The horse was skin and bones. A halter was becoming enmeshed into an open wound on her jaw. And "Baby Girl" was smaller than horses less than half her age.
Just a few months later, though, her caretakers report that Baby Girl is full of sass and spunk. She'll approach strangers to nuzzle their hands and stretch her neck into a stall to steal what hay she can.
Advanced imaging, surgery with precision unusual for a veterinary case and treatments of concentrated oxygen have restored the buckskin filly to full health.
"She is a little chubby," laughed Dr. Ali Morton, an associate professor of large animal surgery at the University of Florida's Large Animal Hospital, who performed the surgery. "But she deserves that."
Theresa Batchelor, president of Beauty's Haven Farm and Equine Rescue in Morriston, first met Baby Girl when she was barely able to stand, unable to open one of her eyes and teetering on the brink of death.
"It was the worst combination — starvation and trauma — that we'd ever seen," Batchelor said. "Her body was trying to get through so many things."
But somehow, amazing Batchelor and her volunteers, the quarter horse's spirit was unbowed.
"She would come by us, and almost want to sit in our laps," recalled Marcia Williams, an Ocala nurse who volunteers once a week at Beauty's Haven. "She couldn't get close enough to us."
An unknown, blunt trauma had broken the horse's jaw. It could have been intentional, it could have been an injury Baby Girl inflicted on herself from being startled and smashing into something.
Unable to eat normally, Baby Girl had withered to less than 300 pounds, half the horse's current weight.
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"One more week, and she would have been dead," said Batchelor, not wanting to name the nearby rescue where she found Baby Girl. It's because they still want to work with them, she explained.
Baby Girl's condition led Batchelor to galvanize a team of volunteers, donors and veterinary specialists. Together — united on the social media website Facebook — they pressed on. First, Baby Girl had a $2,500 surgery in September to remove bone fragments in her jaw.
But the infection did not clear up.
Baby Girl was referred to UF's Large Animal Hospital for advanced imaging.
With a three-dimensional computerized tomographic scan, veterinarians saw an infected bone fragment was further infecting the horse's skull and jaw. The infection was literally a hair — one millimeter — away from getting to Baby Girl's brain, Batchelor said.
UF's Morton said she couldn't give Batchelor much hope.
"I would not have felt bad euthanizing her right there," Morton said, explaining that she couldn't be sure that the covering of the horse's brain was intact. Of Batchelor she said, "She wanted to go ahead in the belief that we underestimate what we can recover from."
And so Baby Girl went for her second and last surgery in October.
In the most desperate equine struggles, Batchelor sees something of her own, she says. Batchelor, now 50, was 37 years old with two young children when a tumor was discovered growing in her spine. Doctors, Batchelor said, told her she'd never walk again.
"The doctors just wanted to send me home and have my family take care of me for the rest of my life," she said. "If I could have crawled out of the fifth floor and gone out the window, I would've."
For Batchelor, a retired logistics program manager for the U.S. Navy, Baby Girl's story is one of a number of equine journeys she has had a hand in since she and her husband sold their Tampa home in 2004 and bought the rescue that recently became a nonprofit.
But few have generated the support of cyberspace as Baby Girl's tales have.
"Baby Girl told me she wanted to keep fighting," Batchelor said.
Tampa area resident Tamara Dunn updated the horse rescue's Facebook page throughout Baby Girl's ordeal and especially during her surgery. Hundreds were hanging on the hour-by-hour updates, she said. And anytime Baby Girl needed something else — her veterinary bills topped $6,000 — Facebook friends came through, Dunn said.
"We would go on FB and say, 'This is what we would like to do,'?" she said.
Morton said she often sees horses with wounds near the jaw, but usually not as complex as this. "We had to go through her jaw to get through the base of her skull," she said.
Morton and her team were able to remove the infected bone. But they found a particularly aggressive form of bacteria. Next up, treating the horse with concentrated oxygen in a hyperbaric chamber to kill any remaining bacteria. It's a round chamber that's about 12-feet-by-12 feet, Batechlor said. A drug makes the horse feel like they've had a margarita so it's easier for them to stand it, Morton said.
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Lee Byrne, manager of Kesmarc, an Ocala equine rehabilitation facility with the hyperbaric chambers, already had heard about Baby Girl from Facebook when she arrived. Byrne said from the start, she knew Baby Girl was going to make it.
"We were absolutely thrilled to have her in," she said. "Horses without a will to live and big heart like hers don't make it through what she did — she just loves being the center of attention.
"She was just the queen bee."
Batchelor said she is grateful she has supporters and volunteers and professionals willing to support her life's passion that started with her first horse at 4 years old: "You can look into their eyes and see their soul. They are such big guys. They could kill you. But they are gentle."
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