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When Injury Takes Your Only Horse
Part II

Michael Hillman

Having spent the past two months conditioning for Radnor, Worf walked out of the recovery room in peak condition. Only the foot-wide bandage around his knee marred the picture of fitness. As it is my wife Audrey's routine to a limit a horse's turnout in the weeks prior to a three-day, Worf, who was already being confined before the injury, saw little change in his daily routine after returning home from the hospital. Except of course, the absence of work, which, needless to say, was more the okay with him. So everything went well at first.

The post-operation instructions seamed fairly painless: two weeks of stall confinement, followed by two weeks of five minute hand walks, twice a day. Then two weeks at ten minutes, two weeks at 20 minutes, and four weeks at 30 minutes, followed by a month of unlimited turnout in a small paddock.

Being a bit lazy by nature, Worf thrived in an environment where all he was expected to do was eat and gaze out his stall. Eventually it occurred to him that instead of it taking 20 minutes to eat his grain, it was now gone in minutes, (his feed had been cut dramatically). Well as far as he was concerned, messing with his knee was one thing, messing with his grain was something totally different. It was time for action!

Limited in his retaliatory options, Worf thought long and hard. Figuring that since we weren't allowing him out of his stall, keeping us from coming in was good pay back. Working all night, he managed to pile all his bedding into a five-foot high mound in front of his stall door, effectively preventing access to his stall. Audrey swore that she saw a snicker on Worf's face as she toiled away, relaying the bed. That afternoon Worf once again piled his bed in front of his stall, creating what we soon call 'Mt. Worf.'

To keep us on our toes, Worf would periodically pile his bedding in different parts of the stall. Sometimes it would be evenly piled into all four corners, other times it would be against a single wall. No matter where he placed it, you could be sure Worf would always be found in the center of his stall, admiring his latest creation.

Because of my work schedule, the hand walking duties fell to Audrey. Experienced beyond description, Audrey took no risks. With a chain shank securely wrapped around his nose, Worf had no option other than to be a perfect gentleman. I on the other hand, was still in my delusory world and walked Worf as if he was a faithful old dog. A habit I would soon come to regret.

One day while leading him through a narrow gate, Worf bolted. As he cleared the gate, he leaped into the air, kicking out with all four feet. I would have found Worf's antics cute had his left rear foot not made contact with my right forearm. It was over before I knew it. Worf was running free and I was left holding a bloody arm.

Audrey was not too pleased with me. I'm not sure if it was having to deal with me and my compound fracture or the thought of now having the sole responsibility for hand walking Worf through the dark rainy winter months to come. Of course it didn't help when she would return dripping wet and shivering to find me sitting in front of the fire, reading a book, and drinking a hot rum cider. Needless to say, she wasn't very receptive to requests for back scratches. Spring could not come fast enough for Audrey.

Eventually spring did come and with it the end of the recovery period. To our misfortune, Worf, while better, was still not 100 percent. So, once again we returned to Leesburg. Returning to the trailer after checking in, I was surprised, and in a way, saddened, to discover Worf shivering. As it was a warm day, one could only surmise that the shiver was a result of fear. No amount of consoling or petting would calm his shakes. It wasn't until Patty Doyle began to 'ooh and ah' over him, that Worf's confidence returned.

The lameness examination went smoothly. In spite of the notable limp, Dr. White and Dr. Doyle expressed little concern. The stiffness was expected they said. To ease any inflammation, an anti-inflammatory were administered, and a strict conditioning regiment was proscribed.

As the weeks passed, Worf's unsoundness quickly faded, and his fat, flabby body began once again to bristle with muscles. Within weeks of his first event, his dressage work was exceptional and his jumping was just about where it needed to be. To test the waters, we chose to run Loudon as a combined test. Worf's second place standing after dressage was encouraging, as was his clean show jumping round.

Two weeks later we tried our hand at Menfelt. Again, things seemed to start off well. Standing in second place after dressage, Worf leaped out of the start box and around the preliminary course as in days of old, but four dropped rails in stadium set off alarm bells. Sure enough, that evening a definite limp had returned to Worf's trot.

This time, Drs. White and Doyle greeted the news of the limp with concern. Zero X-rays soon relieved the culprit, an osteophyte growing near the site of the old chip. Attached on one end to the bone and on the other end to the joint membrane. Extreme movement of the knee, such as jumping, was causing pain.

Osteophytes, while rare, are not a totally unexpected response by the body after a bone injury. After discussing options, which included giving Worf a year off, I opted for a second surgery. (Least you fret about the cost of a second surgery, as the appearance of the osteophyte was tied to the first surgery, its removal was considered a 're-enter procedure,' and was thus charged at a significantly, very significantly, reduced fee.)

Like the first surgery, I was surprised by the quick response to my inquiry about the timing of the surgery. After verifying that a stall was open, Dr. White offered to perform the operation the next day. The sudden realization that he was going under the knife again, and under it the next day no less, nearly sent Worf into cardiac arrest.

After removing the ostephyte, Dr. White reexamined the site of the original chip. While the bone was resurfacing, he was not pleased with the progress. The scope of the operation was quickly expanded, and the original injury site was once again cleaned and repaired.

Later, as I waited for Worf to return from the recovery room, Dr. White expressed concern that in spite of the fact that we had gotten to the injury earlier, the bone degeneration was more advanced that he first thought. He gave Worf's chances of returning to eventing at less then 50-50. Worf, oblivious to Dr. White's prognoses, walked out of the recovery room like a pro, and two days later, returned home, shining from the many groomings he had conned the nursing staff into giving him.

