Friday, February 8, 2013

Saving the Mermaid

Ariel, wondering where the racetrack went?

The call came on a Tuesday evening back in May of 2007 – a plea to help save a doomed filly. The gentleman on the other end had gone to some trouble to track me down. I hadn’t heard from him in several years, not since I adopted this filly’s half brother, Ollie, a sweet chestnut gelding with lots of chrome and a bone chip in his knee The gentleman remembered my willingness to try to salvage Ollie, who was deemed a lost cause at the time I acquired him – his bone chip had not been removed and his knee was showing a lot of arthritic changes; my vet was sure it would continue to deteriorate and didn’t hold out much hope that Ollie would ever be sound. I was able to rehabilitate the gelding and adopt him out to a young lady who adores him and rode him regularly.

Ollie’s half sister, the subject of the phone call, had apparently won her first race the preceding Saturday evening. Although she seemed fine on the eve of her victory, she had been unwilling to put weight on her left front leg the following morning. Radiographs were taken and the owner received the news that the filly, whom they called “Mermaid,” had fractured one of the bones in her knee. The prognosis was not good. She would require an expensive operation to have even a chance to return to racing and, considering that her win was in a low-level claiming race, that was not a financially viable option for the owner. The non-surgical option was stall rest, possibly with a splint, for 4 to 6 months. Unfortunately, Mermaid’s owner did not have access to a facility where she could be rested and rehabilitated. He had nowhere to turn and was faced with the prospect of having to euthanize his sweet little homebred. That’s where I came into the picture.

So it was that I had to take Thursday off work and drive to Charles Town Races. I drove into the barn area and found the appropriate barn number with no problem. The barns at the track are very large and the trainer I was looking for was, of course, at the end opposite from where I had parked. I hiked what seemed like several miles, asking for the trainer as I went, and finally located him cleaning a stall. Mermaid’s trainer was a very kind man and also expressed his gratitude at my willingness to take and attempt to rehabilitate her. He took me over to get my first look at the filly.

She was standing against the side of her stall, clearly uncomfortable but nonetheless munching on hay. Her left front leg was bandaged from just below her elbow all the way down to the hoof. Dark bay, almost black, she looked small in the stall. The refinement of her body was carried over to her chiseled head, which featured a big, kind eye and a large, white teardrop star.

I backed my trailer up as close as possible to the barn and Mermaid limped out of her stall. We loaded the little bay filly onto my trailer with the assistance of a few helpful volunteers and I headed home, assured by the trainer that her radiographs would be sent to my veterinarian straight away. That drive was one of the tensest I’ve experienced, crawling along down the road, creeping around turns, gripping the steering wheel and wincing at the slightest bump. I was terrified that, despite the reasonably smooth roads and the most careful driving I could muster, the trailer ride would aggravate the injury. When I finally pulled into my driveway, my neck and shoulders were aching from the tension and stress.

My neighbor, Sarah Lynn, graciously came over and assisted in unloading Mermaid and getting her situated in her new home. She asked what we were going to name the little filly. I mentioned that she was known as “Mermaid” at the track and Sarah Lynn suggested that we call her “Ariel” after the character in “The Little Mermaid.” My students loved the idea and it stuck.

Such a pretty face!

Ariel was a bit tentative in her new surroundings at first, protecting her stall space and pinning her ears at anyone who ventured too close. She soon settled in and began accepting pats, treats and attention. She’s been an exemplary patient from the first, standing quietly as we minister to her injury. At first, we put a splint fashioned from a section of 3” pvc pipe on her leg, bandaging the leg all the way down, then bandaging the splint on top. That was quite an operation! It took two people, plus someone to hold Ariel, to carry out that mission. I am always grateful to my students, boarders and friends who always step up to help whenever they’re needed. The splint kept trying to slide down or twist to the side of Ariel’s leg. Then we had difficulties with the lower bandages sliding down the leg under the splint, dragging the splint down with them.

The finished (and colorful!) splint job.

I received Ariel’s digital radiographs via email within days and immediately forwarded them to Tena Boyd, DVM of Old Waterloo Equine Clinic, one of my veterinarians and friends, who has always been patient with my soft heart and tendency to take on charity cases. Tena examined them and called me that evening, assuring me that the fracture was not as bad as we’d feared, affecting one of the smaller knee bones rather than the largest. Apparently, the bone Ariel fractured is one of the most commonly injured in racehorses. Tena suggested that I bandage the leg in a stacked layer, wrapping first the lower leg with heavy padding and a bandage, then applying another layer of padding such that it overlapped the lower bandage and covered Ariel’s knee and just above. I was relieved to hear that the splint would be unnecessary and that Tena forecast a good prognosis for Ariel to be pasture sound in several months.

The stacked bandage.

That was fantastic news for the crew at Equutopia – none of us had any experience with knee fractures and we were unsure what to expect. Our greatest fear was that Tena would have to recommend surgery. I dreaded the thought of having to try to raise thousands of dollars.

 Ariel stood perfectly and allowed me to re-bandage her leg morning and night. She wore a support bandage on her right front leg as a precautionary measure, to help support any extra weight she might have been shifting onto the good leg. I took her bandages off for short periods to give her a little break, rubbing a little “Mineral Ice” onto both front legs and later hosing them off and letting them dry before re-bandaging. She was quite a tough little girl. 

She progressed to turnout in a small area (sedated at first, to keep her exuberance in check), then she was allowed to be out with a buddy. Currently, she shares a paddock with two other Thoroughbreds, Forbes and Floyd. She runs, plays, and whirls in the air, seemingly completely sound. Ariel is quite the little diva, always throwing tantrums when she feels slighted. In the barn, she pins her ears and makes horrible "dragon faces" until you come up to her and scratch her cheek or under her jaw. Then she smiles and bats her big eyelashes. 

At some point, I hope to have time to attempt to ride her, though she is quite the little fireball, and I am in no big rush to do so... In the meantime, she will enjoy a life of leisure on the farm.


  1. Replies
    1. Yes, she seems to have made a full recovery and she is certainly happy, hanging out with two handsome OTTB geldings and doing nothing but playing and eating!