Emily Walker was vacationing in Prince Edward Island on August 2, 2015, when she heard a violent storm had hit southern Ontario. She didn’t think anything of it until the woman looking after her Schomberg-area farm called in a frenzy. Emily’s promising Thoroughbred racehorse Tus Nua tried to jump the corner of the fence line in a panic. “She landed flat on top of it and the fence post impaled her right up to her hipbone,” said Emily of the mare’s injury.
The three-year-old filly already meant a lot to Emily, who had rescued her dam Precious Amy in 2009. Despite Amy’s extremely crooked legs, the mare pulled off a win and a couple of seconds at the track. “If she had straight legs, she would have been a phenomenal horse,” said Emily. “To me she was special because she had a lot of heart.”
Emily retired Amy, bred her and in 2012, welcomed a filly she named Tus Nua – Gaelic for new beginnings. She liked the sound of the name and also felt its sentiment suggested a fresh start for Amy through her baby. But Emily didn’t know how prescient the name actually was.
A little over a week before the storm, Tus brought home her first victory in an impressive fashion at Woodbine Racetrack. Emily brought her home for some downtime while she herself was on vacation. Just a few days later, she received the heartrending call about Tus’s accident.
With Emily out of province, several friends rallied to help Tus. “They said Tus was so cool and calm, it was almost scary,” Emily said. “When they found her, she was just sitting there totally impaled. The horses around her were running around and she was just like, ‘If I move, I die.’”
The crew chain-sawed the fence post at its base and pulled it out, leaving a gaping, bloody hole on Tus’s right side extending deep into her flank. With hydro out due to the storm, they continuously flushed the wound with water boiled on a barbeque. The overriding feeling was that euthanasia was the best option, but Emily decided to do what she could for Tus, saying, “She just made a lot of money and that’s her money. So, if we’re going to spend it to take a chance [on her], that’s what we’re going to do.”
Tus was transported an about hour away to Milton Equine Hospital. Veterinary surgeon Dr. Orlaith Cleary was standing by. She recalled: “I remember it because there was a massive storm in the area, and I knew I was going to get something in at some point. And it was Tus Nua.” She and her team administered fluids and systemic antibiotics and performed bloodwork. Dr. Cleary then debrided the skin, cleaning up the wound’s edges. “It was very frayed and unhealthy looking,” she said. “We did find some wood in the lower part of the wound, but it was actually not that contaminated.”
She said wounds such as these are not always as terrible as they might initially appear. “It doesn’t happen in every case, some horses are very unlucky, but in Tus’s case, and a lot of others I’ve seen, thankfully, whatever way [the object] enters, it goes along the path of least resistance, which luckily is not usually into muscle or into the abdomen. It goes between the leg and the body wall and away from vital structures.” She also noted that it was fortunate Tus didn’t break her stifle or femur. “It definitely was one of those crazy cases where you wonder how things went so well for her, in a way.”
Still, there were complications. Four days after being admitted, the wound was producing a lot of discharge, indicating the presence of a foreign body. Expecting wood remnants, Dr. Cleary instead discovered a fencing nail more than 10 centimetres long, just outside the ribs, high in the flank area. “It was a lucky find,” she said, explaining it would have been difficult to see on x-rays because of the density of soft tissue in the area, not to mention the logistics of radiographing an adult horse. “The muscle and the tissues around the nail started to react and tried to eliminate it. A lot of foreign bodies will have fluid around them. The body almost creates a river to drain them out.”
Immediately after receiving the news, Emily, her boyfriend Conrad Penfold and her nine-year-old daughter Victoria Bowden drove 1,700 kilometres straight from P.E.I. to the farm in Schomberg, where they quickly set to work to prepare Tus’s stall. Because she was at high-risk for infection, they pressure washed, disinfected and completely screened it to keep out flies and other insects. Tus came home five days after the incident.
“Then we dedicated our lives [to her recovery],”said Emily, who, on top of everything, was pregnant with her son Owen. Seven to 10 times a day they donned arm-length latex gloves, flushed the wound with a sterile saline solution and packed it with Manuka honey, well-known for its wound healing properties. Fortunately, Tus was a good-natured patient.
