Horse Health

Beating Bone Disease

A bone disease almost robs an Arabian mare of a bright future, until a gracious caregiver stepped in and saw her through.

I’ve never been an “A-rab” person, and frankly never thought I would be, having grown up around cowboys, Quarter Horses and all the good-natured biases that entails. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t have told the difference between Bey Shah and bay shrimp. But that was before I met Chaniaah.

An Arabian horse.

Chaniaah (pronounced Sha-NAI-ah) was one of three registered Arabian fillies donated to the Hope Equestrian Center for Therapeutic Riding in southern Oregon as a fundraising project. However, Chaniaah soon showed signs of lameness in her right hind leg. Stifle-joint X-rays revealed osteochondrosis dessicans (OCD), a bone disease that affects bone and joint health. The veterinarian decided the only way to correct the problem would be a high-tech form of arthroscopic surgery.

This news profoundly troubled Hope members who weren’t prepared to deal with such an event. Still, something had to be done; Chaniaah’s pedigree read like the “Who’s Who” of Arabian horses. At 6 months, she’d been professionally appraised at close to $10,000. Even though corrective surgery was expensive, there was still a good chance of selling her for a respectable profit.

During the operation, performed at Oregon State University’s Equine Sciences Department in Corvallis, the veterinarian made a shocking discovery: The OCD-caused lesions were far more serious than even X-rays had revealed. Instantly, Chaniaah’s odds for recovery plummeted. The only thing preventing the doctor from suggesting euthanasia then and there was the filly’s age. Young creatures have a way of recovering from some nasty problems. Everyone prayed that Chaniaah would be one of them.


As a Hope volunteer and several-year board member, who also owns a few acres with horse facilities, I was asked to care for Chaniaah during her convalescence. My heart nearly broke when they brought her to me after surgery. Due to post-operative trauma, she was badly emaciated, yet her remarkable Arabian spirit was undaunted. Despite her condition – not the least of which was a painfully swollen stifle—she carried her head high and pranced “three-legged” to my barn. Chaniaah spent the next two months confined in a 16-by-16-foot stall with only a black pygmy goat, “Suzy,” for company. Time would tell if Chaniaah would regain full use of her leg and lead a normal life.

To say that she was a lucky little filly would’ve been stretching the truth. In fact, from the day she left the comfort and security of the high-class Arabian farm where she was born, Chaniaah had experienced nothing but bad luck. Weaned for only three weeks, she’d been shoved into a transport truck with several other horses being hauled from Georgia to Colorado and parts in between, before winding up in Oregon. But that was just the beginning of her ordeal. Because some of the other horses came down with strangles, all had to be inoculated.

So from Chaniaah’s point of view, dealing with humans meant being chased, cornered, grabbed, haltered, twitched and stuck with needles or having tubes shoved up her nose and medicine forced down her throat. Given this, she might’ve learned to despise people long ago. Still, though Chaniaah was far from trusting of her two-legged tormentors, she never once displayed any inclination to strike. She remained bright-eyed and cautiously inquisitive, but after six weeks in her “cell,”; she developed a full-blown case of cabin fever. It was becoming more difficult to keep her settled.

I tried to ease her anxiety by sitting with her and plying her with apples and carrots, though she still resented the daily butazolidin treatments. The more I was around her, the more I believed we’d indeed made the right decision. Little by little Chaniaah began using the injured leg. Better yet, there was a special luster in her eyes, a kind of magic that comes straight from the spirit. The very essence of courage and determination was in her gaze and her deportment. However, the nagging question remained: Would she ever be completely sound?

A Dreadful Decision

At two months’ end, the local veterinarian paid a final visit. After examining the still-swollen joint, he shook his head and frowned. Tightness filled my chest as his prognosis rang like thunder. Chaniaah would never be sound, he contended – not as a riding horse and probably not even as a broodmare. His suggestion: Put her down or find someone who wanted “a pasture ornament.”

Choking back disappointment, I considered his words. More factors were involved here than simply the horse’s life or death. Chaniaah belonged to Hope, a nonprofit organization with seriously limited funds, which simply couldn’t afford to feed and stable an animal that couldn’t earn its keep. To continue the filly’s medical treatments would be financially ruinous. From all practical standpoints, the veterinarian’s suggestion was a valid one. Once again, we faced a dreadful decision.

Through the months, despite not being an Arab person, I’d gotten rather attached to this little rose-grey Arabian. Something about her impish personality just got to me. Whatever it was, she had a real knack for endearing herself to everyone she met.

