Skidboot, looking quite robust, and ridden by owner/rider Lauri Cash, awaits his turn at a cutting clinic in February. He'd completed chemotherapy only a few weeks prior. Skidboot sports a green lymphoma cancer ribbon, pinned to the rear left of his saddle blanket.
To look at Sageolena, barn name of Skidboot, you’d never know he’d undergone chemotherapy.
Skidboot’s sorrel coat shines. His muscles, ready and willing to work again, ripple as he moves. I watched him successfully cut cow after cow at a cutting clinic post chemo and never suspected he was staging a comeback.
I’d seen Skidboot, a 14-year-old Quarter Horse gelding,, on cows before cancer. My eyes had been drawn to his chiseled face and the intent look in his eyes. The eagerness he’d displayed, and the “here I am, and I’m the boss” flick of his tail had told me he found joy in his job.
He’s won or placed reserve in all classes in which he’s competed since 2005: Even in 2011 when signs of illness were surfacing.
At the clinic, I noticed a lime green ribbon (similar to the pink breast cancer ribbons widely seen today) pinned to his saddle blanket. I asked Skidboot’s owner and rider, Lauri Cash of Oregon, what the ribbon signified, and she shared his inspiring story.
“In early 2011,” Lauri recalls, “He had a slight loss in weight and condition.” Lauri did the things horse owners do when a horse seems off. She’d had him vet-checked; had his teeth floated; had him adjusted by a chiropractor; wormed him; increased his feed; and treated him for ulcers. Nothing had helped.
Then his body shape had begun to change. His hips and ribs had become more prominent. His energy level and attitude had stayed the same, so Lauri had continued to ride him.
Over the summer, Skidboot had become increasingly mellow and then, lethargic.
“He’s always had an edge. He’s the most difficult horse to ride I’ve ever had, but he’s the best one, too. He had no trust when I got him eight years ago, and it took years to build the rapport we have now,” she explains.
The two became so in tune that Lauri had suspected her horse was trying to tell her something when he’d begun repeatedly, and deliberately, leaning on her in a way that suggested he wanted his belly rubbed. In retrospect, he may have been saying, “My stomach hurts.”
By fall 2011, Skidboot’s body had changed dramatically. “He was pot-bellied,” Lauri remembers. “He had no conditioning left on top.” He’d begun behaving oddly, too. Lauri had found herself dragging him to the arena for lessons on cows—something he’d always enjoyed. “It was like he had no legs. He’d just stop and refuse to go,” says Lauri.
At the suggestion of her farrier, she’d taken Skidboot for a second opinion. This vet, equine veterinarian Jack Root at Oakhurst Breeding Farm in Newberg, Ore., had heard a heart murmur in Skidboot’s broad chest.
A cardiac ultrasound was the logical next step. Dr. Root suggested making an appointment with Dr. John W. Schlipf at the College of Equine Medicine at Oregon State University a few hours away in Corvallis.
At OSU, Skidboot weighed in at 1,050 pounds, 50 pounds underweight. Dr. Schlipf quickly verified a heart murmur; however, he didn’t think it was bad enough to be causing the horse’s decline.
A battery of tests awaited Skidboot. He was, says Lauri proudly, a perfect patient as he was poked, prodded and petted. His lung capacity proved strong. His blood tests and urinalysis were normal. That was all good.
Then came the abdominal tap. It would pull fluid from Skidboot’s belly. That would reveal any infection and, if there were any to be found, cancer cells.
After the tap, Dr. Schlipf found Lauri in the waiting area and told them he had an answer. It hadn’t been good. Skidboot had thoracic lymphoma, a rare cancer in horses. Because it was rare, the vet told them, there wasn’t a lot of research about treatment or results.
Gentle but direct, Dr. Schlipf cut right to the chase: Without chemo, Skidboot might survive for six months. The doctors could administer steroids to minimize inflammation and discomfort. If the chemo was successful, Skidboot might live for years. Lymphoma horses usually respond well to chemo, Dr. Schlipf had told Lauri. Most horses, said the vet, improve after a few treatments. He also cautioned that cancer can’t be remedied, only arrested – for how long no one can know.
And the cost? Not nearly as many “kachings” as Lauri expected: A six-week-treatment plan would be $1,000 to $1,500. That news, plus the vet’s assurance Skidboot was not likely to have ill effects from the chemo, cinched it for Lauri: Skidboot would have to learn to like injections and infusions.
He was also to get all the feed he could eat. By the second week, Skidboot was showing improvement. “His neck and hips looked less hollow,” recalls Lauri. “It was like the lymphoma had been stealing his food, his nourishment.”
In fact, Skidboot didn’t miss a beat during chemo. Nor did he lose his hair, or experience nausea as most humans do while being treated for cancer. Though the OSU vets had assured Lauri she could continue to ride Skidboot during treatment, she opted to let him rest.
Still, by the day of his last scheduled injection, he’d gained only 16 pounds. Lauri and Dr. Schlipf decided on a few more chemo injections. When the round of treatment ended in February, Skidboot had gained 33 pounds and weighed 1,083 pounds. His blood work was normal. The following month, he’d gained another 15 pounds. The bill remained less than $2,000
This spring, Lauri plans to cut competitively with him and go horse camping, too. “He seems to ride differently since chemo,” she says. “He seems smoother. The vet keeps telling me Skidboot will tell me if and when he’s not up to something. I believe that, too.”
Skidboot in action post-chemo at a cutting clinic last month.
Skidboot ‘s green cancer ribbon remains. It’s a sign to others to keep a distance. Since Skidboot’s treatment regimen still includes large doses of steroids, his immune system is compromised.
To protect Skidboot, Lauri takes every possible precaution, including avoiding nose-to-nose contact with other horses. But that doesn’t mean he can’t beat them at cutting – and beat back cancer for a time, too.