One easy pull across the state on a crisp sunny October day, a Seattle traffic jam, a white-knuckled horse-trailer maneuver onto our first ferry, and a quick 10-minute drive into the heart of Vashon Island and we had arrived. Paxhia Farm is a 10-acre facility on Vashon Island in Washington state which specializes in providing rehab and retirement care for horses as well as being the home of my alma mater, the Northwest School of Animal Massage.
Lola Michelin, Founder of NWSAM, Director of Education, and one of the early practitioners and advocates of massage for animals was my first call as I was trying to understand and navigate the layup options. To our incredible good fortune, she was able to take Duke in at Paxhia Farm and personally oversee his recovery. With her extensive experience as a former vet tech, zoo staff, massage therapist, and vast experience with therapeutic modalities and rehabilitation, I knew Duke was in the best possible hands.
Turns out that the post-surgical rehab process for horses isn't so different from the monotony and elbow-to-elbow confinement of international flights. The same basic rules apply:
- Keep people confined to a space in which they can't hurt themselves, but try to give them a chance to stretch their legs.
- Make everyone as comfortable as you can, given the circumstances. Blankets, bedding, eye-masks, and climate-control are a good idea.
- Don't let anyone get hangry. Many small meals are ideal because they both make it easier on the digestive tract and provide a distraction.
- Inflight entertainment should be sorted out early. Give them something to watch or listen to.
- Folks are going to get sore and cranky if they can't move around naturally, so give them stretches and exercises they can do to stay comfortable and healthy in their limited space.
- If a cocktail or anti-anxiety medication is what it takes to stay calm and relaxed, so be it.
- Let friends and loved ones be near each other.
- Keep the environment tidy and sanitary.
Duke's normal environment is a large paddock with run-in access and had me more than a little concerned how he'd adjust to stall confinement. Thankfully, the Paxhia barn has generous stalls with windows front and back, and is a busy facility with something always going on in the aisle, providing plenty of opportunities for socializing. Meals are also delivered at regular intervals, with hay and grain/supplements arriving separately. It was especially important for Duke to have something in his stomach to protect his stomach lining because he was on Bute (Phenylbutazone) for a prolonged length of time as we fought to keep the swelling out of his hock.
Duke was in a surgical compression bandage for the first two weeks, which Dr. Mark Thorne, DVM, a wonderful large animal vet on Vashon Island, removed along with stitches, and reviewed Duke's case. The healing was going well, and it was time to start the slow cautious process of rebuilding.
In Duke's case, the recovery game was to keep the inflammation down while increasing his activity gradually. Having four chunks of bone removed from his hock meant that we needed to keep the fluid from collecting in his leg while he was on stall rest. We used a FAR infrared warmer to stimulate circulation and healing in combination with icing the joint to drive fluids out and reduce inflammation, as well as Furazone/DMSO sweat wraps. We also started him on Adequan injections and joint supplements to reduce the arthritic changes.
Building the duration of hand-walking exercise daily on the pretty paths around the farm, Duke enjoyed hand-grazing and making friends. Eventually his stamina was high enough to start work on the treadmill which would help control the cadence of his steps, guarantee a reliable level surface, and prevent him from overcompensating with other limbs so he could build more balanced muscle. It was an exciting day in his recovery, as he watched another horse working on the treadmill, and then took his turn as Lola patiently led him up the ramp and showed him the path through the treadmill and out the other side. After several trips through, with variations pausing and then securing the front and back gates, she started the treadmill, and Duke started marching like a champ. That first workout was only 10 minutes long, but it felt like a huge leap forward.
Another major perk of having Duke on the NWSAM campus, was that Duke was able to participate in NWSAM's classes, including the inaugural acupressure class. Duke was delighted to be surrounded by students, and enjoying the benefits of this TCM modality.
The next major milestone in recovery was his first turnout. Up until this time, Duke had either been in his stall, or carefully chaperoned on walks or workouts. The concern with free paddock access is that all of the pent-up energy from weeks of stall rest might be expressed in romping or bucking that might cause re-injury. To hedge bets for a safe turnout, we wrapped Duke's legs, gave him a touch of Ace, and set him free with his Nose-It!® ball that had been keeping him entertained during stall rest. It was a complete non-event, as his only interest seemed to be in working his toy.
Once we were sure he could be trusted not to hurt himself by playing too hard, Duke gladly left his stall to be up in the paddocks with a run-in shed. With careful groundwork in the round-pen, being careful not to torque the recovering leg, we began to build up his strength, and he was able to take his turns out grazing on the beautiful spring grass and enjoy being outdoors again. By May, Duke had been under saddle, was feeling great, and it was time to head back home.
Recovery takes time, and it has its ups and downs, but there are few things more rewarding than standing with a hand on your four-legged friend knowing that you made it through the dark times, feeling the surge of gratitude for the wonderful life you have, and the excitement for bright days ahead. I'm lucky enough to do that nearly every day.
I'm often asked how Duke's doing, and I'm grateful to report that he's well and happy and living large in the wilds of Waitsburg. He now has a pony of his own to romp around with, and more often than not, they can be found out in the pasture under the trees socializing with their good neighbors Millie and Freckles.
To all the talented vets and doctors, incredible friends, and kind strangers who helped us through, we'll forever be in your debt for your amazing generosity and kindness.
Suze & Duke