On a recent trip to the island of Vieques off the coast of Puerto Rico, I spent a few days following semi-feral horses through the USDA Wildlife Preserved lands photographing herds of pregnant mares with doe-eyed foals by their sides watched over by vigilant stallions. On the far western tip of the island, on a now abandoned navy base is an open field of roughly 80 acres. Usually a few herds of horses can be found lounging about this field of grass surrounded by tropical forest. This is one of the few open areas where grass is abundant and the herds each have staked out their own corner at the food court.
As I walked across the open field, I saw a white stallion standing in the shade of a large hardwood with three full bellied mares sharing his siesta. I was taking pictures as I walked and it wasn’t until I stopped about 50 yards away that I took a good look at the stallion and my heart fell. I have spent too many years around horses to not recognize a broken leg, even from a distance. I raised my camera and zoomed in on him as I took pictures. My mind was racing. What could I do to help this horse? If I called for help on this remote island, surely he would just be put down.
Moving quietly and non-threateningly, I approached almost within touching distance and continued to take photos. As I circled the herd, I took assessment of this horse. Despite the broken leg and the fact that like most of the mature stallions, his neck was covered with the battle scars that had earned him the right to have his own mares, he was in pretty good condition. The fracture was above the left knee and bent the leg so far back that it appeared as if this horse had an extra hind leg with a hock in place of a knee. I noted that there was not much swelling and I could see that the body had compensated for the deficit as there was significant remodeling of the bone above and below the break. In addition, the front left hoof was half the size of the front right hoof. It takes some time for this kind of atrophy to occur when weight bearing is uneven.
This horse had been living with this injury for quite some time! Perhaps the leg had just healed with the once broken bones fused in this unnatural position.
The stallion stood with half closed eyes, ignoring me. He shifted his weight and rested a hind leg. Horses have the amazing ability to sleep standing up but they will often shift weight and rest one leg at a time – this was normal resting behavior and without waking up in pain, he had switched his weight onto the injured forelimb.
The mares started to grow restless at my encroachment on nap time and they started to amble away to graze. At this point, I noticed another stallion, a young unmarked robust chestnut, loitering nearby. As the mares moved closer to him, the white stallion raised his head and fixed his dark eyes on this would be usurper. The chestnut quickly lowered his gaze and turned away from the mares. With a yawn, the white stallion moved off to follow his ladies. As he took a step, I could see that the broken bones had actually never fused. Instead, as he lifted his left fore off the ground, the angle at the fracture line changed and the lower limb dangled limply as the bones once again separated.
He stopped, stretched out and urinated – this may seem an insignificant detail but – he stretched out! This injury was not inhibiting him from normal behavior – obviously, he had even managed to get his mares bred. When he was done, he turned back towards his little herd and walked briskly after them.
He was mechanically lame – not from physical pain but rather from the physical unevenness of his forelimbs. But this was something I could relate to as I have a two inch discrepancy between my two legs and walk with a significant limp. Twelve years ago, I was diagnosed with bone cancer in my left hip joint and left side of my pelvis. The cure was a surgical fix – they removed the entire left side of my pelvis and the top of my femur. As so much bone was removed, a hip replacement was not an option and I was left with literally no boney attachment of my left leg to my body. My leg shortened by two inches – without bone above, the remaining femur shifted up into the empty space. I have what is called a “pseudo-socket”. Only soft tissue functions as a hip. At the time of my surgery, I was told I would most likely need crutches the rest of my life or at best a cane. I was told to expect a sedentary life style and to give up my pursuit of a career in equine medicine. Yet here I was, an equine veterinarian, walking through a wildlife preserve with nothing but a camera to assist me. I guess I understood this stallion very well.
We have such pre-conceptions about what kinds of injuries are survivable and about how we should rehabilitate these animals. Had this horse suffered this injury in captivity, he would likely have been put down. Had his owner decided to try to save him, they would have confined him to a stall where he would have had a very good chance of foundering on his good leg. Although the injury did not heal ideally, he has compensated so well precisely because he was allowed to continue to move while he was recovering.
How do we decide whether a creature should live or die? This stallion would have definitely been given a very poor prognosis for return to activity and even for survival. Good thing no one told him that!
To see more photos of the stallion and other semi-feral horses in Vieques, go to the Simply Sound Horse Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/SimplySoundHorse and check out the photo albums.
If you have questions about this topic or questions concerning your horse, please contact Dr Silverman via the Comments box below or go to www.SimplySoundHorse.com to send a private message via the “Contact Us” form at the bottom of the page.
You can also reach Dr Silverman at 908-963-6904 to schedule an appointment, evaluation, or consultation.