Once-Paralyzed Foal Now Walking Freely

Vitelle, the once-paralyzed filly, is finally walking, trotting, and cantering without a walker at the farm in Belgium she left more than a year ago.

paralyzed yearling

After Vitelle’s surgery, she has slowly developed an arched stance in the lumbar region. Doctors have pulled radiographs to check why this has developed, and they believe it is a lesion that developed weeks after the surgery. The arching has stopped, and has since slowly decreased.

In June 2009, at 3 weeks old, the Boulonnais Draft horse foal developed sudden paralysis and urinary incontinence. Three days later she underwent a groundbreaking surgical laminectomy at a Belgian veterinary school to remove a cyst from her spinal cord. She underwent intensive physiotherapy (electrical muscle stimulation, ultrasound, and exercise) and learned to walk again with a custom walker.

Today, after a series of major setbacks and recoveries, Vitelle is back in her home pasture with an excellent prognosis, according to Patrick Herbots, DVM, animal physiotherapist at the University of Ghent Veterinary School. "Her owners are very happy to have her home," he said, "... and the follow-up is very simple: They just have to keep her walking."

Twice over the past year her caretakers made the difficult decision to euthanize Vitelle, once during a three-week bout of pneumonia, and once when she suffered an extreme case of post-weaning distress and failed to thrive over a period of nearly two months, Herbots said. In both instances she was no longer able to walk on her own. But before the vets could euthanize her, Vitelle would show signs of improvement, said Herbots. The filly would suddenly regain strength and walk again.

The "Vitelle-walker" was finally retired in September 2009, Herbots said. The yearling has been able to maneuver in all three gaits independently since February of this year.

However, despite this progress, Vitelle still lacked the capacity to stand up on her own. Herbots said it was probably because someone had always been there to do it for her. And so this led to yet another new therapy: bungee cords for standing retraining. "We would stimulate her to fall down (into the cords), and so we taught her to use the elastic forces to help her to get up again," he said.

Once she had the strength, it appeared Vitelle still didn't understand that getting up was what horses were supposed to do, according to Herbots. So in May her team sent her back home where she could be surrounded by pasturemates who all lie down and get up regularly on their own.

"Sure enough, about 10 days later we got a call from her owners saying that Vitelle was getting up on her own," he said.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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