Unlike his confinement following the first surgery, where he appeared more then happy to be inside, out of the cold rain, the timing of the second confinement, just as the grass was beginning to turn green, quickly took its toll.

While the other horses were enjoying daylong turnouts, indulging themselves in lush spring grass, Worf could only gaze out longingly. The hay we put in front of him went uneaten, as did the small amounts of grain. More often then not, we would find him, standing in the corner, head down. He quickly began to drop weight, and the body tone he had begun to develop evaporated almost overnight. The downturn in Worf's demeanor affected everyone. You couldn't enter the barn and not feel his sadness.

Upon hearing of this, Dr. White immediately expanded his definition of confinement to included unlimited hand grazing. Worf whole heartily concurred, and his moral quickly improved. It was soon impossible for anyone to walk through the barn without being grabbed by Worf and nudged in the direction of his lead shank.

Surprisingly, even with all the experience I've had with horses, especially Worf, I found myself nervous, almost freighted, the first time I grazed him. Every time he flinched, I jumped, which needless to say, made him jump even more. With the plate in my arm still aching, it would be months before I would once again feel at ease hand walking him.

The second recovery period was over before we knew it. Of course that's easy for me to say, given that again, the majority of the work fell on Audrey. While we had discussed the option of bringing him back for a second try at Radnor that fall, in the end, we all agreed that the best opportunity for full recovery lay with giving Worf the rest of the year off. Again, Worf agreed full heartily.

By the end of the summer, my lean, mean, eventing machine had so much fat on him that when he walked, it rippled. Worf must have thought he had died and gone to heaven, with the one exception that his feed bucket only contained what dropped into it while filling other feed buckets. Worf had nothing to complain about. His ears were always up, his eyes were bright and alert, and for the first time in years, the massive wind puffs that had surrounded his ankles were gone. He looked perfect. Fat, but perfect.

Fortunately I had a young horse to keep my attention. Unfortunately, I had a particularly difficult young horse, who, as it turned out, really didn't want to be an event horse. By the end of a less then fulfilling fall season, mired at the bottom of the novice ranks, my eventing hopes were pinned now more then ever on getting Worf back into shape and into action.

By early winter, Worf was playing with his buddies as if he was a three-year-old. With the limp now a distant memory, I chanced a hack. It was as if two old friends had suddenly been reunited after a long estrangement. The frustrations of the fall's season were quickly banished, replaced by hopes of a possible spring season on Worf.

Eager to put him back into work, I jumped at an opportunity to study in Charlottesville for the month of January. South of the freeze line, the footing would be perfect. Weary of pushing him too hard, I started off with long walks, and then gradually, trots. By the beginning of the third week, I was breathing a little easier. On the forth week however, I began to notice a limp when turning to the right. Lounging reviled my worst fears: the limp was back. Dr. White and Dr. Doyle were dismayed when they heard the news. Zero X-rays revealed no progression in the healing of the joint surface. I was faced with three options. Inject Worf and continue to ride him, do nothing and retire him, or operate one final time. I chose the latter. Riding him on steroids would only hasten the bone degeneration. Doing nothing would mean a retirement in pain. A surgery at least held out hope of relieving the pain.

Before the surgery, everyone agreed that no matter what the outcome, this would be the last, and that after it, no attempt would be made to bring Worf back. Given this, I agreed with Dr. White's request to try a new technique called Micro-Fracture - where tiny fractures are made in the bone to allow cartilage surfacing material to emerge easier from below the bone's surface. It seemed like a good shot, at worst, it might help perfect the still experimental technique.

Considered an old pro by the now familiar staff, Worf settled in quickly this time around, even offering to hold his own knee out as it was shaved. The surgery went as planned, though Dr. Doyle was a bit miffed when Dr. White fainted, leaving her to close and clean up . . . but I'll not go into that here.

Figuring that this was going to be a regular thing, during recovery Worf sat up, looked around, and lay back down. It was only after one of the staff called him a cow, did the lazy bum finally get up. By the time I returned the next day to get him, Worf had settled in so well and was so happy with the adoration lavished upon him by the attentive nursing staff that he refused to get in the trailer and go home!

Having learned the downside of hand walking from the first two recoveries, we borrowed a round pen for the third. With the exception of the necessity to daily move the pen, the last recovery period proved almost effortless, though I'm sure Ashley, my compatriot in the daily moving of the pen, might view it differently.

While the last surgery did not return Worf to 100% as we had hoped, it did nevertheless dramatically improve his soundness. Today, he's sound enough to lead his herd in daily charges around our large turn out field, and when he feels like it, he still jumps our the three board fences to see if the grass is really greener on the other side.

The way I look at it, I made a deal with him many years back. I asked him to give his all, and in return, promised to care for him till he was old and gray. I hadn't planned on him breaking down in the prime of his life, but no one does. My goals with him had been to do intermediate, a three-day, and to get him graded. He never did an intermediate, but he did carry me around three three-days, and in doing so, earned enough points to hold a grade one ranking. I think that well enough.

Worf now lives out his days as the best looking lawn ornament in the neighborhood. Every once in a while I put a student on his back and let him show them how it's done. He doesn't seem to mind, in fact, he seems to enjoy it. It's hard to see another rider on him. It's even harder to watch him move so well. He's fit, his legs look great, and his attitude is the best it's every been.

Every time I get the urge to get on his back and put him back into work, I remind myself: the third surgery was for him, not for me. Instead, I brush him, give him a pet, and turn him loose to enjoy his well-deserved retirement. I'm happy that he's happy, and will be for the rest of his life. After all, isn't that what horsemanship is really all about?

Read other horse related stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman