Flash Comes Home for the Holidays
By C.K. WOLFSON
It was a blustery mid-October evening when Pond View Farm staff member Mauricio Brandao found the little school pony standing in the corner of the field. Flash, the sweet-natured, 18-year-old, chestnut gelding - everybody's favorite - was refusing to come in for his nightly feeding, refusing to move at all or bear any weight on his right leg.
Tracey Amaral, the farm's manager and teacher, recalls, "You could see that the leg was in the wrong position, that it was misshapen . . . that he was in pain."
Because the Island's large animal veterinarians on call that night were not able to determine the full extent of the injury, the crisis wasn't identified until a day later when Dr. Mark Reilly from Mid-Cape Animal Hospital arrived, evaluated the wounded pony and contacted Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine Hospital for Large Animals.
With Dr. Reilly's assistance and despite a northeaster that was about to shut down the ferry, Flash was taken to the Tufts veterinary hospital and turned over to the expertise of resident Dr. Heidi Hutchinson and surgeon Dr. Jose Garcia-Lopez.
The degree of damage was unusual. There was a U-shaped, full-thickness skin laceration that supported the doctors' diagnosis that Flash was injured by a kick from another horse. With detailed radiographs, Drs. Garcia-Lopez and Hutchinson discovered broken splint bones, a dislocation, torn ligaments on the inside of the hock joint and a break in the leg's primary support bone (the cannon bone).
Life or death. The decision was to either euthanize Flash or begin an extravagant surgical procedure (surgical and hospital costs of $10,000), and if all went well, an extensive, prolonged rehabilitation program - the price tag for life.
The pony, whose full name is Flash Me a Smile, because of his unique, smiling expression, is owned by an Islander, who leases him to Pond View Farm where for the past 10 years he has taught hundreds of young children to ride and jump. His owner decided to defer, leaving the choice and responsibility to Ms. Amaral.
"We were at a crucial point," Ms. Amaral says, explaining that although the docile pony might not be able to function as a teaching school pony again, he might be able to return and remain part of farm.
Dr. Garcia-Lopez said it is common for horses with Flash's severe injuries be put down. "We could definitely try to do something, but it would be a long haul," he explained. "We didn't know what we would end up with. . . . If we weren't able to fix it, we would have had to put him down. No middle way."
After conferring with Dr. Reilly and with the support and participation of Sarah Doyle of Blue Heron Farm, who involved the nationally recognized Dr. Tim Ober, a veterinarian who works with the U.S. Olympic equestrian team, it was decided to try to save Flash.
"This little pony from West Tisbury who has done nothing but teach little kids, who doesn't have any fancy horse show experience, isn't one of those $100,000 ponies, but just a special little guy. And we have one of the top vets in the country and probably one of the top surgeons [Dr. Garcia-Lopez] on the phone with each other at 11 o'clock at night, discussing Flash," Ms. Amaral says, her voice conveying her wonder.
"How would we live with ourselves if Flash died?" she asks.
"There seemed to be a million people, each in their own different ways - people from the Steamship, the kids, the doctors - all these people in their own way deciding how to help Flash and then just making it all happen."
With emotion, Ms. Amaral says, "He means the world to all of us. He's the greatest pony in the universe." And describing his wonderful disposition, she explains, "Flash is one of the first ponies little kids meet. . . . It's amazing to watch. It's kind of like he walks kids through [their lessons], it's like he's saying, ‘Over here, you need to do this.' "
She says, "I call him my babysitter because there's nothing a child could do to upset him. If I'm busy and I can't walk with them, I send them to do something with Flash because I know that they're going to be safe."
Dr. Garcia-Lopez agrees, "School ponies are funny, because when they're good, they're priceless - priceless not only to teachers and kids, but to parents. There's a feeling of safety when you're teaching five and six-year-olds to ride. Good school ponies are hard to find."
Flash is small (12 hands) even by pony standards. (Ponies are under 14.2 hands high.) Calm and compliant with a rich chestnut coat, four white socks, a wide blaze between his two, enormous brown eyes, he is the pastel pony in a bedtime story. And children like Paris Bermudes, 7, Sofia and Olivia Hart, both 9, and Olivia Beccehio, 8, a few of his most loyal fans, trust him completely.
By the morning after the doctors and Ms. Amaral made their decision to operate, $2,300 had been raised. It had begun: phone calls, fundraisers, contributions came from around the country. Letters scrawled in pencil, decorated in crayon and steeped in children's sentiments arrived with piggy-bank donations. From the very young to the elderly, from those who knew Flash and those who had only heard about him, from former students and their parents, the contributions flowed in.
The surgery on Oct. 17 took all day. Dr. Garcia-Lopez explained that it was an unusual multiple fracture involving three proximal bones, the lateral cannon and a lower hock joint luxation (dislocation). "Because of the fracture on the back of the canon bone, 13 stainless steel screws, the same as are used for human implants, were permanently implanted," he said. "There is a 50-50 chance that complications can occur with implants; a 60 to 70 per cent chance he will survive to go to pasture, but to be able to do anything athletic, the percentage drops."
According to Dr. Garcia-Lopez, Flash was a great patient and "very willing to let us help him. It's still too early to know the extent of how sound he will be. It takes four or five months and we still have quite a bit of a way to go."
Ten days after surgery it became clear Flash was in pain; the screw in the fourth metatarsal had loosened from tension in the ligaments. "The big challenge in equine surgery is that the implants are not made to support certain weight," Dr. Garcia-Lopez said.
On Nov. 27, a second surgery was required to remove the screw and replace it with a seven-hole plate. In the process a drill bit broke off in the third metatarsal bone. And will remain there.
But on Dec. 3, after 24-hour hospital care for six weeks, a cast change every two weeks, daily phone calls and frequent visits from Ms. Amaral and the girls, pounds of carrots, bags of peppermint candy, and $10,000 later - Flash came home, just in time to celebrate Christmas. Contributions have come from all over the country, enough to cover his hospital expenses, his follow-up radiographs and medication.
His discarded leg casts, decorated with felt-tip signatures, lean against the corner in the stable office. A posse of laughing girls has gathered there to visit their friend and take him on his nightly therapy walk inside the stable.
The girls will hover around as they lead him up and back the length of the barn. He walks carefully, his right leg still slightly crooked, his hoof capped in an acrylic toe extender and swiveling slightly as it meets the ground. His opposing foot wears a Styrofoam cushion to support the frog (bottom of the hoof).
His leg is wrapped, his ankle remains contracted although Ms. Amaral, Mr. Brandao of the stable staff and Sally Hart see that he receives his physical therapy four times times a day.
Those he has taught to ride have also learned other lessons from him. Paris Bermudes said she learned something about difficulties: "That you have to live through them." Sofia Hart said she learned that doctors can help you and someone else chimed in, "Yeah, but you have to find the best doctors." Another youngster said, "And you have to visit friends in the hospital."
With a nod from Ms. Amaral, the young girls run to the stall with the handmade Christmas stocking tacked to the door. And there is Flash. Waiting for his peppermint treats. Smiling.