Oh No–Not Again!


, , , , , , ,

One morning not too long ago, I put my clogs on—I keep them in the garage where I keep most of my horse-and-garden-related apparel—and whistled up Roxie, the world’s cutest trail dog. Time to feed Gunsmoke breakfast.

Gunsmoke with Tabasco Sauce-protected Hoof Wrap. (Photo by Joan Fry)

Gunsmoke with Tabasco Sauce-protected Hoof Wrap. (Photo by Joan Fry)

The second I set eyes on him I knew something was wrong. He was standing facing the corral gate—not unusual, he knows what time he eats. (All the time.) But he was only standing on three legs. His right front foot was stretched out in front of him in what’s often called “the navicular point,” which describes how a horse stands when one of his front legs hurts, especially if the problem involves the navicular bone. Rather than pick his hoof up and hold it off the ground (tiring), the horse will stretch it out in front of him and shift his weight. He’s trying to support as much of his body weight as he can on his other three legs. Sometimes, if the pain is severe, the horse will allow only the tip of his toe to touch the ground. When Gunner didn’t walk forward to meet me at the gate—me, his food provider—my stomach started churning.

As we stared at one another, I tried desperately to remember everything I knew about the “point.” It’s most often associated with navicular, a lameness that originates in the horse’s navicular bone (located in the heel of his foot) and the soft tissue around it. But the “point” can also be caused by other, less serious, hoof and leg problems, and I took comfort in that.

Since Gunner didn’t want to walk over to me, I didn’t want him to try to walk over to his feeder. (I could have put the hay in front of him, but I didn’t. Hindsight.) Instead, I abandoned all thoughts of breakfast and ran back to the house, Roxie bounding along beside me—still chewing a few post-breakfast tidbits from the manure pile—her ears flopping, her tongue lolling, the morning sun highlighting her gold and brown coat. Thank goodness one member of my animal family was healthy and pain-free!

A quick phone call to Sweetwater Veterinary Clinic—I had, I told the receptionist, an emergency but not a life-threatening one—confirmed that Dr. Mark Williams would be there in half an hour. He was. He usually has Amanda with him, a vet tech who has been with the clinic so long that she probably knows as much as the veterinarians do. She walked into the pipe corral, put the halter over Gunner’s head—and had trouble maneuvering it past his dinner-plate Quarter Horse jaws, just the way I do—and kept him from biting Dr. Mark, whose hoof tester had just elicited an “ouch!” reaction from him.

“It’s an abscess,” Dr. Mark called to me. I was outside—three’s a crowd in a pipe corral, even one as big as ours. “Do you have anything that’s firm and hard, like a piece of a soccer ball?” he asked. “I want to wrap his foot and then cushion it with something strong, so he can walk on it but can’t scrape it off.”

I looked around. Over the years we have given Gunsmoke toys—two big, bouncy balls and three orange traffic cones (bought from Home Depot, thank you, not liberated from a stretch of highway). Gunner had destroyed both balls and the smallest traffic cone by biting them until they came apart. But two cones remained. One was in his corral, the second one was halfway up the hill to mark the spot where John had buried the dead man.

Before you dial 911 to turn me in for murder—wait. This “dead man” is a log lying at the bottom of a deep hole, with a chain wrapped around it. John originally sank it so we could fasten Kyle the goat to it. (He couldn’t pull it around, the way he pulled truck tires around.) The theory was, he would nibble up all the weeds in the area. In practice, he missed Prim so much all he did was bawl. He didn’t eat. We had only recently discovered the chain again, and John had used the cone, or what was left of it, to indicate its whereabouts. “How about part of a traffic cone?” I asked.

“That will work.” Dr. Mark was already busy at work with his hoof knife.

“Can I have a look?” I asked. All the Sweetwater vets want you to ask questions. Their theory is, the more you know, the better job you’ll do keeping your horse healthy. Although Dr. Mark had already cut out the abscess itself, and drained the pus, I could still see the hole it had left, about halfway between Gunner’s frog and the outside rim of his hoof.

Gunsmoke’s first act after the vets left? He started chewing his bandage. All you kitchen-friendly horse owners out there—here’s a tip for you. I ran back to the house and came back with a bottle of Tabasco sauce. Using my hand, I smeared sauce all over the surface of the bandage. Gunner started to worry it again and then abruptly stopped. The bandage—it dried to some color between pink and beige—stayed in place for the next three days, when Dr. Mark had told me to remove Gunsmoke’s makeshift bootie. My horse was as good as new.

