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Solving the Lameness Puzzle

As a longtime horse owner, I’ve learned that there’s nothing worse than knowing that your horse is hurting. My horse Superman is no stranger to health issues – last year we dealt with a few bouts of mild colic, a round of ulcer treatment, laser surgery on both eyes, and arthroscopic surgery on one of his fetlocks. As the saying goes, when it rains, it pours!

This year I was really excited for the start of the spring and summer horse show season. After everything that happened last year, I was sure that Superman had used up his quota of health problems for at least another year and was ready to spend the spring and summer making up for last year’s time off. Oh, how wrong I was.


Our first spring horse show didn’t quite go as planned. The second day of the show we turned the corner to the first jump and Superman immediately put on the brakes. No amount of leg could get him going forward towards the jump. It’s unusual for Superman to misbehave for no real reason, so my first thought was, “What’s wrong with him now!?” As always, our first step to solving this so-called behavioral problem was to have the vet come out and evaluate him.

It turns out that there was a pain related reason for Superman’s bad behavior. Unfortunately, while it was clear that he was hurting, solving the puzzle of where and why he was hurting turned out to be much more difficult than expected. In June, we decided that it was time to take him to Tufts Large Animal Hospital to get a bone scan (also known as nuclear scintigraphy) and find out for sure where he was hurting.

This was the first time that a horse of mine needed a bone scan, so I spent the two weeks leading up to Superman’s appointment researching bone scans in my spare time. What was it, what would it tell us, what could it possibly find, what had other people’s horses been diagnosed with after getting a bone scan…the list of questions and phrases to search for was endless and my list of potential problems that we could find was starting to give me a panic attack! I learned that in simple terms, a bone scan would be able to show us where he was hurting so we would know where to do more diagnostics to determine what the problem really was.

The morning of Superman’s bone scan finally dawned and I waited anxiously for the results all day. When I found out the results of the scan, I was relieved to get some good news. Superman’s vet didn’t think that it was anything too terrible and didn’t suspect that it was a soft tissue problem (Phew, I could cross the potential catastrophic soft tissue injuries off my “What Could Possibly Be Wrong With Superman” list!). The “hot spots” on his scan were in his neck and back and they would do x-rays the next day to get some more information.

The next day, I was once again relieved to get some more good news. The x-rays showed mild changes in his neck consistent with early arthritis, but they were optimistic that after some maintenance injections, Superman would be able to go back to work. Considering all of the horrible things that I had imagined could be wrong, the news that they were optimistic about his recovery was a relief. Within a few days, he was ready to start light work again.

After spending the summer working towards bringing him back to his previous workload, we recently made the decision to retire Superman from jumping and horse showing. Superman has always tried his hardest to do what I ask, so when he started stopping at the jumps again, we knew we had a problem. Even though he wasn’t actually lame, he was telling us that he still wasn’t comfortable with a heavy workload. His happiness and comfort is always my number one priority, so lightening his load to just flatwork was the obvious decision to make. So far he’s loving retirement life – eating treats and going for walks have always been his favorite activities anyway!


Posted in Stories & Adventures

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