Community Rallies Around Rescue Horse

Project ComeBack pairs rescue horses with veterans
Brown horse with white down the forehead and nose stands in a sunny field with three smiling individuals.
Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine's team, Dr. Amanda Prisk, Martha Barbone, and Katie Combs visit Project Comeback with Henry, a 13-year-old Quarter Horse. Photo: Jeff Poole, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine

“I was on a tractor in a hayfield in South Carolina when Dr. Amanda Prisk, assistant clinical professor in Large Animal Surgery at Hospital for Large Animals (HLA) at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, called me,” says Lindsay Andon, the founder and director of Project ComeBack, a nonprofit organization based in Holliston, Massachusetts that rescues horses. One of her new rescues, Henry, was being treated at HLA and needed surgery.

After working with therapeutic riding horses and witnessing high burn-out and turnover among the horses and also reluctance from military veterans in these programs to take part in therapy, Andon founded Project ComeBack with a unique mission.

“Let’s rescue horses that can’t be ridden and need sanctuary homes, so when vets come out, it’s not about needing therapy or to be fixed, but about the horses. Vets come out as partners to help horses heal,” says Andon.

She developed a six-week program for veterans, one class per week, that starts with mindfulness practice, such as yoga, and education on horse behavior. She then shares each of the individual horses’ stories and their current challenges, and the veterans choose the horse they would like to help. 

Her team coached a veteran on how to work with a wild mustang that had little human interaction before coming to Project ComeBack. The veteran slowly made the mustang feel comfortable enough to accept a person approaching him and eventually even haltering him. A few veterans who struggled with separation anxiety connected with thoroughbreds that didn’t like to separate from the herd.

“We are mission-focused on helping horses,” says Andon. “We see the veterans start to heal and draw parallels to their own lives. They don’t have to come out for therapy, they’re just coming out to help something else outside of themselves, and through that are able to find healing themselves.”

Martha Barbone, veterinary technician in diagnostic imaging at Cummings School’s Henry and Lois Foster Hospital for Small Animals (FHSA), served in the air force during Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and has been involved with Project ComeBack since last year.

“It’s mutual healing, gaining trust on both sides,” says Barbone. “One of the best ways to heal from your own trauma is connecting with another. Horses are very empathetic, they help people see themselves in a different light.”

Barbone worked with a draft horse named Orin who had lost trust in people. She played with him by hiding pieces of carrots to find, and eventually worked up to brushing, haltering, and walking the trail with him.

“Horses pick up on cues from us that we might not know we’re even sending off,” says Barbone. “When I need extra support, I can be distrustful and put up a wall. The horses sensed that and stayed away. I learned about that wall from the horses.”

When Henry, a 13-year-old Quarter Horse from a breeding farm in Oklahoma, arrived to Project ComeBack, he did not like anyone approaching his head and he had firm bumps above his eyes and hair loss overlying those swollen areas. The bumps enlarged and spread across both sides of his forehead with the skin opening over some of the bumps and purulent discharge oozing from the areas. Andon called Henry’s primary care veterinarian and, despite treatment with antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medication, Henry’s bumps and draining tracts persisted. He was referred to Tufts for further diagnostics and treatment.

Henry presented to HLA’s General Diagnostic and Surgery Service and was evaluated by a team led by Dr. Prisk.

“In addition to being underweight and having a decreased appetite, Henry came to us with a history of multiple areas of swelling, hair loss, and draining tracts on both the right and left sides of his face near the eyes that had, in some form, been present since he was obtained by the rescue,” says Dr. Prisk. 

With the complex anatomy and the head being difficult to fully evaluate using diagnostic imaging modalities such as radiographs and ultrasound, Dr. Prisk recommended Henry be evaluated using computed tomography (CT). “CT examination allows for veterinarians to evaluate a structure in multiple different planes and with different levels of contrast, which helps us fully understand each patient’s individual problem in detail and also be instrumental in guiding our approaches to treatment.” 

Eager to find out what was ailing Henry, Andon agreed to move forward with the advanced imaging. Under anesthesia, Henry’s CT examination revealed severe inflammation of the areas of connection between the bones of the head on both the right and left side—a condition known as equine suturitis and exostosis. While the inflammation on the left side of Henry’s skull appeared quiet, the inflammation on the right side there was severe.

