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Stall-bar entrapment: Living a horseowner's nightmare

After a freak accident leaves a young gelding dangling in his stall by a single fetlock, his survival and recovery are far from assured.
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This gripping story is told in three parts. The first is from the perspective of owner Wendee Walker, who describes the night she found her horse Arteiro on his back with a single leg trapped between the iron bars of a stall divider. The next section chronicles the work done by Claudia Sonder, DVM, the veterinarian most involved in treating Arteiro’s injuries and supervising his follow-up care. Finally, in part three, we return to Walker for reflections on what this harrowing experience taught her about her horse, the challenges of recovery and the power of persistence.

Part 1: A terrifying sight

My beautiful young gelding was hanging in his stall by his hind leg. Was he broken beyond healing?

By Wendee Walker, owner

At 2:15 a.m. on April 20, 2020—during the early, uncertain days of the pandemic—a
violent banging noise woke me. The sound was coming from our stable, just down the hill from our house. I was accustomed to hearing the occasional clunking of hooves, snorting and other noises that are inevitable when horses live together, so I didn’t think much of it. Soon all was quiet, and I drifted back to sleep. But
before long I was jolted awake again by a series of banging noises. I sat upright in bed, threw off the covers and told my sleeping husband, Mike, that something was wrong.

As I rushed down the path to the stable, I glanced up at the starry sky and tried to remember how to tie ropes to a horse’s lower legs to help him roll over if he is “cast”—stuck too close to the wall.

I saw the silhouette of my Mustang, Yogi, watching me from his corral as I rushed toward the heavy barn doors. I heard grunts and a prolonged groan, then more banging. All was dark in the stable as I entered and reached for the light switch.

With the breezeway flooded in light, I looked into the stalls and saw Arteiro, my 4-year-old buckskin Lusitano gelding, collapsed on the floor with his hind leg trapped up high, through the bars of the iron stall divider. His body was hanging by his delicate hind fetlock.

I squeezed my eyes shut. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Arteiro has
big hooves, and the stall bar space is narrow. It made no sense.

A horse lying down with his leg trapped between stall bars

Summoned to the barn in the dead of night by bang noises, Wendee Walker, found her horse with his leg trapped between the bars of his stall divider.

A kick gone awry

Arteiro groaned and twisted his head to look at me. Blood trickled from his mouth and sweat darkened his golden neck.

I wanted to rush in to help but knew that I had to stay away from his legs and his huge head, even as he rested. At any moment he could start thrashing again. I grabbed a towel and covered his eyes, hoping that would help him relax.

I searched my phone for the veterinarian’s emergency numbers, while Arteiro intermittently fought by launching his body side to side and kicking the wall with his other legs. His trapped leg was fully extended upward as he pushed away from the wall. He twisted and pulled but could not free himself. The heel-bulb and fetlock, anchoring his 1,110-pound body, dripped blood down both sides of the wall. I tried pushing his foot through from the other side of the bar, but I couldn’t. Helpless, I adjusted the towel covering his eyes. “It’s okay, easy, it’s going to be okay,” I murmured, trying to calm him. I could only hope he’d be still.

With the phone to my ear, I flew up the path and rousted my groggy husband, telling him I needed his help. I knew we may be on our own—many veterinarians were unavailable at that point of the pandemic.

There was no improvement in the situation when we got back to the barn a few minutes later. Arteiro had shrugged off the towel I had placed over his eyes and he continued to sweat.

I slathered his stuck hoof with Vaseline and tried pushing again from the other side of the stall divider. His hoof is bigger than the space it had squeezed through. With tremendous force, Arteiro must have kicked upward, pointing his toe, and then tilted and rotated at just the right angle to slide through the bars.

I could picture him giving Yogi, his neighbor and friend, a playful look then shaking his mane, kicking out, and finding himself on three legs with the fourth trapped up high.

Arteiro must have wondered what had happened, lost his balance, and then folded down to the floor. Since then, he had alternated between thrashing and resting, thrashing and resting.

I told Mike that we’d most likely have to end this misery. His trapped leg must be broken.

