Married with Horses: Paging Dr. Sherlock Holmes

After a visit from the farrier and multiple trips to the vet, a horsewoman and her husband finally solve the mystery of their horse's lameness. By Jeremy Law for

Continued from Married with Horses: Another Lame Story

It was a nice, quiet afternoon in the barn. The horses were out and the stalls were clean. I’d finished mending what few broken fence boards we had, and it was not yet warm enough for any grass or weeds to need mowing or spraying. Did I mention there wasn’t a boarder in sight? It was indeed a beautiful afternoon. A light breeze blew through the barn aisle. I sat on a bale of hay, sleepily watching the horses in their pastures.

You can’t take moments like this for granted because you never know when a horse, a boarder or anyone else will interrupt. The only thing scheduled before feeding time this day was a possible visit from our farrier, Ronald. He was coming over to shoe some of the boarders’ horses and take another look at Skip. Perhaps he could solve the mystery of our barely lame horse.

It had been little more than six months since Skip’s pre-purchase X-rays were taken, and they showed a horse with perfect hocks and feet. Two vets had been out to see him in the past few weeks, but with no real progress. The closest we got to a diagnosis was a suspicion of polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM), the symptoms of which most closely mimic tying-up, and include the shifting lameness we’d observed in Skip. That vet recommended we make some changes to Skip’s diet until the results of his creatine kinase (CK) test–which could detect the muscle damage associated with PSSM–came back. We eliminated his grain ration, feeding instead soaked beet pulp with corn oil, and switched to a low-protein hay. The CK test came back negative, and we were no closer to knowing the cause or how to restore Skip’s soundness.

Despite our lack of progress, a visit from Ronald gave us hope. In addition to being an amazing farrier, he has actually been surprisingly accurate in diagnosing some of our horses’ problems. We’ve used numerous farriers in our area of North Carolina and even a few others during shows in Virginia. None has ever been as good or as reasonably priced as Ronald. Many other horse owners agree, and subsequently, we never know exactly when Ronald can or will show up.

Trying to predict when a farrier is going to arrive was like dealing with the weather when it runs counter to your turnout schedule. (I believe it to be an annoying variant of Murphy’s Law.) For example: You were planning to turn your horses out in the morning, but the weather predictions call for rain between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., so you leave the horses in. Leaving the horses in literally causes a rain delay. If you leave your horses in, then it will start raining at exactly the time you would have normally brought the horses inside. On the other hand, if you know that leaving the horses in negates the forecast, and you decide to turn them out as usual, that simply makes it rain earlier. In fact, a torrential downpour will begin the instant you lock the gate behind the last horse you turn out. There’s no way to win.

I thought I would try anyway. I had a plan: I would give Skip a bath. If all went according to my plan, Ronald would show up right when Skip was covered in sudsy bubbles. All right, so my plan didn’t work. I was wrong, and Skip got a bath. I was anxious to get Skip taken care of, and desperate times call for desperate measures. As soon as Kimberly arrived home, I told her she really needed to ride Skip. As long as Kimberly was planning on riding the same horse who needed Ronald’s attention, her changing clothes and tacking up the horse always seemed to make Ronald appear. Kimberly changed into her riding clothes and had Skip all saddled-up when Ronald pulled up to the barn. Victory was mine!

“Isn’t that always how it goes?” I said to Kimberly. “Boy! And you were all ready to ride, too. Geez.” Kimberly looked a little irritated. I’m not sure, but I may have had to sleep on the couch that night. Anything for the horses, right?

It was like déjà vu, all over again. There we were standing in the round pen with Skip running in circles around us. There were minor improvements since Ronald changed Skip’s angles and added pads, but Skip’s head still bobbed slightly at the trot. We had already tried time off with bare feet, but that didn’t help either. An hour observing Skip–even with Ronald’s expert eyes–yielded nothing new. We decided we’d trailer Skip up to the vet’s for some tests. Fortunately, it wasn’t a wasted trip for Ronald. He took care of Vander and a couple other horses before driving off into the sunset.

Kimberly took the next day off from work, and we trailered Skip to the vet clinic. Tests were run and X-rays were taken. Do you think the X-rays revealed the problem? This batch of X-rays showed the same clean hocks and feet as the pre-purchase X-rays. A flex test narrowed it down to his left front leg. The clinic kept Skip an extra day to try nerve blocking. The doctors blocked the most specific areas of his lower leg and foot, but he was never sound. Skip came home after getting a cortisone shot in his left front fetlock joint. He was sound for a while–almost long enough to think him well again–but the symptoms returned. Unfortunately, we hadn’t won any more lottery money to cover the mailbox full of vet bills.

So (you guessed it) we took Skip for another trip to the clinic. Through all of this, Skip appeared to be quite the little trooper, wearing the same blank, unaffected expression we’d come to know and tolerate. There was an overnight stay, more nerve blocking and more cortisone. This time, however, even the cortisone didn’t work. We hadn’t spent quite enough money yet, so we agreed to send Skip to North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Another flex test at the school confirmed that the left front leg was the source of the lameness. However, the same issues arose: X-rays showed nothing and nerve blocking never yielded soundness. It wasn’t until thermographic imaging revealed the actual problem that Skip’s condition was given a proper name: sesamoiditis. Kimberly and I were relieved. We felt like we’d finally gotten to the end of really long and expensive mystery novel.

All right. Now all we needed to know was how to treat Skip’s condition. Are you ready for more bad news? (We weren’t.) Skip’s sesamoiditis was so severe that no treatment would remedy the problem. There would be no more jumping for Skip. The doctors said more jumping would most likely lead to the severing of Skip’s suspensory ligament, meaning no more walking, meaning euthanasia. The doctors said he would be fine to be turned out with his pasture mates as before–that he would even be fine with moderate trail riding. Well, we were glad that Skip’s prognosis wasn’t worse; he could still enjoy a quality life. Granted, it wasn’t what we wanted to hear. We wanted Skip to have a bright future in the hunter-jumper show ring with Kimberly.

After thousands of dollars to buy Skip and thousands more to diagnose his problem, we made the tough decision to sell him. We disclosed absolutely everything about Skip’s condition, limitations and needs. He was purchased by a local man for trail riding for about 8 percent of what we put into him. Kimberly and I wanted Skip to have a good home, and then for us to find another hunter-jumper horse. Not that we could tell, but Skip didn’t seem to take our decision personally. So, we said “goodbye” to Skip, and we felt okay with that.

I prefer happy endings and wanted to wrap up this column with an amusing anecdote, or some witty insight. I hope you can forgive me for ending it honestly. I’ll tell you it wasn’t long after we sold Skip that we heard that the person who purchased Skip was allowing him to be jumped. I was furious when I heard this and writing about it brings back some of the frustration. I really wonder what some people are thinking–or not thinking–sometimes. Maybe Skip isn’t betraying his pain, perhaps still wearing that perpetually blank expression. Maybe he’s drugged to the gills. I don’t know. The person riding him is a trainer at the barn where Skip is boarded. She knows about his condition and what dire consequences the jumping could produce. I sincerely hope she’ll stop jumping him, so maybe he’ll have a chance to beats the odds against him.

Jeremy Law and his wife, Kimberly, live on a small farm in North Carolina.

Read Jeremy’s other columns in’s Humor section and share your comments in the forum.




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