Nov. 21, 2022
Story and photos by Jens Odegaard

A foal should be frolicking. A little rear. A kick. A knicker; a whinny. A hop-step and jump into a full gallop. Little tail whipping in the breeze as the head bobs and weaves.

But Lil Buck wasn’t frolicking. Instead he had quite a hitch in his gitalong.

Born in mid-July, Lil Buck is a draft horse colt born and bred on Ruby and Amber’s Organic Farm in Dorena, Oregon. Seventy-plus acres along the Row River in the Lane County foothills of the Cascade Range, the farm utilizes draft horses, including Lil Buck’s mother Leah, to work the soil and harvest the crops.

Lil Buck (right in photo) and his summer cohort of fellow foals brought the herd to 14. A few weeks after they were born, Walt Bernard, who owns and runs the farm with his wife Kris Woolhouse, noticed Lil Buck limping on his left hind leg as he ambled around the corral.

Bernard confined Lil Buck to a stall for a few days, but rather than getting better, the limp worsened. Radiographs from Bernard’s local veterinarian, Del Oeste Equine Hospital’s Dr. Amber Lengele, DVM ’19, showed a fracture and inflammation on the upper end of the tibia where it forms the knee joint.

It was an injury that needed specialty treatment and care, and Lengele referred Lil Buck to the Oregon State University Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine’s Lois Bates Acheson Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

“Being so close to OSU, it's such a great resource,” Bernard said. “There's tons of cutting-edge staff, and excellent consultation and state-of-the-art management. I mean, there's really no other option for a horse with that kind of fracture except to put 'em down.”

Fractured Growth

Dr. Lacy Kamm is a board-certified large animal surgeon at the college. She took the lead on Lil Buck’s challenging and uncommon case.

Lil Buck’s injury was a Salter-Harris type II fracture. “It’s a break in the bone that involves the growth plate of a young animal and an adjacent portion of the bone,” Kamm said. “We don’t see this style of broken bone commonly in horses.”

In assessing the fracture, it became apparent that it was caused by an underlying infection of the growth plate. “This caused us to start with two problems: a broken bone and a bone infection. We took a sample of the bacteria involved with the infection and used our laboratory facility [the college’s Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory] to determine the correct antibiotic for during and after surgery.”

With that sorted, Kamm; surgery resident Dr. Robert McCarthy; technicians Ali Israel, Ranee O’Connor and Becki Francis; several fourth-year veterinary students including Danessa Garcia; and the whole surgical support team got to work.

“The break in the bone was near the stifle joint, so there wasn't much space to place screws and plates. We overcame this challenge by using radiographic guidance as we placed our screws. This is where X-rays are taken in surgery as the plate and screws are placed. Additionally, we used a ‘T plate’ that gave us several places to put screws near the joint.”

The surgery was successful despite the challenges. However, the infection was stubborn and Lil Buck remained in the hospital for six weeks before ultimately being released. Two weeks later, Lil Buck returned to the hospital to have the T plate removed and confirm the infection was under control.

Veterinary student Naomi Sakaguchi poses with Lil Buck and his mother Leah.

Fourth-year veterinary student Naomi Sakaguchi poses with Lil Buck and his mother Leah in their stall at the hospital.

Dr. Lacy Kamm and veterinary student Naomi Sakaguchi check Lil Buck's bandage before discharging him from the hospital. 

Certified Veterinary Technician Becki Francis says goodbye to Lil Buck before he leaves the hospital.

A Pleasant Disposition

Six weeks is an eternity for a foal to be kept in a stall — hundreds of pounds of rambunctious curiosity cooped up inside.

But Lil Buck was bred for a specific temperament (and size) that will make him an ideal horse to work the farm as he gets older. Bernard has developed his ideal draft mix over the last 25 years that he’s been in the working horse business. “I want a compact workhorse that's easy to harness, that can get in tight places, that could be rideable” Bernard said. “So, it's a more of a homestead-hybrid-style build.” Lil Buck is a quarter Belgian, quarter Haflinger and half Fjord.