Help arrives

I had left messages with the emergency line at my regular veterinary service—Napa Valley Equine—and the office of another veterinarian, Peter Ahern, DVM, over on the Sonoma side of our mountain. Both were a good 40-minute drive, at best. I texted them and called again.

Certain my beautiful Arteiro was broken beyond healing, I begged them, “Please come quick. This is an emergency. You may have to euthanize.” I was on the phone with the emergency veterinarian when Ahern called back, saying he was on the way. Both veterinarians could hear Arteiro thrashing and groaning in the background.

The wait seemed impossibly long. We tried to think of solutions, though my heart was breaking. While I comforted Arteiro, Mike gathered tools from his workbench, and tried sawing the steel bars. Then he pried from various angles using a crowbar. Nothing worked. I massaged Arteiro’s ears and neck and comforted in a soothing tone: “I’m sorry, Arteiro. We are here. Easy…”

When Ahern arrived, he gave the gelding a sedative, which calmed him. Next, Ahern set about trying to free the trapped hoof. He repeated things Mike had tried—saw and crowbar. No luck. Then he and Mike tried two-by-four wood wedges with the crowbar to get more leverage. That didn’t work either. It felt hopeless.

Finally, with a sheer burst of determination, Ahern hoisted the sledgehammer and swung it into the bar trapping the hoof—Bang! Blang! Bang! He aimed just above Arteiro’s trapped fetlock joint—Clang! Bang! Bang! I flinched with each impact, sure if entrapment didn’t break Arteiro’s leg, the heavy sledgehammer would. The bars vibrated and spread just enough to let me push the hoof free, blood dripping from my wrists.

Free, but not unscathed

With a thud, Arteiro’s freed leg fell to where it belonged. I noticed his labored breathing. We waited. He folded his legs, then rocked his body until he had his knees underneath, and with a giant grunt, he was standing! Gingerly he tested his right hind. Three humans stood by observing his primal instinct to survive. He balanced on three legs, holding the hoof aloft.

Ahern examined and palpated Arteiro’s ravaged leg and body but didn’t say a word. My mind raced as he worked. Was this kind man trying to find a way to gently tell me my horse was a goner? Was he making a mental list of all the horrible damage he was feeling with his experienced hands?

With a deep sigh and shake of his head, Ahern finally said, “I don’t feel anything
broken.” He recommended 10 days of stall rest, topical antibiotic and an oral anti-inflammatory.

As we watched, Arteiro stepped carefully outside to his water trough and drank deeply, then hobbled inside to chew a bite of hay. 

Part 2: Healing begins

In the immediate aftermath of Arteiro’s accident, our main task was dealing with the long-term consequences of his injuries.

By Claudia Sonder, DVM, with Christine Barakat

I went to see Arteiro 10 days after the entrapment. Wendee had told me that he had been put on anti-inflammatories and kept in his stall to mitigate any more damage to the leg. Dr. Ahern had saved the gelding’s life, but we weren’t sure what the long-term consequences of the accident might be.

When I got there, Arteiro was a 4 out of 5 on the lameness scale, ranging from 0 (no observable unsoundness) to 5 (non-weight bearing). He still had significant swelling in the affected limb—his pastern was twice the diameter it was supposed to be. He also had a large, superficial wound on the inside of the joint. It was an abrasion, almost as if he had been burned by the friction of the stall bars. When horses exert force against a stationary object, it can damage the blood flow in the tissues. At first, the trauma can look mild, but then the skin begins to slough off.

Wendee had been keeping the wound clean and bandaged, so it was healing well, but it was still very large. There was also a large defect in that hoof—a four-centimeter horizontal crack just below the coronary band on the outside of the hoof—that would have to grow out.

A horse walking in a hot walker

Helping Arteiro recover from his ordeal required months of patient work and a brief stay at a rehab facility.

The good news was Arteiro had full range of motion and allowed me to flex the limb, so I was hopeful there wasn’t a fracture. And that was indeed the case: His radiographs looked remarkably normal for what he’d been through. The damage seemed to be limited to soft tissues. I had a strong suspicion that ligaments were involved, but there was still too much swelling and skin disruption associated with the wound to get a good ultrasound image. That would have to wait.

