Cascading Health Issues

By Terry Golson

Something wasn’t quite right with Tonka. He trusts that when he tells me that he hurts, that I’ll listen and respond. I do. But I don’t always know exactly what he’s saying. It’s even more difficult to hear his message when it keeps changing.

At the end of January I could tell that Tonka wasn’t going as boldly and enthusiastically as usual. When asked to take contact with the reins, he twitched his ears. This is subtle. A lot of horses head shake, but I knew that Tonka was telling me something specific. I noticed a swelling at his poll.


I called in my veterinarian. We hypothesized that he could have been playing and wrenched his neck, or fallen in the paddock. Eating out of his hay net like this:


was making things worse. So, Tonka’s hay was put on the ground and I had him do daily neck stretches. He regained flexibility. (I’ve written about this part of the story here.) But he still wasn’t going quite right. Then he got his rabies shot and had a severe reaction – a swelling the size of a grapefruit at the injection site. That understandably made him sore and changed how he moved.


As that went away, he did start to regain his good form.


But during one ride in early April, as we were doing a trot to canter transition his back seized up. Suddenly, he couldn’t go forward without throwing his nose in the air and sinking under me.

Dr. Steph took a look.


Tonka was put on muscle relaxers and I rode him out on the trails. We went up and down hills, stretching his back and getting him to use those loin muscles that had frozen up. Tonka started to feel like himself again.

But then he got this mystery swelling at the base of his neck.


Speaking of swellings, this winter he’d developed a muscle (?) along the center of his neck. But only on the left side.


Part of Tonka’s rehab entailed me using his favorite curry with rolling balls.


In the last few days, he’s been leaning in when I rub the poll.


And wiggling his lip and pressing into the curry at the base of his neck.


He was letting me know how much he appreciated my listening to his litany of woes. He was telling me where the aches are.

The other day, Tonka and I were out on the trail and he stumbled, almost down to his nose. In the three and a half years that we have been together, he’s never once taken a misstep. Any one of these things wouldn’t be a big deal, but they added up to the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back.” Do you know that tale? A camel is carrying a heavy load, which it seems to cope with, until that final light strand of straw is added to the burden, and that breaks him.

The stumble was just a “straw” but it was the last one. I called Dr. Steph.

She x-rayed his neck. Tonka is the perfect patient, there’s no fuss about the strange equipment.


A preliminary reading of the images leads Dr. Steph to believe that Tonka has damage to his C-4 vertebrae. This vertebrae is right where that swelling is on his mid-neck, which is an interesting correlation. A specialist will read the x-rays and get back to her. Tonka might need injections or shock wave therapy. I’ll know next week.

The neck wasn’t the only area that Tonka hurt. In this tale there are many straws. Dr. Steph also checked Tonka’s hind end. She did flexion tests and determined that his hocks had issues. We decided to do injections, which are a cocktail of medications that improve joint function.

When Dr. Steph put in the needle, a viscous stream of liquid should have come out. That’s the lubricant that allows the joint to move freely. Tonka’s fluid was a clear as water. Not good.

So, now we knew that Tonka’s hind end was as achy as his front. Between the two are his back, which had become stressed trying to alleviate the issues from both ends.

Within the next week his hocks should feel wonderful, which will improve his back. Then we’ll address his neck pains, which should improve his shoulders and back.

I’m listening, Tonka. Thank you for telling me that something was wrong before it broke down irreparably.


25 thoughts on “Cascading Health Issues

  • Pamela Whitehead


    Have you considered taking him barefoot? It’s easier on the joints

    Best wishes, Pam

    • Terry Golson Post author

      I tried to keep Tonka barefoot, but he has flat soles and here in New England it’s all rocks. We tried for a year, under the auspices of a superb farrier, but his feet couldn’t take it.

