*Warning! This article contains graphic images of a serious injury.
Shelby Bluthardt saw nothing amiss at first when her horse Gettysburg IX trotted toward the gate for his dinner. Then she noticed chunks of tail stuck in the gate hinge and littering the ground.
“I look over and see half his tail is gone, and then I see all this trauma and swelling and blood dripping down from his rectum,” she said. “[I] called the vet out; the vet gave him a couple shots, looked him over.”
Bluthardt never figured out exactly what happened, but she believes “Abe” got his tail caught in the hinge of the pipe gate and then freaked out, pulled and sat down on the fence. “He bent the 3-inch pipe to a 45-degree angle and broke the concrete it was buried in,” she said.
After a thorough examination, Bluthardt’s veterinarian decided on a wait-and-see approach, as the Thoroughbred gelding wasn’t showing any signs of pain, and the swelling and blood were minimal.
But when Bluthardt returned to the Kansas City farm the next morning, it was clear his injury was more serious. Abe was going into shock. The area around the wound had swelled to larger than a baseball, and the bleeding had increased. Her veterinarian was stuck in surgery all day, so Bluthard took Abe to the clinic at Kansas State University.
“I was told, ‘Don’t expect him to make it through the night,’ ” she said. “He had so much nerve damage around the rectum that he couldn’t defecate, and they had to manually release him every three hours.”
The veterinarians gave Abe 24 hours to regain nerve function in his rectum, otherwise, euthanasia was the only option. Within 12 hours he began passing small amounts of fecal matter, but he still wasn’t out of the woods.
“We couldn’t get the swelling and the inflammation under control,” said Bluthardt. “They were really worried about him getting septic.”
Many times throughout the process Bluthardt wondered if euthanasia might be the right choice.
“I went and saw him almost every day when he was at K-State when I wasn’t traveling for work, and he looked so miserable,” she said. “He’s a very stoic horse; he does not show pain. When he ripped his hock open he was never lame. And I could just tell how miserable he was. There were a number of times I thought, ‘Is this fair to him?’ ”
Abe stayed at Kansas State for 21 days, and in that time the swelling and inflammation subsided. But then his tail became necrotic, and veterinarians had to amputate.
“From the top of his croup all the way down his tail, he broke the whole tail,” said Bluthardt. “So, we knew at best he wasn’t going to be able to move it; we were hoping we could save it. But once it got necrotic, they had to remove it right where the spinal cord ends.”
The surgeon, Elizabeth Santschi, DVM, DACVS, called fellow surgeons, but she couldn’t find anyone who’d amputated a tail that far up. The operation went without a hitch, but the recovery process lasted about seven months, as it took about 40 pinch skin grafts over the course of two procedures to cover the remaining nub.
“We were trying to promote granulation tissue to fill in the dead space,” said Santschi. “The first thing we did was throw sutures across what skin was left to show it which direction it needed to go, which was to cover that nub. And then once that stuff was glued down—because that’s full-thickness skin; that’s good stuff, you want that—it wasn’t enough to cover the whole nub. So then what [we did was] encourage it to further migrate, contract, whatever mechanism it’s going to do to close the gap. It still wasn’t enough, so that’s when we went ahead and grafted the stump once it had covered with granulation tissue.”
Due to the location of the injury, there wasn’t a good way to cover Abe’s wounds as he healed. Following his first skin graft procedure, they fashioned a makeshift bandage with wound packing for the first 36 hours to help the grafts take, but otherwise it was open.
“He couldn’t even wear a fly sheet at that point because it was so raw,” Bluthardt said. “I had to take a fly sheet and roll [the back] up and stitch it and redo the leg straps so nothing rubbed the nub. He couldn’t be stalled either because the nub itched so bad that he would rub it, and he would bleed. His stall walls would look like a scene from ‘The First 48.’ He always had to be out in the pen where there was nothing to rub on.”
As Abe’s nub began to heal, the gelding was cleared for work and returned to jumping. While his attitude remained pleasant, the amputation took its toll.
“He has one weird aftermath of the loss of the tail and the nerve damage; when he walks his right hind pivots,” said Bluthardt. “The whole foot will pivot, so he has to wear shoes so we can make sure he doesn’t have strange wearing on the hoof.”
Since Abe doesn’t have natural fly protection anymore, Bluthardt has invested heavily in head-to-toe fly gear, and everyone at the barn knows to douse him in fly spray whenever they walk by.
“I feel like I should own stock in Swat,” Bluthardt joked. “I will rub it all around the tail, all down his legs, down the front of his hocks, just so he has some sort of protection because at the end of the day fly spray is not enough.”
Bluthardt, who works for HealthStream as a clinical specialist in obstetric risk solutions, got the Thoroughbred gelding (Silver Launch—Jenny Ann, Speedy Nijinksy) as a 4-year-old. He raced 12 times under the name Speedy Silver and then spent 1½ years in his breeder’s field, where Bluthardt found him.
“We named him Abraham after Abraham Lincoln because he’s just a good citizen,” Bluthardt said. “He was never super hot or hard to deal with. I don’t think in his whole life, he actually had a dirty stop. I think he refused on me as a green horse like three or four times. His second cross-country he went double clean. He was always just really easy and just super, super sweet, and super kind.”
Now 15, Abe has done everything with Bluthardt from hunters and jumpers to eventing through novice. She’s also ridden him in extreme cowboy races and participated in the Battle of the Breeds at Equifest of Kansas, where eight horses of different breeds compete in five disciplines. They’ll do that again in 2020. A year after his tail injury, Abe did his first recognized event back with junior rider Parker Green at Queeny Park Horse Trials (Missouri) at beginner novice in June.
“He is a jack-of-all-trades,” Bluthardt said. “He’s probably the best Thoroughbred I’ve ever been around. He’s just amazing. Bringing him up, he was always really willing to work. I never had to teach him something more than once.”
Do you know a horse or rider who returned to the competition ring after what should have been a life-threatening or career-ending injury or illness? Email Kimberly at firstname.lastname@example.org with their story.