Make no mistake: I’m no sentimental sap when it comes to animals. I’ve raised various kinds of livestock, butchered some myself and seen beloved pets die. That’s just part of farm living (so I keep telling myself). The trick in raising livestock—as in any business—is knowing when to cut your losses. But somehow the numbers in this equation just didn’t add up. Despite the diagnosis, part of me kept saying, “It’s too soon. There hasn’t been enough time to know for sure.”

Chaniaah herself certainly hadn’t given up. Despite her inability to fully weight the leg, she was positively vivacious. When I fed her, she’d whinny a greeting and hop around on her three good legs. I couldn’t yet imagine destroying her while there was still the slightest glimmer of hope.

Hope and Spirit

After the veterinarian left, I called Hope’s director to give her the sad news. It was a difficult moment for both of us. When asked my opinion, I told her that although Chaniaah indeed favored the leg, she nevertheless showed signs of improvement. After all, I told her, even a professional athlete doesn’t come back from injury in such a short a period of time. And though Chaniaah’s injury was extreme, she had two powerful factors working in her favor: her youth and her indomitable spirit.

The Hope Board of Directors met a few days later; the time to decide Chaniaah’s fate had come. Because she’d been in my care for several months, my testimony would tip the scales one way or the other. At times, a sense of compassion can be a blessing or a curse. This was one of them. Should we let the filly live and risk prolonging a painful existence, not knowing if she’d ever recover, or play it safe and have her euthanized?

I gave my report and concluded with a proposal. I told the board I’d like to continue caring for Chaniaah at my place and pay for her upkeep, thus relieving Hope of the financial burden. If, after several more months, there was no significant improvement, we’d reevaluate the situation. The board passed the proposal unanimously.

The Right Choice

As the weeks passed, I continued Chaniaah’s physical (and emotional) therapy, gradually allowing her a larger enclosure in which to move about. The day finally came to put the filly’s leg to the ultimate test. With as little fanfare as possible, I turned her loose in a half-acre pasture. Breathing a sigh, I murmured, “You’re on your own now, baby girl.”

She hesitated a moment and gave a cautious snort, not quite sure what to make of her newfound freedom. All at once, she tossed her head, flagged her tail in the air and galloped away—on three legs!

Having been cooped up all that time, she’d apparently forgotten she even had a fourth leg. What a weird sight: a three-legged horse gamboling around the field, chasing after Suzy, her pygmy-goat pal. Before long, however, Chaniaah began putting equal weight on the right hind leg. She turned a year old on July 28, 2000. To see her then was to almost forget the bare-boned invalid who’d arrived five months prior. Watching her strut about with that classic Arabian flair, tail curled over her back, long, silver mane flying in the breeze, I know with heartfelt certainty that we made the right decision.

The Rest of the Story

Chaniaah remained with me for the next 3 years. During that time, I continued her therapy and training. She grew bigger, stronger, and more beautiful each passing day. More importantly, she never once showed the slightest lameness.

Because it didn’t seem likely Hope would sell her in the near future (the very mention of OCD scared away most people), I asked the board to let me breed her. This raised more than a few eyebrows.

Many feared the foal would inherit OCD from its mother. That was the first question that crossed my mind as well, so I researched the subject. Conclusion: Nobody really seems to know for sure what causes the disease. Some experts think it might indeed be genetic. But far more information suggests it’s caused by feeding high doses of nutrients, coupled with extreme exercise programs designed to produce “super foals.” The surgeon who operated on Chaniaah also favored the latter theory.

With documentation in hand, I presented my proposal to the Hope Board of Directors. They gave me their blessing, we drew up a mare-leasing contract, and shortly after I began my search for the perfect stallion.

Through artificial insemination, Chaniaah was impregnated on April 7, 2002. On March 9 of the following year, she produced a gorgeous chocolate bay colt named Chahen Halimaar, “Chuck” to his two-legged friends, who still lives on my 3-acre goat farm in Central Point. We’ve already had our share of adventures, but that’s another story.

When the time came to wean Chuck, I honestly think the process was harder on me than on the horses. From the time Chaniaah first arrived in Oregon, I was the only human she’d ever really known. She’d quite literally grown up with me. I’d cared for her, nursed her back to health and now I had to let her go. But that was necessary for the separation to be successful. Then too, she legally belonged to Hope. So, with a heavy heart (and a few tears), I returned her to the riding stable, where she currently enjoys a 22-acre pasture and trail rides into southern Oregon’s beautiful Cascade Mountains.

Maybe I’m still not an Arab person, but knowing Chaniaah has taught me at least one thing: With a little faith, hope and compassion, anything is possible.

Carol Putnam, a lifelong rider, lives in the Rogue Valley of southern Oregon, where she’s a volunteer and secretary for the Hope Equestrian Center for Therapeutic Riding.

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