vegas was to abandon the aluminum hospital plate in favor of a rigid pad with impression material under it instead of a frog support. They gave Vegas 24 hours off; on Monday night he was ready to go again.

"This horse loves to go," Turtle said Tuesday night before the rodeo began. "I rode him in the Grand Entry last night and as we went down the ramp, I could feel his heart start pumping and he was prancing.

Turtle said that being so sick had changed the color of the horse's coat. Once a dappled gray, he's now a solid silvery-white gray.

"I'm going to ride him tonight," he said, "And, if I can, I'll finish it (the ten-day rodeo finals) on him. But I won't if he's not right. He'll let me know."

And Blane Chapman won't be far away.

This article is dedicated to all the rodeo cowboys and cowgirls who take care of their horses, defying the stereotype that rodeo is tough on horses--and so are their owners. Most people wouldn't have gone to the trouble and expense and time that it takes to nurse a gelding through chronic founder.  If the people I have worked with this week are any example, the ethics and care standards have been higher than most people from other horse sports would ever expect.

--written by Fran Jurga

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