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Hard Decisions And Horses

Updated on December 21, 2018
Ellison Hartley profile image

Ellison is a professional horse trainer and riding instructor. She runs a summer camp program and offers kids a safe introduction to horses.

Zoe is the pretty black one in the middle!
Zoe is the pretty black one in the middle! | Source

Diagnosing The Problem

A lot of the time, it is hard to pinpoint exactly where the issue is. I knew my horse was off in the hind end. I was pretty sure it was the stifle, or sometimes I would convince myself it was the hock.

If only they could tell us where it hurts! Well, they sort of can. Just not with words. When veterinarian's due lameness evaluations, they have many ways to check. Everything from hoof testers, to flexion test to nerve blocks.

It was the flexion test that proved that with my mare the issue was her stifle. A flexion test for those of you who don't know is done by holding the horses leg up high, with the joint in the flexed position. Then having the horse trot off immediately. You could compare this to sitting cross-legged for a while and then trying to jump up and walk. It is hard. Since it is hard, it usually makes it easier to see where the lameness issue might be coming from.

Zoe's flexion test showed us that it was her left stifle that was the issue. After taking x-rays of her stifle. The problem was very obvious. She has OCD, which is something that horses are born with. It has to do with bone growth and in young horses.

So Zoe has had this her whole life. She raced 66 times and won almost $100,000. Since I acquired her in 2014, she has been in regular work. Now that I have seen that x-ray, it is hard to believe she stayed sound for so long!

She has a cyst in her stifle joint, a big one. So big that it pushed on the bone in the joint and caused a bone chip. Not good news.

Since we had the vet there anyway, we had her x-ray the right stifle. There was also a cyst in the right stifle. Not nearly as big, but there was definitely one in there. There were no visible bone chips. She has not shown any issue with the right stifle(yet).

Racehorse Zoe
Racehorse Zoe | Source

So What Do We Do About It?

First thing is that we need to get an ultrasound of her stifle to look at soft tissue and make sure that her meniscus is not torn. In people, this is something that can easily be repaired. In horses, it can't be fixed.

If her meniscus is torn, then she won't ever be sound again. It could even be damaged, not torn, but weakened to the point that the prognosis for surgery would not be good.

So, I don't even have to consider surgery until she has the ultrasound done.

Racehorse Zoe
Racehorse Zoe | Source

What About Surgery?

If she is a surgical candidate, it will cost $3-$5000 and be most likely a two to three-month recovery. The cost is obviously a consideration. The other consideration is what will the prognosis be? Will she be rideable if she recovers? Is it a 50/50 chance she will be sound again? Will she be able to go back to her normal activity level? Or will she just be pasture sound?

Of course, the vet can never give you a guaranteed prognosis. Of course, each horse is different, and each horse's specific surgical case is different, and all of that affects the prognosis. They just don't know, there are no guarantees. There never are with horses. The only thing that you can guarantee with horses is that you never know what might happen when it comes to their soundness!

Halloween Zoe
Halloween Zoe | Source

Surgery Or No Surgery?

Zoe has not had her ultrasound to check her meniscus yet. I don't have any decisions to make just yet. That doesn't stop me from thinking about it though.

There is the money issue, of course. The thing is if you knew that you had a favorable or high chance of favorable prognosis after surgery, it would be easier to decide to do it. I'm not sure how certain a prognosis that they will be able to give me.

Zoe is only 12 years old. She should have a lot of good years of riding left in her right? Assuming we resolve this problem? Do we pay all that money not knowing if she will be rideable again or not?

Fancy dressage Zoe
Fancy dressage Zoe | Source

The Ugly Truth

The ugly truth is that unless they can give me a really, really, good prognosis, it will be hard to justify spending the money on the surgery. As of now, she is not terribly lame while walking, so technically she could be retired. Unfortunately, horses cost so much to keep, it is hard to justify keeping a horse that can't work and earn its keep.

A 12-year-old horse like Zoe has a lot more life to live. I hate to think of putting her down, but I have to be realistic about what to do if she doesn't get a good prognosis for surgery and being able to have a full career again.

It sucks, it really does. I really, really hope that I don't end up having to make such a hard decision, but time will tell.

Cute on cross ties Zoe
Cute on cross ties Zoe | Source

Do My Research/ Get A Second Opinion

I have been reading about people who have been through this with their horses, and there are so many variables, it is hard to compare to Zoe's situation. Some things that I read online were encouraging, others not so much.

You can bet that I'm going to do as much research on my own as I can. I want to learn as much as I can about OCD in horses. The more I know about it, the better decision I will be able to make. Hopefully, it will also help me to ask the right questions.

I definitely want to get a second opinion also, I don't feel comfortable to have to decide what to do unless someone else confirms the same prognosis( or to the best of their ability confirms it). Again, I know that nobody can make me any promises, and I don't expect that. I just want to know as much as I can before I decide anything

Stretchy relaxed trot Zoe
Stretchy relaxed trot Zoe | Source

One Thing Is For Certain

One thing is for certain with horses and that is that nothing is ever certain. They can be sound today and lame for life tomorrow. They are so big, and yet so fragile. There are lots of things that can go wrong.

Horses are not for the faint at heart, that's for sure. If you choose to own horses, eventually you will have to make hard decisions. It comes with the territory. The more educated you are, the better you know your horse and the more you trust your gut the better.

Horses and tough decisions go together, unfortunately. I learned that a long time ago. I feel that as I travel through this horsemanship journey I become more and more able to decide what is right. I have learned to face the facts and just make the best decision I can. When it comes down to it, our best is all we can do, and our best is more than good enough!

Christmas Zoe
Christmas Zoe | Source

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