Any time one of our horses gets sick or injured it’s a stressful, costly, and sometimes heartbreaking ordeal. One lucky pony got a second chance after some very impressive veterinary work from Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Peaches, a 15-year-old miniature pony, was paralyzed in her hind legs following a trailering accident. Her owner, Deb Smith, attempted to care for her at home, but soon realized the pony’s injuries were beyond the scope of her abilities. And Peaches was special. According to an article in the college newspaper, The Daily Evergreen, “Peaches was a therapy-driving pony, and part of a “Pegasus Program” which gives equine-assisted therapy to children and adults with disabilities.”

Smith and her husband felt that since Peaches gave so much to others, she deserved a chance at survival, so she was taken to the university’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

When we think of spinal cord injuries in humans, we know that the outcome can be permanent paralysis, such as what happened to late actor Christopher Reeve following a riding accident. While people can make a full recovery, it involves a long road of rehabilitation. But in horses, such an injury is often catastrophic. According to WSU veterinarian Dr. Margaret Louie Genis, Peaches was lucky in terms of the severity of her injury. “I think the important differentiation is that Peaches did not have a spinal cord laceration, or tear, only a contusion, or bruise,” she explains. “Therefore, her likelihood of regaining function was higher than if it had been a laceration. In horses with a true spinal cord laceration, euthanasia is the automatic answer.”

Surgery on Peaches was ruled out due to the increased risks. The team’s neurologist said such an operation would require a five-hour-plus surgery, and that length of time increases risk of nerve damage. Then there are the added risks of post-operative pneumonia and colic.

In the case of Peaches, her T18 (18th thoracic vertebra) was fractured bilaterally. “That means it had a fracture on the left and right,” explains Dr. Genis. “Even if we removed the small bone fragment pressing on her spinal cord it would have destabilized the vertebra and risked further damage to the spinal cord.”

With surgery out of the question, the team leaned into conservative treatment which consisted of keeping the pony as quiet as possible by lying on her side and only assisted turning with minimal movement of her back. Other treatments included administering corticosteroids, which aid in the reduction of spinal cord inflammation, and vitamins (mainly C) which act as antioxidants to aid in reducing the effect the inflammation would have on the spinal cord.

“The biggest challenge was keeping Peaches quiet so that her vertebra could heal, whilst also providing pain relief,” said Dr. Genis.

For Peaches, genetics and temperament were on her side. Because she’s a miniature pony, and therefore small, there was less weight to bear. As in the case of surgery, or during recovery, whenever a horse is recumbent for long periods, nerve damage is a real concern. “This is due to pressure from their muscles and large body mass that causes nerve paralysis and can cause permanent damage,” says Dr. Genis. “If a larger horse had spent as much time recumbent as Peaches, the outcome would likely not have been as favourable.”

Back on her feet again: Peaches with fourth-year vet student Darian Brillon, left, and Dr. Margaret Louie Genis. (Joshua Babcock, WSU College of Veterinary Medicine)

With injuries like Peaches had, the veterinarians turn to slings to keep the horse upright as much as possible. However, this can create instability for the spine, not to mention that some horses don’t adapt well to being in such a contraption. Peaches’ calm temperament helped her endure the sling.

After 10 weeks at the equine hospital, Peaches is at home and on six months of stall rest, with two 10-minute walks per day. “She is home with us, and I have WSU to thank for it,” Smith told The Daily Evergreen. “There is no way that just two human beings could’ve given her 24-hour care.”

The WSU-VTH has a combination of specialist veterinarian services, including equine internal medicine specialists, neurologists, and radiologists that conferred to make the best combined plan for Peaches’ treatment. “Together with that we have technicians and students that help care for these patients 24/7,” says Dr. Genis. “This played a big role for Peaches, as she needed turning and cleaning every two hours.”

Even without surgery, such a lengthy hospital stay is expensive. Smith was able to obtain external funding from the WSU Good Samaritan Fund. The fund was formed by the school’s veterinary students in the mid-1990s to help animals in need of special care whose owners could not afford treatment. In 2020, the fund awarded more than $100,000 to help provide critical care to 179 animals at the WSU veterinary hospital. So far in 2021, a whopping $218,021 came from the fund to help provide care to 320 animals.

“A big part was just providing “bed care” for her basically,” Dr. Genis adds, “so that with time, osseous (bone) healing could occur and the inflammation would decrease. It was as much a ‘wait and see’ for us as for Deb, as healing of the nervous system takes months usually.”

For more information on the WSU Good Samaritan Fund and to Donate, visit here.