If you follow the veterinary research literature on musculoskeletal injuries you will see there is often strong emphasis placed on rapid healing and reduced downtime. There is nothing inherently wrong with those goals but the reality is that any advantages seen are often minimal and most studies really can’t answer whether results are truly superior to what the horse’s body would be able to accomplish with little to no intervention.
Before we had the array of therapies available today the only option was often Dr. Green (pasture turnout) and plenty of time for healing.
Tendon and ligament injuries are particularly frustrating to treat and a wide variety of novel therapies have been investigated over the years. Injections of various drugs, surgical implants, growth factors and stem cells have all been tried with variable success rates but rarely good control groups to compare with other or no aggressive interventions.
In my years of managing a farm with considerable acreage and many large turnout fields I was in a unique position to see what Dr. Green and Father Time could do. One of the trainers who was a regular client (and also a used car lot owner – really!) knew I was a sucker for taking on attractive horses with extensive issues as partial payment for the bill. Tendon and ligament injuries in particular respond extremely well to sufficient time on turnout.
One that really sticks in my memory was a striking dapple grey stud with an extensive acute bowed tendon on one leg and a history of bowing twice in the opposite leg which was inactive and “cold” but twice the size of the newly injured limb. He was also extremely thin and very mild mannered so he had his shoes pulled and was turned out with a companion. The only intervention was periodic trims to balance him, pasture supplementation with a mixture of whole grains and dried peas plus minerals to balance the pasture and hay. In 10 months he was completely sound. Only a very careful examination of the leg that had bowed twice could detect any abnormality. After castration and 2.5 months of reschooling he was sold as a green junior hunter, took champion at his first show. He more than paid back the original bill and time invested.
Another was a young Standardbred pacer racing successfully at a large east coast track who came in with a swollen knee and grade 1 to 2 lameness most evident at slow speeds. Owner wanted the knee “fixed”, thinking the horse could then move up in class. Degenerative changes were so extensive it was difficult to even make out the outline of the carpal bones on a radiograph. When told there was nothing that could be done he abandoned the horse, at which point the horse was turned out in a field of steep rolling hills with only necessary hoof care and minimal supplemental feed.
Six months later the horse was amusing himself by racing any car that showed up along the country road adjoining his field and looking pretty impressive doing it. His papers were obtained in lieu of his bill, the horse went back in training and subsequently earned over $200,000 racing (which was a lot in those days).
This really shouldn’t have surprised me since the first horse I ever fox hunted was a middle aged, fleabitten grey mare with a large knee that looked every bit as bad as his on radiographs. She would only pace under saddle and didn’t take very kindly to any rider instructions but it didn’t matter because she kept up with the field and could jump a 4 foot obstacle of any kind from any takeoff spot needed.
Medical advances are a wonderful thing but we should never forget the healing power of solid nutrition (including the horse’s perfect food, grass), movement and tincture of time.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD