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October 22, 2012

Equine Savants

If there were accolades for accidents, horses would be considered savants. Photo by MelissaAnneGalleries/iStockphoto.com.

"From the moment a horse is born, I'm convinced they spend the rest of their lives walking around, looking for a good place to lay down and die."

Thus began the equine section pathology lectures given by Dr. Joe Newton, who had seen all manner of creative ways for horses to hurt themselves in his career of examining dead animals. If there were accolades for accidents, horses would be considered savants.

Dr. Newton's words to our class were echoing in my head as I drove to see two horses that had gotten loose the night before. One was supposed to be tangled in barbed wire fence, the other hit by a car. As I stepped out of the air conditioned truck that afternoon, the July day hit me like a jet airplane's exhaust: heat like a blanket, humidity to make a man choke.

I opened the gate, then drove up to the house where two horses were standing inside the open garage door, next to the ice blue 1978 Porsche 928 with dust, torn seats, and bird excrement.

I made a quick assessment of the general condition of the horses as I stepped into the garage. The bay was standing on all four feet looking comfortable enough in the shade, swatting at the armies of flies that had declared war on his acres of road rash.

Except for the gaping wound across his chest and the excoriations on his legs, the chestnut couldn't look more normal, his head hanging over the half door, into the mudroom that separated the garage from the rest of the house. As I got closer I saw that it wasn’t, in fact, a half door. It was the broken top half of a screen door that allowed his head to poke into the house. And the gelding was not hiding his head out of embarrassment for his appearance; he actually had his face buried in a big bowl of all-you-can-eat sweet feed, supplied 24 hours a day by one of those gravity feeders for lazy cat owners. I'd never seen such a generous horse owner.

"Those idiots!" I was startled by a late 40s blonde on her third showerless day  who had been around the corner and was now coming toward me. "I told them to shut the gate behind them, but they were too busy running from the cops," she said with exasperation, wiping her dirty hands on her shorts, which had likewise not seen soap in a few days

"Hi I'm Alex."

"They're so messed up. I do what I can, but some people are beyond help. You know what I mean?" she continued without returning the salutation.

"This one got hung up in the fence. Just got out a couple minutes before you got here." She walked in calloused bare feet across the cement floor littered with horse poop, mud and puddles of blood over to the chestnut, pulled his unhaltered head out of the cat feeder and turned him towards us. He rocked backed on his hind legs to make the turn.

"See how he's walking?" She grimaced.

"Do you think we need some pain killers?" She immediately went on to describe how she could acquire some drugs that sounded distinctly like prescription narcotics, though I didn't recognize the names.

"I can get some, just like that," and she snapped her fingers.

"...uummmmm...no...I think bute will be enough."

I did a quick exam. Other than the long busted up toes, the fat neck and founder walk, the chestnut gelding just needed his chest put back together. The leg wounds would be fine. Before getting started, I turned to the other gelding and looked him over. "So this is the one that got hit by a car?" I asked about the bay, trying my best to hide my incredulity.

"Yeah it did. I mean, I heard squealing tires and a crashing noise, and he looked like this when I saw him this morning." She pointed to his burns.

"How did the car look?" I inquired cautiously.

"I don't know...I...uummm...I was in the house,and they took off."

The bay had extensive but superficial burns that would require covering up with salve to minimize risk of dermatitis. I pursed my lips, shook my head and mumbled empathetically how these horses "sure know how to hurt themselves." The rest of him was fine, save the overweight body condition, the chipped up self trimmed toes and the similarly foundered way of going.

I got to work preparing and suturing the laceration across the chestnut gelding's pectorals. The owner began to settle down and tell me about herself and her horses while she watched me work, and I watched her talk.

She was raised in a small town in a western state, her father a successful local doctor. As she talked I made a mental note that she probably wasn't as old as I’d originally believed; under her bloodshot eyes and before the bags she was probably quite a pretty young lady when she left home at 16 to pursue her dreams. Ultimately she ended up here, following her horse dream. Sometimes I think Kentucky is like Alaska for people with a horse problem.

She ran an extension cord from inside the house to the Porsche with the dead battery and turned on the car radio so we could listen to some country while we worked.

She told me that she was a social worker for people who had been in and out of jail with drug problems. The visitors who came last night were her clients, who were trying to hide from the police. They were in a hurry when they left the gate open.

"It's a hard job seeing people waste their lives after they get hooked on these drugs. I just try to be their friend, you know? Show some understanding. Like these horses." She pointed to my two patients. "They both started out running races, but the trainer said, 'They aren't worth two dead flies.’ ” she spat out the impression with disgust and rising emotion. "So they were just abandoned. Because they weren't fast enough. I hate people sometimes. You should have seen what they looked like when I got them..."

After closing the laceration I tried to find the least condescending way to suggest that the horses' foot pain might be related to her nutrition program, and that maybe we needed to schedule an appointment to pursue that question when I had more time. While I packed up, she sat down and cold hosed the burn wounds on the bay.

I heard Waylon Jennings singing "Carnival Song" out of the car radio as I climbed back into the air conditioning. I turned the truck around and headed to my next call.

Several weeks went by without hearing from the owner about a recheck. So I stopped in as I was driving by one day. The horses were nowhere to be seen. I walked into the now freshly cleaned garage and knocked on the door, which had been repaired. An elderly man came to the door and told me the owner has been in detox for about 10 days, and he'd been keeping an eye on the place. Some neighbors called the humane society about the condition of the horses, and they got hauled off about a month ago.

"The cut across his chest? Oh that healed up real nice."

I walked out of the garage feeling good about the fine job I did suturing that laceration.

Alex G. Emerson, DVM, provides sports medicine services for Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky. and Wellington, Fla. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of other veterinarians at RREH. Read his older blogs on the Sidelines website.

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