Your Guide to Equine Health Care

Piaff, Part 1


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Inside the stall, the massive horse balanced precariously on three legs, supported by a sling around his 1,500-pound body that was suspended from a one-ton hoist in the ceiling. His name was Piaff and he was Dutch Warmblood gelding the color of dark chocolate. His left hind leg was too close to the right and knuckled over at the fetlock. Dr. Stephen Reed stood at Piaff’s head while two interns, Dr. Niklas Drumm and Dr. Milosz Grabski, were on the left and right sides of the horse’s midsection, respectively, trying to keep him standing and get the errant leg and hoof correctly positioned. Tech Josh Wilbers was also helping to stabilize the horse. Outside the stall, another tech held the control to the hoist, waiting for Reed’s direction to start moving it up and down. 

Piaff’s owner suspected he had wobbler syndrome. Specific nerves permit a horse to sense its limbs; the syndrome develops when a compressed spinal cord damages or kills these nerves (resulting in a wobbly gait). Piaff had had neurological problems for more than a year and a half now, and despite various treatments, he was still ill. He had just been driven down to Rood & Riddle from the University of Wisconsin’s veterinary teaching hospital, as Reed is one of the world’s experts in equine neurology. It had been a ten-hour trip, and Piaff had lain on his side the whole way. He’d tried to get up several times when the owner stopped to check on him, but he was too weak. It’s not good for a horse to be down that long; they can’t take full, deep breaths, or eat, drink, urinate, or defecate normally. It took about ten hospital staff members to get him out of the trailer, with Piaff sedated and pulled on an emergency glide (a large sheet of hard green plastic).

The mood was tense among everyone in Piaff’s stall.  “Get a bucket of water,” said Reed to a tech standing by the door. “Something normal, something he might relate to. He’s kind of trying to move his lips. I don’t think he’s awake just yet.” Water was fetched, but Piaff wouldn’t drink.

“We have to look out for his hind legs,” Reed said. “If they’re caught underneath, he’ll go back down.” The vet gave the go-ahead, and tech Megan Howard started raising and lowering the hoist again in tiny increments. But soon, Piaff’s legs started to crumple and the horse began to spin

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