The doors of the massive trailer opened to reveal its tiny occupant. Off stepped a 10hh Shetland Pony, head hung low. Aside from his name – Mickey Blue Eyes – little was known of his history, but by the looks of him, it wasn’t hard to fill in some of the blanks. Mickey didn’t know it yet, but his trials were over, he was finally home.

Sitting at her desk one winter evening, Dianne Denby scrolled through listings of an online classifieds site. As most of us do from time to time, she idly browsed the horse ads. She wasn’t looking for an addition to her three-horse herd. She didn’t need a project. She didn’t know it yet, but she was about to save a life.

When she came across an ad seeking homes for three horses that had recently been rescued from severe neglect, Dianne stopped to take a closer look. She thought of her annual Christmas tradition of donating to animals in need and decided to call to offer financial assistance.

Once she learned about Mickey and the desperate condition he was in, Dianne began to change her mind about simply sending money, and seriously considered giving the pony a home. It was clear that he needed help from someone who was willing to spend the time and money to bring him back to health, and also someone who understood this might not be possible, and was prepared for the unhappy consequences.

After she hung up, Dianne spoke with her husband, Jim, a long-time horseman. “I told him I wanted to at least help out with his expenses,” she said. “But I then asked if he would be okay with adopting the pony.”

Three days later, Mickey arrived at their Lightning Bug Ranch, in Woodstock, Ontario, looking pitiful. “He had a huge belly, his coat was really long and he was obviously malnourished – all his ribs showed, but he looked like he was pregnant. His eyes were dull and glassy,” Dianne explained, adding that “personality wise, he was shut down and not very trusting of humans.”

These issues aside, Dianne’s biggest concern was his feet. They were in terrible shape – literally. His hooves hadn’t been trimmed in so long that they had developed a condition known as “slipper foot,” where the toe is exceedingly long and turned up, giving the hooves the appearance of elf boots. This made it difficult for him to walk and hinted at other underlying conditions, such as laminitis and possible damage to his tendons and ligaments.

Dianne called her farrier, Terri Gerber, out right away, who said that when she first saw his feet, she wondered how he was even able to walk. “He had extremely long toe, front and back. The heels on his hind feet had actually grown forward like a rocking horse and were as long as the toe. The hoof wall on the hinds had grown down and folded under to cover the sole and frog. He actually walked on the outsides of his hind feet to compensate,” she explained.

“From the top, you could see the coronary band had changes – it appeared to sink on all feet. The hoof walls had severe rings and looked disfigured, especially the hinds. Underneath, Mickey had a lot of bruising and blood spots as well as tearing and separation of the white line and lamina. His sole had dropped – it was very flat – and was stretched forward so that he had very little sole depth. There was a lot of dead foot and rotten spots, as well as contracted heals and an extremely narrow, rotting frog.

“Let’s just say,” she concluded, “it was obvious Mickey had sore feet and an uncomfortable body. I felt sorry for him and was amazed that despite being neglected like this, he was strong enough to keep trucking along!”

That first visit, Terri said she knew she couldn’t make any big changes. From the condition of his hooves, she suspected that they were also seeing the effects of laminitis. She decided she would do what she could to make him more comfortable, but that until his feet had been x-rayed, she would have to proceed with caution.

“When I first saw Mickey, I knew I could not take all the foot off at once,” she said. “I know sometimes farriers do, but I knew I couldn’t, and usually don’t, for a few reasons.

“First, it was pretty obvious his bones had sunk and shifted. I don’t like to go cutting and making drastic changes in cases like this until I know where the bones are.

“Also, I could see he had little sole depth to work with and did not want to add to his soreness.

“Finally, I have done body work and massage for years. I did not want to shift the body or cause any soft tissue damage by shifting the angles, changing his movement too much and adding to the list of problems.”

