Misty Meadows colt bolts for mainland hospital
Mary Ann Brock was up before dawn on April 23 for morning chores at Misty Meadows Farm in West Tisbury. When she walked into the barn, she knew immediately that something was wrong. Her young foal "Tardy" was "three-legged lame," unable to put any weight on his right hind leg. She was quite certain the leg was broken, but her horse-wise friends were skeptical. "Babies bones are very rubbery," said Ms. Brock. "Nobody wanted to believe he had a broken leg, because it's so rare."
For a human, a broken limb is very painful, but rarely life threatening. For a horse, the complications of recovery quite often mean that a broken leg is literally a matter of life and death.
Dr. Kirsten Sauter, a Vineyard veterinarian with experience fixing all manner of animal ailments on local farms, arrived to treat the injury later that morning.
"He's a very sweet little foal. When I got there, he was lying down, enjoying all the attention," said Dr. Sauter. The injury was less severe than many she has seen. "There was definitely hope, for lots of reasons. The foot was still in alignment. It was just swollen and sore."
Pieces of wood were quickly scrounged from a nearby construction site, and Dr. Sauter used them to splint the foal's leg.
"The purpose of the splint is to keep the injured leg stable so the break doesn't worsen during transport," said Dr. Sauter. "It felt very good to send the baby off with a fighting chance."
Photos courtesy of Marianne Brock
Time was tight. Ms. Brock needed to the get the foal, who was still nursing, and his mother, into a trailer to try and make the noon ferry. Ferry personnel held a spot for the truck and horse trailer, and the whole emergency entourage just made it onto the boat.
The foal arrived at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinarian Medicine in North Grafton later that afternoon.
Dr. Patricia Provost, the veterinary surgeon who would operate on the colt, said that Tardy had arrived in good shape. Radiographs showed a clean break in the colt's lower leg, or cannon bone.
"The veterinarian (Dr. Sauter) put a wonderful splint on," said Dr. Provost. "He hadn't done any damage to the skin, or the end of the bone. She did a fantastic job. That makes all the difference."
The hospital staff kept the colt and his mom comfortable for the next 24 hours, while they found the right size locking plates needed to support the fractured bone. Dr. Provost called in a colleague, Dr. Michael Kowaleski, who is an orthopedic surgeon accustomed to working on smaller animals. His expertise was useful because Tardy's leg bone was similar in size to that of a large dog.
The surgery involves an incision, fitting the metal plates around the damaged bone, and inserting screws to secure it in place. Tardy required 18 screws to hold the plates in place. The colt's fracture was very low on the cannon bone, complicating the surgery, and requiring a hard cast.
Because of the location of the fracture, the surgeons consulted with Dr. Dean Richardson at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center. Dr. Richardson is the surgeon who operated on Barbaro, the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner that suffered a leg injury in the Preakness Stakes, and then captured the imagination of millions in a long struggle to survive. Barbaro, who died eight months later from complications of the recovery process, had similar surgery, though his injuries were much more severe.
For Tardy, the surgery went as smoothly as could be expected. In some ways, being such a young horse improves his chances for recovery. In other ways, it makes it more difficult.
"Their rate of growing is much more rapid," said Dr. Provost. "He's going to lay down bone much quicker." A major complication for adult horses is laminitis, commonly known as founder. It is a condition that develops when a horse favors an injured leg, putting more weight on the opposite leg. It can create an inflammation in the hoof that is very painful to the animal, and sometimes requires that the animal be euthanized to avoid prolonged suffering. Dr. Provost says a young horse is less susceptible to founder. "A good proportion of his life is spent sleeping. He plays hard, but the majority of the day, he's taking a nap just like a human baby. That's to his advantage," said Dr. Provost.
A disadvantage was the need for a full cast in the weeks following the surgery, which leaves tendons and ligaments initially weaker, and joints stiffer.
"The leg is going to be weak. It's going to put different stresses on the leg. We're a little concerned about that, but it's not insurmountable. Everything we've asked him to do, or his body to do, he's done. It would be premature to say it's successful, but we're very optimistic."
Last week, his hard cast was removed, and replaced with a soft splint. "His incision has healed completely," said Dr. Provost. "The fracture, based on recent radiographs, appears to be healing as well."
Tardy has quickly become a favorite among the doctors and veterinary students who are helping him recover.
"He's an ambitious little fellow; he rears, and he bucks, and he runs," said Dr. Provost. "He is very smart, cooperative, and happy."
When Tardy entered the hospital, he weighed 120 pounds. This week, he tips the scale at more than 200 pounds. Ms. Brock said he is gaining weight a little faster than normal, because he can't get outside and get as much exercise as he normally would.
"He's standing at the lunch counter all day," she said. "His mother is sick of him."
Ms. Brock's experience with horses has taught her that injuries like this do not always have happy endings. Tardy, whose formal name is Rugged Lark to Keep, earned his nickname because he was a late foal. His grandsire, Rugged Lark, was a legendary quarter horse that earned the highest competition honors for his breed. His sire, Rugged Painted Lark, also achieved top honors, so much was expected of this little colt, and much still is.
It is not an automatic decision to try to save a horse with a broken leg. Tardy's surgery will likely cost more than $10,000, and the recovery will be long, difficult, and also expensive. The bone plates and screws will need to be removed once the fracture has healed, necessitating additional surgery, more costs, and the potential for complications. And, there is always a concern about putting a horse through all that, when the outcome is uncertain.
"If I'd felt it was an older horse that had already had a good life, I might have made another decision," said Ms. Brock. "We wanted to do everything we could. There really wasn't any question that we would do what we could do, until you can't do it anymore."
Doctors told Ms. Brock that the colt had a 50-50 chance of surviving the two weeks following the surgery, but after that, the odds improve. One day after that two-week milestone, Ms. Brock visited her colt at the hospital and returned to the Island hopeful and enthusiastic.
"I think he's going to make it."