kissing spines surgery weston davis palm beach equine clinic
Palm Beach Equine Clinic’s Dr. Weston Davis performing kissing spines surgery.

Palm Beach Equine Clinic is one of the foremost equine surgical centers in the world with three board-certified surgeons on staff, led by Dr. Weston Davis. As a busy surgeon, Dr. Davis has seen many horses with the dreaded “kissing spines” diagnosis come across his table.  Two of his most interesting success stories featured horses competing in the disciplines of barrel racing and dressage.

Flossy’s Story

The words “your horse needs surgery” are ones that no horse owner wants to hear, but to Sara and Kathi Milstead, it was music to their ears. In 2016, Sara – who was 17 years old at the time and based in Loxahatchee, Florida – had been working for more than a year to find a solution to her horse’s extreme behavioral issues and chronic back pain that could not be managed. Her horse Two Blondes On Fire, a then-eight-year-old Quarter Horse mare known as “Flossy” in the barn, came into Sara’s life as a competitive barrel racer. But shortly after purchasing Flossy, Sara knew that something wasn’t right.

“We tried to do everything we could,” said Sara. “She was extremely back sore, she wasn’t holding weight, and she would try to kick your head off. We tried Regu-Mate, hormone therapy, magna wave therapy, injections, and nothing helped her. We felt that surgery was the best option instead of trying to continue injections.”

At the time, Sara and her primary veterinarian, Dr. Jordan Lewis of Palm Beach Equine Clinic (PBEC), brought Flossy to PBEC for thorough diagnostics. They determined Flossy had kissing spines.

Kissing Spines Explained

In technical terms, kissing spines are known as overriding or impinging dorsal spinous processes. The dorsal spinous process is a portion of bone extending dorsally from each vertebra. Ideally, the spinous processes are evenly spaced, allowing the horse to comfortably flex and extend its back through normal positions. With kissing spines, two or more vertebrae get too close, touch, or even overlap in places. This condition can lead to restrictions in mobility as well as severe pain, which ultimately can lead to back soreness and performance problems.

“The symptoms can be extremely broad,” acknowledged Dr. Davis. “[With] some of the horses, people will detect sensitivity when brushing over the topline. A lot of these horses get spasms in their regional musculature alongside the spinous processes.” A significant red flag is intermittent, severe bad behavior, such as kicking out, bucking, and an overall negative work attitude, something that exactly described Flossy.

Lakota’s Story

With dressage horse Lakota owned by Heidi Degele, there were minimal behavior issues, but Degele knew there had to be something more she could do to ease Lakota’s pain.

“As his age kicked in, it was like you were sitting on a two-by-four,” Heidi said of her horse’s condition. “I knew his back bothered him the most because with shockwave he felt like a different horse; he felt so supple and he had this swing in his trot, so I knew that’s what truly bothered him.” Though she could sense the stiffness and soreness as he worked, he was not one to rear, pin his ears, or refuse to work because of the pain he was feeling.

Heidi turned to Dr. Davis, who recommended a surgical route, an option he only suggests if medical treatment and physical therapy fail to improve the horse’s condition. “Not because the surgery is fraught with complications or [tends to be] unsuccessful,” he said, “but for a significant portion of these horses, if you’re really on top of the conservative measures, you may not have to opt for surgery.

“That being said, surgical interventions for kissing spines have very good success rates,” added Dr. Davis. In fact, studies have shown anywhere from 72 to 95 percent of horses return to full work after kissing spines surgery.

After Lakota made a successful recovery from his surgery in 2017, he has required no maintenance above what a typical high-level performance horse may need. Heidi attributes his success post-surgery to proper riding, including ground poles that allow him to correctly use his back, carrot stretches, and use of a massage blanket, which she has put into practice with all the horses at her farm. Dr. Davis notes that proper stretching and riding may also prolong positive effects of injections while helping horses stay more sound and supple for athletic activities.

Lakota, who went from Training Level all the way up through Grand Prix, is now used by top working students to earn medals in the Prix St. Georges, allowing them to show off their skills and earn the qualifications they need to advance their careers.

Flossy’s Turnaround

Flossy was found to have dorsal spinous process impingement at four sites in the lower thoracic vertebrae. Dr. Davis performed the surgery under general anesthesia and guided by radiographs, did a partial resection of the affected dorsal spinous processes (DSPs) to widen the spaces between adjacent DSPs and eliminate impingement. 

Sara took her time bringing Flossy back to full work. Within days of the surgery, Sara saw changes in Flossy, but within six months, she was a new horse.

“Surgery was a big success,” said Sara. “Flossy went from a horse that we used to dread riding to the favorite in the barn. It broke my heart; she was just miserable. I didn’t know kissing spines existed before her diagnosis. It’s sad to think she went through that pain. She’s very much a princess, and all of her behavioral problems were because of pain. Now my three-year-old niece rides her around.”

Sara and Flossy have returned to barrel racing competition as well, now that Sara graduated from nursing school, and have placed in the money regularly including two top ten finishes out of more than 150 competitors.

“I can’t even count the number of people that I have recommended Palm Beach Equine Clinic to,” said Sara. “Everyone was really great and there was excellent communication with me through every step of her surgery and recovery.”

By finding a diagnosis for Flossy and a way to ease her pain, Sara was able to discover her diamond in the rough and go back to the competition arena with her partner for years to come.

