Rowdy young horses + stall rest = …
Seana Adamson, the “Equishrink,” is facing one of her biggest equestrian challenges yet: rehabbing her young horse’s serious injury.
Month One: Survival Mode
Ok, so I’m a terrible person. I put a shock collar on Eragon, my beloved 6 year old KWPN gelding. And yes, I pressed “the button” and delivered the shock. Several times. And it worked. The behavior that was threatening to endanger his chance of healing was brought under control. It was a twisting path that led me to pushing that button, so I’ll try to make a long story as short as possible.
First of all, meet Eragon: he is 17 hands of boisterous, effervescent athleticism with a penchant for forming all sorts of strong opinions about a variety of topics. Lately he seems to be intent on channeling his inner Lippizan stallion, complete with in-hand airs above the ground. Capriole seems to be his specialty. Impressive height. The vet mentioned that I could do his walking rehab under saddle if I wanted. I told the vet I would sooner take up base jumping. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It all began at a dressage show in April of this year. I was out by the warm-up arena coaching students when Michelle, a friend and client found me. “Eragon is really upset,” she said. “He’s kind of having a meltdown.” He had always been an easygoing, quiet horse in his stall. The year before, during a giant thunderstorm at the same show grounds, I had found him napping with a hind leg cocked while horses all around him whirled in their stalls as the thunder and lightning crashed and boomed.
We had arrived a day earlier and he had been his normal, quiet self. All of my horses get ulcer medication when I travel, and are maintained on an ulcer-prevention program at home. The weather was beautiful, and Eragon’s behavior had been unremarkable since arriving on the show grounds. So when I pictured him having “a meltdown” I thought, “How bad could it be??” The show barn was solid permanent stalls. No canvas tents or flimsy plywood. He was bedded deeply with shavings. What safer place could there be? I pictured some whinnying and pacing. Maybe a little rearing and bucking as he can be young and fresh. But I did not picture what I found when I got back to the barns: he was dripping with sweat and truly terrified. Trailers had been pulling in and unloading behind his stall with much thumping, rattling and banging, and he had come completely unglued.
As I arrived at his stall I watched him lunge to the left, leap right, then plant his left front into the ground and pivot to push off for the next lunge left, leap right, plant pivot. He had torn a trench into the dirt floor across the front of the stall and had a dug a deep hole where his left front was planting and pivoting for the next lunge left, leap right, plant and pivot. Apparently this had been going on for some time. There were tennis ball sized rocks that had come up out of the stall floor. My heart fell and I felt sick.
The lameness didn’t show up for a few days: inflammation and ligament injuries are strange. He was trotting and cantering around beautifully on the lunge line, cut loose with a few frolicking bucks and suddenly he was lame — dead lame. A vet on the show grounds was able to come over and do some nerve blocks, and we determined that the source of pain was in his foot. A series of x-rays showed no boney abnormalities, so it was suggested that he go to Pioneer Veterinary Hospital in Oakdale, California, for an MRI.
My friend and mentor Willy Arts, owner of DG Bar Ranch, was making a trip to Pioneer the next day and offered to take Eragon with him. I gladly took him up on his offer as it would save me a full day of driving. So it was with a heavy heart that I left the horse show with only one horse in the trailer, rather than the two horses I’d come with 4 days earlier. My five-year-old gelding Trey whinneyed for his friend for the first 20 minutes of the drive home, and I cried my eyes out. (Ok, I cry super easily over just about anything.) But I couldn’t stop thinking about what a terrible owner I was to have allowed this injury to happen. Why didn’t I pay more attention, monitor him more carefully, or understand the severity of what he could do to himself even in a stall bedded knee high with shavings? It was a totally preventable injury and I had allowed it to occur. I was heartbroken, angry and disgusted with myself. And now I was coming home with an empty slot in my trailer. I felt like Eragon had died.
Pioneer was able to fit Eragon in for an MRI within two days. I guess horses have better access to health care than humans these days! I awaited the MRI results with great anxiety — and when I received the results it was a good thing I had a half hour break between teaching lessons to compose myself, as the tears came gushing like a faucet. You would have thought someone died.
The news was pretty bad: Eragon had damaged both the lateral and medial collateral ligaments in his foot. These ligaments provide stability, or lack thereof when damaged, to the whole coffin joint. His lateral collateral ligament was damaged along its entire length. The medial side was moderately strained, but not as severely. There was fluid in the coffin joint, a result of trauma to the whole area. Dr. Brad Jackman at Pioneer Vet Hospital was incredibly generous with his time on the phone to describe the injury to me, and give me all the possible options for treatment.
Oh boy did I have a pity party. The depth of my sadness was surprising, even to myself. I felt disoriented and more than a little lost. I’ve been down the injured-ligament lane on far too many occasions. My last really good horse was diagnosed with Degenerative Suspensory Ligament Desmitis, a congenital condition which affects the horse’s ability to heal normally. He hurt his first suspensory ligament at age 10 (just before his first Grand Prix,) and over the next two years developed problems in 3 of 4 legs. He never returned to full work. This experience left me with a sort of PTSD around lameness, so with Eragon’s injury I immediately feared the worst. He will never be sound again, I can’t get through rehabbing a horse again, and I’ll never be able to keep my baby dragon quiet enough for this injury to heal. All kinds of thoughts rolled around in my head and I moped around for 3 or 4 days. (Did I mention I have a PhD in psychology and should have been more than prepared for dealing with my own misery?)
