Since graduating from veterinary school, I have been a private practitioner with a passion for and focus on challenging performance issues in the equine athlete. In my mind research veterinarians are analytically and intellectually superior to those of us who chose private practice. Research is laboratories, pipettes, microscopes, goggles, latex gloves and crunching numbers. Definitely, not me! Little did I know that in January 2017, treating a six-months-pregnant Percheron mare would dramatically change the course of my life and career. Thanks to her, I became a researcher in the trenches of private practice.
Unable to Move: A Mare With Stringhalt and Shivers
I had just returned to the cold of Minnesota from sunny Florida for a client. The mare had been found unable to move in her paddock a week earlier. It took over 30 minutes in subzero temperatures for the staff to move the mare 40 feet from the paddock into the barn. I was immediately taken aback by the severity of the mare’s condition.
When she moved, the mare exhibited severe uncontrollable shivers and stringhaltlike movement in both hindlimbs. The concussion of her hind feet hitting the ground was so violent that I was certain that she would fracture something. I knew that the mare was at high risk for abortion or colic—or worse—if her clinical signs did not improve.
The mare not only survived to produce a healthy foal but also continued to improve dramatically by returning to a normal gait. I realized that this mare was my greatest teacher. I’d been successful in managing the worst case of shivers and stringhalt, in one horse, that I had ever seen. I knew then and there that I needed to know why what I had done had worked.
A Drive to Learn More
I was driven to understand more about the cause of shivers and stringhalt in horses. I spent a year obsessively reading everything in the literature, looking for similar conditions in other species to understand the cause, diagnosis, and potential treatments. It became clear to me how devastating this condition was for the lives of the horses and their owners looking for hope, when no known effective treatment was available.
In the same year horse owners brought me case after case (over 25) of shivers and stringhalt horses. As my case count kept increasing, I knew I needed to share what I was learning with other veterinarians. I consulted with colleagues in the academic field and learned that it was not enough simply describing how I was handling these cases—I had to provide evidence of treatment efficacy with objective data measuring kinematics changes pre- and post-treatment.
It was a daunting prospect.
It would call for developing a research project, finding a facility, learning and using technology that required a PhD in biomechanics, and, most importantly, funding. I had none of these. All I had was a growing list of shivers and stringhalt horses that required treatment. I knew I had to find a way to make it happen.
I drafted a letter to my clients asking them for help. In the letter I described shivers and stringhalt and the research project I was undertaking to help provide a treatment for these horses. I was brought to tears day after day—and I am not that type of person—as my clients generously donated to the research. They had put their faith in me, as their veterinarian, to help fix their horses when they found no one else could. It was their chance to help me. Thanks to them I collected enough funding to lease a facility, hire staff, purchase supplies and a 3-D Motion Capture Camera System (OptiTrack) and analysis (Visual 3D) software.
By the early spring of 2018, the first group of horses was enrolled in the pilot study, and we finished this summer and sent the 3D kinematic data off for independent unbiased analysis. This was done so that no mistakes were made, since this is definitely not my area of expertise, and was worth every penny spent. We’re currently writing the paper and plan to submit our results to a publication in September.
Each day it’s a huge learning curve for me and my study colleagues. Amid the equipment breakdowns, struggling to learn the software, staring for hours at a computer screen, and the delight of crunching numbers, I still wonder how it is that I am doing research. The Percheron mare lead me down this path. I know I will keep trudging along in the trenches of this research, knowing it is completely worth the journey, for the lives of these horses.