I also discovered something unexpected during that first visit: Arterio had a heart murmur, an irregularity in the sound his heart made with each beat. The murmur was a grade 2 out of 6, so relatively low-grade, but persistent. I had listened to his heart in exams before the accident, so I knew this was a new development.

I wondered whether his struggles to free himself from the bars had damaged a valve or led to a cardiac overload. We know that, in times of great physical stress, dogs and people can rupture the chordae tendineae—little fibrous vines that pull valves closed.

This new murmur was not life threatening, but if it worsened, it might have some relevance to Arteiro’s future athleticism. At the time, it didn’t warrant transporting him to see a cardiac specialist, so Wendee and I agreed to just monitor the situation.

I recommended that we continue with stall rest and anti-inflammatories for another three weeks. We did, however, switch Arteiro to a topical anti-inflammatory to prevent the renal and gastrointestinal side effects that can occur with the long-term use of systemic non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

We also decided to introduce a little hand walking—just five minutes a day on a flat surface to promote blood flow.

Recovery, one step at a time

I came back in mid-May to perform an ultrasound of the injured leg. The wound had healed enough to allow contact of the probe to the injured area. Ultrasound revealed disruption of the fibers in the lateral oblique distal sesamoidean ligament, which is part of the suspensory apparatus supporting the pastern joint.

Arteiro was walking sound at this point, but remained 2 out of 5 on the lameness scale at the trot. Wendee and I discussed various options like platelet rich plasma (PRP) and shockwave therapy but decided to continue with the more conservative approach that seemed to be serving him well.

We still didn’t know what other damage Arteiro might have---to what extent he may have hurt his back or his hip in the struggle to free himself. Normally, once we’ve ruled out a fracture, we’d “block” the nerves serving each area in a limb to pinpoint the source of lameness. Arteiro, though, was a bit needlephobic and hind-limb foot-shy so we were unable to safely block his hind end in the field.

With all of that in mind, we decided to start intravenous injections of sodium hyaluronate to support healing processes not only in the pastern and coffin joints, but in any other articular areas elsewhere in his body that were recovering.

We sought to take a holistic approach, working to preserve Arteiro’s soundness while addressing the needs of the entire horse.

No matter the injury you’re dealing with, you’ve got this “golden hour”—
a window which can actually last days or weeks—to modulate the body’s inflammatory reaction and minimize the negative impact of inflammation. We wanted to make sure we’d done all we could in that time.

Wendee is a fantastic, attentive owner. I knew she’d take care of Arteiro’s mind as well as his body and notice immediately if something wasn’t going well.

Steady progress

In mid-June, Wendee called to report that Arteiro had had three episodes of locking stifle, but I assured her that these were not an emergency and instead likely reflected weakness from the gelding’s prolonged stall rest. I came back in July, a little more than three months after the injury. Arteiro was still 2 out of 5 on the lameness scale, but there was significantly less swelling in his right hind leg and the ultrasound showed good fiber organization in the healing ligament. His pastern wound was almost healed and the defect in his hoof continued to grow down toward the ground. We increased his daily handwalking sessions to 30 minutes each. I was very happy with how well he was doing.

Three months later, I paid Arteiro another visit. He was only 1 out of 5 on the lameness scale, which was fantastic to see. His hoof defect was growing out and the ultrasound showed that his soft tissue injuries were still healing well. We took radiographs and the images showed only minor changes in the pastern bones—a tiny bit of bone remodeling that looked like his body was trying to stabilize the joint by laying down extra bone. If the joint had been seriously compromised, I believe we would have seen more of a reaction and the beginnings of significant pastern- or coffin-joint osteoarthritis.

Those radiographs and his degree of soundness reassured me that Arteiro would continue to heal well. Periodic follow-up visits and calls with Wendee have confirmed his progress and he has slowly been brought back into work. He’s at risk of pastern- and coffin-joint arthritis later in life, and we are going to continue to monitor his heart murmur, but he is doing fabulously considering the amount of trauma he experienced.

