By Sandra Harbison
When Gary Sanderson checked on his horses last January 17 in Luttrell, Tennessee, Amigo, his 9-year-old Arabian, was at the barn.
“That was unusual, so I asked ‘What are you doing here by yourself?’ He answered me but still didn’t come to the gate when I opened it, which was even more unusual.”
Then Sanderson (Knoxville ’09) saw it—the 3-foot tree branch, 2 inches in diameter, impaling Amigo’s chest. At that moment, Sanderson began a ritual that would continue for months—hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
Amigo joined Sanderson’s family in 2005, and the two began competing in 50-mile endurance races. Together they logged more than 700 miles, earning a spot in the endurance ride national championships. Now Amigo was facing a race for his life.
Veterinarian Eric Martin (UTCVM ’95) knew that for the horse to have any chance of survival, they had to get him to UT’s Equine Hospital in Knoxville. Medicine section chief Dr. Nicholas Frank took the emergency call.
“Dr. Martin said the situation was serious. When they arrived, it was worse than I expected. The branch had damaged the lung. It was life threatening, and Amigo was in shock.”
Dr. Jim Schumacher and his surgery team immediately began work to stabilize Amigo and remove the branch. Air had penetrated his chest and his lungs collapsed—the first of four life-threatening episodes. He suffered broken ribs, infection, and a critically low platelet count, necessitating a plasma transfusion.
More than a month after the injury, during surgery to create access into the chest cavity to flush a pocket of infection, Amigo collapsed again. But the next day, he was eating as he hadn’t eaten since the accident.
Frank says the Arabian never gave up. “Amigo would stand there, calm and collected, bravely taking whatever we had to do.”
A fan page was created for Amigo on the social media site Facebook. Over 9,700 friends “liked” his page, called “Amigo—One Amazing Horse.”
To help pay his bill, Sanderson maxed his credit and took on a second job. Although he never asked members of the Amigo fan club for help, donations started coming in. An anonymous donor paid more than half of the $30,000 bill. The outpouring of support stunned Sanderson.
“How do you repay people for prayer? Every person on that fan page sends love, thoughts, and prayers to Amigo.”
Sanderson and three friends created a fund at UT to help owners whose horses suffer catastrophic injuries. “I don’t want finances to dictate other people’s decisions,” says Sanderson.
Amigo’s excellent physical condition before the accident played a role in his survival, but intangibles factored in as well, Frank says.
“This is the perfect combination of an incredible horse sharing his extraordinary will to live and an extremely dedicated owner who never underestimated him.”
And for Sanderson? “I’ve been dealing with horses since 1990, and I’ve never seen one come back again and again like this one. He is one amazing horse!”