Lil Buck's disposition paid off as he waited for his hospital discharge. “I was most impressed by the mare and foal's attitude. I have dealt with many foals during my career, but none as amenable as Lil Buck,” Kamm said. “Most foals would be dangerous and hyper-excitable after only a few days of stall rest. Leah [Lil Buck’s mom] was unflappable. Lil Buck was a bit sassy at times, but never seemed upset nor became aggressive by his containment. He had treatments multiple times a day, but he always was kind to his nursing staff. He didn't throw tantrums; he seemed to understand we were there to help him.”

Dr. Robert McCarthy, large animal surgery resident; veterinary students Eberle Yarborough, Reagan Jagosh and Naomi Sakaguchi; Walt Bernard, owner; Dr. Julia Gaida, large animal clinical fellow; Ranee O'Connnor, certified veterinary technician; Becky Paasch, CCVM large animal client services representative; Dr. Lucas Redondo, large animal clinical fellow, Dr. Lacy Kamm, board-certified large animal surgeon; and Dr. Zineb Kotbi, large animal clinical fellow, pose with Leah and Lil Buck on discharge day from the hospital.    

Future Work

Now four months old, Lil Buck has been reintroduced to the herd back home on the farm, and his recovery is going smoothly. “I'm gonna let him live a live a baby's life until he gets about two,” Bernard said. “Then I'll start him with some training.”

The training will begin with Lil Buck being harnessed to Leah and another experienced horse where he can basically tag along and learn the reins so to speak without really pulling any weight. “So I'll have him in a hitch like that, and he'll go along and learn and get used to noises. And he's got the herd there telling him it's OK. You know: you got this, you got this. And then after a while, I'll put a latch of lines on him in a way that he can learn the bit and feel it,” Bernard said. “I’m a long game person with this. I don’t really try to rush them and make them work. He’ll have a very easy, easy introduction.”

Bernard’s passion is workhorses. He uses the working herd at the farm (named after his first pair of draft horses) to teach workhorse workshops where he instills his philosophy of gentle training and positive reinforcement. “I use a lot of the foals in my teaching, because I can use them to teach people how to teach a horse to lead and how to teach them not to have bad manners when you're doing that,” Bernard said.

Because of the great experience Bernard’s had with the veterinary care from the college (not just with Lil Buck, but also with a previous horse named Jerry), he offered a free workshop for CCVM veterinary students and staff a few weeks after Lil Buck returned home. “Every penny I spent on these two horses is worth it many times over. So, if I can bring students down and have some sort of ongoing relationship, then maybe there's some something I can offer there,” Bernard said.

Bernard’s goal was to share his knowledge and help students and staff become more familiar with draft horses – especially for folks who haven’t had much experience with large animals.

Veterinary students Christa Tryon (left) and Brooke Smith put a collar on a horse. 

A three-horse team gets hooked up to a farm cart in Walt Bernard's barn. 

Walt Bernard teaches veterinary student Glory Quinones how to hook up the traces.

Eleven students and staff attended the one-day workshop on a sunny Saturday in October where they learned horse safety, etiquette and basic harnessing techniques. The day culminated with everyone getting to take turns driving a team of horses hitched to a farm work cart through recently plowed fields.

“I haven't actually had a lot of hands-on work with horses, so the fact that we would be able to get to do that was what convinced me to come,” said Alannah Johnson, a first-year veterinary student (left in photo). “It’s been fantastic. I was not expecting us to be able to actually steer the draft horses today. So that was really exciting to do, and I'm glad that I was able to get a lot more hands-on experience and learn more about horses in general and the safety behind it: Just knowing how close you are supposed to be when you're walking around them, talking to them as you're working with them, letting them know that you're there is something I didn't know before.”


Bernard plans to continue offering the workshops to students and staff in years to come. “That would be one plan I have for Lil Buck, is to let people come and see him and check him out as he develops and follow up on his surgery,” Bernard said. “That's what I love about OSU is that the people there care about their work. They love the animals. They get in there and get the work done.”