Hurricane Pony Receives Prosthetic Limb, Helps Kids

Molly, a 15-year-old Appaloosa pony, survived Hurricane Katrina when it hit Louisiana. She was rescued from her pasture near New Orleans after the storm and given a new home with Pony Paradise. However, Molly's storm tragedy didn't end there; a rescued pit bull that had shown no previous aggressive tendencies attacked her and several other ponies, severely damaging her right front leg. Skilled surgeons at Louisiana State University (LSU) saved Molly's life by amputating the leg and giving her a specially designed prosthesis. Molly now serves as an ambassador to handicapped children.

Leslie Talley of Louisiana State University's School of Veterinary Medicine and Allison Barca, DVM, (holding leadrope) stand with Molly on the levee behind Barca's barn.More images of Molly and her prosthetic limb.

Molly's Story

Before Hurricane Katrina, Molly lived in a pasture down the road from Alison Barca, DVM, a New Orleans veterinarian who told The Horse about many of her post-hurricane experiences ( Kaye Harris, owner of Pony Tales (a pony party service), director of a new pony retirement organization called Pony Paradise, and a client of Barca, also was a neighbor of Molly. She noticed the mare had not been evacuated after Katrina.

Harris took Molly in after the hurricane and eventually gained custody from Molly's owners. Harris and some of her friends and colleagues also helped manage one of the many small animal recovery sites after Katrina. Many of the cats and dogs came to live at Harris' farm with her 20 ponies.

On Dec. 3, 2005, when Harris was out on an errand, a rescued pit bull that had become a favorite around the barn--and had never given Harris any indication of an aggressive personality--attacked Molly and several other ponies. Harris returned to find the dog latched onto Molly's jaw.

"He took hold of her jaw and literally shook her," Harris said. "When I ran there and got him off of her, I was holding her jaw together with my fingers, and I thought he might have gotten close to her jugular. I had her head in my lap, and she was breathing heavily from the exertion from trying to fight him off. He had gotten her on all of her legs (cut to the cannon bone on her right front pastern), and left a big gash in her stomach area."

When Barca arrived to survey the damage, Molly required 17 staples in her jaw and a number of staples and sutures elsewhere. They shaved her legs to further inspect the injuries, and the right front leg was gnawed to the pastern bone. Shock was a major concern, and according to Barca, the situation was worrisome when Molly simply lay down and slept for hours after she was treated. They were able to get her on her feet once, and that was the final time Molly put weight on all four legs.

For the next month, Harris gave the mare daily bandage changes, warm compresses, and massage, but still Molly was reluctant to use the right foreleg. But the injury did not seem to deter her. She had free run of the barn most of the time, and she grazed in Harris' yard, adopting one place with a dip in the ground that helped her to get up after she rested, and using another place--a grassy mound--to rest her front limbs.

Still, stress on her other three legs would likely lead to founder. Barca isn't sure why Molly hadn't foundered to that point. "It was a crushing injury to the vasculature, so the limb was just rotting off, Barca said. "She had a good 30 to 45 days carrying around this useless limb," said Barca. "She laid down frequently and rested, I guess that's why she hadn't foundered."

In early January, Molly began to slough her hoof, so something had to be done. Harris told Barca that she had researched amputation and she felt Molly was a candidate. Barca said she was skeptical at first, but after watching the mare maneuver comfortably on three legs, she was convinced.

"In five minutes I knew if anyone's going to get their leg amputated, this one's ready," Barca said. "So I called LSU (where she at first was met with cautious skepticism) and told them to just spend a week or two with her, and within 24-48 hours they agreed to give it a go."

Molly arrived at LSU on Jan. 14, and Rustin Moore, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, director of the LSU Equine Health Studies Program, and his colleagues consulted and decided the surgery was a possibility after seeing Molly's quiet determination. "After spending a short period observing Molly, it became apparent to everyone at LSU that if there was ever an ideal candidate to perform an equine limb amputation, it was Molly," said Moore. "This was because of her small size, courage, demeanor, intelligence, and her ability to adapt. She would lie down frequently and could gracefully stand whether or not she was lying on her affected leg--this helped protect her opposite foot from overload laminitis. She remained calm, maintained a good appetite, and appeared to be stress-free.

"Prior to undertaking the amputation, we spent time gathering information and speaking with veterinarians who have performed amputations to obtain their insights and recommendations," added Moore. "This information was extremely valuable in the planning and implementation."