What To Expect After the Unexpected Strikes

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Every owner dreads having to decide whether or not to send their horse onto the surgical table for colic surgery. For a fully-informed decision, it is important that the horse’s owner or caretaker understands what to expect throughout the recovery process.

Palm Beach Equine Clinic (PBEC) veterinarian Weston Davis, DVM, DACVS, assisted by Sidney Chanutin, DVM, has an impressive success rate when it comes to colic surgeries, and the PBEC team is diligent about counseling patients’ owners on how to care for their horse post-colic surgery. 

“After we determine that the patient is a strong surgical candidate, the first portion of the surgery is exploratory so we can accurately define the severity of the case,” explained Dr. Davis. “That moment is when we decide if the conditions are positive enough for us to proceed with surgery. It’s always my goal to not make a horse suffer through undue hardship if they have a poor prognosis.”

Once Dr. Davis gives the green light for surgical repair, the surgery is performed, and recovery begins immediately.

“The time period for the patient waking up in the recovery room to them standing should ideally be about 30 minutes,” continued Dr. Davis. “At PBEC, we do our best to contribute to this swift return by using a consistent anesthesia technique. Our team controls the anesthesia as lightly as we can and constantly monitors blood pressure. We administer antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, anti-endotoxic drugs, and plasma to help combat the toxins that the horse releases during colic. Our intention in the operating room is to make sure colic surgeries are completed successfully, but also in the most time-efficient manner.”

Colic surgery recovery often depends on the type and severity of the colic. At the most basic level, colic cases can be divided into two types – large intestine colic and small intestine colic – that influence the recovery procedures and outlook. 

Large intestinal colic or impaction colic is characterized by the intestine folding upon itself with several changes of direction (flexures) and diameter changes. These flexures and diameter shifts can be sites for impactions, where a firm mass of feed or foreign material blocks the intestine. Impactions can be caused by coarse feeds, dehydration, or an accumulation of foreign materials such as sand.

Small intestinal colic or displacement colic can result from gas or fluid distension that results in the intestines being buoyant and subject to movement within the gut, an obstruction of the small intestine, or twisting of the gut. In general, small intestinal colics can be more difficult than large intestinal colics when it comes to recovery from surgery. 

“Many people do assume that after the colic surgery is successfully completed their horse is in the clear,” said Dr. Chanutin. “However, during the first 24 to 48 hours after colic surgery, there are many factors that have to be closely monitored.

“We battle many serious endotoxic effects,” continued Dr. Chanutin. “When the colon isn’t functioning properly, microbial toxins are released inside the body. These microbials that would normally stay in the gastrointestinal tract then cause tissue damage to other bodily systems. We also need to be cognizant of the possibility of the patient developing laminitis, a disseminated intervascular coagulation (overactive clotting of the blood), or reflux, where a blockage causes fluids to back up into the stomach.”

  Colic surgery incision healing.

Stages after surgery

Immediately Post-Surgery

While 30 minutes from recumbent to standing is the best-case scenario, Dr. Davis acknowledges that once that time period passes, the surgical team must intervene by encouraging the horse to get back on its feet.

Once a horse returns to its stall in the Equine Hospital at PBEC, careful monitoring begins, including physical health evaluations, bloodwork, and often, advanced imaging. According to Dr. Davis, physical exams will be conducted at least four times per day to evaluate the incision and check for any signs of fever, laminitis, lethargy, and to ensure good hydration status. An abdominal ultrasound may be done several times per day to check the health of the gut, and a tube may be passed into the stomach to check for reflux and accumulating fluid in the stomach.

“The horse must regularly be passing manure before they can be discharged,” said Dr. Chanutin. “We work toward the horse returning to a semi-normal diet before leaving PBEC. Once they are at that point, we can be fairly confident that they will not need additional monitoring or immediate attention from us.”

Returning Home

Drs. Davis and Chanutin often recommend the use of an elastic belly band to support the horse’s incision site during transport from the clinic and while recovering at home. Different types of belly bands offer varying levels of support. Some simply provide skin protection, while others are able to support the healing of the abdominal wall.

A belly band covering the incision.

Two Weeks Post-Surgery 

At the 12-to-14-day benchmark, the sutures will be removed from the horse’s incision site. The incision site is continuously checked for signs of swelling, small hernias, and infection.

At-Home Recovery

Once the horse is home, the priority is to continue monitoring the incision and return them to a normal diet if that has not already been accomplished.

The first two weeks of recovery after the horse has returned home is spent on stall rest with free-choice water and hand grazing. After this period, the horse can spend a month being turned out in a small paddock or kept in a turn-out stall. They can eventually return to full turnout during the third month. Hand-walking and grazing is permittable during all stages of the at-home recovery process. After the horse has been home for three months, the horse is likely to be approved for riding.

Generally, when a horse reaches the six-month mark in their recovery, the risk of adverse internal complications is very low, and the horse can return to full training under saddle.

When to Call the Vet?

Decreased water intake, abnormal manure output, fever, pain, or discomfort are all signals in a horse recovering from colic surgery when a veterinarian should be consulted immediately.

Long-Term Care

Dr. Davis notes that in a large number of colic surgery cases, patients that properly progress in the first two weeks after surgery will go on to make a full recovery and successfully return to their previous level of training and competition.

Depending on the specifics of the colic, however, some considerations need to be made for long-term care. For example, if the horse had sand colic, the owner would be counseled to avoid sand and offer the horse a selenium supplement to prevent a possible relapse. In large intestinal colic cases, dietary restrictions may be recommended as a prophylactic measure. Also, horses that crib can be predisposed to epiploic foramen entrapment, which is when the bowel becomes stuck in a defect in the abdomen. This could result in another colic incident, so cribbing prevention is key.