Dedicating oneself to equestrian sport is such a dynamic and fragile endeavor. The relationship in this cross-species collaboration is so ridiculously rewarding and wonderful. And when this friendship happens to be with a super talented athlete it is almost heaven on earth. When we lose our equine partner to injury the loss is often emotional, physical (you cannot do your sport without your partner,) and financial. What a sense of loss to lose something so precious and irreplaceable as this incredible bond built on years of daily work. I felt so much better after I picked up Eragon from Pioneer and got him home. He arrived home his usual cheerful, boisterous self. While I knew I would desperately miss our daily rides, I was so happy to have him munching hay happily in his stall.
I also thought about how lucky I am that the worst thing going on in my life is a lame horse. How many poor souls in this tortured world would trade places with me and my problem horse. I found that if I refrained from the self- indulgence of moping around and tried to pretend I was okay, I actually started to feel better. In sports psychology we do not judge resilience by how clumsily you trip over your own feet or how hard you fall, but rather by how quickly you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move on. So to my great surprise I found that life existed in a pretty nice way despite Eragon’s injury.
The first order of treatment was for Eragon to be on strict stall rest for 60 days. I am not a fan of stall rest: in almost every case I believe that “motion is lotion.” But Dr. Jackman and my local vet Dr. Kris Purcell strongly urged me to keep him as quiet as possible for 60 days to give his foot a chance to stabilize. The good thing about modern veterinary medicine is the wonderful variety of treatment options available for ligament injuries. The bad thing about modern veterinary medicine is also the wonderful variety of treatment options available for ligament injuries. I found it very difficult to strike a balance between wanting to do everything possible to help Eragon heal, yet not become too invasive by doing too many different treatments.
Here were some of my choices:
Stem cell therapy (approximate cost= $3500)
PRP: platelet rich plasma (approx. cost= $900)
IRAP: Interleukin-1 Receptor Antagonist Protien (approx. cost = $1500).
Acuscope therapy (approx. cost= 3 treatments for $300)
Class 4 laser therapy (approx. cost= 5 treatments for $400)
Massage therapy (approx. cost= $100 per session)
Chiropractic therapy (approx. cost= $100 per session)
Physical therapy (approx. cost= $100 per session)
There are two more rehab tools which are the most powerful of all, and they are FREE! These modalities are:
Carefully controlled exercise.
I discussed my options with Dr. Jackman. I have not been super impressed with the stem cell treatments I’ve used in the past; I’ve seen several horses have nasty reactions to the injections. Dr. Jackman said the research shows that the stem cells they inject into a damaged ligament do NOT become happy new ligament cells, but they do seem to have anti-inflammatory qualities. I decided to forego the stem cell therapy. In an acute injury I’m not “anti” inflammatory, I’m “pro” inflammatory! With an acute injury the inflammation process serves many important functions. It’s the chronic inflammation we create from eating too much sugar or outliving the cartilage in our joints that is damaging. Acute inflammation good, chronic inflammation bad. A friend who is an orthopaedic surgeon uses PRP in all of his joint replacement surgeries to bathe the whole joint in this nutrient-rich medium. So I decided to begin Eragon’s treatment with a PRP injection which was administered at Pioneer before I brought him home.
Upon arriving home with Eragon the first order of business was to create a safe environment for the baby dragon to spend two months of quietness. I hated the thought of him being locked in a stall so I took his normally large paddock and pulled the fence down to a 12’ x 16’ area where he could stand in the sun yet not have enough room to run. Imagine my horror when Eragon took one look at his mini paddock and started pacing his newly shortened fence line. Weave, bob, pivot. Weave left, bob right, and (God forbid) pivot on his damaged left front foot.
I wracked my stunned and feeble brain for options. First I took a 50-gallon water tub and flipped it upside down. I placed it halfway across the fence line where he was pacing in an attempt to disrupt his trajectory. It worked, a little bit: weave, bob, swing around the tub, then pivot. Weave, bob, swing, pivot. Hmmm, small improvement. I sprinkled the top of the upside-down tub with sugar, Tums and cookies, and that did the trick. As long as there was food on the tub he stood quietly licking his new toy. But as soon as the goodies ran out he started his pattern again. Weave, bob, swing, pivot. My heart fell somewhere around my little toe and I felt sick. I knew he would never heal.
Then I remembered the shock collar. I had bought it years earlier for a horse with a serious kicking problem and it had worked like a dream. So I pulled it out and dusted it off. I was concerned that the shock would make Eragon more nervous and frantic, but I was at my wits end so I gave it a try. Lo and behold, it worked wonders: he caught on immediately and completely stopped his weaving and pacing. It took just two or three corrections with the collar to completely extinguish his damaging behavior. Crisis averted, for the moment. Now I could shift my focus to keeping Eragon comfortable and entertained on his long road back. I’ll be reporting more on this process over the next year. Stay tuned for more ideas, frustrations and triumphs on how to rehab your baby dragon.
Seana Adamson Ph.D, is a psychologist specializing in Sport Psychology for equestrians. She is a United States Dressage Federation Gold Medalist, has been training dressage horses and riders for over 30 years, and is the author of “Memorize That Dressage Test: A workbook of mental games to improve focus and flow.” Learn more by visiting seanaadamson.com.