Written by: Liz Brown

A valuable broodmare overcomes a freak accident and surgical complications.

Thumbnail for A Series of Unfortunate Events

It was a tragedy that led Brenda Bastian to purchase her Trakehner broodmare, Helga. And another tragedy nearly ended the mare’s life.

Brenda had owned Helga’s cousin, also a broodmare, who, along with her foal, had been struck by lightning at her Peterborough-area farm.

To ease the pain of the loss, Brenda went back to the same farm she’d bought the original mare. As soon as she saw Helga, she knew she was the perfect mare for her breeding program, but the owners, realizing Helga’s quality themselves, didn’t want to let her go.

They were, however, moved by Brenda’s story and this eventually helped convince them to let her buy Helga, who was in foal herself at the time.

“They say things happen for a reason and I realize now this all happened so I could meet Helga,” said Brenda.

In 2011, however, tragedy struck again, this time with Helga. One morning, Brenda found her cast in her 12’x16’ foaling stall, her foal nursing as Helga calmly laid there waiting for help. Brenda, her husband and the barn staff worked together to pull Helga back up to her feet. “Our biggest worries were colic and compression sores,” she said.

What they weren’t expecting was a broken jaw.

Brenda hypothesizes that somehow Helga must have got her face caught in the stall bars. “There was some blood, but not a lot. The big clue something was wrong was that she would try to eat hay and it would just drop out of her mouth,” she said.

Once Brenda’s barn vet had come out and determined through x-rays that Helga’s jaw was, in fact, broken, she referred her to an equine hospital.

But what was supposed to be a straightforward surgery to reset Helga’s jaw and put her on the path to healing turned into many months of complications.

During the first surgery to wire Helga’s jaw back together, the surgeon mistakenly put the wires in backwards. When Helga woke up, the wires lacerated her tongue. A second surgery was performed immediately to fix the mistake. Right before Brenda was to pick Helga up though, the surgeons called to say the mare wasn’t eating again.

Following another x-ray, they determined the main wire holding the fracture together had somehow broken. “By this point, Helga was rapidly dropping weight because she couldn’t eat properly,” said Brenda, who had to wean Helga’s foal early as a result. However, this still wasn’t enough to stop the rapid weight loss the mare was experiencing.

Following the third surgery, Helga developed an infection, with pus draining from the surgery site in her chin. “I went to see her and she had lost 200 pounds. She was feverish, it was just awful. I couldn’t believe that was happening. She looked like she was starving,” said Brenda.

Additionally, there were so many wires in her mouth that she still was finding it difficult to eat. Each day, Brenda was spending hours pounding hay cubes into mash so Helga would be able to eat.

It was at this point, out of desperation, Brenda called Dr. Bruce Watt, a board certified surgeon, for a second opinion.

After taking more x-rays, Dr. Watt opted to remove the wires and put in rods instead, to hold the jaw together. He also rigged the mare up with an external fixator, which allowed her to eat more easily. For the infection, he prescribed a more powerful antibiotic and did a flush, pulling out a large piece of bone that hadn’t healed and was protruding from her skin.

For four weeks Helga stayed at the Caledon Equine Hospital and when she was released, Brenda committed to another three weeks of daily follow up care, changing the bandages each day and washing the area with a chlorohexidine wash. “She just stood there and never gave me any problems,” said Brenda.

Seven full weeks later, Dr. Watt removed the rods and fixator from a horse that had begun to put weight on again.

Today, Helga is in perfect health and has had three foals since the ordeal. The first foal born after her recovery, in 2013, is an exceptional colt. As a three-year-old, Hirtenstern, by the famed jumping sire Hirtentanz, was approved for the American Trakehner Association stud book – an accomplishment only two per cent of those presented achieve, said Brenda. He is currently training in Virginia for a future as a hunter or jumper.

Helga has produced two lovely fillies as well. Hirtenliebe, a full sister to Hirtenstern, was born in 2015, and Brenda says she may replace Helga in her breeding program one day. Helga’s latest foal, Halle, was born this spring.

“Helga is, by far, the best horse I’ve ever owned – in temperament, quality, the good babies she produces, and that she’s a good mother. Plus, she’s beautiful to look at,” said Brenda.