Caught between the Bars

When a gelding gets his hind leg trapped in the bars of his stall, his owners jump into action to free and save him.

This is a story of a stupid mistake—one that led to a terrifying accident that could easily have cost my horse’s life. I still get anxious thinking about what happened that day, and part of me would like to forget it entirely, but I think it’s important to share my story. My goal is to remind people not to fall into bad habits or to forget that horses—even those you know and trust—are large, powerful and unpredictable animals.

To avoid tragic accidents, put only one horse in a stall at a time. Photo © EQUUS

My husband, Kurt, and I own a few acres in Columbia, Missouri, that gives us just enough space to keep a small herd for our family to enjoy. Our setup isn’t fancy, but it serves us well.

For my birthday one year Kurt built me a small but cozy barn that included one very large 10- by 20-foot stall and a smaller 10- by 10-foot stall. The walls are four feet of tongue-and-groove boards topped with vertical metal bars. The gaps between the bars are small—only 2? inches—but they allow plenty of light and air to flow through.

At the time of the accident we owned three horses: Cloud, a registered Quarter Horse gelding; Britches, a 12-year-old Haflinger gelding; and Jiffy, a 3-year-old Welsh pony cross. I’d bought Cloud just a year before; I’d been looking for a smallish, well-trained, unflappable horse, and he was a perfect fit. He was years younger and only slightly taller than Britches, so I didn’t anticipate my new horse would have any problems settling in. I was right. Britches took an immediate liking to Cloud, and they became good friends.

During the day, the three horses could come and go into the barn and stalls at will. I’d often find Cloud and Britches dozing together in the larger stall. To accommodate them at feeding time, I hung grain tubs at opposite ends of the larger stall and one in the smaller stall, for Jiffy, and I’d let Cloud and Britches eat their meal together.

Occasionally, I’d lock the two of them in the stall together for short periods of time—never longer than it took to receive a hay delivery or mow the fields. Neither horse had ever shown any aggression toward the other, and the stall-sharing arrangement worked well.

Until one day, it didn’t.

One Saturday morning in September 2009 I went out to await a shipment of hay. To get the horses out of the way I dumped a handful of grain into each corner feeder. Just as he always had, Cloud walked into the large stall and went to the far corner to
eat. Britches ambled in after him and went to his own corner, while Jiffy headed into the small stall. I then closed both doors.

Moments later I heard a horrible ruckus, and I spun around just in time to see Cloud kicking out at Britches with both hind legs. The kicks were high and powerful. There was no doubt he meant business. As Cloud backed up to take aim again, the pony scooted out of his way.

Cloud’s next kick missed Britches and landed squarely on the stall bars, four feet above the floor. His left rear hoof struck the metal with such force that it bent the bars just enough to allow his foot to slip through. His leg immediately dropped to the surface of the wooden wall, leaving Cloud standing on three legs, with his left hind stretched backward and upward, his hoof trapped between two thick metal bars. It happened in a split second.

Cloud panicked. He lunged forward and back, trying to pull his hoof free. With each attempt to back up, he pushed his leg into the adjacent stall almost to his hock. Then he’d scramble forward, scraping his skin down to the fetlock. Each time he lunged, it seemed he could rip his foot right off. It was horrifying to watch, and I was sure he was going to break his leg.

Two factors probably saved Cloud that day. One was that I had my cell phone in my pocket, and the second was that Kurt was home. He came running from the house as soon as I called him. I opened the stall door to let Britches out and tried to calm Cloud from a distance, but I didn’t want to get too close. He was wild-eyed with fear and pain.

With one glance at the situation Kurt sprinted to the garage and came back with a pry bar to widen the gap for Cloud’s foot. But he couldn’t get the leverage he needed to bend the bars.

Cloud’s panicky, crazed lunging continued, and his leg was becoming a bloody, raw mess. I feared he was stripping his flesh to the bone.

Kurt then ran into the adjacent stall and grabbed Cloud’s trapped hoof. I have no idea how he managed to hold onto it as Cloud continued to struggle, but he did. Arm muscles bulging, he lifted the gelding’s hoof high enough to reach the slight gap where the bars had been bent by the impact of the kick. Lifting the leg to such a steep angle must have caused Cloud intense pain. But with a mighty shove, and aided by a final lunge forward, Kurt forced Cloud’s hoof back through the bars.

The leg had been trapped for maybe 10 or 15 minutes.

Damage done
Cloud stood alone in the large stall, holding the injured limb in the air, his blood streaming down and pooling on the stall floor. With shaking hands, I called our veterinary clinic, and within 15 minutes Tawna Purcell, DVM, arrived at the farm.

Purcell listened carefully to our account as she examined Cloud’s leg. Then she gave him an injection of a sedative, xylazine. If his leg was injured and he placed his full weight on it in a fit of panic, he could make the situation much worse.

Within a few minutes, Cloud relaxed and rested the hoof gingerly on the ground. Purcell gave him an injection of phenylbutazone to control his pain and the inflammation, then she palpated and flexed his leg, looking for any indication of fracture, such as an area of extreme swelling or tenderness. Nothing made her immediately suspect a bone or joint injury, although that didn’t mean he didn’t have one; if he did, it just wasn’t obvious.

