Monday, May 24, 2010

An Unpleasant Surprise

"Even experienced examiners may differ as to the cause of a horse's abnormal performance or gait. One reason is that many horses, which we suspect of having neurologic disease, may also be lame - the hard part is sorting out which is the most important problem."

--Tufts University, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine website.

Surgeon Mindy McDonald and staff meet Valentino at the University of California at Davis.

Foster horse Valentino made his way to UC Davis a few weeks ago, accompanied by me, my two teen daughters, and a lot of warm wishes from supporters.

At UC Davis, we met with surgeon Dr. Mindy McDonald, who had agreed to evaluate Valentino's old splint fracture to see if it could be improved.

Dr. McDonald and her team of veterinary students and a resident gathered round. I trotted Val out. By their furrowed brows I could tell instantly that something was wrong. All of 5 seconds in to our lameness evaluation, the surgeon was sending for the neurologist, telling me that Val was showing signs of neurological trouble.


I felt like I had stepped into the twilight zone. Wasn't I here for a surgery consult? Hadn't two vets at home looked at Val? Why hadn't they noticed neurological issues?

The neurologist and his team arrived, coaxing Valentino into a kind of a dance of walking figure 8's, having his tail pulled on, trotting in circles. "Ooooh, watch that!" said the neurologist to the students, "See that?"

A crowd develops as UC Davis students and veterinarians from both surgery and neurology gather to watch Valentino as he's put through neurological tests.

And then, as if sealing the deal, he asked me "Do you mind if we videotape this, for teaching purposes? We don't see cases like this all the time."

Sigh. Those are not the words you want to hear.

So to make a long story short, Valentino is a grade 3 out of 5 with clinical signs of neurological deficit in all four legs. That can mean one of several things, past spinal injury or a disease like EPM that affects them neurologically.

Cervical radiographs showed "severe" arthritis in Valentino's neck (C6 to C7). The vets also noticed that Val's neck muscles have some atrophy and he can't turn his neck with carrot stretches much at all. The EPM test came out negative.

If you're wondering, as I was, why the local vets did not catch this, we're not alone. Neuro issues tend to be fleeting, better some days, bad on others, with shifting leg lameness and clinical symptoms heightened by stress (a 2 hour trailer ride to Davis) and other factors. I'm told this happens all the time, that very qualified vets miss the diagnosis at home, and it's often caught when owners go to places like Davis for the "big guns."

I stood with Valentino in the xray room. He was sedated, it was dark, but the sadness of the pending diagnosis seemed to pour in on me.

The official diagnosis for Valentino is that he is a "Wobbler."

Looking back, it all makes sense. The vague lameness that seemed to move around, the wide-legged stance in front that I chalked up to Val being footsore. The lack of muscle in his neck, his slightly wooden movement when turning to look at something. I had a fear that Val's lameness might extend past his rear leg (which now seems to be completely fine!) but I never figured it would be something like this.

Surgery can improve a horse a grade, but in Valentino's case, he is not considered a candidate for surgery. Because his sense of proprioception (awareness of the limbs) is not 100%, he can never be ridden again.

Does Valentino know all this? No. He's a happy fellow who's so easy to be around. He is now out in pasture with Argus, who looks up to Valentino like a leader and follows him everywhere. They are now inseparable (Ridge is once again banished to stall rest....but that's for another post!). He is comfortable, he is not in pain. The vets all say that he can live perfectly well in retirement and that wobblers can live many years without progession of symptoms.

The sad fact now is that people are not exactly lining up to adopt an unrideable horse, let alone one that's a wobbler. I cannot keep Valentino permanently, and the rescue that is fostering him is not making much effort to place him. If I cannot find him a suitable home, he will be euthanized.

That would be such a shame. Valentino is a wonderful friend who has much to live for.

If anyone lives in Northern California who might be interested in adopting Valentino, please contact me immediately at

Below is Valentino at a May 1 horse show. My daughter Demi, 15, braided him and entered him in a halter class, the only class he could do. Val was a star and took 3rd place, then stood tied to the trailer all day, munching happily. He is such a good horse.