Generally, a horse that has fully recovered from colic surgery is no less healthy than it was before the colic episode. While no one wants their horse to go through colic surgery, owners can rest easy knowing that.

“A lot of people still have a negative association with colic surgery, in particular the horse’s ability to return to its intended use after surgery,” said Dr. Davis. “It’s a common old-school mentality that after a horse undergoes colic surgery, they are never going to be useful again. For us, that situation is very much the exception rather than the rule. Most, if not all, recovered colic surgery patients we treat are fortunate to return to jumping, racing, or their intended discipline.”

In January of 2020, Palm Beach Equine Clinic veterinarian and board-certified surgeon Dr. Weston Davis performed colic surgery on Bull Run Jumpers Prince of Peace. Piloted by Kristen VanderVeen, “Prince” has proven he has fully recovered and is back in peak condition in August of 2020 by claiming the top spot in the $36,600 Traverse City Speed Classic CSI3* at the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival.

Congratulations to this fantastic pair from the entire PBEC Team!

Palm Beach Equine Clinic is incredibly proud to have been entrusted with the health and well-being of Prince and numerous other colic surgery patients who have gone on to make full recoveries, returning to training and competing as they were before the colic.

Each colic surgery case has its own specifics, and during Prince’s recovery, he particularly benefited from strategic veterinary use of the regenerative therapy RenoVo to strengthen the abdominal wall at the surgical incision. Dr. Davis adjusted Prince’s recovery plan as he returned to more intense exercise by using this regenerative medicine to provide some cellular scaffolding and growth factors to encourage proper tissue repair of the abdominal wall.

For more information on colic surgery, regenerative therapies, or to talk to Dr. Davis about your own horse’s needs, please call 561-793-1599 or fill out the form below.

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Patients

Bella Ciao: Back Out Front

Maurizio Sano, Bella Ciao, and groom Angel Mijangos at Gulfstream Park West. Photo courtesy of Alessandro Sano
Maurizio Sano, Bella Ciao, and groom Angel Mijangos at Gulfstream Park West. Photo courtesy of Alessandro Sano

Racehorse Bella Ciao Undergoes Surgical Repair

Trainers Alessandro and Antonio Sano reviewed a daunting x-ray on the morning of April 19, 2019. Their three-year-old Thoroughbred filly Bella Ciao, owned by Cairoli Racing Stable and Magic Stables LLC, had just finished a breeze in 49 seconds flat when she suffered a fracture in her right front leg.

She exited the track at Gulfstream Park West, her home racecourse in Miami Gardens, FL, with her racing fate hanging in the balance.

“She is a tough filly with a lot of heart, and she walked herself back to the barn where we had x-rays taken,” said Alessandro, who met with the track veterinarian right away to identify the problem. “When we saw it, we were nervous that she was headed to the breeding shed, and her career was over.”

Alessandro and his father, however, were not willing to give up on their special filly. They entrust Palm Beach Equine Clinic’s board-certified surgeon, Dr. Robert Brusie, with care of their entire string of racehorses, and quickly decided to send the x-rays for his review. Dr. Brusie quickly identified a condylar fracture and advised a surgical repair. Immediately after her diagnosis was confirmed, Bella Ciao made her way to the Hospital at Palm Beach Equine Clinic.

Identifying a Condylar Fracture

A condylar fracture is a repetitive strain injury that results in a fracture to the cannon bone above the fetlock. The fracture is a result of excessive strain and weight carried over the cannon bone during high-speed exercise. It emerges from the fetlock joint running laterally up or medially out the side of the cannon bone, essentially breaking off a corner of the bone.

“A condylar fracture is a disease of speed,” said Dr. Brusie. “A condylar fracture was once considered the death of racehorses. As time and science progressed, it came to be considered merely career-ending. Currently, veterinary medical sciences are so advanced that we have had great success with condylar fracture patients returning to full work.

“Luckily, with today’s advanced rehabilitation services, time, and help from mother nature, many horses can come back from an injury like this. My prognosis for Bella Ciao after surgery was very good,” said Dr. Brusie.


Dr. Brusie performed Bella Ciao’s surgery and inserted five screws to repair the fracture.

Digital radiographs show a condylar fracture to the right front leg, and the five screws that completed the surgery.

Digital radiographs show a condylar fracture to the right front leg, and the five screws that completed the surgery.

From left to right: Digital radiographs show the condylar fracture to the right front leg, and the five screws that completed the surgery.


“He does an excellent job with all of our horses. We wanted to give it a shot for Bella Ciao, and it paid off,” said Alessandro. He and his father, Antonio, have worked with Dr. Brusie on many horses, including a past Kentucky Derby runner and horses winning in excess of million-dollar purses. “He told us that she would be back to the track, so we followed his instructions perfectly.”

Back On Track

Dr. Brusie prescribed stall rest and hand walking for the first several months of Bella Ciao’s recovery. She slowly began jogging, and then breezing.

On October 27, 2019, she returned to the track in a $45,000 Allowance race. With Leonel Reyes up in the irons, Bella Ciao made her comeback in storybook fashion by winning that race and coming out fit, sound, and healthy. Now a four-year-old, Bella Ciao won again on April 30, 2020, and most recently placed third in a $60,000 race on June 27.

