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Original Issue

The Old Gray Mare's New Leg

Josie was running loose in her field again, as free-floating as the pollen in the drowsy wind, sailing and dipping from plank to post while kicking her prosthesis in the air.

"She's only worth 37 cents a pound on the market, but she's worth the world to me," Dr. Ric Redden said of the 5-year-old gray mare. "She's helped us get one step closer to reality. We've got to get people excited about saving horses. We can save them."

As a member of an industry whose response to the catastrophic breakdowns of racehorses has nearly always been the needles of euthanasia, Redden, a 47-year-old Kentucky veterinarian and farrier, has become perhaps the most outspoken advocate of amputation and prosthetics to save horses. "The public can't accept that these horses aren't offered something" Redden says. "I have friends who used to have parties at home to watch the Triple Crown. No more. 'Why should we have a party? To watch another horse put down?' These horses are giving their life to the sport, and we give them a bullet. We're able to offer them more. Look at Josie. She couldn't be happier."

In March 1992, while fleeing from a pack of dogs on a Kentucky farm, Josie got caught on a wire anchoring a telephone pole and nearly severed her right hind foot at the pastern joint, below the ankle. Gangrene had already set in by the time she arrived at Redden's International Equine Podiatry Center, eight miles outside Versailles, and Redden knew she had but one chance to survive. "The collateral ligament was the only thing holding the foot on," he says. During a 1½-hour operation, in which he used a grand total of $157 worth of medicine and materials, the internationally known foot specialist cut off the dangling foot, except for the "frog," a horny growth in the hoof that acts as a cushion, which he grafted to the exposed stump.

Redden had already done four amputations—in one of those cases, a stallion named Sultan's Caper lived a few seasons before he died of gastrointestinal complications—and had learned that Josie would need the frog to survive. "My intent was to give a natural cushion to the end of the digit," Redden says. "The problem we've had with amputees over the years is that they are too heavy and they continue to bruise and traumatize the stump. With humans, doctors keep them off the stump for several months until it is mature enough to walk on."

To keep the pressure off Josie's stump, while giving her a leg to stand on, Redden drilled two pins into her cannon bone above the ankle—the pins protruded about an inch on each side—and built a cast around the pins. Finally he bolted a prosthesis anchored by a rubber boot to the cast. Voila! The frog eventually took root in the tissue of the exposed bone, providing the stump with a living, permanent cushion that could bear the mare's weight on the prosthesis.

Now every time Redden turns the gray mare out, he sees an alternative to the needle. As Josie galloped by, driving hard off that rubber hind foot, he leaned on the fence. "That's better than being dead, isn't it?" he asked.