Dr. John Schlipf with Johnny Cash
Dr. John Schlipf with Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash is a gentle giant. He doesn’t play the guitar (not yet, anyway) but he is a favorite with the kids taking Hunter-Jumper classes at Quiet Rein Riding School in Portland.

You would think a 1,400 pound Thoroughbred/Shire cross might scare a child just learning to ride, but he’s so sweet-tempered that trainer Jill McGrady uses him as a demonstration horse in her beginning classes. “He’s a dreamboat,” says owner Jill Taylor. “Not spooky and very safe.” Cash is also a bit of a character and has learned to zip and unzip people’s jackets with his mouth.

Last year, Taylor began to notice some ‘funniness’ in his hind end but it didn’t affect his gait or enthusiasm for events. “He always went great,” she says. However, when a potential new owner put him through his paces and then conducted a neurological exam, he reacted by nearly falling down.

Taylor took Cash to OSU Veterinary Hospital where Dr. John Schlipf did a complete neurological work up. Although he only rated a 1+ on a neurological scale where 5 is the worst, radiographs and a mylogram revealed compression of two vertebral joints in his lower neck. Schlipf thought Cash was a good candidate for Spinal Basket Surgery and explained the procedure to Taylor, who agreed.

The history of Spinal Basket Surgery begins with a famous horse and, remarkably, ends with human medicine. Several decades ago Dr. George Bagby, an orthopaedic surgeon from Spokane, Washington invented “Bagby’s Basket,” a small, hollow metal cylinder with perforated walls. He designed it to restore lost disc height resulting from a collapsed disc. When the basket, packed with bone graft, is inserted into the space between two vertebrae, the graft begins to grow through the perforated walls eventually forming a solid bond that holds the vertebrae in position.

The surgery became well-known in the horse community when Bagby and Dr. Barrie Grant, an equine surgeon at Washington State University, performed the surgery on Seattle Slew, who was diagnosed with “Wobbler’s Syndrome,” a degenerative condition causing serious neck instability. The doctors implanted the metal basket into Seattle Slew’s spine, successfully relieving his pain and saving him from certain death.

After Seattle Slew’s surgery made the news, Dr. Stephen Kuslich, a spine surgeon from Minneapolis, Minnesota converted Dr. Bagby’s design into a basket suitable for human use. Dr. Kuslich’s device was made of titanium and designed for the posterior lower part of the spine. It quickly caught the attention of his peers, and is now commonly used in human back surgery.

Dr. Grant now has a private practice where he consults exclusively on Wobbler’s syndrome and travels all over the country performing Spinal Basket Surgery on horses. The OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital has brought him to Corvallis several times to operate on horses in their care. “He has probably done more of this procedure than anyone and has truly perfected the technique,” says Schlipf. “Getting the depth and implant placement and alignment correct is critical.”

Cash bounced right back from the surgery. “As soon as we got home, he was back to his sassy self,” says Taylor. “He is moving around so well, you wouldn’t know he had surgery except for his shaved hair.”

Dr. Schlipf advised two months of stall rest for Cash. Taylor knows this will be difficult for the big horse so she bought him some Jolly Balls and other toys and is encouraging everyone at Quiet Rein to give him lots of attention and love. At the end of two months, Taylor will start rehabilitation exercises and hand-walking him.

According to Dr. Schlipf, seventy percent of horses who have undergone Spinal Basket Surgery improve  at least one grade on the neurological scale. Since Cash was rated a 1+ before surgery, his chances for a complete recovery are good. “Will he improve enough to go back to his vocation as a jumper? Only time will tell,” says Schlipf. “It will be twelve to eighteen months before we know what his final neurological status and function as an athlete will be.”

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