I’m Eating, Don’t Bother Me


, , , ,

For horses, eating is a serious business—so serious that in the wild, when they’re not sleeping, they’re eating.  Eating is even more serious for domesticated horses, because they’re usually fed by the whim of those who own or train them, and not according to their own instincts.  Once your horse has finished breakfast, he starts waiting for dinner.  It’s usually a good idea to let them eat in peace.  It’s also a good idea to feed them three times a day.

Because of the shape of Gunsmoke's head, it's also hard to find halters to fit.  (Photo by Charles Hood)

Because of the shape of Gunsmoke’s head, it’s also hard to find halters to fit. (Photo by Charles Hood)

I had never paid much attention to a horse’s eating patterns when I only had Prim (before Gunsmoke, in other words) except to note that if I did feed a midday meal—and most veterinarians and equine nutritionists prefer you to feed three small meals a day rather than two large ones.  Their reasoning is that such a horse has something in his stomach at all times, which will keep his gut happy.  But Prim didn’t seem too interested in a noon meal, so after a couple of weeks I stopped doing it.  (Grass hay is your best bet because it will keep your horse happy and his digestive track healthy—it’s high in fiber and low in protein.)  But I also learned that Prim didn’t like me to put her fly mask on while she was eating.  She took this behavior to such extremes that I often spent five minutes following her, treats in one hand and a fly mask in the other.   Every time she passed her feeder she’d snatch a mouthful of hay.  Because I’m not really awake first thing in the morning—which is when I feed—it took me a lot longer than it should have to figure out that if I put her fly mask on before I fed, life was a lot easier for us both.

When I brought Gunsmoke home, he gained weight fairly rapidly, even though he and Prim shared a 24’ x 24’ pipe corral.  Prim was clearly the boss, and would drive him away from “her” hay with her ears flat and her teeth bared.  Gunsmoke and the mare he had been stabled with (both by the same sire) belonged to a man who didn’t live on the property, and apparently didn’t notice their skeletons were protruding so obviously under their skin he could have hung clothes on them.  It took me about a year of owning Gunsmoke to realize that while he was in much better health—he was even growing a mane—Prim was losing weight.  She wasn’t accustomed to having a stable mate.  Gunner was, and as soon as he finished his hay, he ate hers.  If she wasn’t interested in eating at the moment, she would let him.

Gunner objected to anything that came between him and eating, and I learned to work him in the afternoon and then lead him back to the corral and not feed him until the evening.  During winter’s short days, this was a challenge.  But I didn’t want him to associate the end of a work session with food.  It didn’t make sense to reward him for dragging me back to his corral.  We finally had to separate the two horses by dividing their big corral in half, using the same pipe-and-wire-mesh construction as the original.

When the days finally grew longer again and the flies came back, I thought that putting a fly mask on him was going to be an ordeal, given his history, even though I fastened it before I fed either one of them.  But getting it on him wasn’t the challenge.  The Velcro fastener was the challenge, because he has these dinner-plate Quarter Horse jaws.  If the mask is snug enough to keep the flies away, it won’t fasten over his jaws.  If it’s big enough to fit over his jaws, it’s too loose around the noseband.  I’m still looking for a brand and size of fly mask that takes “Quarter Horse jaws” into consideration.

If you have just bought or rescued a horse, it’s smart idea to stay away from him while he’s eating, at least for the first week or two.  First, see if he’ll allow you in his corral or stall while he’s eating so you can clean up after him.  Keep an eye on his ears and his back end.  If he pins his ears and bares his teeth, walk out the gate.  If he doesn’t mind your presence, clean while he’s eating.  Some horses are real mischief-makers.  If you try to clean when they’re not eating, they will try to “help” you, usually by chewing on one of the handles of your wheelbarrow and, as soon as it’s full, turning it completely over.  (I just described Gunner.)  If you have to clean around his legs, let him know where you are.  Most horses won’t mind.   But most horses will let you put a fly mask on while they’re eating, too.  Like snowflakes, every horse is one of a kind.

The Horse in Winter


, , , ,

If the title of this post sounds familiar to you, it should—it’s the title of a book written by Susan McBane and published in this country by the Lyons Press (2005).  The book is a common-sense look at how to do all the usual horse chores when it gets cold outside—and to judge from Tuesday morning’s headlines, it is frigid outside!  Living in California—even its inhospitable high desert—does have its advantages.  Like many owners, Susan McBane—as well as William Healey, the guest blogger who discussed blanketing in my previous post—advocates blanketing horses in the winter.  I do not, except under certain very specific circumstances.

