Built with Wires and Hope: Animal Science Graduate Assembles Horse Skeleton for Anatomy Classes

MARTIN, Tenn. – While she may be small in stature, the legacy Savannah Metheny, a recent animal science graduate, has left at the University of Tennessee at Martin casts a tall shadow. In fact, it is 17-hands tall. 

When the pre-veterinary student was asked if she wanted to help rebuild a fully articulated equine skeleton, she knew she could not pass up such an opportunity. The chance to disassemble, clean and rebuild a horse’s skeleton was, according to Metheny, an invaluable experience that solidified her decision to become an equine orthopedic surgeon. 

“There are so many things that I have already seen differently after this,” said Metheny. “I’ve held each portion of the horse in my hand and turned it around to make it fit where it was supposed to go, then put it back together. So, I’ve literally taken everything apart and then put it back together piece by piece. As a future equine surgeon, it’s going to be priceless, truly. … It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Savannah Metheny, right, a recent animal science graduate, and Dr. Diana Watson, left, veterinary science lecturer, are pictured in front of “Ron,” the fully articulated equine skeleton they rebuilt. The 28-year-old thoroughbred was donated to the university for scientific research and will be used to teach equine anatomy.

Metheny and Dr. Diana Watson, veterinary sciences lecturer, spearheaded the project of rebuilding “Ron,” the 28-year-old thoroughbred, to create a teaching model for UT Martin’s animal science classes. With no instructions or guide for how to reassemble Ron, the pair creatively reconstructed the horse from the ground up, after having the soft tissue and cartilage cleaned off the bones by flesh-eating beetles, in eight months. 

“The beauty of this whole project is trial and error and just learning what works and what doesn’t. We were very innovative with it all; there wasn’t a textbook way to do it,” said Metheny. “What was guiding this project was just to see if we could do it. It was an educational endeavor that was just for fun. We said ‘great’ if we could make it work for students as a teaching modality and if not, at least we tried and learned something. I think that’s the beauty of education.”

“I guess we always surprised ourselves as we went through it…,” Metheny continued. “We sat there and would think and think and flip everything around and go through all of the possibilities. Then we would decide on one way to do something, and it worked every time.” 

Ron now stands 7 ½ feet tall in the Veterinary Science Lab and will be used to teach equine anatomy. Through creative measures, his roughly 200 bones are held together with high-tensile wire, fishing line, glue, epoxy, threaded rods, a little bit of tape, and according to Watson, a few prayers. Through collaboration with the departments of engineering and biology, the 75-pound structure is fixed on an in-house designed platform, which holds the horse upright. 

Ron was completed with the help of many campus organizations including the departments of animal science, engineering, biology, the West Tennessee Animal Disease Diagnostics Laboratory, the UT Martin farm crew and many others. 

Of the eight veterinary schools Metheny was accepted to attend, she chose the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, Virginia Tech, and is excited to see how this unique research opportunity will help her succeed in her veterinary program. 

Savannah Metheny drills a bone into place and completes Ron’s full structure after beginning the project eight months previously. Metheny, who will attend the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in the fall, says this experiment solidified her goal of becoming an equine orthopedic surgeon.

“I had seen anatomy in different ways, but never like this and in that much detail. You have a bone in front of you, and you have to flip it around six different ways to get it into the proper position… So just seeing it that in-depth, there’s no better way to learn it,” Metheny said. “It’s just been such an incredible opportunity that I think really is a testament to the education this university provides, to the faculty, to the staff… and the kind of opportunities you can have as a student here if you seek them out.” 

Metheny, originally from Weston, West Virginia, came to UT Martin for the equestrian team and pre-veterinary program. Metheny says her grandfather began teaching her how to ride as soon as she could sit up and knew one day she would compete on an NCAA Division I sports team. Her passion for all things equine-related has led her to a career in which she knows she can help make a difference for these animals.

“As someone that has ridden many horses and seen how powerful they can be, they are also very fragile.” said Metheny. “Show jumping and sport horses have been my absolute love since I was 7. There’s nothing better to me than watching a horse that has been successfully rehabbed… As an equine surgeon, there are modalities to help get them back and to help them do that so they can be the best they can be, to do what they were bred to do. That’s what pushes me every day to keep learning, keep getting better and help those horses compete at the highest level of competition.” 

Metheny participated on the UT Martin equestrian team as a four-year starter in the equitation over fences event. She says that while every competition was memorable, her very first competition was the defining moment of her collegiate career as she can still remember the smell of the arena as she prepared to ride in competition with her hand over her heart as the national anthem played over the speakers. Additionally, Metheny was recognized as a Farnam NCEA All-Academic First Team equestrian athlete and graduated Summa Cum Laude in May. 

Between her experiences on the equestrian team and the research projects she has completed at UT Martin, Metheny says university students have a unique opportunity to learn through extracurricular activities and projects just like rebuilding a horse skeleton. 

“Don’t be afraid to own your education, to think outside of the box. I would encourage (students) to come in with an open mind and to never stop learning, to embrace each day’s opportunity because you never know what might happen. Work hard, be grateful and just relish the opportunity to learn at this university because it is unique, and it’s a gem. The faculty and staff, they’re all there to help you, and there’s not a better place that I could think of to do my undergraduate education.”

As Metheny prepares to leave Martin and continue her education at Virginia Tech, she says she will continue on in her career confident she capitalized on every adventure she could have at UT Martin. 

“I’ve always followed the horses, and they’ve never steered me wrong.”

For more information about Ron, contact Watson at dwatso30@utm.edu.