Leah Lively’s story with horses began as many others do. She rode horses as a child but as she grew older, moved away from horses when it was time for college, then marriage and kids. But her love for horses never dimmed. Leah took up riding again when her daughter began to ride ponies at the age of six. She couldn’t have imagined the journey she’d travel over the next eleven years on a quest for a foal. It’s a heartbreaking story but once it came full circle, Leah found her joy again.
In 2016, the sudden passing of Leah’s mom was difficult. However, this provided Leah with an opportunity to purchase a 4-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding from Europe which she named Hope (Mylord Carthago x Do V). His show name was Kolibrie, the Dutch word for hummingbird, the favorite animal of Leah’s mom. Leah’s time with Hope brought her dreams of jumping bigger jumps to life and she just adored Hope as well; her happiness with Hope reminded Leah of her mom. That is until a pinched nerve in his spinal column was detected and, based upon the recommendation of her veterinarian, Leah had to make the heart-wrenching decision to euthanize him at the age of eight. This was devastating to Leah after having endured the loss of her mom and now the loss of Hope. She felt like they were all connected somehow, making saying goodbye to Hope that much harder.
Leah decided to try again. This time she wouldn’t be searching for a young horse but a “been there, done that” kind of horse. In their search, her trainer found a 9-year-old Belgian Sport Horse mare named Fierte D’Eduoard Joy (Ogano Sitte x Dizzy van den Bisschop), but who Leah called Dove (pictured middle). Dove was advertised as standing 16.3 hands, so Leah was surprised upon meeting the mare at quarantine to find she was actually an incredible 18.1 hands tall. Leah said of her mare,
“Though Dove was very large, she had a fabulous personality, could jump the moon, was a people kind of horse and was just all around wonderful!”
Their first six months together were amazing. Then, Leah began to observe a small, occasional hitch in the mare’s step. Dove didn’t act as if she was in pain and continued to jump as normal. Yet, Leah went above and beyond with diagnostic x-rays to find the source of the problem, a bone chip. The bone chip was surgically removed and the mare went back to work.
Soon after her bone chip surgery, Dove developed a serious case of cellulitis which required a nine day stay at a veterinary hospital. After treatment, Leah took her home and began riding again with assurance from the veterinarian that the cellulitis was not likely to recur. However, it did two more times. Each bout with the infection was incredibly painful for Dove and required another stay at the veterinary hospital. Leah was not aware of the kidney damage taking place each time Dove underwent treatment for her cellulitis. She was informed during the mare’s last hospital stay that Dove had permanent kidney damage and, for the second time in two years, a choice would need to be made. Neither option allowed Leah to keep her beloved Dove for as long as she’d hoped. She would need to either euthanize her now or keep her until she began to show signs of kidney failure. With a heavy heart and not sure what to do, Leah took Dove home and began to weigh her options.
The sudden loss of her mom, the tragic loss of Hope, and now she was going to lose Dove. Leah’s dreams and heart were broken. In passing, she mentioned to a friend how she wished she could have had a foal from her favorite mare before needing to let her go. Her friend suggested the process of Ovum Pickup (OPU) and Intra-cytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI). As fate would have it, a vet close by offered OPU at their clinic.
She began doing research about the procedures and then contacted Dr. Ryan Ferris of Summit Equine (an SBS Affiliate Member) to discuss if OPU and ICSI were viable options for Dove. Leah said, “I was surprised at how easy the process was and that it could be performed while the mare was alive or post-mortem.” Knowing that doing OPU while Dove was alive was optimum, Dr. Ferris asked Leah to bring the mare in for an evaluation to determine if they should proceed. After examination, Dr. Ferris felt the mare was a good candidate for the procedure and Leah took Dove back to the clinic two days later for the OPU procedure.
With the support of her husband and daughter, Leah began this process with Dove in the hopes of obtaining one foal from the process. She knew that statistically, one embryo is obtained for every 6 oocytes harvested. From the OPU procedure, Dr. Ferris actually obtained 16 oocytes from Dove’s follicles. After retrieving the oocytes, they were cleaned and packaged for shipment to Equine Medical Services in Missouri for maturation and eventual fertilization. Upon arrival in Missouri, the oocytes were placed in maturation media for 24 hours. Any mature oocytes would undergo the ICSI process and be injected with a single sperm cell. After sperm injection, they were monitored for cell division or “cleavage”, which is the first step in becoming an embryo. For fertilization, Leah chose to purchase frozen semen from the accomplished jumper, Vagabond de la Pomme (Vigo D’Arsouilles x Sauterelle de la Pomme). After all was said and done, Leah had 6 viable embryos from the 16 oocytes recovered and more decisions to make. What would she do with the possibility of six foals?
Five of the six embryos were frozen and placed into storage for future use. One embryo was not frozen but flown to a facility for immediate transfer into a recipient mare. She also opted to sell one of the frozen embryos to a local trainer who had it thawed and transferred into a recipient mare as well. As a result, Dove now has two beautiful babies on the ground! Leah said,
“When it was time to let Dove go, I had peace knowing that a part of her was going to live on in these foals. I would really like to have my own little flock of Dove babies one day but right now, it’s the first time in years I have felt things are in a good light.”
Leah and her family fondly refer to their Dove foal as Baby (pictured top and bottom). He may not be grey like his mom but he’s going to be big like her and he has the same giant ears and kind eye. Seeing those big ears allows Leah to remember the good times with Dove and have hope for her future with horses. “He makes me happy every single time I see him. Even after my worst day at the office, coming home and seeing his sweet face and giant fuzzy ears make me smile.” Baby lives at Leah’s house along with her daughter’s retired pony and will be joined by his sibling when it is weaned. The youngsters will stay together until they are old enough to begin training. Leah said,
“I encourage mare owners to try OPU/ICSI if you have the means but are on the fence about proceeding. It was not only a good option for my situation but is a great opportunity for mares in training or those on the show circuit. I don’t know what the future holds but knowing I have a piece of Dove makes my heart happy every day!”
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Baby photos by Tais Photo (www.tais.photo)