      • Pamela Whitehead

        Hi Terry, With proper trimming flat soles become concave. You really do need a barefoot trimmer or a farrier trained in barefoot trimming. And boots until their feet improve. If they don’t improve either the diet or the trim isn’t right. Have you looked at Pete Ramsey’s website? BW,Pam

        • Terry Golson Post author

          I appreciate the benefits of going barefoot but I don’t believe it’s right for all horses. I’m confident that shoeing Tonka is the best thing for him.

  • misspicasso

    Aw, I’m so sorry that Tonka is not feeling well! He’s so fortunate to have someone like you who can take great care of him when he’s sick 🙂 Hope he recovers quickly!!

  • Lizzie in Cornwall

    Hi Terry,
    Sounds like a very worrying, painful (and expensive!) time for you and Tonka.
    Have a coffee and mints together on me!
    Best wishes and “Get Well soon!”to your handsome boy!

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Thank you! Expensive is right! Worrying, too. He’s been quite patient while we’ve tried to understand what he’s been telling us, so it’s time and money well-spent.

  • Michelle

    Oh, these fragile, beautiful creatures that capture our hearts and eventually break them! I do hope you’ve discovered all the problem areas and can help him heal or at least remain comfortable. My previous horse, pictured in my blog header, had arthritis in his neck; when injections started giving only short-term relief, I retired him from dressage and gave him to a friend as a pasture pet and occasional light trail-riding mount. Six years later he’s having more trouble, sometimes needing to lean on a wall to stay upright. Fortunately she is pursuing treatment options with my husband; if they don’t work to keep him comfortable or at least stable, she won’t make him suffer in pain or panic.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Oh no! I didn’t realize that his neck issue could get that serious. Honestly, if all I could do is trail ride, he’d still be my heart horse. But I can’t bear the thought that he’ll be in pain. We’ll just have to see how this goes.

  • Gin

    So, so sorry Tonka is having problems. I know that it is very worrisome for you also. Get well soon Tonka, hoping for a speedy and full recovery, and Terry you know you have the thoughts and support of all of us that read your blog.

  • Kim

    I’m sorry to hear of Tonka’s health issues Terry, but it sounds like you and your support team have a handle on it. I hope for a speedy recovery for him! I was going to see if you wanted to try for a spring beach ride, but now it sounds like fall will be better for your guy.
    I was in the same boat a few weeks ago. Booker will be 18 in a few weeks, and he is on a joint supplement plus Adequan injections which I give about every three weeks. He too wasn’t acting comfortable and I knew that something was up. I had him tested for Lyme and one component came back positive for an early exposure so we treated him with Doxy. I also had chiro and acupuncture done, as well as his saddle fitted. Finally, Andi Kaneps did a lameness eval and determined that the Adequan wasn’t working for him anymore so we switched to Pentosan. Thankfully he seems to be responding, but hock injections might be in his future as well. Even though horse ownership is so much more than just riding, we do want them sound and comfortable. Please keep us posted on Tonka’s progress!

    • Terry Golson Post author

      I hate ticks and the diseases they spread. I hope that he fully recovers from that. I used to see the hock injections as a last resort, but now I see it as a way to help before nothing can. Your wonderful horse landed in the perfect home. I hope (and I’m sure!) that you’ll have many more years on the trails together.

  • Tracy

    Oh, Terry, I’m so sorry to hear about Tonka. What an odd conflagration of issues…swellings, stiffness, reactions. Good grief. I’d like to pass on a website called The products are the best way I know to keep either cooking ice packs or heated packs exactly where you want them, should this become part of his therapy. I’ve no affiliation with the company, but just like their stuff. I have a friend who uses the large back product to provide heat to her horse’s spine after eventing. I’d never seen a product like it. She says the packs stay cool, or very warm (depending on which you’re using) for several hours, and the don’t shift or move at all. Give Tonka a scratch from me. Poor guy…

  • Shaste

    Poor Tonka! I hope he recovers quickly and fully.
    Good for you for listening to those small communications rather than pushing him through it. Too many people would say he was just being lazy or careless and pushed him into doing something that hurt him.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Thank you, and I agree that too often when an animal isn’t “compliant” we blame them as if it’s a personality fault instead of looking at why.

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