You know that saying... When life gives you lemons, make lemonade? Well, I don't like lemons, or lemonade.. so we are going to make margaritas, and a strawberry basil margarita sounds really good right about now. So hurry, go fix yourself a margarita (a virgin one if you're at work or underage) and meet me back here, because I have some news.
River is having surgery. More specifically, surgery on her knees. We will be hauling her to a specialist who will be performing a procedure on the first of August to help slow down the rate that damage is occurring in both her knees, but unfortunately there is nothing to be done to completely prevent future damage or to repair the damage already done. Even this procedure only has about a 40% chance of success of helping at all.... But let me start at the beginning.
It all started when River was about nine months old, in January 2017. River's knees started making a sharp "clicking" noise, the kind that some horse's joints make when they are arthritic and some other horse's joints make for seemingly no reason at all. I also started noticing some subtle conformation changes in her front legs. Her knees appeared larger than average and she was beginning to walk as if she was slightly base narrow. But, as we all know, babies go through a lot of awkward growth stages, and her legs still appeared pretty correct and straight, so I figured that was probably what was going on. Still, I had the vet out to check.
A thorough lameness exam showed what appeared to be a slight inflammatory response in the knees to a recent rapid growth spurt, but nothing too abnormal and something she should have recovered from quickly without negative lasting affects. It was also at this time I realized she had very slightly offset cannon bones, but nothing too dramatic. There was no reason to suspect anything more serious was going on.
Fast forward to now, River is fifteen months old and the clicking stopped long ago but her legs have continued changing. Even though the change has happened ever so slowly, and in reality it doesn't look that dramatic, I keep feeling like every time I go to the barn they look worse and worse. They had gone from perfectly straight to.... not so straight, especially when she walked. This conformation "flaw" was becoming more severe with age. From just minor offset cannon bones to her legs now appearing to be bowing.
With the distraction of having been at the last stages of pregnancy and now with a newborn, these past couple months I hadn't had the chance to get the vet out again to see her. Besides, even if I had what was the vet going to tell me? Yup, she has a conformation flaw. I was also convinced I was being overly worried, since I have a known to be that "paranoid owner" that has tendency to see lameness where vets say there isn't. (though, in my defense there is almost always something going on, it just takes forever to find it and sometimes it's just a horse's unique way of going)
I kept thinking "they'll start looking better any day now as she grows.... I'm just being over dramatic and seeing things, they aren't that bad. It's probably just just going to be the way she travels due to her conformation. No need to worry." However, after doing a bunch of research, I finally decided it wouldn't hurt a thing to get her looked at again. Even if they couldn't do anything, I at least wanted to know what I was looking at as far as performance limitations or any increased chances of injuries I should be aware of when dealing with this kind of conformation flaw (offset cannon bones or offset knees ), albeit minor. I wasn't prepared at all for what was to come.
Pictures below from left to right, top to bottom - offset cannon bones, lines to show how the cannon bone isn't centered on the knee, example of correct cannon bone placement. (photo source and more information)
When the vet arrived she was there to really check on Pumpkin (my other mare) who had done something to her back leg just before the weekend (of course); causing it to swell up. Thankfully it was minor and the swelling had completely disappeared by the time the vet arrived early that following week. However, I decided to keep the appointment so the vet could take a look at River for me as well as do some routine work on the other horses.
When I brought out River for the vet she immediately saw what I had been seeing; the offset cannon bones and the change in the straightness of her legs. She checked for inflammation and watched her walk before we decided to do a set of radiographs on both knees to see exactly how the knees and cannon bones were set up, and get a look at how the joint was doing. Turns out the joints are not doing well.
I'm going to glaze over the specifics, for fear of absolutely butchering the technical names and definitions, since I can't for the life of me seem to remember it all. You know how it is when you start hearing a vet tell you bad news, it all kinda floats around in your head before disappearing and you're just left with a sense of defeat. I wish I had recorded the vet explaining, but the short version is that River's legs are bowing as the inside of her knee joint is compressing at an aggressive rate and they will continue to get worse as she gets older. The vet was extremely surprised to see how much damage was already done, and her prognosis is not a good one.
What this means is that she will likely never be able to compete in any discipline, and may never be able to be ridden much, if at all. As she gets older her knees will become worse and at a relatively young (but unknown) age she will become crippled.... what this means is that even with the best care in the world she may be suffering tremendously before she's even ten years old... or she may do better than expected and make into her teens relatively sound. There is no cure, only hopeful procedures to help slow down the process and pain management.
River's situation is abnormal, the offset cannon bones are indeed a conformation fault but they did not necessarily "cause" this problem. Her legs have been almost perfectly straight up until the last couple months, so from the outside it appeared there was no need to look into treatment when she was younger. Looking back now I wish I would have taken a quick couple radiographs just for the sake of it during when I was first worried about her legs, but we had no reason to suspect anything abnormal was happening in those joints. I just should have gone with my gut instinct that something more serious was going on. However, doing radiographs earlier on wouldn't have stopped this, it just would have given us a better chance at helping during a critical stage in her growth.
The vet suspects this was caused by a combination of poor fetal nutrition (mother not being fed appropriately or foal not receiving nutrition correctly), poor foal nutrition (prior to weaning or just after weaning), and probably a genetic predisposition.
Unfortunately I had no control over those factors. Had I known earlier on there were things I could have done differently to at least help.. I may have been able to even give her a better chance at normal life as a riding horse... or just a long living healthy horse in gernal, but as it is now I'm playing a terrible game of "how do we keep this horse sound and comfortable for as long as is humanly and humanely possible?" It's a terrible, terrible game to be playing, especially with a yearling that had such a bright future ahead of her.