What went right

From a veterinary standpoint, a few key factors made this a success story. One contributor to Arteiro’s fairly speedy convalescence is his age. He was only 4 years old when this happened and like young kids, younger horses can bounce back from trauma a bit easier than older ones. I think this is one reason we didn’t see significant damage to his withers, neck, pelvis or back. If there was damage, it healed during his convalescence.

But maybe the biggest factor in Arteiro’s recovery was the consistency in his care and Wendee’s willingness to stick with the rehabilitation plan. In that “golden hour” after a trauma I mentioned, you need to develop a plan for treating the entire horse over the coming weeks. Rehabilitation plans for horses are similar to those designed in human medicine—the best outcomes result from carefully controlled movement plans. In most situations, shutting a horse up in a stall is not the best thing, but neither is turning them out in a field.

One lesson everyone can learn from Arteiro’s accident and recovery is that even if the horse seems fine after an incident, get a veterinarian involved in a long-term way. After a fall or other trauma, some horses act pretty normal, but that doesn’t mean they are okay. We lose too many horses too early to advanced arthritis, and I honestly believe many of those cases are related to traumas that weren’t carefully managed years earlier.

I’d also emphasize that the care required is not difficult or expensive, but it does require coordination, persistence and patience. In this case, the plan called for judicious use of anti-inflammatory medications and lots of rest, with just enough activity to preserve range of motion.

Wendee was amazing in managing the process. She kept Arteiro’s mind busy while supporting his body’s effort to heal and didn’t deviate from the plan. She’s probably the biggest factor in his recovery.

Part 3: Determination pays off

A year after his accident, my young horse once again has a promising future.

By Wendee Walker, owner

It’s been a little more than a year since I found Arteiro hanging by his leg in his stall, and I still remember being gripped with fear that we’d have to put him down. In that moment I couldn’t imagine how he could survive, much less recover as well as he has.
Arteiro means “mischievous” in Portuguese so I should have expected that being his guardian would lead to detours and adventures.

A woman mounted on a dun horse in a wooded setting

Arteiro has made a full recovery from his ordeal and is working undersaddle once again.

Arteiro is sound as of spring of 2021. From the moment of the accident in April 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, until today as America has started reopening, I struggled but remained determined to set Arteiro up for healing. Shockwave, MagnaWave and Bemer pulsed electromagnetic field treatments, along with massage and chiropractic therapy and handwalking, all played a part in the healing process.

I took online classes on how to develop and main-tain a horse’s muscles—particularly through his topline—using in-hand work. As we walked the patterns in the arena, I cringed when Arteiro put weight on his injured leg. Living the Animal Reiki Precepts and practicing daily meditations with my little herd helped us through.

At the nine-month mark, though, I hit a wall of exhaustion. I had been endlessly wrapping and walking and longeing. Then it started raining in California and didn’t stop. It was cold and our property doesn’t have an indoor arena, so walking Arteiro on the same paths became tedious. Both of us became frustrated: It was sort of like the home-schooling so many parents have had to do this year—at one point it can become too much and your relationship with the thing you love can suffer. Exercise in water had been recommended so, to continue his program, I sent Arteiro to a rehabilitation facility. He returned home stronger but with ulcers, which have since been treated. He was also still protecting his right side. Having studied with Jillian Kreinbring, Manolo Mendez and Thomas Ritter, I knew that even subtle asymmetry would lead to soundness issues and injury.

I signed up for an online consultation with equine functional anatomy experts who developed a daily protocol of exercises, stretches and bodywork for us to do at home. At the end of two weeks of doing targeted stretches mostly from the left side, Arteiro stood more evenly, his haunches matched from left to right. Along with the recommended protocol, I practiced intuitive touch, adding in massage as learned from Equinology, Ttouch, acupressure and, of course, Reiki meditation almost daily.

Arteiro and I built a deep bond during this yearlong rehabilitation project, and I’m filled with gratitude for everyone who stepped in to help. My young horse once again has a promising future. I am proud of Arteiro because he remained playful and never gave up, which brought out my determination to put this accident behind us.

Arteiro, the mischievous one, has proven to be resilient. And this year I’ve learned that I am as well. 

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