Against All Odds
By Imani Suber - TCU Athletics Media Relations
Determination, hope and the will to live are traits that people assume only apply to humans, but that is simply not true.
TCU's top 10 equestrian horse "Ella" is the personification of these traits. In truth, the courage demonstrated by this unique animal exhibits what all great athletes possess, the perseverance required to overcome two near-death injuries that left Hunt Seat head coach Logan Fiorentino and head veterinarian Dr. Tommy Thompson terrified that Ella had a slim chance of making it to her 18th year of life.
Many underestimate the role horses play in the success of equestrian as a competitive sport. When in truth, it can be said that the horses are the lifeblood of the sport. Equestrian has never just been about the student-athlete, but rather about the relationship between the athlete and their horse as partners. The bond between the student-athlete and her horse is a special one and must be developed.
At TCU, the relationship between the team and the horses are just as important as the relationship between teammates because the horses are in fact their teammates as well. This dynamic impacts both the student-athletes and coaches alike because at TCU team coaches are charged with overseeing both horse and rider. This can prove taxing, as the emotional investment into the horses is inevitable.
On a summer morning, Fiorentino woke up to the phone call that equestrian coaches dread most, the news that her all-star horse Ella had suffered the first of two near-death injuries. Ella's first injury to her right leg stemmed from an unknown cause and was so aggressive that it swelled her entire right side. The horse had injured her stifle, the equivalent to an athlete tearing their ACL. From then on, it was a waiting game fraught with less than optimistic attitudes.
Ella as it turns out, had her own plan and surprised everyone. Two weeks after the injury she decided she was ready to get back to work. Fiorentino and Thompson decided to put Ella in a more accelerated rehabilitation in hopes of a full recovery. Everything was going according to plan and Ella was recovering her strength and agility, until the morning of Aug. 2, 2013.
Fiorentino received a call from Thompson along with a photo showing that Ella's left hind leg got stuck in her stall bar. She miraculously did not panic as most horses do. Ella balanced her weight on the right foot she had been rehabbing for the past month and, standing patiently for hours, managed not to break her left leg. When her leg was finally removed, her injuries became even more apparent the following day. Ella had tapered off the femoral artery, which controls oxygen and blood flow throughout the leg. Through the constriction process, the oxygen was obstructed which caused major trauma to fester in her left leg. Ella had to endure the extremely painful process of treating the wound and both Fiorentino and Thompson feared the worse.
Fiorentino, noted there was something extraordinary about Ella, never giving up and continuing to fight.
"It wasn't like she had to be motivated, that it was uncomfortable," Fiorentino said. "She wanted to be doing it. The mental approach is so important and the mental resolve, you don't usually see that in an animal, but she blew all expectations."
Ella not only blew all expectations but she returned to competition a full six weeks ahead of schedule on Oct.19 against No. 4 Kansas State. In her return to competition, Ella scored an astounding 91 in Equitation on the Flat, carrying senior Caitlin Ader to victory and aiding TCU to their 5-0 sweep of the Wildcats in Equitation on the Flat. Amongst tears and laughter Fiorentino remarked that she did not believe it was possible.
Through all her experiences with horses, Fiorentino said she had never been around a horse that was so resilient and strong through the rehabbing and healing process.
"Ella is an elite athlete and its incredible she could recover like that," Fiorentino said. "Beating all odds, she just kept coming everyday and working."
For the most part Fiorentino handled the rehab process with Ella on her own, not wanting to startle the student-athletes during their summer break with the details of Ella's rehabilitation process.
Horses are incredible athletes and get injured, but contrary to popular belief they are not immediately put down. Most undergo every possible option for rehabilitation before the final act. During this amazing process, Fiorentino feels she witnessed a miracle and found a hero in Ella.
"She was so patient and never needed anything other than someone just there to pet her," Fiorentino said. "I had never seen that." "Every day someone would get on her to rehab. She wanted to be out there. Her ears would perk up and she would be power walking. We never had to motivate her."
One thing is for sure, Ella has returned to Hunt Seat competition with a vengeance, reclaiming her spot amongst the top horses in the flat competition. She is sure to be a standout performer at both the Big 12 Championships and at Nationals.
Ella's remarkable story and heart of a champion will continue to serve as an inspiration to humans, reminding of the power of the spirit to persevere in the face of adversity.