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Domo died Christmas Eve.
I had let him loose in the evening before to do his usual check of the perimeter, additions to his manure piles, and accept his tribute from his admirers. He had completed his circuit and was galloping back around to the spot where he usually did his ‘ You might think I’m a gelding but I have an undescended testicle and here’s my stallion dance to prove it’ display.
He would gather himself up and transition into a movement the old French horse masters describe as the ‘brilliant piaffe’, a trot in place that has all the elevation, suspension, and elegance of the passage, and then perform pirouettes and leaps and changes of hand in a truly extravagantly exuberant display of agility, strength, and natural impulsion. This time, when he gathered himself to leap into his display all four legs locked up instead, leaving ten-foot long skid marks dug into the mud. Then he sprang straight up in the air with a most peculiar scrambling gait, and came down headfirst so hard I thought he was dead when he landed.
In fact, it would have been better if he had died on impact, because when he got up, it turned out that he had broken his shoulder and damaged the radial nerve so badly he had no use of his already compromised right front leg at all. He had also taken the skin off his forehead and was disoriented, furious, and agitated, reacting violently to any movement or change in light, trying to strike out with the useless leg, and refusing to let me near him, indicating he had some serious central nervous system trauma. Since he was willing to stand quietly in his stall once it was fully dark, I had the vet come in the morning. By then Domo was ready to go, and for the first and only time since I got him, he did not fight the mere sight of a needle, but dropped his head and gave a great sigh of relief as it went in.
The great kick in the gut for me was realizing, in the few seconds he remained standing before he died, that that was the first time I had seen him when he was not in pain. He loved bodywork from the start and would come rest his big old head in my arms when he wanted his neck worked on, but even with all the support I could give him, his discomfort, expressed by incessant tongue sucking and tooth grinding, only eased up but never entirely ceased. Still, Domo had so much heart and so much enthusiasm for life in spite of his pain that it was not until this fall that he and I both had to admit that he would never be sound.
The last time he wanted me to work on his neck was late summer and he was extremely agitated, alternating between demanding to be helped and being unable to tolerate being touched. I finally found a hot spot on the right side of his poll where it felt like one of the scarred and damaged intersegmental muscles between the skull and C1 was spasming. When I touched it, something snapped like an overstretched rubber band, the release reverberating from his nose to the tip of his tail. He calmed down immediately, but soon began to have troubles chewing his food and his bowels were irritable producing sloppy piles of loose manure. I ended up having to feed him pelleted feed along with his hay for a few weeks until he could chew normally again and his guts settled down.
He also began to have fleeting episodes where he lost his balance. The first one happened when we were playing around in the round pen. He found changing directions great fun and would squat and squeal and leap into the air, spinning about and landing with a bounce, striking out into a canter in the new direction with grand gestures and great enthusiasm. This time, he squatted in preparation for his spin and leap , and wobbled instead, nearly going down. It only lasted a second and he quickly compensated for it, but it was distinct enough to worry me. The second time he wobbled I had asked him for his usual carrot bow/stretch. He was a bit slow going down on the right side, and then suddenly fell into me, knocking me to the side. Thankfully, instead of landing on my lap, he lept up into the air three-legged, shot off in few startled leaps and then circled back around to see if I was all right. The two incidents convinced me that he had some sort of short-circuit in his central nervous system that interrupted his normal proprio-reception and movements.
When the cold weather hit in mid-December, he got a bit grumpy. Normally, he hated being blanketed and only suffered me to inflict such indignities upon his person on the very few days here in NM when we get both freezing rain and wind in the late fall and early spring. This year he was cold and stiff and glad to be wrapped up even on sunny days. He started having problems chewing again, and when he would allow me to touch his neck, the muscles were thinning and the vertebra easily distinguishable under my fingers. Organizing a rarely performed horse autopsy on Christmas Eve was beyond me, so I can only speculate that the instability in his malformed vertebra had finally damaged the nerves so badly that the muscles were atrophying.
