Tie-back surgery recovery: the first two weeks

I knew when I shut the stall door that first night 30 days of stall rest would not be fun. Our barn has mostly pasture occupants–boarders rarely spend time in their stalls except for recuperation, etc. So, not only was my OTTB now locked in a stall, he was thoroughly segregated from his buddies. He immediately began running laps, pausing only briefly to stick his head over the stall wall to check on his friends out in the pasture.

The first week was a nightmare: during the day, he’d walk laps tirelessly. He barely touched his hay, and his stall was atrocious to clean. I hand-walked him a minimum of 30 minutes twice daily. Most days, we’d graze all around the farm. As soon as he could see his buddies, he’d settle down and become normal Johnny. From the start, I made sure he knew that inappropriate behavior would not be tolerated. There were a couple of times he began dancing around on the cross-ties while I groomed him; I took him outside straightaway and ‘engaged his brain.’ Although this technique might not work for every horse, it is excellent for sensitive horses who tend to shut off and ignore you when they get over-stimulated. I simply use the end of the lead rope or a dressage whip to drive his hindquarters so that he executes a turn on the forehand, but we do this both directions, backing up sometimes between–forcing him to concentrate on me, because he has no idea what I’m going to ask him to do next. The changes must come rapid-fire: left, now right, now left, now back up! Any hesitation gets immediate reinforcement with a touch (not a smack!) from the lead line or dressage whip.

Giving twice daily IM injections was a challenge as well. Johnny stands immaculately still whenever needles come near him, making him an easy target, but finding new locations every time was like trying to find Waldo without my glasses. For the first couple of days, I alternated sides of his neck. Then, I alternated pectoral muscles. Finally, I gave two injections in his hindquarters (though I was terrified he’d kick out–I know how bad penicillin injections burn!). Somehow we managed to avoid abscesses, but he did get a significant hematoma on his right pectoral site. Thankfully, it absorbed after about a week.

By the second week, he’d settled down some. He was better in the cross-ties, and he was eating his hay. However, he was still frequently pacing and throwing his head up over the stall wall. We finally moved him across the aisle to a stall with rubber mats and a better view. This seemed to help some, but if any of his buddies came in to be ridden, he would go nuts as soon as they left. Meanwhile, his ventriculectomy incision was draining–the concrete outside his stall door looked as if a small animal had been butchered there.

There were days I thought the swelling seemed excessive: I sent pictures of his incision sites to Dr. Malark a few times, worried infection was setting in. Despite ugly appearances, though, everything was healing just fine. I checked his temperature and worried about every cough, sneeze, or weird snort!

For cleaning his ventriculectomy incision, I got a local vet to bottle up some chlorhexidine flush. I used a curved-tip syringe to flush the incision with the flush, scrubbed the area as best I could, then rinsed thoroughly with water and patted dry. At first I used neosporin around the edges of the incision to keep it moist, but by the end of the second week, I switched to Nitrofurazone. I know some of you just gasped and fainted, but the stuff works, and California says everything causes cancer. Once I began using it, the incision site began to show improvement daily.

The next installment will cover the last two weeks of mandatory stall rest. Here are some pictures of his incision from the first two weeks.

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