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Cornell equine surgeon retrains retired racehorses

Aimee Colbath on a horse

Dr. Aimee Colbath with Snaps, a retired racehorse. Photo: Brant Gamma Photos/Provided

Horses have always been a part of Dr. Aimee Colbath’s life. From participating in the United States Pony Clubs as a child to serving as an equine surgeon at the Cornell University Hospital for Animals, Colbath’s love and care of equines has informed her talents as a veterinarian and her passion for helping horses in need.

Colbath followed that passion through veterinary college at the University of Pennsylvania, an internship at Tufts University, a residency in equine surgery and Ph.D. at Colorado State University, and to her position as assistant professor in large animal surgery at Cornell, which she began in August of 2022.

At Cornell, Colbath focuses on her clinical work on orthopedics and sports medicine, while her research centers on therapeutic interventions for musculoskeletal diseases, including osteoarthritis, fracture repair, and tendon and ligament disease, with a special focus on stem cell and bisphosphonate therapies. Her research lab, co-directed with Christopher Frye, D.V.M. ’11, offers stem cells grown from bone marrow that can be used therapeutically on equine and canine patients, and is currently working on a grant from the Grayson Jockey Club to examine stem cell treatments of meniscal injuries in horses. “Everything I do in my research influences my clinical work and vice versa,” she says.

This synergy is also true of her experience both riding and treating horses. “Being a rider helps me understand what clients mean when they say something doesn’t feel right, or ‘my changes aren’t clean,’” says Colbath. “I also understand what they go through emotionally — I know what it’s like to be on cloud nine with your championship-ready horse one day and then have it get tendonitis the next.” She also has insights on practical solutions for post-treatment management, and understands the need to research ways to improve healing and speed up recovery time. “I’ve had a Thoroughbred stuck inside on stall rest losing its mind,” says Colbath. “I can come up with creative ideas on how to help that horse and their owner to get through that.”

Aimee Colbath on a horse
One of Colbath’s goals for Snaps was to take him to the Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium put on by the Retired Racehorse Project Oct. 11- 14, 2023 in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo: Brant Gamma Photos/Provided

More than a hobby

All the while, Colbath has remained an active equestrian. Most recently, her primary focus has been training retired Thoroughbred racehorses, which has become more than just a hobby — it’s a way of giving back to the animals she’s loved all her life.

“Racehorses come in with some baggage — they’re awesome horses, but they’re not ready for the average rider,” she says. “All I need to do is spend some time working with them, show them how to be good citizens, and suddenly there is a broader group of people who can take them and give them homes.”

Colbath has done this with several horses already and is in the midst of working with her newest project, a chestnut gelding named Snaps that she took in at a major turning point in her life. A friend sent her a photo of the three-year-old horse while Colbath was in labor with her first child, and she was hooked. “I basically purchased a horse while I was in the hospital having my baby,” she says.

Snaps reminded her of Willy, the chestnut horse that her mother had cared for and ridden until she passed away from brain cancer in February of 2023. “My mother always supported my love of horses and she really loved Willy,” says Colbath. “It’s been really helpful to have Snaps after losing her.”  

Horses with heart

Snaps has taken up the job of being an unofficial therapy horse quite well. “He’s a great little horse,” says Colbath. “People think of Thoroughbreds as being high-strung, but he’s the opposite of that.” Indeed, Colbath only rode him five times before taking him to compete in a horse show where he promptly won two dressage classes.

Colbath has also been appreciative of her newfound community at Cornell. “I really enjoy the family environment here,” she says. “Our group of clinicians is very close — and that in turn enables the best patient care you can get. We all discuss the next steps for a patient and it comes with zero ego — it’s just a group of individuals who are there to do the best for the animal.” She also notes that her colleagues have been very supportive of her life and interests outside of work, including her involvement with the Cornell Polo community. “The support network is phenomenal. Everyone supports each other’s happiness.”

One of Colbath’s goals for Snaps was to take him to the Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium put on by the Retired Racehorse Project Oct. 11- 14, 2023 in Lexington, Kentucky. As its name suggests, recently retired Thoroughbred racehorses compete in various equestrian sports. Snaps and Colbath competed in eventing, Colbath’s sport of choice in which riders and their steeds compete over solid jumps, ditches and water. “It really showcases how much heart Thoroughbreds have,” she says. “They go out there to do job and please their owners.” Snaps did well, placing ninth in amateurs eventing out of a large field.

As much as she loves Snaps, Colbath plans to eventually match Snaps with a loving owner and home. “For me, if I keep the horses I train, then I can’t take another one from the track,” she says. “I just really enjoy the training process. It’s always exciting when they go over their first fence, go to their first show and ultimately, to be able to make their new owner happy. It’s something I’ve always loved and will always continue to do.”

Written by Lauren Cahoon Roberts