Horseshoes and hyperbaric chambers

Most readers by now will have heard the distressing news from Ocala, where a hyperbaric chamber exploded while in use at KESMARC Florida, an equine rehab facility in western Marion County.

One woman was killed: Erica Marshall, a farm employee; her colleague, Sorcha Moneley, survived but was sent to the trauma center after being thrown by the explosion.

equine hyperbaric chamber

KESMARC's hyperbaric chamber, from their Facebook page

The horse, 6 year old Landmark’s Legendary Affaire, was a home-bred belonging to Jacqueline Mars, the prominent eventing owner. Mars, who is a USET Trustee and has owned some of the nations’ top horses, received the Professional Riders’ Association’s As You Like It Award in December of 2011, an award for owners who have made significant contributions to eventing. The horse was with the O’Connor Event Team, and was competing at Novice with Lauren Keiffer, but was being treated for EPM.

The cause of the explosion was much speculated upon yesterday, especially on Twitter shortly after local Florida news stations broke the story at about 11 AM, and everyone’s first suspicion was a spark from a steel shoe. Hyperbaric chambers, filled with oxygen at double the normal pressure of the atmosphere, are highly flammable, and one spark would be enough to ignite the oxygen. But, people insisted, no one would ever allow a horse into a hyperbaric chamber wearing steel shoes. I spoke to a friend in the industry who confirmed their horses were only allowed to be barefoot or be shod with aluminum racing plates. We concluded that there had to be some other explanation.

But Ocala Star-Banner reported otherwise:

[Moneley] told sheriff’s officials who visited her at Shands that the horse was kicking and knocked down protective coating inside the chamber. She said they attempted to shut down the equipment, but the horse kicked again and its metal horseshoes ignited a spark.

The news of the horseshoes seemed very odd. Why would anyone allow a horse with steel shoes into a hyperbaric chamber? At first glance, it seems like this was a disaster that could have been prevented if multiple people involved with the horse had simply paused for a moment and looked at his hooves. He was an event horse, so if he was wearing shoes, they would have been steel, not aluminum. I asked my industry connection if the right people were running the controls of these hyperbaric chambers. Perhaps they required a more scientific background?

She assured me otherwise: “Speaking bluntly, horse people are the exact people you want at the controls. We can read when a head shake is going to turn into a buck, we can read when pawing is going to turn into a rear, etc.”

The problem is, I was told, you can’t just shut down the chamber or open the drain when something goes wrong. Even in the event of an emergency, the chamber needs to be de-pressurized to be opened safely. If the chamber was very suddenly de-pressurized, the release of pressure could be like popping a champagne cork. If the operators opened the drain, they might have caused the tremendous pressure rushing to the floor to burst the chamber right out of its joints.

Unfortunately, it might not have been possible to de-pressurize in time to get the horse out before he panicked—it can take as long as six to eight minutes to de-pressurize. That’s a long time when you’re dealing with an upset horse.

The industry must be watching very closely to see what is finally ruled the cause of the explosion. A friend passed along a link to this story, from 2008, in which there was a fire at a hyperbaric chamber at Godolphin’s Moulton Paddocks in Newmarket, England. In this case, the fire was extinguished, although the horse, House of Wisdom, could not be saved.

Hyperbaric chambers have been a great benefit to equine medicine. Here is an excellent run-down on their uses from the University of Tennessee’s website.

My industry friend assures me of their place in veterinary medicine: “Day to day, bleeders and tendons are cured, antibiotic effectiveness is improved by up to 50%. Dummy foals are cured, fertility is increased. I can count two horses that have died. I’ve lost count of the amount they have helped. It is risky, but correctly used, the pros far out-number the cons. If I was in a car crash tomorrow, after surgery, I’d want to be put in a chamber.”

for more info on the uses of hyperbaric chambers: 

Hyperbaric chambers: the what and the why @ Retired Racehorse Blog

*edited to add quote and link to hyperbaric chamber’s uses, 12:57 p.m. 2/11/2012

*edited to add link to new post, 10:40 a.m. 2/13/2012



Filed under Media Coverage, Outside Sites, Sport Horses

7 responses to “Horseshoes and hyperbaric chambers

  1. Pam Mahony

    Do they (or can they) tranquilize the horse before putting him in there? I know that horses can fight right through a tranquilizer, but it would make them less likely to panic in the first place.

    How about putting booties on the horse’s feet? Even if they only have aluminun shoes on, they could still rip open the protective shell with aluminum shoes.

    • I haven’t heard of booties, although I have heard that sometimes people are required to wear them into hyperbaric chambers. It would make sense to me, although horses can sometimes freak out with booties on their hooves, as well, and just start kicking and have to be taken out anyway.

      My understanding is that horses are generally sedated until they don’t have to be anymore. It might be more settling to the horse to be tranquilized so that he doesn’t have to worry, though, I think.

  2. I read one account which stated that this horse had been in the chamber a few times before and had never had a problem, so they didn’t tranquilize him. Seems like it would be a good idea to make sedation an automatic prerequisite to treatment in the chamber. There may be reasons for not doing so; I don’t know enough about it to speculate.

  3. The therapy is incredible, but it does seem like some safety measures should be standardized. Even if a horse has done it several times before with no problem, there is always that day when that mood is a little different. (Booties sound like a good idea?)

    Of course, it’s easy for me to say that from here and I’m sure the folks at KESMARC know what they are doing way better than I do.

    It’s a tragedy for sure, but not cause to question such a useful treatment.

    • Absolutely…

      Warning speculation ahead:

      BUT tragedies like this often occur when a simple safety measure is overlooked because of time constraints or too much familiarity with the process. I’m reminded of the Walt Disney World monorail accident; a couple of simple safety practices were passed over and boom, tragedy and death ensued. It must have seemed benign at the time; oh we don’t have to do this, it will be fine… but it snowballed and you never realize you need safety precautions until, of course, something goes wrong.

  4. JamaicaJoe

    Sad; Barely a sentence about the deceased young “employee” Erica Marshall and survivor Sorcha Moneley, yet a paragraph and a half about the accomplishments of the horse and its wealthy owner. And blame of course on the employee for the explosion.

    Perhaps, if the control panel were located far away from this INFERNAL MACHINE, and behind a blast shield she would have survived the explosion.
    X-ray technicians are afforded greater protection.

    The design of the facility and the decision not to tranquillize the animal contributed greatly to this accident. For all we know, the animal was shod properly and reared up and took out a the explosion proof light or TV camera.

    And I will return to my comment, not more than a sentence about this poor girl…

    • I’ve seen this complaint on articles elsewhere, and the best I can explain it is: the owner is a public figure (especially in the horse business). Her horses are a athletes with a top training company, the O’Connor Event Team, and they are essentially public figures as well. Their information is online and readily available. I am not prepared to delve deep into the families and personal business of the human victims that were involved in this incident. It is not a lack of interest, it is simply forbearance. Am I doing them some sort of favor if I post details of their personal lives all over my blog which is, incidentally, a “horse” blog? I don’t think so. People are interested in the details of this tragedy, but I am not prepared to offer anything more than what is already publicly available, because the details of the victims belong to them and their families.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.