Horse and rider

Anjanette Nicolazzo is shown with Wrangler.

When Wrangler, an 11-year-old quarter horse gelding living in Great Valley, bolted at a horse show in April 2016, owner Anjanette Nicolazzo knew something was amiss.

“I was baffled,” Nicolazzo says. “I had ridden him for eight months prior to this, and he had never done anything of the sort. I knew his bolting was a cry for help because it was so out of character for him.”

It was a long road of diagnosis, then treatment, surgery and rehab for Wrangler, but the difficult case handled by Cornell University Hospital for Animals had a happy ending for horse and rider. The story was detailed this week in an article by Lauren Cahoon Roberts for the Cornell Chronicle.

It turns out, Wrangler had been hiding a painful condition known as “kissing spine” — a condition in which the vertebrae touch or grind against each other. Prior to that 2016 show, Wrangler showed other signs of discomfort. A Springville veterinarian referred Nicolazzo to the Cornell animal hospital for an evaluation.

Dr. Elaine Claffey, a surgeon with Cornell’s Equine Hospital, and Cornell Ruffian Equine Specialists in Elmont, saw Wrangler for an orthopedic exam to look for any lameness or pain associated with his muscles or bones. Wrangler wasn’t lame but had back pain. Cornell’s Diagnostic Imaging service was called on to acquire high-definition X-rays of Wrangler’s back vertebrae.

X-rays revealed that 11 of Wrangler’s vertebrae suffered from kissing spine; four were so severe, they had fused together. It was one of the worst cases Claffey had ever seen. Nicolazzo gave Wrangler back injections to alleviate his pain, but after a week, Nicolazzo knew surgery was the answer.

Claffey performed the complicated, four-hour surgery in August 2016 with colleagues Dr. Jackie Hill and Dr. Norm Ducharme. Using X-ray guidance, the team cut parts of the vertebrae that were touching to provide more space for comfortable movement.

Following surgery, Wrangler had a yearlong recovery period. Nicolazzo spent between two and three months on each stage of his rehabilitation, slowly working on building the horse’s muscles, strength and endurance before finally putting him under saddle again.

“The first day I decided to ride him, he walked around like nothing had happened over the last year — he didn’t skip a beat,” Nicolazzo says in the Cornell article. “My heart was so full. It was one of the best feelings and days I have ever had.”

Nicolazzo and Wrangler returned to CUHA for a recheck orthopedic exam roughly 10 months after the surgery. Wrangler’s incision had healed perfectly, and he had no signs of pain through the area that was treated surgically.

Approximately a year after his surgery, Wrangler and Nicolazzo were back in the show ring. The duo competed at the All-American Quarter Horse Congress show in October of 2018 in Columbus, Ohio, winning the championship in the hunter under saddle division and placing in the Top 10 in all other divisions. But just being back together as a team after such an ordeal is enough for Nicolazzo.

“Having him at shows in general, win or lose, we’ve won,” she says. “I will forever be indebted to the Cornell team for literally saving my horse’s life.”

Jim Eckstrom is executive editor of the Olean Times Herald and Bradford Publishing Co. His email is