Stem cell therapy in horse rehabilitation - Surrey equestrian

Charlie is now on box rest as he recovers

Charlie is now on box rest as he recovers - Credit: Horse&Rider

Editor-in-chief at Horse&Rider magazine, which is based in Grayshott, Alison Bridge brings us all the latest from the Surrey horse world...

I often think that when I get sick, I’d prefer to be treated by my horse’s vet. He makes house calls, spends as much time at appointments as necessary and has a lovely private hospital down the road if he needs to make a referral. Of course, I have to pay for his services, and the hospital has stables rather than beds, but the treatment is first class and the patients receive wonderful medical and nursing care.

Yes, Surrey’s horses – at least our pampered leisure horses – are fortunate to have access to great equine medicine and treatment, with everything from high-tech scans to stem cell therapy. It was this latter, incredibly clever technique that saved a Surrey pony’s soundness, and possibly his life.

Katherine McGrail’s pony, Charlie, had been on a cross-country ride with his young rider, Finnlee Gibbs. As they trotted back to the lorry, he seemed very slightly lame – one-tenth lame is how the experts describe it. Katherine thought he might have trodden on a stone. She took him home, washed him off, rugged him up and turned him out under CCTV cameras.

Next morning, she was concerned when she found Charlie lying down. Worse was to come. “Once he was up, we discovered he was utterly crippled on all four legs,” says Katherine, who lives in Richmond and runs a yard in Alfold. Charlie’s forelegs were a little swollen, but neither Katherine, nor her vet Jane Boswell who called later, could work out the cause of his obvious, excruciating pain.

It didn’t get better after he was injected with an anti-inflammatory and painkiller, so an hour later, Katherine called the vet again and agreed to take him into Liphook Equine Hospital for investigation. His blood tests showed no sign of the fairly common causes of severe lameness, such as azoturia or laminitis, so they decided to scan his legs with X-rays and ultrasound. What they found shocked them all: Charlie had massive damage to the suspensory ligament in his left foreleg and the superficial flexor tendon in his right foreleg. Lameness so severe is a very serious matter in such a large animal – even though Charlie’s a pony, his weight would be nearly half a tonne. And tendons and ligaments, unlike bone, rarely repair well. As vet Tom Hughes explains: “Once a horse’s tendons have formed, the number of tendon cells is set and is unable to produce any more in response to injury.”

Difficult decisions

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Katherine met with her vet to discuss the options for Charlie. They were rest for six months, which had a 50 per cent chance of recovery of some sort; stem cell therapy, which would include a year-long rehab programme and six month’s box rest, which had a 75 per cent chance of recovery; or putting him down.

After much soul-searching and discussion with trusted friends and her vet, Katherine decided on stem cell therapy.

Stem cells are unspecialised cells in the body that have the ability to multiply and develop into more specialised cells – including tendon cells. Charlie had a sample of bone marrow containing stem cells removed from his sternum and it was sent to a lab in Scotland to be cultured. Five weeks later, he returned to the hospital and Tom Hughes injected the stem cells into the injury sites on Charlie’s forelegs – a delicate operation that had to be done under ultra-sound guidance as the cell preparation must be accurately injected into the hole made by the injury.

Charlie is now at home in Alfold on a standard stem cell rehab regime, including periodic scanning and gradual increase in exercise. His surgeon Tom Hughes says Charlie has “a fair chance” of full recovery. Owner Katherine is keeping a close eye on her pony as he recuperates in his stable, and is optimistic. “Charlie has been very good so far,” she says. “Providing he has plenty of sticks, twigs and gorse to nibble on, he is happy enough. In the meantime, we have everything crossed for him."


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My horse and I...

At Surrey Life, we’re looking to introduce a new section to our equestrian feature, where each month a different reader and keen horse rider will share a little about their life with horses in our beautiful county. To be in with a chance of featuring, please send a picture of you and your horse together, and tell us the horse’s name, how long you’ve owned them and a few fun stories about your time together; along with your favourite places to go hacking and your top ‘horse friendly’ pubs in Surrey. E-mail with your ‘My horse and I’ tales. We look forward to hearing them!