Two horses and a human, all three dressed for the cold weather.  (Photo by Charles Hood)

Two horses and a human, all three dressed for the cold weather. (Photo by Charles Hood)

Continue reading

Goodbye to All That


, , ,

(A continuation of my previous post—finally!)

After my terrifying three-legged ride on Prim in the mountains, I could find only one book in my entire library of horse books that described her condition.  Since it didn’t use the term dropped fetlocks, the index was useless.  I had to look at all the topics listed under “legs.”   The book is the revised and updated paperback edition of The Illustrated Veterinary Encyclopedia for Horsemen (the original hardcover came out in 1975 from Equine Research Publications), published by the Lyons Press in 2005 and now called Horseman’s Veterinary Encyclopedia.  I highly recommend it.

Prim.  (Photo by Joan Fry)

Prim. (Photo by Joan Fry)

I found what I was looking for by reading about fetlocks, where I eventually encountered “Suspensory Ligament Injuries.”  The authors discussed the condition in the context of race horses, and according to severity.  The type Prim seemed to have was a “strained” ligament, and under the heading “What is the prognosis?” it had this chilling pronouncement: “strains that result in a sinking of the fetlock have a poor prognosis.”  That’s exactly what was happening—one of Prim’s rear fetlocks was sinking.  About six months later, both hind fetlocks had sunk to such an extent that both legs were straight, and both pasterns were more horizontal than vertical.

The next time the vet came, she told me to continue the bute and mild exercise.  I told her my usual practice was to put Gunsmoke into the arena and walk Prim out of her corral and let go of her.  (By now she was wearing a breakaway halter and a catch rope.)  She would canter uphill, exchange sniffs with Gunner, and then roll.  I noticed she was always very careful to roll uphill.  She seemed to have no trouble getting to her feet again, and the vet said what she was doing qualified as “mild exercise.” Then she added, “You’ll know when it’s time.”  I pretended I didn’t understand what she was telling me.  Another vet—a friend, and he was simply volunteering his opinion—told me not to ride her again at all, that I was lucky she hadn’t fallen with me.

I continued to feed her grass hay and let her out to walk around and graze every other day.  I rode her only once after that.  At first she seemed excited and happy.  Then, when we passed out of Gunsmoke’s sight, she was excited and unhappy.  Instead of flat walking—which any horse, even an American Saddlebred, can be taught to do—she pranced.  I debated getting off and hand-walking her back.  At a true “flat” walk, the horse has three legs on the ground, and if she can’t bear her own weight on one leg, she can still remain upright.  What Prim was doing was a slow, animated trot, which meant she had only two legs on the ground (except for the brief moment of suspension), and the risk of falling was much greater.  I compromised by taking both feet out of the stirrups in case I had to bail and tried to sweet-talk her into walking.  But she pranced all the way home until she saw Gunsmoke.  It was the last time I rode her.

I put her down mid-summer, when it became obvious that the condition had begun to affect her front legs—she was putting more weight on them to alleviate the pain in her hind legs.  The bute helped—she was now on two grams a day—and she still looked excited and happy to see me, anticipating a chance to walk around while I cleaned and did barn chores.  By the time I was considering three butes a day, I had to admit that there was no point in waiting any longer.  She would only get worse—in fact one of her front fetlocks was sinking. It was time.

My vet arranged everything, including the removal of Prim’s body.  As promised, they were unobtrusive and respectful, and their truck was clean—no bloodstains—and empty.  Prim wouldn’t have to share space with other dead animals.  I told my vet I wanted to stay with Prim until I knew she was gone, but after that, I wanted to leave.  Nodding, she told me what she planned to do, and what would happen after that.  She also told me that once she gave Prim the final shot, I would have to stand clear because she would simply collapse—all nine hundred pounds of her.

First she sedated Prim.  Tranquilizers put her in a happy twilight phase where the position of her ears always made her look drunk.  In addition to giving her a few minutes of pain-free comfort, tranquilizers also help the procedure go more quickly and smoothly.  Then the vet gave her a final shot of pentobarbital.

Prim was dead before she hit the ground.  I could tell from her eyes—they suddenly went blank and glassy.  The vet tech, holding on to her leadrope, made sure to lower her head last, and then I knelt next to her, both of us stroking Prim’s head and neck, even though I was pretty sure she had left this earth.  About a minute later my vet said softly, “I can’t hear a heartbeat.  She’s gone.”

