Olympic aims for dressage horse after major health scare

Kelly Layne hugs Udon P. at the end of a Grand Prix freestyle test performed at Dressage at Devon horse show in Devon, Pennsylvania in September 2014
Kelly Layne hugs Udon P at the end of a Grand Prix freestyle test performed at Dressage at Devon horse show in Devon, Pennsylvania in September 2014.

A world-class dressage horse treated successfully at the University of Florida for an irregular heartbeat has rediscovered his rhythm and returned to international competition, writes Sarah Carey.

Udon P’s proud trainer and rider, Kelly Layne, a member of the Australian team at the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Germany and now a Wellington, Florida resident, is thrilled with his comeback. She hopes he’ll pick up where he left off before his cardiac problem disrupted their training and that the 14-year-old Dutch Warmblood will qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Known by his stable name, Noodles, Udon P arrived at UF’s Large Animal Hospital in April 2014 as a rising star in the world of dressage. He was competing at Grand Prix level and had recently won an international freestyle event in Wellington.

“In the four international competitions known as the Concours Dressage International, he competed in nine tests with scores as high as 73.6 percent,” Layne said. “We were having an exceptional first season at the international Grand Prix.”

But fate intervened, shortly before Layne and her husband, Steve, were going to fly the horse to Normandy, France to represent Australia in the World Equestrian Games. He began showing signs of distress, including bleeding from the nose, coughing and unexpected gait changes.

“Noodles loves to canter, so we were very concerned,” Layne said. “It became impossible to train.”

The Laynes’ veterinarian, Meg Miller Turpin, DVM, diagnosed atrial fibrillation, otherwise known as an irregular heartbeat. She referred the horse to UF’s Large Animal Hospital for a procedure known as electrical cardioversion. The facility is the only equine veterinary hospital in Florida capable of providing the procedure.

The Laynes pulled Udon P from competition and focused on their horse’s health.

Electrical cardioversion is a procedure in which an electric current is used to reset the heart’s rhythm back to its regular pattern (normal sinus rhythm). The low-voltage electric current enters the body through metal paddles or patches applied to the chest wall. The video below shows the procedure being performed at Ghent University in Belgium last year.

Although Noodles sailed through the procedure, his recovery back home in Wellington was somewhat rocky, Layne said.

Udon P and Kelly Layne during a Grand Prix freestyle test at the Dressage at Devon horse show last year.
Udon P and Kelly Layne during a Grand Prix freestyle test at the Dressage at Devon horse show last year.

“The pressure to fly to Europe was gone as we had withdrawn Noodles from consideration. He just needed time to regain his health and confidence,” she said. “We had OK days and some not very good days. However, his heart was strong and remained in normal rhythm at 40 to 42 beats per minute.”

About six weeks after the horse’s discharge from UF, a large thunderstorm brought gusty, cool air to Wellington. For Layne, it was a pivotal event.

“Perhaps it was the combination of the cooler weather and the storm, or maybe it was just time, but Noodles switched on and since that moment has never missed a beat, both figuratively and literally,” she said.

Layne attributes Udon P’s success to his, well, exceptional heart.

“Not many horses go through what he has and then fight their way back into the international competition arena,” she said. “We should definitely reward and celebrate the horses that have this kind of moxie.”

To celebrate his return to competition, Layne collaborated with a British composer to create a freestyle routine consisting of songs that have the heart as a theme.  The routine was first performed in January, when Udon P was back in competition.

“We wanted to dedicate this freestyle to his big heart that wouldn’t give up,” Layne said.  “Probably the most emotional song in it is My Heart Will Go On, from the movie Titanic. Everyone involved has been touched by this amazing horse.”

Udon P is “coming along nicely” for the 2016 competitive season, but Layne is equally excited about her horse’s continued good health and attitude.

“Pretty amazingly, he has just not had any health issues for the past 14 months,” Layne said. “Not many horses enter the arena with such willingness and enthusiasm.”

Chris Sanchez, DVM, PhD, an associate professor of large animal internal medicine at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine and a member of Udon P’s care team, said: “He’s a high-level athlete, but what’s interesting to me is the fact that his owner, in concert with his trainer, embraced his problem, when many people would rather not discuss their animal’s health conditions publicly.

“This horse’s owners took the opposite approach — they have taken this as a learning opportunity and even developed a heart-themed freestyle for his return to competition.”

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