by Gary Shutt
Dr. Michael Schoonover, Spirit and Bob Williams; photo by Paul West
Dr. Michael Schoonover, assistant professor of surgery at Oklahoma State University’s Center for Veterinary Health Sciences, couldn’t find any literature on fusing both the knee and the fetlock in the same limb on the same horse but that didn’t stop him from performing an innovative procedure to help a rescue horse named Spirit. And today, the horse is returning to his home at Ranch Hand Rescue.
“Everything we have done has been a little bit challenging and interesting,” said Dr. Schoonover. “The horse was abused and beaten with a baseball bat by his previous owner before he was rescued. Spirit had a significant angular limb deformity so his foot really twisted inward underneath him and he couldn’t bear weight on the limb at all.”
Spirit, a therapy horse for abused children, is owned by Ranch Hand Rescue, a nonprofit group out of Texas. Earlier this year, the rescue organization contacted Dr. Schoonover about doing a procedure on the horse.
“I was at a complete loss. No one wanted to perform surgery on this horse because his chances of survival were so small,” said Bob Williams, president and CEO of Ranch Hand Rescue. “I asked Dr. Schoonover to meet Spirit and see for himself that he wasn’t a typical horse and that he had an amazing will to live. I also told Dr. Schoonover that after he met Spirit, if he still believed euthanasia was the only option, that we would euthanize him.”
“When I originally saw the x-rays, I was very pessimistic and felt this may not be a good use of the rescue’s funds and not a great prognosis for the horse,” said Dr. Schoonover. “Then Bob gave me some examples of how this horse has really helped some of these abused kids to open up and start their therapy process. Once I knew that, I was like, man, we really need to try and save this horse because he does have a purpose. His job is very important and we are trying to allow him to do that job for a lot more years.”
In February 2014, Dr. Schoonover performed a pancarpal arthrodesis on Spirit.
“What that means is we fused all the joints in his knee making it unbendable and straight. Postoperatively, he did well. However, once we took the initial cast off, we could tell he was having problems with his fetlock joint or his ankle joint being able to actually keep that joint in extension and bear weight on it.”
Dr. Schoonover tried managing Spirit’s challenge in several different ways with not much success, which led to the first double fusion on the same limb.
“This last surgery we did was an attempt to fuse the fetlock joint on the same leg as his fused knee joint. After speaking with veterinarians across the country, who do a lot of orthopedics, this is not something that is commonly done, if at all,” said Dr. Schoonover.
“We treated Spirit with a transfixation pin cast, which involved putting four stainless steel pins through his leg. He had two pins in his cannon bone, which is the bone above his ankle, and two pins in the long pastern bone, which is the bone right below his ankle. Those pins actually penetrated through the skin and were incorporated into the cast to make the joint rigid so that it could fuse on its own.
“We also removed all the cartilage in his fetlock joint making bone on bone. So as long as we kept it rigid—and that’s what those pins were for—it should heal like a fracture would heal. Six weeks after his second surgery, we removed the cast and one of the pins. We staged the pin removal so that we took one pin out every four or five days so his bones would gradually adjust to bearing weight. Now that he is going home, the bones should be strong enough to support his weight and we won’t have to worry about him having problems with that anymore.”
Ranch Hand Rescue has paid for all the procedures that Dr. Schoonover and his team have performed.
“I believe all life is precious and that God brings these animals to me because I am their last hope,” said Williams. “The fact that OSU and Dr. Schoonover performed this surgery and subsequently, the first ever double fusion in a horse, enhances my belief that together we can change the way people look at these types of injuries in animals.”
“Even though a knee fusion and fetlock fusion on the same limb have not been documented before, Spirit’s progress has been good,” said Dr. Schoonover. “Sometimes I can see in horses that they are just done and they want to give up, but this horse has never had that appearance. We have tried to do things that were not only in the best interest of the rescue group but mainly were in the best interest of Spirit. His prognosis is fair to good. We have a very positive outlook on how far we’re going to be in another six months.”
“Spirit has a gift. He gives children and adults hope. It’s amazing to watch,” added Williams. “Even the veterinary students here have fallen in love with him. One student told me that it gave her great hope that she may change the lives of horses one day. How beautiful is that?”
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Based on the success of Spirit’s double fusion, Dr. Schoonover plans to document the procedure in veterinary medical journals for others to benefit from his experience.