“While treatable, a condylar fracture is not an easy injury to come back from, but Dr. Brusie is one of the best surgeons in the country, and we trusted him,” said Alessandro, who has been working with Dr. Brusie since he and his father moved their business from Venezuela to the U.S. in 2010. “She recovered brilliantly, and we could not be happier with how she is going now. She is a special filly, and we are thrilled that we took this chance on her.”

When Jennifer Penn learned that her horse Belle was in the beginning stages of a bout with colic in February, she knew she was not ready to say goodbye to her beloved horse. The 33-year-old American Quarter Horse named “Wagners Mint Joker”, but known to Penn and her family as Belle, was the horse of a lifetime.

Penn’s mother, Becky Seton, and late grandfather, Bob Lowery, both of Vero Beach, FL, purchased a then 12-year-old Belle for Penn in 1998. “We were both 12-years-old and it was a match made in heaven,” recalled Penn. “I had outgrown my show pony, so it was time to look for an all-around horse that I could show and have fun with. I am an only child, so she is like a sister to me. As I grew up, I experienced life right alongside her.”

Belle quickly lived up to her reputation as an all-around horse, actively competing with Penn at AQHA breed shows, open and 4-H circuits throughout Florida, show jumping events, and they excelled in western trail competitions. Belle even pulled a cart for a time!

When Penn was 18, she started her own lesson program with Belle at the helm. “Belle provided a solid foundation for many riders, both young and old,” she said. “She not only taught me how to become a horsewoman, but she has also impacted so many young people’s lives and taught them showmanship skills. She’s special to me and my mother Becky, but also to so many people who have gone on to become very successful horsemen and women.”

While Belle was partially retired in 2018, the same year she was the guest of honor and Penn’s wedding, the mare gave her last lesson about six months ago. She was still being ridden once a week with the occasional trail or pony ride for yet another up-and-coming rider.

Jennifer Penn Geriatric Colic Case Palm Beach Equine Clinic Surgery

Belle was thriving in retirement until colic threatened to disrupt her life of luxury.

On Saturday morning, February 1, Belle had not been drinking from her water buckets, did not finish her breakfast, and had only passed manure twice throughout the night before; abnormal signs that Penn took very seriously. “She’s tough as nails, so she was not showing any signs of discomfort; she was just standing there quietly in her stall. By knowing her habits we were able to identify a problem and make early decisions.”

Belle was initially treated by her primary veterinarian, Dr. Kelly Alderman of Alderman Veterinary Services based in Fellsmere, FL. Based on Dr. Alderman’s recommendation, Belle was transported to Dr. Karie Vander Werf’s Treasure Coast Equine Emergency Services in Palm City, FL, where an ultrasound on Sunday showed a displacement of her large colon.

“It was very obvious to us that if we were going to consider surgery, we would have to do it sooner rather than later,” said Penn. “The decision was made to preserve her strength and transport her to Palm Beach Equine Clinic for Dr. Weston Davis to operate on her.

“It was because of his confidence in the surgery despite her age, that I had a peace in the decision to proceed with surgery,” continued Penn.

One of three board-certified surgeons at Palm Beach Equine Clinic, Dr. Weston Davis performed the emergency colic surgery to remove a right dorsal impaction in the large colon and correct a severe displacement caused by the altered motility within the intestines.

“Her primary veterinarian had done everything that she could medically do for the horse before referring the case to Palm Beach Equine Clinic,” said Dr. Davis. “In some colic cases, a prolonged course of medical treatments might result in the horse no longer being a surgical candidate. When things were not improving quickly enough, the horse was sent to us. Our main concern was to determine if Belle was as healthy a surgical candidate that she could possibly be.”

According to Dr. Davis, Belle’s physical examination and blood work revealed her to be a very healthy, albeit geriatric, colic case. “She is the oldest horse that I have performed colic surgery on. At the time of her arrival, Belle was well-hydrated with balanced electrolytes levels and stable organ systems. She was an overall good candidate for colic surgery, even at 33-years-old,” he said.

While not every geriatric colic case is well-suited for surgical intervention, Dr. Davis considers two factors before moving forward with any surgery. “The surgery has to make sense for the horse, meaning that they are a healthy candidate with the ability to recover, and they have the will to live,” said Dr. Davis, who noticed how resilient Belle was from the moment he saw her. “The other point is that the surgery needs to be financially reasonable for the client. In Belle’s case, there was a will to live, and a strong emotional connection with this horse.”

After a successful colic surgery, Belle was moved to recover in the Palm Beach Equine Clinic Hospital where she was cared for round-the-clock by Dr. Candelaria Chunco and hospital staff.

“Dr. Davis was great, and Candelaria was fantastic,” said Penn. “They were both so kind, and I received regular text updates. I knew that they were invested in her recovery. When she stood up after anesthesia, I remember Dr. Davis saying to me, ‘this horse is a badass’, and she really is!”

Belle returned home to Vero Beach, FL, on February 19, and celebrated her 34th birthday on March 27. “Her recovery was slow, but she is doing well, regaining an appetite, working her way back to regular turnout, and starting to act like her old self again,” said Penn. “She is an incredibly special horse to not only me and my mother, but to my husband, family, friends, and the horse community here. It’s so wonderful to have her back home.”

