The Daily Equine: Proud Flesh

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Anyone who owns horses knows God really didn’t put Job through much of a test. If God had really wanted to test His servant, He would have given him horses.

I mentioned that my horse Snoopy had gotten cast and cut himself in several places on his cannon bones. To say that Darleen and I pamper and fuss over our animals is understating things considerably. We feed the horses three times a day (except in the spring when the grass is very high in protein content), four times if you count High Tea. (Darleen says it’s just a little reward for running up to the barn when called; I say it’s the equine equivalent of scones and Devonshire cream.) We groom and check our horses daily, even on the occasional days when we don’t ride. Fall shots, spring shots, regular worming, equine dentistry, the farrier every six weeks, religious cleaning of stalls and turnouts, pasture patrol for noxious weeds, fly control… The list goes on. So when I tell you that we treated Snoopy’s cuts ourselves, you know they were pretty minor. But one of them didn’t heal as quickly as it should, nor did it look the way it should have, and by the end of the week Darleen realized what was happening.

When a wound, in either horses or humans, starts to heal, it creates granulation tissue, which is essentially simply scar tissue. After that there is wealth of contradictory misinformation in veterinary books and on the internet and among horsemen, so it’s hard to separate fact and fiction. One of my vet books describes proud flesh as a perfectly normal part of the healing process; another refers to it as, “exuberant tissue growth occurring during the healing of large skin wounds.” A third book uses the phrase in both those senses. Put aside your understanding of the word “exuberant” as it pertains to unrestrained feelings of joy and enthusiasm, and just think excessive and ugly and bloody. That’s proud flesh.

Proud flesh—in horses—occurs primarily on the lower portions of the leg. The cannon bones, for example. Depending on whom you talk to or what you read, proud flesh is considered to be most common on the lower portions of the legs because the skin is stretched so tightly over the bone that it moves constantly, being pulled in all directions as the horse walks, and that the constant movement of the skin keeps the skin from healing rapidly or properly. I admit I have never walked along beside any of my horses with one hand on their cannons as they strolled through the pastures, and they wouldn’t like it if I did, so I cannot positively refute this statement. But… Logic would suggest that the skin at the base of the neck, to pick one obvious example, would move a hell of a lot more, wrinkling up and down, left and right, back and front, as the horse moves, grazes, looks around for mountain lions, tries to take a satisfying bite out of the horse next to him, breaks into a lope to avoid horse-eating tumbleweeds, and grazes some more. Yet I have never seen proud flesh there.

Actually, I’ve never seen proud flesh anywhere on any horse before. Between us, Darleen and I have over eighty years of experience caring for horses, and she has only seen it once or twice, which just goes to prove… Something, I’m not sure what. In fact, I’ll take it even further. Darleen made the classic mistake of the very young and very foolish, and instead of waiting for me to come along, she married someone before me. I don’t normally embarrass her by bringing up the unfortunate episode, but in this case it’s pertinent. He was a professional horse trainer, so for the several years it took her to realize she had settled for cheap frozen chopped hamburger patties liberally laced with filler and pink slime and E. coli, when filet mignon was right there in front of her, waiting for her to notice him, she lived with a stable full of horses, and only had one or two experiences with proud flesh. Not common, in other words.

What happens is that the granulation tissue starts to grow out of control, not unlike a tumor, and—not unlike a tumor—the growth is packed with blood vessels, so no matter what you do, it bleeds profusely. Fortunately, proud flesh does not have any nerves, so it can be treated without any discomfort to the horse. But do not attempt to treat the condition based on anything you read on the internet, because not only are the various treatments contradictory, some of them are just plain wrong. In our case, since neither Darleen nor I had ever dealt with it before, we had the vet come out and walk us through it.

He started by scrubbing off the proud flesh (it was only a one inch cut), applying an anti-bacterial ointment, and then lightly wrapping it. He then left us with a bottle of Betadine and a tube of the ointment, and instructions to clean and disinfect and apply the ointment once a day, and to leave the cut open to the air, until it healed.

Simplicity itself. But always double check anything you read on the internet with your vet. Including anything you read on this site.

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