When Bella the donkey arrived at the veterinary hospital, her feet were severely clubbed from a battle with laminitis. It took multiple people working together to make a big change in her life. • Photo by Dr. Justin High.

Together & Better For It

Amid the continuous clatter of an unusually busy Thursday morning farrier day at our clinic, a humble miniature donkey named Bella came stumping in the podiatry center. She walked as best she could on her two little, severely clubbed front feet.

Showing no concern for the five high-end futurity colts being tended to in a blur of shoeing hammers, she stood quietly, awaiting her turn with the half-closed eyes that often accompany chronic pain.

I had honestly forgotten I agreed to look at her two weeks prior, when the appointment was made for her stablemate with a deformed foot. Truthfully, after seeing X-rays, I had tried to block her out of my mind. But, God has a way of bringing things to my attention whether I want it or not.

Sometime in her previous seven years of life, Bella suffered a debilitating case of laminitis that went untended. Her current caretakers did all they could to correct the shape of her front hooves, but the contracture had progressed to the point of her basically walking on the dorsal aspect of her hoof capsule. No part of her sole actually touched the ground.

When Bella the donkey arrived at the veterinary hospital, her feet were severely clubbed from a battle with laminitis. It took multiple people working together to make a big change in her life. • Photo by Dr. Justin High.

Once I got my technician to stop feeding her treats (or maybe that was me) we took new radiographs. The layer of complexity that caused my greatest concern was the amount of secondary arthritis and traumatic bone reaction she had developed around her lower joints. Much, if not all, of our success would be dependent on the degree of extension remaining in the coffin joint. If her joints were more or less “frozen” in that position, there was no hope of correction.

After a long, comprehensive and very blunt conversion with Bella’s owner about the limitations, possible complications and costs associated with her case, journeyman farrier extraordinaire Pete May and I went to work. Since we deemed her laminitis to be chronic, but stable, the best option was to perform a bilateral, deep digital flexor tenotomy.

This procedure is often performed in the standing horse with sedation and local anesthesia. Since Bella was in excellent health outside of her inability to walk, I decided to operate under general anesthesia to complete the surgery on both legs at the same time.

After carefully dissecting her scarred flexor tendon complex through a keyhole incision, the deep digital flexor tendon was isolated. As the tendon was transected, I was greatly relieved to see it instantly gap more than 1.5 inches! Slightly more extension was accomplished through manual extension of the lower joints while she was under anesthesia.

After closing her incisions and bandaging her legs, I stepped back to watch Pete May complete her transformation. He pains- takingly applied foal-sized, glue-on shoes with a rigid toe extension to facilitate and maintain the extension achieved during surgery. The years of deformation made her hoof capsule more like a stump than a hoof, which required substantial modifications to the shoe so as to not cause further issues when she began to use her hoof more like a weight-bearing structure than a prosthetic. I distinctly remember Bella waking up from anesthesia. After undergoing a relatively painful procedure, most horses seem agitated. Bella took a deep breath and looked around long enough to get her bearings, then laid her head back down and stretched her neck. It was a stiflingly hot day when we operated, but I have never seen an animal more content to lay there and take her first pain-free breath in a long time. When she felt ready, she rolled up on her chest, then slowly stood, taking a few wobbly steps toward her stall.

Over the next few weeks, she made amazing progress. With each bandage change, she became surer of herself and began to enjoy walking. By the time her sutures came out, I had a hard time keeping her still long enough to remove them.

After surgery to fix her badly deformed feet, Bella the donkey made an amazing recovery. • Photo by Dr. Justin High.

The astonishing transformation of Bella’s front feet was more a product of meticulous farrier care than of my single surgical procedure. Pete May worked tirelessly to accommodate her ever-changing foot as she continued to gain mobility and lower limb extension. Over the course of the next several months, we allowed her to try out her new legs. And just last week, Pete sent me a video of her walking flat-footed with a nice sloping angle to her pasterns.

In my opinion, farrier or veterinary care alone would not have given Bella a second shot at a happy life. The intertwined and inseparable combination of these two professions is what made it possible.

This all makes me think of how many opportunities we miss in life to bless other people and their horses. Too often we hold back based off our fear and past experiences. Let this remind us to learn from those moments, but not allow other people’s negative influence to blemish decisions that are solely our own. When we remain positive and work together, we can do miraculous things.


This article originally appeared in the 2021 Quarter Horse News Spring Edition.