On Martin Luther King Jr. day (Jan. 16), LSU assembled a special surgical team, and Moore amputated Molly's right front leg just below the carpus (knee). He created a cushion at the end of the stump by suturing the extensor tendons to the flexor tendons over the end of the cannon bone prior to closing the skin. Molly's limb was cast and then a walking-bar or temporary prosthetic was incorporated so she could bear weight on the limb upon recovery.

"She recovered from anesthesia uneventfully and immediately responded well to the cast and temporary prosthesis," said Moore. "She wore this for a little more than two weeks, at which time a second cast and temporary prosthetic was applied. She finally was taken out of a cast about five weeks after surgery and was fitted with a permanent prosthesis. Dr. Barca sought the services and assistance of a local prosthetic company and helped coordinate fitting and adjusting the prosthetic to reduce pressure sores and other potential complications."

Barca says Molly had problems with sores on the stump at first, but those have subsided with the modifications on the prosthetic limb (she is on her third one), which looks a bit like a toilet plunger. The stump has now grown several inches of thick, curly hair.

Dwayne Mara, CP, works at Bayou Orthotic and Prosthetic Center in New Orleans, La. Molly was one of his first clients when the business relocated and reopened following the storm, and she was also his first equine client. "I first tried to use a suction-style suspension with a locking mechanism that we generally use on humans (this provides a limb that is snapped on easily)," Mara said. "I tried knowing that due to the hair and skin type, possible problems could occur." It wasn't a suitable model, so he made the subsequent prosthetics out of a material that better cushions and distributes pressure to Molly's stump than the other option did for her. It attaches with straps and rotates a bit internally to facilitate her walking. He hopes to continue making adjustments to improve her gait. Click here to see images of Molly and her prosthesis.

A Model Patient

During her recovery, Molly kept her caretakers entertained. At LSU she would tap the prosthetic against the stall door impatiently for feed and attention. Leslie Talley, an equine technician and technician supervisor in the LSU Equine Clinic who has been working as a liaison with many of the veterinarians affected by the hurricane, said, "You had to watch your nose when she would goose-step (a straight-legged stiff-kneed military march) in the hospital. You'd have to stand to her side when you were working with her because she'd kick you in the shin with the cast and temporary prosthesis. The technicians--they'd forget and they'd jump to the side when she swung it."

Barca added with a laugh, "She uses her prosthetic as a weapon. When she had the (cast and prosthetic) that didn't bend, she would hold it out straight and charge into the group of ponies."

Harris was questioned why she chose to move forward with such a risky and expensive surgery. "I have 20 (equine) animals, and there are only a few that would tolerate the surgery and prosthesis and everything that Molly had to endure," she said. "During the daily therapies (during December and January), I really got to know her. As horrific as her injuries were, this pony never gave me any trouble.

"She's not a pony that comes up and loves on you," Harris added. "She's interested, but she's very commanding. She strikes me as if she's thinking, 'Hey, this isn't great, but I'm going to get through this.' Her bravery impressed me, and that what made me go, 'I've got to give this pony a chance.' She was my responsibility and (the attack) happened on my watch." (Note: The attacking pit bull was taken by another rescue group when it was suggested he be euthanatized.)

It became evident that children were drawn to Molly when she made visits to the prosthetic clinic, so Harris has said the mare will visit hospitals or classrooms to serve as an educational tool for amputation and prosthetics.

Moore reflected on the mare's case. "Molly has flourished with her prosthetic limb, and with her personality and spirit she will contribute in a meaningful way to the lives of children and adults that have been confronted with the need for amputation and prosthetic limbs," he said. "The entire process has been a wonderful learning experience from a veterinary medical standpoint but also incredibly rewarding to witness Molly's courage and recovery and the positive impact she continues to have on the lives of those she encounters."

Currently, Molly spends her days at Pony Paradise and visits Barca's stable regularly on the Mississippi River levee when she's going to have her prosthetic monitored for adjustment, or when Harris leaves town. Barca lets Molly graze out on the levee, where runners and cyclists pass on a fitness path, helicopters fly overhead, and a train passes only a few feet away each day. Barca says passers-by often notice the "pretty pony," but rarely see the prosthetic until they've come up and pet the mare for a few minutes.

Molly grazes on, unfazed. She seems suited to her ambassadorship.

"Out on the levee, she usually doesn't try to get away from me," Barca says. "But occasionally she will drag your butt down the levee...she'll tow you! It can be pretty bad when you can't catch a three-legged horse. But she has a plunger for a hoof, so she shouldn't be too hard to track down. When she leaves a print (in the dirt), it's a smiley face."

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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