“Sticking your whole arm up your horse’s stomach, you think they’re going to lose their minds, they’re going to have to be tranquillized. She’d just stand there on her cross tie. She’d maybe swat her tail or lift her leg, but, other than that, it’s like she knew, ‘These people have to do this.’ It was unbelievable.”
After six months, the cleaning/packing process was down to about four times a day and Tus was able to enjoy some turn out. Unfortunately, the wound kept breaking open. With the flank being a location of high motion, any sutures installed only lasted a day or two. In February 2016, Dr. Cleary performed a scar revision, essentially removing scar tissue to allow the wound to heal tighter. It still took some time to completely repair. Emily figures the last tear occurred two years after the injury and was “the size of a toothpick.”
By the spring of 2019, a fully mended Tus was a mature, flashy, 16.3hh, seven-year-old. Emily had long considered returning to her eventing roots and thought Tus might make the perfect partner. A motivating factor was the death of her boyfriend Conrad in a serious car accident in February 2019. He was as dedicated to Tus’s wound care and rehabilitation as she was, and Emily knew he would want the mare to try new experiences and stay active. Encouraged by her barn mates at Kingstone Stables in Aurora, they raised the jumps during a lesson to more than three-feet high. “She didn’t even hesitate,” said Emily. “She sat down, ears forward, and it was like, ‘Hang on mom, this is going to be so fun.”
After only about seven weeks of training, they competed in their first schooling show in the hunters at the Pickering Horse Centre last September. Tus was “perfect” placing in every class, including a second in pleasure over fences, said Emily. She believes Conrad would be “just so thrilled” for his girls.
Emily plans to take Tus to some more schooling shows over the winter before their eventing debut at the start of the 2020 season. “I haven’t evented since I was 20. I can’t even wait. It’s the way she is when I ride her. We’re so in sync.”
She attributes their bond to Tus’s being well-handled and loved from birth, as well as working through the traumatic injury and its lengthy aftermath, which likely wouldn’t have seen such a happy result without her profound care and commitment to her horse. “Tus ended up healing very well. Emily’s dedication was a huge part of it,” commended Dr. Cleary.
Emily also feels Tus’s story shows the resiliency of off-the-track-Thoroughbreds, and how the stresses of training and the track help them overcome life’s difficulties. “They’re kind of visualized as weak, frail horses, and it goes to show you they’re not. Mentally they’re so strong.”
Emergency Wound Care
Dr. Orlaith Cleary offers some helpful information on what to do if your horse suffers a serious wound. (Note: Small wounds are sometimes even more life threatening than large ones, so best to consult a veterinarian either way.)
What Constitutes a Major Wound?
- Massive bleeding
- Punctured skin or protruding object
- Near or over a joint, tendon, eye or vital structure such as the jugular vein
- Flapping skin
- Extreme lameness
- Exposed muscle, bone, tendon
Immediate First Aid
- Stay calm
- Call a veterinarian immediately
- Move horse to a clean, dry, quiet stall or similar location if he is calm and safe to handle
- Distract him by offering feed or a favourite lick
- Stem blood flow by packing the area with clean towels and applying a pressure bandage – but only if it’s safe to do so
Until the vet arrives, “Don’t do anything ‘crazy’ with the horse,” stressed Dr. Cleary: Don’t remove protruding objects; don’t give painkillers, which can mask the injury’s severity; don’t apply topical preparations; don’t tranquilize.
The vet may perform the following procedures:
- Clean, clip and remove dirt and foreign matter to assess wound’s depth and width; presence of foreign bodies; involvement of other structures such as tendons, ligaments, muscle, bone or joints
- Debride (remove) damaged, contaminated wound tissue
- Remove foreign objects
- Lavage (flush) wound
- Suture wound edges
- Place fluid drains
- Administer local anesthesia/sedation; broad-spectrum antibiotics; non-steroidal anti-inflammatories; tetanus booster
- The vet may advise the horse be referred to a surgical facility
Aftercare depends on the wound and its location. In high-motion areas especially, Dr. Cleary said, “Be aware that for three to four months, you’re doing pretty intensive work to make sure it closes.” Be sure to follow your vet’s instructions on drainage, cleaning, bandaging, etc.