Saving Smudgey’s Eye

How Aaron Tsinigine fought to get Smudgey ready for the WNFR after a major injury weeks before.
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How Aaron Tsinigine fought to get Smudgey ready for the WNFR after a major injury weeks before.

THE HORSE

AaronTsinigine_Smudgey

Aaron Tsinigine, 27, went to his first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in 2014 in large part because of a phenomenal bay horse named Lee’s Smart Bombay. 

It was “Smudgey,” now 13, that helped Tsinigine catch the eye of Clay O’Brien Cooper the previous summer, which helped Tsinigine land more good partners and a first Wrangler NFR qualification last year.

“That horse scores great and leaves flat and tries hard,” said Tsinigine, who lives on the edge of Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation near Phoenix, Ariz. “He’s good in every situation and knows every play. He tries to help me every time.”

THE PROBLEM

In November, Tsinigine and his buddies, including Derrick Begay, were headed home to Arizona from the Indian National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. They were driving all night to make it to an Indian rodeo in Globe.

“My horse was tied in the trailer and he kind of likes to run out the back door,” Tsinigine said. “When we got home, I forgot to untie him before I opened the door, so he hit the end of the rope and then jumped back in and smashed the side of his head.”

It was about 6:00 a.m., and a bleary Tsinigine immediately called Dr. Gary Kaufman.

“There was no blood, but his head was caved in and his eye was now located about four inches lower than his other eye,” said Tsinigine. “It was the worst feeling in the world. My first NFR was like a week and a half away.”

THE SOLUTION

Dr. Kaufman—wildly popular among Arizona’s NFR ropers for his smarts, his old-school common sense and his dedication—immediately teamed with Dr. Renee Andrea to operate on Smudgey at Chaparral Veterinary Medical Center in Cave Creek.

The horse had broken in two places his left zygomatic process, which is the flat bone that forms the upper and outer border of the eye socket. That’s why the eye socket had collapsed.

“This was an emergency situation,” said Dr. Andrea. “The pressure on the eyeball and its supporting structures had to be relieved before it resulted in cell death and a non-visual eye. And the sooner, the better.”

Tsinigine watched the surgery and said Dr. Andrea literally lifted the broken bone and popped it back into place like a puzzle piece.

“They thought they would need to insert a plate and screws, but it fit back in there so tight they didn’t need them,” he said. “We got lucky.”

Drs. Andrea and Kaufman loaded Smudgey with anti-inflammatories in his veins and antibiotics and anti-inflammatories topically in his eye. He stayed at Chaparral a week so they could ice the eye and apply medicine every three hours. His hay net was hung high to encourage him to elevate his head.

“Once Aaron took him home, he continued to treat Smudgey three times a day,” said Dr. Andrea. “I think he slept by him, too, to keep him from bumping his eye or rubbing it.” 

It was a stressful couple of weeks for Tsinigine, who said willing that eye to heal was like willing a pot to boil. At the same time, he was trying lots of other horses, but none worked out. When he finally got to run some steers on Smudgey, it was two days before he was to leave for Las Vegas. The horse still couldn’t see out of his left eye at certain angles.

“Dr. Kaufman and I weren’t at all concerned with Smudgey’s ability to compete—we were more worried about Aaron being so worried about him,” said Dr. Andrea. “We both kept texting and calling to tell him not to worry.”

They were right. Despite needing a shot of a glucocorticoid mid-way through the Finals after he apparently bumped his head, the horse didn’t make a single mistake. Competing there for the first time, Tsinigine only made two—he broke out on his second steer and missed his fifth.

“I think it helped me riding all those different horses with none being close to as good as the bay horse,” he said. “When I got back on him, it was like, ‘Man, we’re ready to go.’”

Plus, Tsinigine said if he hadn’t spent all those years watching the NFR from the stands, he wouldn’t have known so well what he needed to do. With the Champ on the back end and aboard the horse that had broken his skull just a few weeks beforehand, Tsinigine earned $85,511 to jump from 14th to third in the world.

“I might not have the best horse,” he said. “But in that setup, that week, I don’t think any horse was better. He just kept running without taking my throw away.”

Photo by Hubbell Rodeo Photos