Next she began cleaning Cloud’s wounds, which, it turned out, looked worse than they actually were. In fact, most were just superficial abrasions that hadn’t removed any more than the top layer of skin. One deeper cut midway between his hock and fetlock gaped open and bled freely, but no bones or tendons were visible.

By the time Purcell was finished, Cloud’s leg looked much better, and he was bearing weight on it, but we were not yet out of danger. Cloud showed signs of pain as his fetlock joint was flexed, which, Purcell explained, might indicate some fractures in the area. Another possibility was that he avulsed a collateral ligament of the fetlock joint—in other words, pulled the ligament free from the bone. She took a series of radiographs of his pastern, fetlock and cannon bone to view later at the office.

Purcell covered Cloud’s wounds with Thermazene, a silver sulfadiazine-based antibiotic wound cream, and wrapped his leg from hock to hoof. Then, to protect his lower leg in case he had sustained serious bone or tendon injury, she used layers and layers of padding to create a thick Robert Jones bandage. She also applied a standing wrap to support Cloud’s uninjured right rear leg–sometimes, horses who injure one leg and are forced to bear a disproportionate amount of weight on the opposite side may develop laminitis in the “good” foot. Purcell left me a tube of phenylbutazone with instructions to continue administering it over the coming days.

Rest and recuperation
Within an hour Purcell called to say that the radiographs showed no evidence of fractures or avulsions. That was wonderful news. But she did warn me that Cloud might have strained his ligaments by pulling so hard with his leg locked in such a high position. She suggested I keep him in his stall and leave the bandage on until she returned on Monday morning. I was to remove the bandage only if I saw any swelling of the leg in the region above the wraps.

Cloud was miserable confined to his stall. I spent most of the next day with him, brushing his beautiful coat, combing his tail, feeding him carrots, and wondering whether he would recover. I examined the leg above his hock so many times, I think I burned the image into my retina. The more I looked at it, the more I imagined it was puffing up. But Kurt, who came out to check on us four or five times that day, reassured me that the leg was not swollen.

Purcell removed the thick bandage when she returned on Monday morning, which was a bit dicey because the gauze pads were stuck to the wounds, but Cloud didn’t put up much of a fuss. I then walked him carefully around the exam area. To everyone’s relief, he was reasonably sound, considering what he had been through.

After examining the leg again and watching him move, Purcell said she doubted Cloud had sustained any serious injuries to his bones, ligaments or joints. His slight lameness, she said, was most likely the result of lingering pain from sore muscles he’d sustained during his struggle against the bars.

Still, we weren’t entirely out of the woods. As Purcell rebandaged Cloud, she said that we would have to wait to see if he developed a bony sequestrum. Sometimes, she explained, significant trauma bruises and kills a portion of a bone, which separates from the parent bone. The body treats that fragment of dead bone as a foreign object and tries to get rid of it–the signs are a horribly swollen leg and lameness that develops anywhere from one to three weeks after the initial injury.

The only treatment for a sequestrum is to surgically remove the dead bone fragment. Although Purcell assured me that the procedure is fairly straightforward and usually successful, we both hoped to avoid this complication.

Full recovery
Cloud was unhappy the next day, Tuesday. He’s not accustomed to confinement, and he paced in his stall all day. I gave him all the good-quality hay he wanted, but I could see that he was already losing weight.

Purcell came back on Wednesday to change the bandage. She had offered to show me how to do it myself, but I was too afraid I’d miss something, or wrap him too loosely or too tightly. The visit went smoothly, and Purcell told me I could begin hand-walking Cloud twice a day, which would help him cope with stall confinement.

She returned again late the next day and was pleased when she removed the bandage—the abrasions were healing nicely. She rewrapped both hind legs with plain standing wraps and turned Cloud loose in the ring for the first time since his accident. He cantered and bucked and had a great time. He was still noticeably lame at the trot, but Purcell said that was not surprising. He was probably still sore.

It was now up to me to take on cleaning, medicating and rewrapping Cloud’s leg every day. His wounds continued to heal well, and he was getting sounder, although I worried he was getting depressed because he couldn’t yet join his herdmates.

Purcell returned for a follow-up check when Cloud’s injury was two weeks old. The skin was nearly healed, but he had developed a two-inch horizontal crack on the outside of his injured hoof. Purcell explained that a cut on the coronary band probably disrupted the hoof growth in that area for a short time. She told us to keep an eye on the crack, but she suspected it would grow out of his hoof without causing any real troubles.

Cloud was still slightly “off,” but Purcell suggested I start light riding so he could stretch and strengthen his sore muscles. That Saturday and Sunday, I got on Cloud bareback and ambled quietly around the ring. On Monday, I trotted him under saddle, and he was sound.

We still had a few anxious weeks ahead of us, waiting for the dreaded sequestrum to appear, but Cloud continued to stay sound. Our farrier kept a close eye on the hoof crack, but it required no special treatment as it progressed down his hoof over the
following months.

Three years later, the only tangible reminder of that terrifying day is a single, very small scar midway down Cloud’s back leg. But we cannot forget what could have happened: If Cloud had slipped and fallen while trapped, his leg could have snapped, or he could have dislocated joints, torn ligaments?or stripped flesh down to the bone.

We were very lucky, and for that we remain grateful.

Why did Cloud attack Britches? We’ll never know. But one thing is for sure: I’ll never again make the mistake of putting two horses in the same stall, no matter how friendly they are.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #427.




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