CODY, Wyo. — The steel rods are clear in the X-ray, standing out as solid pins penetrating the milky white outline of bone. What's not so clear in the image is that the owner of the leg is a horse that received a second chance at life.
Veterinarian Ted Vlahos pulls down the image and considers his work. He's in the business of giving second chances, and has pioneered a field of veterinary medicine that didn't exist too long ago.
"It was around the time the Iraq war started and I had a horse that needed an artificial limb," Vlahos said Tuesday at the Cody Equine Hospital. "With hundreds of guys and gals coming back from the war missing limbs, I decided to modify some of the human protocols for the horse."
Attempts to fit horses with artificial limbs go back roughly 40 years. Vlahos credits a small group of veterinary surgeons for advancing amputation and limb replacement in horses to the point where it's now a viable option.
His predecessors and mentors, including Ric Reddin of the International Equine Podiatry Center in Kentucky, and Barrie Grant of the San Luis Rey Equine Clinic in California, helped build the future of equine orthopedics and prepare Vlahos for the novel procedure.
"They helped me get started and I've taken over the majority of the horses out there," Vlahos said. "We've gotten a lot of attention due to our work with amputations and artificial limbs. I think it's cutting-edge stuff, and it's becoming more and more known."
Horses fitted with prostheses don't have the "luxury" of lengthy, staged recovery and time is generally not on their side. But if given a chance, Vlahos said, they can show remarkable will to progress.
"In a horse, they have to stand up right after surgery and they have to walk immediately," Vlahos said. "We've gone to a process of placing two, large stainless steel rods in their leg through the bone to allow them to walk on their leg immediately."
The steel rod is incorporated into a cast that surrounds a temporary prosthetic, Vlahos said. It allows the horse to bear weight on its artificial leg without loading its stump, allowing it to heal.
The healing process takes a month or more. Only then does Vlahos remove the pins and allow the animal to bear weight on its stump. The animal can never be ridden, he said, but it can live a healthy life.
Unlike a human limb, Vlahos said, the horse's lower leg has minimal musculature.
"It's tendons and skin and bone," he said. "We don't have to worry about the shrinkage or atrophy of those muscles."
Vlahos shows a video of a horse with a cast wrapping its front leg just below the knee. The horse had come to the clinic unable to walk. The video shows the horse five minutes after amputation and limb-replacement surgery, walking out with a normal gait.
"We do have some stump remodeling we have to do," he said. "But we make it so the horses can walk just after surgery and do very well."
A graduate of Ohio State University, Vlahos has practiced veterinary medicine for more than 24 years. He worked in Columbus, Ohio, for nine years and spent time in Virginia and North Carolina before he discovered the West.
He's spent the last 15 years in Wyoming, driving between his Sheridan and Cody equine hospitals in his pickup truck. He serves on the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners and performs more than 200 equine surgeries a year, including a recent procedure in the Kingdom of Bhutan, a tiny South Asian state near Nepal.
"Maya's leg saved," read the headlines of the Kuensel newspaper in Bhutan on Monday, Jan. 23. The story appeared under the kicker, "Three hour surgery to repair fracture with two large bone plates and 20 screws."
Vlahos made the trip to Bhutan after the horse's adopted owner found his Wyoming practice on the Internet. The horse had suffered a major fracture of a hind leg and the owner feared amputation might be the animal's only hope.
Vlahos went and determined that amputation wasn't necessary. But as the Kuensel reported, a lengthy surgery was required.
Vlahos waived his fee as a show of goodwill, though the owner covered the cost of travel and surgical supplies.
"It's the human-animal bond," Vlahos said. "That bond is alive and well, and we do what's needed."