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Liz Atkins Takes a Wild Ride with Rodeo the Miracle Horse

Liz Atkins and Rodeo VDL are back in the show ring after an unexpected wild ride. Photo M4E
Hampshire, IL - November 6, 2018 - Liz Atkins had no idea what a wild ride she would encounter when the plain, dark brown, Dutch gelding walked into her Benchmark Stables in 2014. Atkins had purchased Rodeo VDL as a six-year-old from Heyday Investments in St. Louis and had a grand prix career planned out for the talented little jumper.  He was feisty and athletic and Atkins had a feeling he was something special.  She had no idea how special he would become.

Rodeo VDL and Liz Atkins were catching top ribbons and moving up the jumper ranks before the devastating news arrived. Photo M4E

By summer of 2015, everything was going as planned and the gelding was coming along nicely, catching great ribbons in the 1.20m and 1.30m jumper classes. The wild ride first began when Atkins noticed what appeared to be a sore on the gelding’s penis and she immediately had her vet, Dr. Trisha Lewis, (Lewis Vet Services) of Maple Park, Illinois, check it.  Dr. Lewis recognized it was not a common mass so she took the next step and biopsied it. When the lab work came in, Dr. Lewis delivered the news to Atkins; Rodeo had lymphosarcoma, an aggressive form of cancer, rare in horses, with little known treatment success.

Atkins turned her devastation into optimism, working with Dr. Lewis to devise a plan for treatment. By September 2015, Rodeo was started on a course of steroids to shrink the multiple masses that had now developed. He also had dry, scaly skin surrounding his muzzle, eyes and girth. Dr. Lewis removed the masses, and injected the site with the chemotherapy agent, Cisplatin.

Disappointment returned when the dry skin appeared once the steroids had stopped, and now, an even larger mass. Now into November, Atkins and Dr. Lewis realized the vengeance of the disease.

With such a rare form of cancer, Dr. Lewis had to search long and hard for treatment possibilities for Rodeo but came across a case study using another chemo drug called Lomistine. In December of 2015, Rodeo started the treatment once a month along with a continuous course of steroids and a topical for his mass.

The little horse with a heart of gold seemed to remain stable and was able to stay in work. Atkins decided to bring him along to Ocala, Florida in February of 2016 with the rest of her horses, where he seemed happy and willing to keep working. Without the steroids, his dry and scaly skin condition returned.  The Lomistine treatments continued and by June 2016, the masses were completely gone. Little did anyone dream at this point that the worst was yet to come.

Now Rodeo had developed a mysterious case of hives that did not respond to normal treatment. Dr. Lewis noticed they were small hard masses accompanied by swelling in his lower legs and by his sheath. By July, Atkins noticed a major change in Rodeo. He became lethargic and was rapidly losing weight. Dr. Lewis biopsied one of the skin lesions, which sadly came back as cancerous. The ride continued to be a bumpy one as Dr. Lewis put him back on the Lomistine, but after a few treatments, it became evident that he was not responding to the treatment. The lymphosarcoma was relentless.

Rodeo continued a very quick downhill spiral, exhibiting dramatic weight loss, daily fevers, his skin was scaly and he began losing pigment around his face and muzzle. His large, once bright eyes were now dull and listless. Atkins decided to pull him out of work and turned him out daily to enjoy the grass and sunshine. There began to be concern about his quality of life and euthanasia became a discussion. Atkins prepared herself for the possible dreaded day and was beside herself to see this amazing and feisty bundle of talent being taken down by disease.

Meanwhile, Dr. Lewis was at a loss and spent many sleepless nights worrying about Rodeo. She kept researching for anything that could possibly help him when she finally reached out to the Veterinary Oncology Consultants and Dr. Angela Frimberger, based out of Australia. Dr. Frimberger along with a colleague, Dr. Daniela Luethy, of Penn Vet at New Bolton Center, had done extensive research on lymphoma chemotherapy and are currently working on publishing their work in the Journal of Internal Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Lewis and Rodeo.

