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The Amazing SPIDER(man)

Partially Sponsored by

Lisa Greaves

Spider's Medical Team

In some respects, Spider has a story that is dissimilar to the stories of most of our rescued horses, but is quite familiar in other respects, and it is just as remarkable as many of the others, as another example of a Mea Ola's Place miracle.  In the first place, he shares some of the same medical issues in his past that Rowdy had as a young foal.  As in Rowdy's case, some of these issues had resulted in problems that seemed insurmountable, and, in Spider's case, sadly unfixable.

We learned of Spider's situation shortly after the hard summer we had just survived in the exhausting struggles of  Rowdy's rescue and  recovery. I didn't know if we could take on another such difficult case so soon.  This uncertainty was also a bit like my feelings before ultimately deciding to take on Mea Ola.  In Spider's case, heartbreak seemed an even more likely outcome.


Spider is a Thoroughbred, and most Thoroughbreds who arrive at horse rescue organizations do so toward the ends of their lives. Spider did not fit this scenario.  He was only a yearling, and his problems, which had begun at birth, had plagued him all of his short life. 


He had been bred of the finest Thoroughbred racing blood, and was born on a big farm in Kentucky in March of  2013.  Like Rowdy, he was unfortunately born with contracted tendons and could not stand at birth. (See Rowdy's story on his page.)   The attendants assisting at Spider's foaling called his owner when Spider was just a few hours old to ask him if they could walk the mare out of the stall and let the foal die so the owner could get a free breeding back to Spider's sire. (There is a "live foal, stand and nurse" guarantee with most breedings.)  Well, Spider could not stand or nurse, but he was alive! His owner said, "No way! Get a vet out there and get that colt up!"  This was Spider's first stroke of luck.  In addition, he was not rejected by his dam, so he had a fairly normal infancy, except for his physical issues.


Spider apparently spent much of  his early life being treated for his physical limitations. We know that a splint was placed on Spider's left rear leg, evidently to help straighten it. There is evidence that he had a joint infection in his left rear fetlock, which our vet believes could have been caused by the splint. Spider spent months on antibiotics, but was never able to walk right. He was in horrible pain, as well. In May of 2014, he was sent to the High Desert of California to board, with the hope that any vets the boarding facility used could help him. Well, two vets and one equine chiropractor could not help him, and each recommended putting him down. Again, his owner could not stand the thought, for sweet Spider had endeared himself to all who knew him, and  his owner genuinely loved the crippled colt.


During the early part of 2014, Spider's owner developed health issues of his own, and could no longer keep up his string of Thoroughbreds.  He sold them all except Spider.  No one wanted a crippled racehorse who would never be able to run or be ridden.  This situation was bad luck for the owner, but turned out to be good luck for Spider.


Spider's owner learned about MOP from the people who were boarding him and they called us in October asking if we could take him in. Could we do it?  This was going to be a very difficult decision. We had just spent 6 months bottle-raising and saving Rowdy. Our funds were depleted, and frankly so was our energy.   On the other hand, Spider's connections had given up and were going to put him to sleep if we could not take him.  We were Spider's last hope.


I had to think this over very carefully.  I went to see him.  The picture of me in the orange sweatshirt with Spider was taken the first time I saw him. He was pathetic looking, wormy and gangly, with a swollen and infected right front knee, and a swollen left rear fetlock.  He could hardly walk, and he was literally about 9 inches shorter in his left hip than the right one. He was a train wreck!  He also seemed severely depressed in spirit, but he was cooperative when led, limping in a circle around his corral-stall.  I could hear clicking sounds in his hip area when he walked.


I took Chris to see him. I talked to our admins. and our board. I then asked our vet, Dr. Sam Wittlin, to go see him with me. Dr. Sam took one look at Spider and declared then as he watched him walk, that he believed Spider's pelvis had been fractured.  This had probably occurred at his birth, or very shortly thereafter, and had not healed properly.  (Amazingly, not one other vet who had treated Spider up to this point had even suspected that.)  Sam was not very optimistic and rightly so. This could be a heartbreaking adventure, he noted, not to mention expensive, and a whole lot of work.  But we were Spider's last hope. 


I went home to do some more thinking.   I generally need a few confirmations when dealing with such a major decision.  It is scary to take on a horse like this. It is a huge commitment.  Furthermore, the online Pet Caring Fund Drive, which the admins. had started in order to meet some of his medical costs, and to help with the expenses of providing a place for Spider (our corral-stalls were all occupied by other horses), was not going well, and donations had been stuck for several days at an amount well below what was needed.  But we were Spider's last hope.


And then, it happened. I made up my mind the next day to try and save him. My final confirmation  had come shortly after Virginia Hagler arrived for her first solo visit to MOP,  and she anxiously asked what I had decided about Spider. I told her that I didn't think we could take him on, and that I would refund the money from the fund drive donations.  Clearly disappointed, she said, "But he's Mine That Bird's half-brother!"  I must have looked blank, for I had never heard of Mine That Bird.  She got very enthusiastic as she briefly told me his story (For the story, see the 2014 movie 50 TO 1--now available on DVD), and she made me go right to my computer and watch the 2009 Kentucky Derby.  Together we watched it, and I saw Spider's half-brother WIN that race against all odds. (You can see the race here.  Ed. note: Pioneer of the Nile, who came in second, well behind Mine That Bird, is the sire of American Pharoah, the 2015 Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown winner.)


It was the announcer at the end of the race, who said, "An IMPOSSIBLE RESULT HERE!" that gave me the final push to take the chance. If his brother could do the impossible, then so could Spider! 