Dr. David Priest Utilizes Dynamic Endoscope and Performs Surgery to Help Four-Year-Old Harness Racer Get Back in Action

For equine athletes to perform their best, optimal respiratory health is crucial, and particularly paramount for harness racehorses. According to Dr. David Priest, Palm Beach Equine Clinic veterinarian with a keen interest in respiratory health, a racehorse moves roughly 70 liters of air through its lungs over the duration of one second while exercising. To simulate the movement of that amount of air outside the anatomy of a horse’s body, it would require two industrial ShopVacs on full power.

David Priest Palm Beach Equine Clinic Veterinarian

A colloquial condition known as “roaring”, or recurrent laryngeal neuropathy, is a fairly common issue among horses, and it restricts the amount of air able to reach the lungs through the horse’s upper respiratory system. The condition usually affects the left side of the larynx – the equine left recurrent laryngeal nerve is longer than the right – with paralysis that does not allow for an adequate amount of air to travel to the lungs.

According to Dr. Priest, equine anatomy plays a factor in the prevalence of this condition. There is a correlation with the length and size of the neck to the nerve pathways that travel from the brain to the chest, around the heart, and back up to the throat. Although mild cases of recurrent laryngeal neuropathy can be tolerated, the condition becomes particularly serious when a horse’s work involves high-intensity aerobic exercise.

“We often see recurrent laryngeal neuropathy described as a paralyzed flapper,” said Dr. Priest. “If you imagine the flaps of the larynx as cabinet doors, then the horse should be able to hold the doors open without problem while at rest. Yet, when the airflow picks up during exercise, that muscle is sometimes not strong enough to hold the doors open, and it collapses into the airway.”

Just before the start of 2019, Dr. Priest received a call from Stephanie Reames, the trainer of a four-year-old harness racehorse with symptoms pointing to recurrent laryngeal neuropathy. During his diagnostic process, Dr. Priest performed an endoscopy while the horse was resting to provide a baseline observation.

“I saw what I thought was a minor abnormality, but I did not know what amount of laryngeal strength this horse had,” said Dr. Priest. “The roaring noise usually occurs when the disease is progressive, and this horse was making a little bit of noise.


Palm Beach Equine Clinic - Dynamic endoscope showcasing the collapse of the left larynx flap
Dynamic endoscope showcasing the collapse of the left larynx flap.
Palm Beach Equine Clinic - Dynamic endoscope of the larynx with clear air flow at exercise after tie-back surgery
Dynamic endoscope of the larynx with clear air flow at exercise after tie-back surgery.

“This particular horse was in training for the harness racing season, so the owners and trainer wanted to figure out the root of the issue as swiftly as possible,” continued Dr. Priest. “The most effective way to accomplish that is to utilize a dynamic endoscope.”

A dynamic endoscope is a video recording device worn by the horse during exercise. It allows veterinarians to see the larynx, and therefore view signs of recurrent laryngeal neuropathy in real-time. Dr. Priest observed the disease as a grade C on the universal grading system for rating the disease, which translates to a full collapse of the left larynx flap.

Once diagnosed, Dr. Priest recommended an aptly-named laryngeal tie-back surgery, which involves stitching the larynx flap to surrounding cartilage in order to hold it open for optimal airflow. He performed the surgery at Palm Beach Equine Clinic a couple of days after making the diagnosis, and the horse returned home to its training base at South Florida Training Center in Lake Worth, FL, the same day.


The dynamic endoscope on a harness racehorse ready for exercise
A view of the dynamic endoscope on a harness racehorse.
The dynamic endoscope on a harness racehorse ready for exercise.

The suggested recovery time is 30 days to allow for the surgical incisions to heal. Once healed, this horse immediately returned to full harness racing training.

“The horse is doing fantastic and we are hoping to qualify for racing in the next three weeks, and we will most likely head north to Pennsylvania to race,” said Reames. “Dr. Priest is absolutely amazing and was extremely professional from start to finish. There is always a hesitation when you learn that a horse needs surgery, but Dr. Priest was so prompt with the diagnosis and procedure, and the horse healed so quickly. We have high hopes for another successful racing season!”

In February of 2020, Dr. Priest performed a second dynamic endoscopy to observe the condition and effectiveness of the tie-back surgery. “The disease usually results in a 20-30% reduction in airflow, which causes a small performance decline resulting in a speed reduction of maybe one second. This horse’s particular case was perfect at the one-year check, which is key because that one second can be the difference between winning and losing!”

Evaluate your Horse’s Respiratory Health by Contacting PBEC

Categories
Surgery

When the Bone Breaks

Palm Beach Equine Clinic is Changing the Prognosis for Condylar Fracture Injuries

Palm Beach Equine Clinic is changing the prognosis for condylar fracture injuries in race and sport horses. Advances in diagnostic imaging, surgical skillset, and the facilities necessary to quickly diagnose, treat, repair, and rehabilitate horses with condylar fractures have improved dramatically in recent years.

Palm Beach Equine Clinic is changing the prognosis for condylar fracture injuries among sport horses.
Photo by Jump Media

Most commonly seen in Thoroughbred racehorses and polo ponies, a condylar fracture was once considered a career-ending injury. Today, however, many horses fully recover and return to competing in their respective disciplines.

What is a Condylar Fracture?

A condylar fracture is a repetitive strain injury that results in a fracture to the cannon bone above the fetlock due to large loads transmitted during high-speed exercise.

A condylar fracture is a repetitive concussive injury that results in a fracture to the cannon bone above the fetlock due to large loads transmitted over the cannon bone during high-speed exercise. On a radiograph, a condylar fracture appears as a crack that goes laterally up the cannon from the fetlock joint and out the side of the bone, essentially breaking off a corner of the cannon bone, sometimes up to six inches long.

