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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Facts and the Fiction of Ruffian's Brace

Ok, so the comments so far are running about 50-50 on the Ruffian movie. It seems everyone (me included) wanted more Sam Shepherd, who played trainer Frank Whitely Jr., and less of the Bill Nack character, no offense to the real Bill Nack.

What threw me for a loop was when they showed the surgeon struggling to get what was obviously an actual farrier-made brace onto Ruffian's leg after the surgery.

I didn't remember any mention of a brace in Jane Schwartz's superb biography "Ruffian: Burning from the Start" so I pulled the book off the shelf and re-read the final chapter. What a surprise.

I learned that one of the people who showed up at Ruffian's stall after the race was Dr Edward B.C. Keefer, a human orthopedist who, in his retirement, switched his research to horses and pioneered an amputation technique that saved the stallion Spanish Riddle, stablemate to Secretariat. Keefer ran a nonprofit organization on Long Island called the Equine Preservation Society and used a technique he developed to make artificial blood vessels from Dacron.

According to Jane Schwartz, Keefer was standing by in case Ruffian's leg needed to be amputated. She writes that during the surgery, Keefer drove home to get one of his braces that he had built for a horse that wore the same size shoe as Ruffian.

Jane writes that Keefer went and woke up one of the shoers and together they labored for over an hour to try to get the brace onto Ruffian's leg. During that time, she had to stay under anesthesia, possibly increasing the chances of complications. Keefer and the farrier finally got the brace on and Keefer --not the veterinarians--cast the leg over the brace. When they were done, they had a package that weighed 40 or 50 pounds on the end of her leg. The year before the filly had refused to wear even a light cast on her leg for a minor hairline fracture.

You know what happened next.

But wait, what about the brace in the movie? It really was a brace. The producers called Dick Fanguy, longtime farrier at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and now vice president of the American Farrier's Association, when they were filming in Shreveport because they heard about the braces he made for the vet school. They actually rented a sample brace and invited Dick to the movie set. "The director said it was beautiful," Dick said.

What's interesting is that the brace was actually made for a hind leg. An Arabian mare "got hung up in a hog fence" according to Dick and severed all her tendons and cracked her cannon bone. The vets wanted to cast the leg but they needed to still be able to medicate the wounds.

"I took a sliding plate and welded a piece of angle iron back in the heels, and then welded another piece of angle iron to it," Dick told me tonight. "Then I built the cage coming up, with rings on the side. It was all padded. I nailed the shoe on and bolted the brace onto the shoe. The lady who owned the mare could lace through the rings with a length of inner tube."

"It was an Arab, so it survived," he quipped.

Dick said he spent a lot of time explaining about braces to the producer and crew, even though the brace is only shown on camera for less than 10 seconds. "These people were really trying to get things as accurate as they could," Dick said.

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