Show horse recovers after canker treatment

Markee was the favorite horse of the children taking lessons at the Cobblestone Legacy Farm in Lyons, NY. The 10-year-old draft cross-competed in jumping and was a star in the show ring.

Despite his calm demeanor, however, Markee had a canker that had grown into an inch-and-a-half mass on his right hind hoof. His owner, Kristen Barry, was surprised to find the growth one day last spring because Markee seemed unfazed by it.

“He never showed a day where he was in pain,” says Barry, who teaches horseback riding at her Wayne County farm.

A canker, described as a hypertrophic pododermatitis, creates abnormal tissue affecting a horse’s frog, bars and sole. While thrush, which is more common, destroys tissue in the same area, canker spreads in the tissue, likely due to an anaerobic infection.

After her local veterinarian examined him, she referred him to the Cornell Equine and Nemo Farm Animal Hospital to have the mass removed. Dr. Rebecca McOnie, instructor in large animal surgery at the College of Veterinary Medicine, operated on Markee last April, along with surgical resident, Dr. Brenna Pugliese.

A serious problem for Markee was that, if the mass was not removed, it could continue to grow and destroy a triangular area of soft tissue on his hoof, known as the frog. Though Markee had only suffered from mild discomfort from the mass, it would eventually become more painful.

Markee, a draft horse, in profile
Draft horses — larger horses bred to be working animals — are predisposed to developing canker and it is common for the condition to recur after surgery. Photo: Dean Media/Provided

“He was definitely going to progress to a stage where he was more sore and potentially not usable in his normal job,” McOnie says. “And ultimately his quality of life would be poor.”

Besides removing the mass, another critical part of Markee’s treatment was the treatment provided by the head of farrier services at Cornell, Steve Kraus ’72. After the surgery, Kraus fabricated a special horseshoe to support his coffin bone and protect the surgical site.

“This shoe had a removable plate to hold the medication in place and change the medication,” Kraus says. “We also did several follow-up treatments, including using a red-hot piece of steel to actually cauterize the affected tissue.”

Draft horses — larger horses bred to be working animals — are predisposed to developing canker and it is common for the condition to recur after surgery. One way to reduce that possibility is to keep the horse in a dry environment during recovery.

“We were wrapping it and putting on the medications, and he wasn’t even able to go outside,” Barry says. “And with all of the things that we were doing every single day, it came back within a couple of weeks.”

Barry and her mother, Lisa Williams, brought Markee back to Cornell to have his hoof debrided — where dead tissue and other matter are cleared — three times. In July, they also boarded him at Cornell for nearly two weeks so that they could go on a planned family vacation.

“I think that’s when he really turned the corner,” Williams says. “They agreed to take him into the hospital, and it was a blessing in disguise.”

While recurrence of canker is common, McOnie says it is not known why the masses reappear after surgery. Factors that may play a role are whether all the abnormal tissue was removed during surgery and whether the surrounding tissue was infected.

Once the tissue has completely healed, it is unlikely the canker will return. “It’s hard to guarantee that, but I think he has a low chance of recurrence,” says McOnie, who was assisted in Markee’s care by Dr. Aimee Colbath, assistant professor of large animal surgery.

McOnie says that the dedication of Markee’s owners also contributed to his recovery. “I think their commitment to it really allowed us to continue treating him and evaluating him so we could stay on top of the disease and have a really positive trajectory for eventual healing,” she says.

For now, Markee is back doing what he loves — giving children riding lessons. He no longer needs a bandage but still stays inside on rainy days.

Barry is thankful that the veterinarians at Cornell were able to resolve the issue so that Markee can return to his former routine. “We’re really lucky to have Cornell as a local option for us,” she says. “There aren’t a lot of places that you can trust for big problems. Just to know that we can always bring our horses to Cornell for an emergency is just great.”

Written by Sherrie Negrea