Reschooling the Thoroughbred

Chapter 12: out of the frying pan

Because of the severity of Xcel's injury, Jeannie consulted with a vet at the Marion Dupont Equine Medical Center at Morven Park in Leesburg, Virginia. We needed to see what damage the wire had done to the depths of Xcel's right foot. We also needed to make sure there wasn't a piece of metal still lodged there. Most likely, the only way to see this was with a MRI. Our main concern was whether or not the attachment of the deep flexor tendon had been damaged in his foot.

On Sept. 20, 2005, Jeannie, Xcel and I met with Dr. Wereszka at the medical center. Initially she tried viewing the foot with ultrasound hoping this would show us something useful at a fraction of the cost of the MRI. But the ultrasound was not clear enough so I left Xcel for the night. His shoes would be pulled and both feet would be viewed with the MRI. I could pick him up the next day. 

Xcel was lucky. The only damage found was to his digital cushion. The tract that could be seen had stopped just short of hitting the deep flexor tendon attachment. That was the good news. Both vets were concerned about how well the injury would heal as well as controlling infection. If things did not go well, Xcel would need surgery to remove damaged tissue so new healthy tissue could grow. I crossed my fingers and hoped this would not be necessary. But Xcel's troubles were far from over.

 In mid-November, nearly a month after the MRI, Jeannie found by ultrasound an abscess in Xcel's digital cushion. She then surgically removed the frog of his right front foot. This left a very large hole that required constant attention, medication and continued use of a removable hospital pad, which I was getting really tired of dealing with. And of course, he was on stall rest. Have I mentioned how much Xcel hates stall rest? I sometimes wondered how much rest it could be with him charging around his stall in protest!

So Xcel wasn't entirely confined to his stall, I used portable fence panels to make an outside "stall" for him in the grassy area behind the barn. I shifted the panels each day to allow him to graze.  I put him out for an hour and a half or so in the morning and again in the evening. Any more grazing time and he would have obliterated the grass as well as any chance of it growing back quickly.  This helped his mental state but did nothing to alleviate his frustration at not being able to run with his buddies.

Because Jeannie was optimistic that Xcel's foot would heal, so was I. But eight weeks after Jeannie's surgery, Xcel was still lame and there was still fluid draining from the injury site. In mid-January 2006 I nervously delivered Xcel to the medical center, this time for surgery under general anesthesia.

The surgery found debris in two areas of the tract. Thankfully the coffin bone and the deep digital flexor tendon were unaffected. This time I was to use Gentamicin opthalmic ointment on the wound. Other than that, everything was still the same; opening the pad everyday, medicating, closing it back up and wrapping duct tape around it to keep every bit of dirt out. Since September I had gone through about two rolls of duct tape per month.

Happily, Xcel's left foot had healed well—to a point anyway. The area of the sole that Jeannie had removed in August had healed nicely. But we seemed to be back to the old problem of a thin, soft sole with an even softer spot where the bone infection had been. We did make one helpful discovery. The hospital plate he had worn while I was treating his left foot had alleviated sole pressure by preventing dirt or bedding from packing into the foot. As a result he grew a slightly thicker sole.

I had already learned that keeping the foot covered with a pad tended to make his foot soft and moist. So what helped Xcel's feet the most was eliminating sole pressure and keeping his feet dry. As a result I changed the bedding in his stall to straw. Straw does not pack up into a horse's hooves the way sawdust or shavings do. I put a thin layer of sawdust under the straw to help soak up urine and keep his feet extra dry. I kept Xcel's stall very clean to keep manure from packing into his feet and I also picked his feet out at least twice daily. 

You may be wondering how strong-minded, overly dramatic Xcel behaved during these many months of having his feet doctored. I think the saving grace was that his feet never became painfully worse. Even though the vets had cut holes in them which took a long time to heal they never became much more painful than their initial problems. For the most part, all the work I did medicating them was not very painful.  Xcel learned to trust that what I was doing was really helping him. Cookies and carrots were a big help! I always gave him treats while I doctored him and when I was finished. 

Of course there were times when we were both incredibly frustrated, fed up and angry with the entire process.  I think my eventing and martial arts backgrounds helped me persevere. So many years of working hard to achieve goals prepared me for the work I had to do to take care of Xcel, my other horses and boarder's horses. I didn't have much choice in the matter.  I could not imagine euthanizing Xcel because of a little hole in his foot so I was in it for the long haul. I was diligent about Xcels' care, doing everything and more that was required. And slowly, very slowly, his feet began to heal.

Through this process I was beginning to question my decision to rename this horse Xcellent Adventure. I was getting more of the "adventure" side of things than the "Xcellent" side. Instead of a thrill ride things had become more of a horror show. I had thought Xcel might make a nice event horse when I bought him. Now I doubted he would ever see an event.

One of the many important things I have learned after so many years with horses is that, for me, horses are really an adventure in themselves, rather than just a means to an end. If you just stick with them long enough you will learn, not necessarily what you set out to learn, but often something more valuable. You don't necessarily recognize just what that is initially however. When I bought my horse Harry, I thought I was buying a horse that I could learn to compete at advanced level eventing. While we were able to do that, Harry's metabolic problems limited him.

I never could have dreamed when I bought him that we would be doing bridleless jumping exhibitions in his late teens and early twenties in front of cheering crowds. So I guess I had this sense with Xcel that all this was leading somewhere. The question was, "Where?"