“A condylar fracture is a disease of speed,” said Dr. Robert Brusie, a surgeon at Palm Beach Equine Clinic who estimates that he repairs between 30 and 50 condylar fractures per year. “A fracture to the left lateral forelimb is most common in racehorses as they turn around the track on a weakened bone and increased loading.”

Scan showing the screws inserted during surgery (right). This patient, a Thoroughbred racehorse, walked away from surgery comfortably and is recovering well.

Condylar fractures are further categorized into incomplete and non-displaced (the bone fragment hasn’t broken away from the cannon bone and is still in its original position), or complete and displaced (the fragment has moved away from the cannon bone itself and can often be visible under the skin).

Additionally, condylar fractures can occur laterally or medially. According to fellow Palm Beach Equine Clinic surgeon Dr. Weston Davis, most condylar fractures tend to be lateral on the outside condyle (a rounded projection on a bone, usually for articulation with another bone similar to a knuckle or joint).

“Most lateral condylar fractures are successfully repaired,” said Dr. Davis. “Medial condylar fractures tend to be more complicated configurations because they often spiral up the leg. Those require more advanced imaging and more advanced techniques to fix.”

What is the Treatment?

The first step in effectively treating a condylar fracture through surgery is to accurately and quickly identify the problem. Board-certified radiologist Dr. Sarah Puchalski utilizes the advanced imaging services at Palm Beach Equine Clinic to accomplish exactly this.

“Stress remodeling can be detected early and easily on nuclear scintigraphy before the horse goes lame or develops a fracture,” said Dr. Puchalski. “Early diagnosis of stress remodeling allows the horse to be removed from active race training and then return to full function earlier. Early diagnosis of an actual fracture allows for repair while the fracture is small and hopefully non-displaced.”

Surgical lag screws are used to reconnect the fractured condyle with the cannon bone.
Photo by Jump Media

Once the injury is identified as a condylar fracture, Palm Beach Equine Clinic surgeons step in to repair the fracture and start the horse on the road to recovery. Depending on surgeon preference, condylar fracture repairs can be performed with the horse under general anesthesia, or while standing under local anesthesia. During either process, surgical leg screws are used to reconnect the fractured condyle with the cannon bone.

“For a small non-displaced fracture, we would just put in one to two screws across the fracture,” explains Dr. Davis. “The technical term is to do it in ‘lag fashion,’ such that we tighten the screws down heavily and really compress the fracture line. A lot of times the fracture line is no longer visible in x-rays after it is surgically compressed. When you get that degree of compression, the fractures heal very quickly and nicely.”

More complicated fractures, or fractures that are fully displaced, may require additional screws to align the parts of the bone. For the most severe cases of condylar fractures, a locking compression plate with screws is used to stabilize and repair the bone.

Palm Beach Equine Clinic surgeon Dr. Jorge Gomez approaches a non-displaced condylar fracture while the horse is standing, which does not require general anesthesia.

A view of Palm Beach Equine Clinic’s standing surgical suite.

“I will just sedate the horse and block above the site of the fracture,” said Dr. Gomez. “Amazingly, horses tolerate it really well. Our goal is always to have the best result for the horse, trainers, and us as veterinarians.”

According to Dr. Gomez, the recovery time required after a standing condylar fracture repair is only 90 days. This is made even easier thanks to a state-of-the-art standing surgical suite at Palm Beach Equine Clinic. The four-and-a-half-foot recessed area allows doctors to perform surgeries anywhere ventral of the carpus on front legs and hocks on hind legs from a standing position. Horses can forgo general anesthesia for a mild sedative and local nerve blocks, greatly improving surgical recovery.

“A condylar fracture was once considered the death of racehorses, and as time and science progressed, it was considered career-ending,” concluded Dr. Brusie. “Currently, veterinary medical sciences are so advanced that we have had great success with condylar fracture patients returning to full work. Luckily, with today’s advanced rehabilitation services, time, and help from mother nature, many horses can come back from an injury like this.”

Palm Beach Equine Clinic’s surgical team leader, Dr. Robert Brusie, is a nationally renowned board-certified surgeon whose surgical specialties include orthopedic, arthroscopic, and emergency cases. Dr. Brusie has been the head surgeon with Palm Beach Equine Clinic for the last 20 years and is a beloved part of the team. 

Dr. Brusie graduated from Michigan State University (MSU) College of Veterinary Medicine. He completed his surgical residency at the Marion DuPont Scott Equine Center in Virginia in 1989 and has been in private practice ever since. He became a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons in 1994. Dr. Brusie joined the Palm Beach Equine Clinic team in 1996.

Board-certified surgeon, Dr. Brusie is recognized for his expertise in colic surgery, as well as for his skill in arthroscopic surgery. His surgical experience expands the clinic’s progressive care in both emergency and elective procedures. He has published articles on numerous topics, including the equine intestinal tract and septic arthritis in horses. Dr. Brusie is married and has three daughters. Read on to find out more about Dr. Brusie!

What is your background with horses?

I grew up on a farm in Michigan. We had usually between 200 and 600 head of cattle and always between four to six horses. Our horses were cow ponies or driving horses. My dad loved horses and had to have them around. My family has owned our farm for six generations and it pretty much occupied all of our time besides sports and school. Needless to say, we didn’t have much time to show horses.

When and why did you decide to become a veterinarian? Did you know you wanted to be a surgeon from the start?