Domo was caught in a deadly cycle where the atrophied muscles led to increasing instability of the vertebra that escalated the nerve damage causing even more muscle atrophy and instability in the neck. The speed of degeneration in his central nervous system that brought him down midstride was shocking. Since he is the second Thoroughbred I have had with such severe neck and central nervous system issues I had to euthanize them, I did some research on the subject over the internet. It turns out that malformations of the cervical vertebra are not uncommon among Thoroughbreds and Thoroughbred crosses (click here and here for the dry reports and here for an editorial approach)
As much as I grieve my individual horse, I find myself thinking that it is unconscionable for Thoroughbred breeders to produce such incredibly gifted, willing, and determined athletes that simply do not have the correct bone structure to support their efforts. Like hip dysplasia in purebred dogs, the spread of this genetic malformation of the cervical vertebra in sport horses is entirely due to unscrupulous breeders who have no interest in the long-term welfare of either their own animals or the breed (click here). The best epitaph I can think of for Domo and his kin is for all those who appreciate the breed to take note, spread the information on the genetic basis for these malformations of the cervical vertebra, and demand that breeders produce horses that are free of such devastating genetically transmitted faults.
Despite the genetic malformations of his cervical vertebra, it still took A LOT to take Domo down. He survived some hideous abuse as a youngster that left a broken needle in his neck combined with appallingly bad hoof care that set off his ongoing central nervous system damage, and he still managed to train well enough and long enough to bow his tendon not once but twice at the racetrack. He even kept going for another two years after we were hit by lightning and he should have had another 20 years to dance his exuberant dance of sheer joy in being.
For those, like me, who appreciate exceptionally fine qualities of the Thoroughbred, but would like to avoid the heartbreak of putting their horse down due to bad breeding, here is a list of what to look out for:
When looking at the conformation of horses, indications of malformations of the cervical vertebra include:
• Any kind of unevenness, bump, lump, dent, or dimple on the horse’s neck especially if it is asymmetrical
Be sure to look at the horse’s neck from above while they are grazing. Any unevenness in the top line, especially a bump or dent that moves while they are chewing is highly suspicious.
• A horse that is high behind.
There are actually two entirely different issues with the bone structure underlying the visual appearance of a horse that is high behind.
- Since the lower legs are rope-and-pulley systems with minimal muscling a horse whose stifle is higher than their elbow is truly high behind and no amount of conditioning will change it.
- A horse whose elbow and stifle are at the same height from the ground that appears high behind has problems with the sling of muscles and connective tissue that holds up their front end
Muscles and connective tissue cannot develop properly if the correct bone structure is not there to support them.
• Persistent high/low heel syndrome in the front hooves
• Persistently standing with same forefoot advanced and the other back under the bady
Uneven stance and wear on the horse’s front feet indicates that they are compensating for instability in their front end.
• Compressed inside quarters on the hind hooves
Although the back hooves are slightly more oval shaped that the front, they should be symmetrical with the bars, clefts, soles, and walls of the hooves appearing to be equal on both sides of the frog. If the space between the hoof wall and the bar and/or the frog is noticeably narrower on one side, it indicates the horse is continually bracing themselves with their back feet in an attempt to stabilize their spine.
Behavioral indications of malformations of the cervical vertebra include:
• A slight wrinkling above the nostrils and eyes indicating the horse is in pain
• Compressed tense lips and muzzle, again pain indicators in a horse
• Head tossing, tooth grinding, tongue sucking, again all indicators of pain
• Irritability and dislike of having their head, ears, and neck handled
• Problems with teeth wearing unevenly, with chewing and/or with opening the jaws
• An extreme reactivity to loud noises, bright or flashing lights, and /or sudden movements
• Sudden extreme opening of the pupil giving the horse a cloudy looking eye
These are all symptoms of pain, distress, and/or a compromised central nervous system. There may also be:
• Localized uneven tension and sweaty spots in the neck, shoulders, and occasionally the rear end as well
• Sore backs
• Irritability and resentment when the girth is tightened
• Problems with fitting saddles
• Problems carrying a bit
• Irritability and resentment when being mounted
Gait indications of malformations of the cervical vertebra include:
• Consistently tilting the head to one side or another when moving
• A marked favoring of one side or the other
• difficulty in lengthening and/or shortening the stride
• A tendency to interfere, persistently catching one front heel with the hind toe
• an apparent lack of stamina
• a reluctance to move both at liberty and under saddle
• compensatory lameness leading to inexplicable injuries of the lower legs
• uneven strides
• scrambled gaits
• loss of balance
Here is an example of a Thoroughbred stallion that clearly illustrates dimpling around CI and uneven muscling in the rest of his neck as well as an obviously high behind stance. Note the tense overly defined shoulder and thigh muscles, marking the effort it takes for this horse to just stand up. The twisted jaw, the ‘worried’ look in his eye, and the raised, wrinkled, nostril are all signs of pain in a horse. He did not hold up under race training as a two-year-old and was retired to stud. Compare him to Pioneer of the Nile, sire of 2015 champion American Pharoah: