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ARGYLE, Texas (AP) — The horse's eyes are the first indication that he's a survivor.
A spark of fire illuminates their blackness as if his will to live were personified into a flame that could not be extinguished, despite the number of times an unknown assailant beat him with a baseball bat.
After the beating, his leg healed at an awkward angle because his owner failed to seek medical treatment or put the horse down after discovering his injuries. The owner told the justice of the peace that the horse had been beaten with a baseball bat, but he didn't do it.
The Denton Record-Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1DnXb1S ) reports no one had much hope that the horse would survive his mistreatment when Meadow Haven Horse Rescue picked him up from a ranch near San Antonio. With his gray coat pulled taut across his thin frame, the once-majestic stallion resembled a skeletal steed from a fantasy novel like "Game of Thrones."
The horse was sent to Ranch Hand Rescue in Argyle where he would find a new purpose helping veterans and special-needs children and a hope that no one else was offering: an experimental surgery technique that would save his life.
"We call them 'throwaways,'" said Bob Williams, CEO of Ranch Hand Rescue. "But I believe that all life is precious."
There is no national reporting system for animal abuse, according to the Humane Society. Most of the figures the group is able to obtain come from media reports.
The American Horse Council reported that in the United States, more than 2 million people own horses, and more than one-third of them have a household income of less than $50,000.
A horse's average lifespan is 30 years, costing about $1,825 annually to provide basic care, not including veterinary or farrier services, according to Kimberly Anne May, a veterinarian and spokeswoman for the Illinois-based American Veterinary Medical Association.
Williams contacted several veterinarians about the horse, but he said everyone who examined the animal claimed nothing could be done for him. The beating had happened long before Meadow Haven Horse Rescue had rescued the horse, and the bone and the muscles had healed improperly.
"No one wanted to perform surgery because his chances of survival were slim," Williams said.
But Williams knew the horse wanted to live. He even named the horse Spirit because "the horse was full of this spirit that was so enduring."
So he contacted Dr. Sammy Pittman, a veterinarian who specializes in equine podiatry and practices in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Pittman had helped Ranch Hand Rescue in the past, but Spirit had gotten to the point where his health was failing quickly despite Williams and his team's efforts to nurse the horse back to health. Pittman then called Dr. Michael Schoonover, a professor of surgery at Oklahoma State University's Center for Veterinary Health Sciences.
"If we don't do something more aggressive now, we are not going to be able to save this horse," Pittman recalled saying.
Schoonover wasn't sure if Spirit was a good candidate for a double fusion in the leg, a procedure to fuse both the knee and the fetlock (the ankle joint).
"Spirit had a significant angular limb deformity so his foot really twisted inward underneath him," Schoonover said. "He couldn't bear weight on the limb at all, and he'd lost some mineral in the bone because of not using it."
Schoonover believed the $25,000 needed for an innovative procedure like the one being proposed would be better spent on other horses in need.
"It's a very expensive to do surgery on a horse," Schoonover said. "There are a lot of horses who aren't considered economic units. Some people reason that they can go buy another horse for the cost that entails to fix this one. There's also no guarantee that the horse will respond to treatment."
Another problem is that most owners don't carry horse insurance, a plan that's not as comprehensive as health insurance for people.
Williams, however, was determined to help Spirit. He called Schoonover and told him about Spirit's interaction with the special-needs children who'd been visiting him at Ranch Hand Rescue." He wasn't just a rescue horse," Schoonover said. "It was a horse that had a purpose. He wasn't going to be used to rope steers. He helped kids."
Schoonover consulted with top veterinarians around the country to determine the best way to help Spirit. Horses have three joints in their knees, and he planned to fuse all the joints and apply stainless steel implants.
"To my knowledge, this is the first time this surgery has been attempted," Schoonover said.
Spirit's chance of survival was less than 20 percent. Schoonover noted that when he broke his leg, he was bedridden for about four months. But horses have to be able to be on their feet within two hours.
"They are a fight-or-flight animal," he said, "and they won't sit still."
Spirit's first surgery took six hours to complete. Schoonover and his team opened up the joints and removed all the cartilage — what little was left after the damage. They closed up the skin and applied a fiberglass cast to support the stainless steel implants.
Later, when they removed the cast, they realized that Spirit didn't have function in his fetlock joint, which helps a horse stand.
"At first I thought it was because of disuse," Schoonover said, "and that's probably part of it." But he later determined it was a combination of disuse and surgical trauma as well as scar tissue.
Schoonover and his team eventually cut the tendons to the fetlock joint and fused it, holding it in place with a stainless joint and four pins across the bones, both above and below the joint. As Spirit began to heal, they removed each pin over the course of a week.
"I've had a lot of people ask throughout his time here, 'Why are they doing this to this horse?' They felt like this horse should have been put down," Schoonover said.
Some veterinarians also didn't know how the horse would be able to get up and down, but Spirit is essentially doing that now.
After two surgeries and several months of therapy, Spirit is now recovering at Ranch Hand Rescue. He has his good days and bad days, but Williams and his staff remain optimistic about Spirit's condition.
"Spirit has a gift," Williams said. "He gives children and adults hope."
Information from: Denton Record-Chronicle, http://www.dentonrc.com
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