New habits can be tough to pick up when you’re old, but 22-year-old Tonka is a horse who’s learning a new routine.
With help from the staff at Mill Creek Farm, Tonka daily dons his EQ Press, a contraption that looks like a pair of pants on his back legs. The device, which Tonka has used for the past two weeks, places high pressure near the hooves with lower pressure going up the leg, trying to force fluids to flow and reduce swelling.
Paul Gregory, president of Mill Creek Farm, said Tonka expects the treatment now.
"It's kinda funny," Gregory said. "Yesterday, he was standing by the paddock almost like 'I want it again.'"
Tonka worked for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office for 10 years before retiring after he developed lymphangitis from a staph infection. His back right leg had swollen and remained large as fluids stayed trapped in the leg.
Two and a half years ago, he joined more than 130 other horses, plus a zorse and donkey, at Mill Creek Farm, a retirement home for horses in Alachua. Gregory said the leg gets better and worse at times but always remains swollen.
A UF doctor suggested acupuncture, which led to some improvement, Gregory said. Through UF, he also heard of the EQ Press.
Dr. Irina Perdew, co-founder of EQ Press, visited from North Carolina to outfit Tonka. In a phone interview, she said Tonka is the largest horse with the largest swelling to use new device.
Perdew said compression has been used to rehabilitate humans for years, especially among top athletes. While watching Team USA basketball in 2018, Perdew said their movements reminded her of how horses jump and stretch. If compression helps human athletes, why not horses?
Attending the University of North Carolina’s veterinary school, Perdew sketched the concept of the EQ Press. Since then, she’s co-founded Vetletics to help develop and sell the product.
In 2020, four EQ Press devices were in use. Perdew said the company now has 20 devices in Europe and the United States. She said horses have a disadvantage compared to humans in their lymphatic system, which their bodies use to regulate bodily fluid levels, remove cellular waste and fight illness.
“In horses, we know already that, because of the lack of the musculature in the lower half of the limb, their lymphatic system works even slower,” Perdew said.
However, she said the EQ Press has caused strong improvement on horses in even chronic cases like Tonka.
“Ultimately, the challenge with chronic conditions is that [lymphatic] fluid on the way picks up all these substances and fat cells, and it builds almost like a concrete, firm slab of scar tissue on top of it all,” Perdew said.
Staff measure Tonka’s leg in three places before and after the treatment, and Perdew uses the data to find the right treatment process—once a day for an hour versus twice a day for 45 minutes, and so on.
As a Percheron gelding, Tonka stands tall requiring an additional section for the EQ Press to fit.
Pearl Breckinridge started volunteering at Mill Creek Farm four years ago. Since then, she’s gotten to know all the residents and their temperaments. She calls Tonka a gentle giant.
“He is just so sweet—puts up with everything,” Breckenridge said. “A lot of the other big horses would not stand still and tolerate anything you're doing to them, let alone all the stuff that we’ve had to do with him over the years.”
Gregory said the swollen leg doesn’t keep Tonka confined. He’s in one of the largest pastures at the farm and still runs up to the shelter or over to the water troughs.
“He's not in pain, but I think it's more like somebody strapping like a 10-pound weight to your leg,” Gregory said. “You can still get around.”
If the new device helps, Gregory said they’ll continue to use it—likely in combination with acupuncture and different antibiotics.
Tonka also has age against him. He’s the oldest horse to use the device to date, and Perdew said with age, the lymphatic system slows down in horses and humans alike.
She said the device can boost immune health by improving the lymphatic system, and Vetletics is looking to test anecdotal evidence that the device has spurred faster hoof growth.
Visitors to the 335-acre farm can see Tonka each Saturday—in Excalibur's Meadow—from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the only time the farm opens for visitors. The price of admission is two carrots. But horses also enjoy apples and bananas.
Gregory said the horses have seen plenty of guests recently with between 900 visitors and 1,000 visitors the past two weekends.