As you can imagine, I'm absolutely sick. I physically feel nauseous over this and there is so little to be done, but one thing we are going to be doing very quickly here is a procedure on both her knees with implants. It will require completely putting her under and placing her on her back, but it's the best chance we have at slowing down future damage.
The idea is to stimulate what growth is left in the right places and slow down growth in the wrong places, but due to her age and the severity of the issue the chances of it even helping (not fixing anything) are not great. Right now I'm being given estimates of around 40% chance that it will help, but to me 40% is better than doing nothing, especially since we miraculously still have time to try.
We are set to travel to a specialist a couple of hours away for surgery on the 31st of July, The vet has already seen her radiographs as he's been consulting with my vet for the past couple days now. Timing is critical since we need every day River's growth plates are open for the surgery to have even a slight chance of helping. Usually this procedure is done on weanlings, not yearlings but the growth plates still open and may remain open for as long as three more months. There is also the thought that the implants may help stabilize the knee, possibly slowing down the inevitable bowing and deterioration of the joint, but I'll know more once we visit with the specialist.
At the end of the day though, it's all still a big fat "maybe". We are just going to have to wait and see how her body handles everything and how she grows.
I debated back and forth on whether or not to share with my readers and followers what was going on. There are many pros and cons for either decision, but at the end of the day I feel like it would be best for both River and I to have the loving support I've always gotten from you guys. Especially as River goes under for her surgery, her very first ever medical procedure, we could use all the prayers in the world. There is nothing that worries me more than putting a horse fully under anesthesia.
I'm sure I'll be getting many questions, which I don't mind answering, but please keep in mind that I'm doing absolutely everything within my power to do what's best for River. The choices I make may not be the choices you would make, but I'm truly doing what I feel is best with the information I have and the resources I have. Also, like I said, some of the information provided may not be one hundred percent accurate, as I'm not a vet and I'm only just regurgitating the information I was given.. which naturally is not nearly as accurate as the original information provided by the vet, but all decisions are being made by highly skilled professionals that have my horse's best interest in mind and who I trust to provide me with accurate information.
So, with all that said I'm going to get ahead of the game a little and answer some questions people may have.
Q: Will you still ride River when she's old enough?
A: I can't say for sure, I'm going to have to make that decision when the time comes because there is no way to tell what condition her knees will be in. I already planned to wait until she was three to four to start under-saddle, that may or may not happen but if I do start her under saddle it will likely only be as a pleasure horse and her condition will have to be very carefully monitored. Adding weight to her back will cause increased stress to the already damaged joints, as will any amount of extra physical work beyond her natural habits.
Q: How long will she be rideable for if you start her under-saddle?
A: There is no way to tell. If she's rideable at all it may only be a few years or she may do well into her early teens... we are just going to have to wait and see.
Q: Who's performing the surgery?And what's the name of the procedure being done?
A: I don't plan on sharing the names or practices of the vets involved, and I'm going to have to clarify with the specialist what he plans on doing before giving more specific details.
Q: Was River's mom not well fed when she was pregnant? And River as a baby?
A: No, unfortunately they were not. River's dam showed a lot of muscle atrophy over her topline and somewhat gaunt hips. Both are signs of malnutrition, which is common in overbred mares or mares not fed properly. I did take note of this during the time I was deciding whether or not to buy River, but River's condition appeared pretty good and I decided to take the risk. When River arrived home I found out she was much younger than I was told and that she was never creep fed, so her nutrition was lacking for a month or two while I had to teach her to eat... but after that she's ate like a queen. Which could have very possibly contributed to the problem (going from or well fed to well fed during growth spurts can cause problems), the vet did say it probably didn't help, but it didn't cause the problem.
Q: Would you have still bought River knowing what you know now?
A: I'm not sure, and I'm not sure I'll ever know the answer to that question. Hindsight is always 20/20, and sure it would be amazing not to have to be in this position right now, but I would want to ever give up these past 10 months with River. I've learned so much and have experienced so much in those ten months with her.... I don't want to ever take that back. However, I will say my sentiments on proper nutrition at any and every stage of life being critical are even deeper now. I'm getting to experience first hand the devastating results of not feeding broodmares correctly or over breeding them, and the devastating results on not properly creep feeding a foal before weaning, and weaning too early.
Naturally I'm devastated, as I'm sure many of you can understand. I had dreams of galloping fields, riding along the beach, competing in various disciplines, and doing all that with a horse completely trained from scratch using positive reinforcement. The news that I may not ever get to do these things hit hard and hit deep, but some like minded friends helped remind me that riding is such a small part of what horsemanship is all about.
There is no denying the joy riding brings to many people, including myself, but at the end of the day that's not what horsemanship is about. Horsemanship is about the horse, and it's about you. It's about experiencing a connection and a level of communication with an animal so deep it seems to run through your veins and speak to your soul. It's not about what discipline you ride or how many hours you spend in the saddle. Horsemanship is about the journey and the adventure you're on with the horse.
This has already been such a journey with River. From the first day I met her in that huge pasture as a feral little thing, I knew we were on an adventure together. So, as much as I've been blown away by this development and I've shed many tears, I still know deep down that this is meant to be and the future is bright. I believe everything happens for a reason, and I look forward to the day when I can look back on today and think "yes, it was devastating, but without that moment none of these amazing things would have happened..."
Despite this lemon, we are going to look forward to the future, we are going to make margaritas.
“They do not fear bad news; they confidently trust the Lord to care for them.” Psalms 112:7 NLT
“Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.” 1 Peter 5:7 NLT
“All this also comes from the LORD Almighty, whose plan is wonderful,
whose wisdom is magnificent.” Isaiah 28:29 NIV