I thanked her, got off my knees and walked away without looking back, hoping I could make it into the house before I started to cry.  Prim was 25 and had been with me almost 22 years—longer than most marriages last.  When, about a week later, a condolence card, signed by everybody in the clinic, arrived in the mail, I cried again, right there in the post office, when I read what my veterinarian had written:  “Prim always had ‘personality plus.’  She was special to all of us here even thought she was not our biggest fan.”

A fitting tribute.  I miss her.


Dropped Fetlocks


, , , , , ,

Horses love to run, and one of the best things you can do for your horse every once in a while is—let him run.  Whether you keep some control of him (a good idea, in most cases), or just turn him loose (galloping uphill is much safer because it allows you to take back control at any time), is between you and your horse.  Do you think he’ll stop, or do you know he’ll stop?  Since I knew Prim would always stop, I occasionally turned her loose, but only if we were going uphill, the footing was good (packed dirt can be as hard on your horse’s feet as concrete), and we were heading away from home.  There’s no feeling quite like it in the world.  Freedom, exhilaration, speed, and an almost electrical bond between two species who—for as long as the moment lasts—share the same goal:  run as fast as you can. 

Notice that Prim's hind legs are almost vertical while her hind pasterns (as opposed to her pasterns in front) are almost horizontal.  (Photo by Joan Fry)

Notice that Prim’s hind legs are almost vertical while her hind pasterns (as opposed to her pasterns in front) are almost horizontal. (Photo by Joan Fry)

Continue reading

Dear Robert Redford


, , , , ,

Sorry to go right to a first-name basis, but I feel as though we’re friends.  God knows we’ve spent enough time together—I’ve watched most of your movies more than once.  I admire your acting ability, your intelligence, and your choice of roles.  You are Jay Gatsby.  (Sorry, Leo.)   And despite the difference in our ages, I think you’re adorable!

A key scene in "The Horse Whisperer" that lasted about a third of a second on screen.  Robert Redford (or maybe Buck Brannaman, a real-life whisperer and Redford's stunt double), lays the horse down.  (Photo courtesy of  www.fanpop.com)

A key scene in “The Horse Whisperer” that lasted barely a second on screen. Robert Redford (or maybe Buck Brannaman, a real-life whisperer and Redford’s techical advisor and stunt double), lays the horse down. (Photo courtesy of http://www.fanpop.com)

Continue reading

Do You Feed Your Horse on the Ground?


, , , , , , ,

Some horse owners, when they’re building a wooden corral or erecting a pipe corral, don’t include feeders.  Their reasoning is that in the wild, horses eat grass—and they eat it at ground level.  Feeders are usually placed so the horse has to lower his head in order to eat, but not at ground level.  (For good reason.  Feeders usually have three upright metal bars to hold the flake of hay and keep it more or less intact while your horse yanks chunks of it out to eat on the ground.  You don’t want your horse to wedge a hoof between the bars.)  But many of these owners make a costly mistake when they decide not to put down rubber mats, either.  Horse owners who want the best for their horse will include a feeder, and will also place enough mats (four in a 24’ x 24’ pipe corral) so the area underneath the feeder is covered.  Why is not having rubber mats under the horse’s feeder a costly mistake?  Two words:  sand colic.  And sometimes even rubber mats aren’t enough.

Show horses have shavings in the barn aisle as well as their stalls.  (Photo by Joan Fry)

Show horses have shavings in the barn aisle as well as their stalls. (Photo by Joan Fry)

Continue reading

Feeding the Backyard Horse


, ,

Feeding one backyard horse is complicated enough.  Feeding more than one—so that nobody gets fat, nobody gets thin, nobody gets colic, or impacted, or decides to use it as bedding—is infinitely more complicated.

Even when you provide them with a feeder, most horses prefer to yank the hay out and eat it at ground level.  (Photo by Joan Fry)

Even when you provide them with a feeder, most horses prefer to yank the hay out and eat it at ground level. (Photo by Joan Fry)

Continue reading

Slaughtering Horses for Meat


, , ,

Just this past week, the United States Department of Agriculture has granted approval to the Valley Meat Company in its Roswell, NM facility to begin slaughtering horses again.  The reaction, predictably, was mixed.

This downed, emaciated horse spends his last moments with a loving human.  He died before he could be slaughtered.  Posted by Animals' Angels, a rescue group.  (Photo by canadianhorsedefencecoalition.wordpress.com)

This downed, emaciated horse spends his last moments with a loving human. He died before he could be slaughtered. Posted by Animals’ Angels, a rescue group. (Photo by canadianhorsedefencecoalition.wordpress.com)

Continue reading