South Beach Baby, a.k.a. Hope, was a 16-month-old Thoroughbred filly who gave the gift of knowledge to many in the horse industry. Her painful battle with degenerative suspensory ligament desmitis (DSLD) came early in life and progressed rapidly.
The suspensory ligaments extend from the back of the carpus (knee) or hock to the sesamoid bones and down to the pastern. In DSLD, the ligaments deteriorate to the point that they cannot hold the pastern in its normal functional position, causing the pastern to hyper-extend. This syndrome is most common in Peruvian Pasos, but rare in Thoroughbreds.
“I saw her at the January (2004) sale and had been bidding on the horse ahead of her. I knew she was special the moment she looked me in the eye. What I didn’t know was what was ahead of her,” said Ashley Williams, who purchased the yearling. Six months after Williams purchased Hope, she noticed Hope had a dropped hind pastern. There was a small scar present, so it was chalked up to some past trauma. “She had such a sweet nature, I decided then to consider her for a sport horse and not pursue a racing career with her,” said Williams. “In three months, she deteriorated before my eyes. By November, both hind pasterns dropped until they were almost parallel with the ground, and her hocks were completely straight. She walked like a robot.”
As the disease progressed, swelling appeared around the pasterns, and Hope went through cycles of unsoundness where she had to have her feed and water carried to her. In addition to the dropped pastern, she “held her head up like a giraffe and looked swaybacked,” said Williams.
Williams sought veterinary care early in the course of Hope’s lameness. The problem was thought by some to be due to the trauma she apparently had as a weanling as evidenced by the small scar. Some thought it was a hoof abscess. Others radiographed her swollen pasterns to find nothing. After the first few veterinary opinions, Williams started doing her own research. It was then she found out about DSLD Research Inc. at www.dsld.org, and it was there she first saw pictures.
“It was Hope in those pictures, and the description of the disease was exactly what she was doing,” said Williams. She then contacted Jeanette L. Mero, DVM, who has been researching the disease at Cornell University. Mero forwarded a diagnostic protocol to Williams to confirm the disease, and Williams enlisted the help of her friend and respected veterinarian Melinda Sharp, DVM, at Peterson and Smith Equine Hospital in Ocala, Fla. Sharp performed the protocol including examination, palpation of the ligaments, flexion tests, and ultrasound. She confirmed DSLD.
“At this point, I had a lot of resentment about veterinarians not diagnosing Hope earlier, considering the fact that I had huge expenses and she was so bad,” said Williams. “But, I came to realize that few people were educated about DSLD, especially in the Thoroughbreds. It was at this point I decided to make it my mission to see that Hope could contribute her gift of knowledge to as many veterinarians and horse owners as possible.”
Through Mero, Williams connected with Alison Morton, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, assistant professor of large animal clinical sciences at the University of Florida (UF) Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Although the decision was difficult, Ashley donated Hope when she was 16 months old to the Teaching Hospital. Williams said, “She was treated like a queen at UF. She was in a cycle of moderate comfort at that point and stood quietly while many students and researchers performed ultrasounds and examinations on her legs. She had it in all four legs and the large ligament (ligamentum nuchae) in her neck.”
At least six different universities sent veterinarians to examine Hope, and each one took information to pass on to others. After four days at the university, Hope was euthanatized. Her ligaments were harvested and distributed in the United States and abroad for research.
Not all horses progress this quickly. Most affected horses are older (15 years or more) and can be comfortable with rest and medication. “I would never wish this scenario on anyone,” said Williams. Now that more information is available about the disease in the Thoroughbred, she hopes it will help researchers find a cause. “I only hope what we went through can help others,” she stated.