I decided to become a veterinarian at an early age. I think I was seven or eight years old when I pulled my first calf. One of my dad’s hired men called me “Doc” when I was about that age. When I went to college, my plan was to become a large animal veterinarian and live in my hometown and continue to farm part-time with my three brothers. All of that changed when I was in veterinary school at MSU. Dr. Ed Scott was one of the five surgeons there; he was a gifted surgeon and a great teacher. He steered me into an equine internship at Auburn University. It was one of those things that the more you did, the more you wanted to do to improve yourself. I operated on my first colic by myself when I was three weeks out of vet school (32 years ago).

How did you first start working at Palm Beach Equine Clinic?

I was a surgeon at a clinic in Atlanta, and in 1996 I had performed a surgery for a client of Dr. Paul Wollenman’s. He had started this practice in 1975 and asked me if I needed a job. I was planning on staying in Atlanta for the rest of my career. I received phone calls from the other two partners over the next nine months, and eventually with encouragement from my fiancé, now wife, Melissa, I took the job.

What do you love most about working at Palm Beach Equine Clinic?

We have an exceptional group of veterinarians and staff here. The depth and scope of our veterinarians is amazing due to the large caseload. On any individual case, there may be two to three doctors that have input on the case to ensure no stone is left unturned. Additionally, we are so privileged to work on some of the best show, race, and polo horses in the world. It is truly an honor.

Meet Palm Beach Equine Clinic’s Dr. Robert Brusie

What sets the surgical services at Palm Beach Equine Clinic apart?

Between Dr. Jorge Gomez, Dr. Weston Davis, and myself, we perform just about every type of soft tissue and orthopedic surgeries that are done in our field. Personally, my greatest sense of success is when I see a horse back after surgery going as well or better than it was prior to surgery.

What are the biggest changes you have seen in sport horse medicine over the years?

Currently, the most exciting thing we see going on in medicine is regenerative therapy. Twelve to 15 years ago, we were harvesting bone marrow from the sternum and injecting it into lesions in tendons and ligaments. Now we manipulate the bone marrow or other sources of stem cells to promote more rapid and more functional healing of some of these injuries. I can assure you that in 10 to 20 years what we are doing now will seem stone-aged by then. There are some very clever minds performing some serious research in this field.

How do you stay up-to-date on new medical advances?

Every veterinarian at Palm Beach Equine Clinic tries to attend as many meetings as time allows. We also do a weekly journal club at our clinic to discuss recently published papers in veterinary and human medicine and surgery.

What is the most interesting or challenging surgery that you have done?

Dr. Gomez and I had a three-year-old racehorse that had split his P1 (long pastern bone) and cannon bone in the same leg in a race. We were able to piece together both bones perfectly and the horse recovered brilliantly. He probably could have returned to racing, however, the owners elected to retire him to life as a breeding stallion.

What is something interesting that people may not know about you?

I have three daughters who I am very proud of and tend to brag on maybe a little too much.

How else is the family involved in horses?

My wife [Melissa] and youngest daughter [Kayla] are horse nuts in the true sense of the word. Anything to do with horses, especially show hunters, they are dialed in. Melissa loves riding, and Kayla shows in hunters and equitation.

What makes Palm Beach Equine Clinic a special place for you?

I am blessed to have three good men as business partners. They are my good friends and great people. We are very lucky to have 20-plus veterinarians working with us who are very knowledgeable and caring individuals. We feel like a little practice, but with a lot of people who just get the job done.

A horse was recently admitted to Palm Beach Equine Clinic (PBEC), based in Wellington, FL, with symptoms that included bleeding from the nostril. The patient’s referring veterinarian had diagnosed the horse with an ethmoid hematoma, which in layman’s terms is essentially a mass that fills with blood in the nose or sinus cavity.

The patient was placed under the care of PBEC’s board-certified surgeon Dr. Weston Davis and Dr. Michael Myhre. They performed an airway endoscopy to locate and evaluate the hematoma that the referring veterinarian had identified. After confirming the diagnosis, Dr. Davis and Dr. Myhre were eager to ensure that it was the one and only hematoma they were battling.

Computed Tomography

PBEC is one of an elite group of equine veterinary clinics to have a computed tomography (CT) machine in their arsenal of diagnostic imaging equipment. A CT gives veterinarians a unique look at the head, neck, and spine of a horse that they would never be able to accomplish with other imaging modalities. After a CT of the patient’s sinuses, more masses were indeed identified.

Watch the CT scan that spotted the additional masses in progress!

“This was a fairly typical presentation of an ethmoid hematoma, but there were certainly more masses than normal,” said Dr. Myhre. “It’s for this reason that the CT was very useful. If we were not able to obtain the scans that we did, we may have missed the masses that were located deeper in the sinus.”

The cause of an ethmoid hematoma is unknown, but the mass resembles a tumor in appearance and development without being neoplastic. Horses with extensive masses may have reduced airflow and an expanding hematoma can cause pressure necrosis of the surrounding bones, but rarely causes facial distortion. Treatments of the ethmoid hematoma can range from conservative management to surgery. The conservative treatment route includes the injection of formalin – a mixture of formaldehyde gas and water – into the mass using a guarded endoscopic needle. Once injected, the mass typically regresses rapidly, but recurrence is common. For some cases, surgical excision is achieved via a frontonasal bone flap procedure.