While CT examination has traditionally been performed under anesthesia, Cummings School is currently installing a state-of-the art CT scanner that will allow examination of the head in standing sedated horses and eliminate the need for anesthesia in such cases.

Dr. Prisk called Andon in South Carolina, where she’s opening a second location for Project ComeBack. While Henry was still under anesthesia from the scan, Dr. Prisk explained Henry’s diagnosis. Given the severity of his condition, surgery to debride the areas with severe inflammation and devitalized bone, flushing the sinuses that were affected, and intensive postoperative wound care with routine cleaning and use of absorbable antibiotic-impregnated beads was recommended. 

However, while the surgery and immediately postoperative care would be most intensive, Dr. Prisk explained to Andon that, even without any complications or need for repeated procedures, Henry’s rehabilitation process would be a long period of time. In addition to daily wound care, Henry would receive medications to decrease inflammation and address infection. Once Henry was able to be discharged from the hospital, he would need to be kept separate from other horses to prevent further damage while healing. 

Andon quickly reached out to the board of directors and the programming team at Project ComeBack. “We came to the conclusion that we’d figure things out. Henry is young and he deserves a chance at life. We made the decision to go for surgery.”

 “Even without any complications or need for repeated procedures, it was going to be a long recovery journey for both Henry and the team at Project ComeBack,” says Dr. Prisk. “Lindsay understood that it was a big undertaking from both a time perspective and financially. Ultimately, seeing how as a team we could help Henry to heal and, in the future, how Henry could help people heal as part of Project ComeBack, Lindsay was willing to take the risk with us.”

“The community rallied around him,” says Andon. “It was a huge miracle. It was such an unknown how he’d do in surgery, and it came out in the best-case scenario.”

Henry’s surgery was performed and, even in the day following surgery, Dr. Prisk and her team began to see improvement. The swelling went down on Henry’s face, and he was visibly more comfortable. Barbone visited Henry during the few days he was at the HLA and helped Dr. Prisk keep Andon updated on his progress.

“Fortunately with the treatment plan we chose, addressing Henry’s extensive suturitis aggressively from the beginning with surgery and postoperative medications to address inflammation, discomfort, and infection paid off.  There was potential that Henry could have needed repeated surgeries or not responded to the medications, but he responded so well,” said Dr. Prisk. 

Dr. Prisk referred Henry to a rehabilitation farm. Fortunately, Ross Haven Farm, in Sturbridge, Massachusetts had a spot open. Ross Haven Farm is a care facility for horses to recuperate from surgery, illness, or injury, and also offers foaling and breeding care, as well as boarding and retirement for horses, run by Dr. Carl Kirker-Head, professor of surgery and associate chair of the Department of Clinical Sciences, and his wife Mona Kirker-Head, a small animal surgical technician, both at Cummings School.

Henry spent six weeks at Ross Haven Farm. His head wounds were flushed and he continued with the antibiotic beads as the infection resolved. He also put weight back on.

“It’s nice to see a fairly complex case successfully resolve,” said Dr. Kirker-Head. “Smart and generous people like Lindsay make it possible for horses like Henry to have surgery and retire and lead a life. I took him back to Project ComeBack, and the last thing I remember is seeing him cantering across the path to see his buddies.”

Dr. Prisk, Barbone, and Katie Combs (a surgery technician who helped on Henry’s case) visited him at Project ComeBack.

“Henry was rescued with a similar horse, Clifford, and they had bonded. When Henry came back to the herd, it was like two friends seeing each other again. It was really fun. Henry assimilated back into the herd well. It’s a true community,” says Barbone.

Henry still has some bumps on his face, but the infection is gone, and he’s back at a healthy weight. Even though he had been so reluctant to let people approach his face before surgery, he allowed Dr. Prisk, Barbone, and Combs to greet him with well-deserved head scratches.

“Henry helped us help him. He’s such a great horse and lovely to work with. Even the day after his surgery, my team and I could see Henry become so much brighter and he began having a ravenous appetite,” says Dr. Prisk. “It’s a beautiful process—Project ComeBack is helping horses and people heal at the same time.”