The doctors came up with a rigorous and intense chemotherapy protocol that included weekly chemo treatments and careful blood value monitoring. The chemotherapy was very costly and there were no guarantees that it would be successful. It all came down to Atkins and her gut feeling about the horse; it would be her decision to treat him or let him go.

“We owe it to him to try,” said Atkins to Dr. Lewis. 

“As an owner and a horseman, you always want to do what’s best for your horses,” said Atkins looking back at the scenario. “This horse is a tremendous athlete and with his heart and natural ability, we wanted to give him the best possible shot at life. I’m an optimist. The worst thing that could have happened was we could have tried the treatment and it could have failed, we would have been in the same position as we started. Horses don’t have to do anything for us, yet they continue to, and this horse especially, always wants to please. If he goes out of his way to do everything and anything for me, I should do the same for him.” 
By September of 2016, Rodeo was started on antibiotics and Prednisolone along with rotating chemotherapy agents that he received once a week.

By October, he was impressively improved and was responding to treatment. His subcutaneous masses were nearly gone and his skin was completely healed. Slowly he started gaining weight, his fevers ceased and his coat became glossy. Within six weeks of his first treatment of the new protocol, Atkins was able to start Rodeo back to regular work. For a total of four months, he received alternating chemo treatments each week. In February of 2017, he was able to return to the show ring, earning top ribbons in the jumper ring again.

This time, it would be Rodeo who would return with a vengeance!  Photo M4E

This time, it would be Rodeo who would return with a vengeance! The miracle horse, who survived the odds, is once again a force to reckon with in the grand prix ring. Atkins and Rodeo started the 2018 show season with a win in the $25,000 Beau Rivage Grand Prix at the Gulf Coat Winter Finale after winning the Welcome Stake earlier that week.

Rodeo VDL and Liz Atkins beamed in the victory gallop for their win in the $25,000 Grand Prix at Equifest. Photo M4E

Rodeo went on to win the $25,000 Grand Prix at Equifest III in Chicago and was second in the $50,000 Buck Bros. Grand Prix during Equifest II.

Atkins also took her first trip to the world renowned Spruce Meadows Tournaments in Calgary, Alberta Canada, where the miracle horse continued to prove himself among some of the top competitors in the world.  Rodeo placed fourth in the 1.30m during the Pan American Tournament and finished 6th in the Horseware Ireland Cup during the North American Tournament in the All Canada ring. His accomplishments continue to prove he is not giving up. (inset photo Cansport Photo)
“He has turned into the sweetest, most loving horse and is full of energy,” said Atkins. “There’s a reason his name is Rodeo, he loves to buck and play! What I like best about him is his heart, he is constantly trying for you, no matter what you ask.”
Perhaps it’s his way of thanking his owner, who stood by side and believed in him when the going got rough. For now, Rodeo, the miracle horse, remains in remission without any medications. Thanks to all the veterinarians, and of course, Atkins, who never gave up hope, Rodeo is not just surviving, but thriving!


About Benchmark Stables
Benchmark Stables is a 20 acre farm located in Hampshire, IL (50 miles west of Chicago). The Atkins family purchased the farm in 2005, and built a top facility with multiple barns, riding arenas and turnouts. The stable is a state of the art facility with the following amenities:
  • 30 12×12 stalls with rubber mats
  • Keypad entry at front gate for security
  • Heat in all barns
  • 180×80 heated indoor arena
  • 225×160 outdoor ring
  • 6 horse Kraft horse walker
  • Automatic fly system in all barns
  • Several grass paddocks
  • Full service care option

Liz Atkins will be riding in the George Morris Chicago Clinic November 23-25 at Brookwood Farm in Antioch, IL. 

For more information visit her website at

Benchmark Stables
13 N 200 Romke Rd
Hampshire, IL 60140