The Approach

Palm Beach Equine Clinic Case Study: Ethmoid Hematoma
Palm Beach Equine Clinic Case Study: Ethmoid Hematoma

Due to the location and advances nature of the masses in this case, injection was not an option and the CT imaging was used to plan a surgical approach. “After sedation and a local block, we went into the sinus through a flap approach where we took a section of bone, cut it into a flap, and moved it back so we could go into the sinuses through a nice window,” said Dr. Myhre. “We removed a mass four centimeters in diameter as well as several smaller masses two to three centimeters in diameter, then flushed the area and closed.”

According to Dr. Myhre the advantages of a standing procedure included fewer risks from bleeding and fewer risks of recovering from anesthesia.

Post-surgery, the bone flap will require several weeks to heal, but the skin itself healed within one to two weeks, which is when the horse was cleared to return to normal activity.


Palm Beach Equine Clinic (PBEC) is changing the prognosis for condylar fracture injuries among sport horses. Advances in imaging, surgical talent, and the facilities necessary to quickly diagnose, treat, repair, and rehabilitate horses with condylar fractures have recently improved immensely.

Most commonly seen in Thoroughbred racehorses and occasionally polo ponies, a condylar fracture was once considered a career-ending injury. Today, however, odds are in favor of a full recovery with horses regularly returning to competition in their respective disciplines.

What is a Condylar Fracture?

A condylar fracture is a repetitive strain injury that results in a fracture to the cannon bone above the fetlock due to large loads transmitted over the cannon bone during high-speed exercise. On a radiograph, a condylar fracture appears as a crack that goes laterally up the cannon from the fetlock joint and out the side of the bone, essentially breaking off a corner of the cannon bone, sometimes up to six inches long.

“A condylar fracture is a disease of speed,” said Dr. Robert Brusie, a surgeon at PBEC who estimates that he repairs between 30 and 50 condylar fractures per year. “A fracture to the left lateral forelimb is most common in racehorses as they turn around the track on a weakened bone and increased loading.”

Condylar fractures are further categorized into incomplete and non-displaced (the bone fragment hasn’t broken away from the cannon bone and is still in its original position), or complete and displaced (the fragment has moved away from the cannon bone itself and can often be visible under the skin).

Additionally, condylar fractures can occur laterally or medially. According to fellow PBEC surgeon Dr. Weston Davis, most condylar fractures tend to be lateral on the outside condyle (a rounded projection on a bone, usually for articulation with another bone similar to a knuckle or joint).

“Most lateral condylar fractures are fairly simple for us to fix,” said Dr. Davis. “Medial condylar fractures tend to be more complicated configurations because they often spiral up the leg. Those require more advanced imaging and more advanced techniques to fix.”

What is the Treatment?

The first step in effectively treating a condylar fracture through surgery is to accurately and quickly identify the problem. PBEC’s board-certified radiologist Dr. Sarah Puchalski utilizes the advanced imaging services at PBEC to accomplish exactly this.

“Stress remodeling can be detected early and easily on nuclear scintigraphy before the horse goes lame or develops a fracture,” said Dr. Puchalski. “Early diagnosis of stress remodeling allows the horse to be removed from active race training and then return to full function earlier. Early diagnosis of an actual fracture allows for repair while the fracture is small and hopefully non-displaced.”

Surgical lag screws are used to reconnect the fractured condyle with the cannon bone.
Surgical lag screws are used to reconnect the fractured condyle with the cannon bone.

Once the injury is identified as a condylar fracture, PBEC surgeons step in to repair the fracture and start the horse on the road to recovery. Depending on surgeon preference, condylar fracture repairs can be performed with the horse under general anesthesia, or while standing under local anesthesia. During either process, surgical leg screws are used to reconnect the fractured condyle with the cannon bone.

“For a very simple and small non-displaced fracture, we would just put in one to two screws across the fracture,” explains Dr. Davis. “The technical term is to do it in ‘lag fashion,’ such that we tighten the screws down heavily and really compress the fracture line. A lot of times the fracture line is no longer visible in x-rays after it is surgically compressed. When you get that good compression, the fractures heal very quickly and nicely.”

More complicated fractures, or fractures that are fully displaced, may require more screws to align the parts of the bone. For the most severe cases of condylar fractures, a locking compression plate with screws is used to stabilize and repair the bone.

PBEC surgeon Dr. Jorge Gomez, approaches a simpler non-displaced condylar fracture while the horse is standing, which helps to aid in a faster recovery and more successful surgical outcome.

“I will just sedate the horse and block above the site of the fracture,” said Dr. Gomez. “Amazingly, horses tolerate it really well. Our goal is always to have the best result for the horse, trainers, and us as veterinarians.”

According to Dr. Gomez, the recovery time required after a standing condylar fracture repair is only 90 days. This is made even easier thanks to a state-of-the-art surgery pit installed at PBEC. The four-and-a-half-foot recessed area allows doctors to perform surgeries on anything from a horse’s hock and below from a standing position. Horses can forgo the risks of general anesthesia for a mild sedative and local nerve blocks, greatly improving outcomes.

Palm Beach Equine Clinic is changing the prognosis for condylar fracture injuries among sport horses
Palm Beach Equine Clinic is changing the prognosis for condylar fracture injuries among sport horses

“A condylar fracture was once considered the death of racehorses, and as time and science progressed, it was considered career-ending,” concluded Dr. Brusie. “Currently, veterinary medical sciences are so advanced that we have had great success with condylar fracture patients returning to full work. Luckily, with today’s advanced rehabilitation services, time, and help from mother nature, many horses can come back from an injury like this.”