I was so excited by this final confirmation of the decision I had really wanted to make, that I immediately posted on our facebook page an announcement about Spider's connection to Mine That Bird and his possible sharing of the talent for beating the odds, and by evening, the donations had doubled.  (Editor's note: Horses who share the same sire are not considered to be half-siblings "officially," but they are in genetic terms.  Spider does share his sire, Birdstone, winner of the 2004 Belmont Stakes, with Mine That Bird, the 2009 Kentucky Derby Winner, and also with Summerbird, the winner of the 2009 Belmont Stakes.  It remained to be seen if he shared their "heart" to win.)


That night, 24 October 2014, I called Dr. Sam and told him that if I can love the unlovable, then he could fix the unfixable, and he should hurry up and get here so we could get to work!  We were now ALL IN!  Our supporters responded with more donations.  They were thrilled that we had decided to take on Spider and his issues.


As soon as Spider arrived at MOP on 3 November, we went straight to work. The infection in his knee was actually in the tendon that runs across the knee!  Antibiotics, flushing the wound, and special wraps cleared this up in a matter of weeks.  Spider was then receiving 2 grams of Phenylbutazone (bute) twice a day for the pain in his left hip and pelvis.  This kept him reasonably able to move around his corral, and to lie on his right side for sleeping.  He would lie down at night and not get up until morning, urinating and defecating, if necessary, while lying down.


We confirmed the pelvis fracture with ultrasound, and our journey to address this issue began.  The fracture was a "viable non-union fracture."  That meant that there was a good blood supply, but no bone to bone fusion.  His body had made thick layers of  fibrous scar tissue to hold the broken parts together, after a fashion.  But he really needed bone there to support his adult weight, allow him more freedom of movement, and to lessen and hopefully eliminate his pain.


Sam prescribed strict stall rest in a very restricted space.  By keeping the pelvis as immobile as possible, his body could begin to grow actual bone to replace the scar tissue then holding the broken pieces together.


At first, we tried the trailer for his confinement, but this didn't work out.  Spider had apparently never learned to sleep standing up.  (As prey animals, horses often sleep while standing.  Their legs are "engineered" to lock when they sleep, so they don't fall limply to the ground.  This ability saves time when they must instantly flee, and may save their lives.)  Probably it was too painful for Spider to stand, so when he slept, he always lay down.  He stood in the trailer without sleeping for 30 hours, but then grew so sleepy that he had to lie down so he could sleep.  Lying down and getting up were difficult and dangerous in the small space allowed in the trailer, so we had to take him out. We didn't want him to hurt himself any further.


We finally settled on a very small stall, kept him somewhat sedated for the first month, boarded up everything we could, so he could not see other horses playing and get riled up, and for about 6 hours a day we tied his lead rope to a hook  All day we played a radio for Spider and we lavished lots of attention on him. Putting his hay in a thick plastic hay net slowed down his eating, and kept him occupied much of the time. We tried to teach him to paint, but he was too interested in playing with us instead of the brushes.


Our first follow-up ultrasound after about a month did not show as much healing as we had hoped for, so we introduced shockwave therapy to the target area, and kept up the confinement/tying routine. Then gradually we started to notice he was not as painful and we were able to cut down on his pain meds. We also started to notice him lying on his left side occasionally! And he was no longer staying down all night.


Four months into his confinement, we were able to take down some boards so Spider could look out and see other horses, and we began to bring him visitors of the horsey kind. We did more shockwave treatments to help break down the scar tissue, and by the fifth month, we knew we were making good progress. He was no longer on any pain medication. We noticed him starting to do small bucks when he would play. We gradually made his stall larger and larger, and we led him on short walks around the ranch.


It took a long time for bone to grow.  He needed the best food and care.   He had to be still. The fact that Spider endured the confinement so calmly and without protest speaks highly of his intelligence and his trust in us.  His patience and our diligence have paid off.  He now has plenty of bone to bone growth and healing.


In the spring of 2015, about two months after his second birthday, Spider was moved to a larger stall that is 24 by 36 feet.  He also began having turnouts in the larger round pen, where we worked on building muscle and strengthening his tendons.  He has had a couple of setbacks with strained extensor tendons, and we will always have to watch him carefully for such signs of his "over-doing it."  But finally, on 26 September 2015, Spider had his first turnout in the big arena, where he got to run, as he was born to do, for the first time in his life.


Spider came to us already named, probably because he resembled a spider as a tiny "black" foal with his legs splaying out in all directions.  There are several versions of Spider, Spiderman, Spider Man, and so forth already listed in the Jockey Club Thoroughbred registry, but there is no Amazing Spiderman, so that's his official name, though we probably won't register him, since he will never race.  (Ed. note: If he hadn't had the fractured pelvis, by now Spider would probably be in training somewhere, on his way to winning the 2016 Kentucky Derby.)  


His best buddies (with "over-" or "through-" the-fence contact only so far) are Gasston, Volt, Romeo,  and Rowdy.  When we are certain his muscles and tendons are strong enough to avoid chance for injury, we will be able to turn him out with one or two of his buddies in the same arena.  He's quite taken with, and anxious to meet, Sassy.  However, an introduction to her will have to wait until he is gelded, which will be done soon.


Spider is a great favorite of ranch visitors.  He loves people, enjoys meeting them, and will be a wonderful therapy horse.   He has grown from an underweight, crooked colt, 15.1 hands high to a stunning fellow, 16.3 hh.  His hips are now even, his gaits are smooth and free-flowing.  His dark bay coat gleams with vibrant good health and he is possibly the happiest horse on the ranch as he gets to play in all those ways he never got to do as a foal:  jumping, bucking, kicking out, running, stopping on a dime, and rearing, all gracefully done.  Check out a recent video below. Just watching his joy in these simple actions puts a smile in your heart. What's more, Dr. Sam says that Spider will be ride-able.  




Spider's  5th Birthday

Spider's very first turnout (as a gelding) with a friend

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