And so, for his first trim, down on bended knee, Terri removed all the dead foot she could, taking off enough of the toe to help him be more comfortable. She nipped some of the “boot” back, only taking toe from the top down. “I did not cut at the sole from the bottom up,” she explained. “I don’t pare/cut sole unless absolutely necessary, on any horse. I removed the hoof wall that had grown under his hind feet, so we could see the frog and sole and remove any dead/rotten foot underneath. Then I asked for a set of x-rays.”

Terri recommended that Dianne call on Dr. Dieter Oberbichler, an imaging and equine sports medicine specialist, whom she had collaborated with on other cases in the past.

As Dianne, Terri and Dr. Oberbichler crowded around the screen of the portable x-ray machine, their suspicion of laminitis was confirmed – there was clear evidence of coffin bone rotation, and it was severe. Dianne didn’t want to believe what she was seeing. “I thought they were going to recommend that Mickey be put down,” she recalled, “but Dr. Oberbichler said ‘Let’s keep at it, and we’ll do the best we can. He’ll let us know if he’s going to make it.’”

“Dianne was very shocked by the x-rays,” said Terri, “but I encouraged her not to give up because Mickey was still getting around. He looked a little uncomfortable, but not in severe pain. I felt that with a couple proper trims we could make a big difference. I wasn’t sure we could get him 100 per cent perfect, but I knew we could make him way more comfortable and happy.”

Dr. Oberbichler said he was willing to give Mickey a chance because he was a “tough little pony, that was in good spirits, not extremely obese and his feet had decent overall horn quality.” He added that “by the time Dianne got him, the worst of Mickey’s suffering was already over” and that he believed the pony could improve with a carefully managed diet, exercise and trim schedule.

“We didn’t want Mickey to have another bout of laminitis once we had him on the road to recovery,” said Terri. “The advice I gave Dianne was to keep him moving and watch the feed.”

And so Dianne set to work on a plan to change Mickey’s life, starting with a meticulously laid out feed and supplement regime. “We put him on a high, protein low sugar diet,” she said. “He was fed about 1/8th of a cup of rolled oats twice a day to mix minerals and vitamins with. He didn’t get any treats other than little bites of carrots and never grass. His hay was a blend of small amounts of alfalfa mixed with timothy grass hay.”

In addition, Dianne started him on a combination of supplements designed to boost his circulation, reduce inflammation and improve his overall health.

She also started to take Mickey on walks around the property to help him lose some weight and improve circulation.

As the months passed, Dianne began to see a change in Mickey. Where once he had no interest in his environment, he was starting to engage with the humans and other horses at his new home, and take pleasure in the simple things – like getting to wear a brand new blanket and enjoy the comfort of his own stall, scratching his belly on small trees he would break to just the right height for the job, or sitting down on his little rump and surveying his paddock from his perch on a hill. “He is just the cutest pony ever,” giggled Dianne.

Eight months later, after carefully following Mickey’s care and management routine, Dianne called Dr. Oberbichler back out to do a second set of x-rays. She couldn’t have been happier with the results. The x-rays showed dramatic improvement.

“On the old x-rays, you can see the rotation – how the coffin bone points down. You can see that the hoof pastern axis is broken [the angles of the pastern and the hoof are not aligned], and that the bones are not in proper alignment and are squished together,” explained Terri. “In the current x-ray, once I removed the long toe and excess hoof wall, the bones are in better alignment, the axis is improving and the coffin bone is seated in a better position in the foot.

“I am happy with the improvement, but I will slowly continue to lower his heels and bring the coffin bone more parallel and get an even better bone alignment.”

It was an exciting moment, and a great accomplishment for Mickey’s team of caregivers. Of course, he doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. He just knows that he’s feeling great. He’s got a lady who adores him, a paddock that he rules over his buddy Scout, room to kick up his heels and many pain-free years ahead to enjoy his new-found zest for life.

“His life could have been completely different,” said Dianne, “but now he’ll live another 20 years happily. I am excited to see what the future will hold, when a year ago I didn’t think he’d have one.”