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It’s one of those days that you know will happen, you just don’t think it will happen to you and one of your horses.  But one day you find yourself clutching the phone, thinking pick up, pick up! as it rings and rings.  (Actually it only rings twice, but to you it feels like twenty.)  When you do get a human’s voice, you struggle to control your own.  “This is an emergency horse call,” you say.  “His eyes are swollen—the left one is nearly shut—and his nostrils and lips are swollen too.  He has no temperature.”  As you hear yourself talk, you try not to think about, let alone mention, the obvious: it’s snake season.  Was Gunsmoke bitten by a rattler?

Even a first-time owner would know something awful has happened to her horse.  (Photo by Joan Fry)

Even a first-time owner would know something awful has happened to her horse. (Photo by Joan Fry)

The receptionist, who is sounding more upset than you feel, says she’ll contact the vet immediately and have him call you back.  You hang up the house phone, grab your cell, and run back to the barn area.  This time you leave the dog inside, and she gives you a look—traitor—as you tell her she has to “stay.”

Gunsmoke can barely see you, let alone give you looks.  His breakaway halter is so skewed around on his face—he’s apparently been trying to scratch himself, as though the puffed-up areas itch—that it almost covers one eyes.  You take his halter off and rub the sides of his face, where the cheek pieces have left marks, and he stands there stoically, letting you rub on him, without trying anything funny—no nips, no love bites, no nothing.

Of course you have an emergency horse kit.  Or you did once, but this climate is hard on anything adhesive, because it either ends up all stuck together, or the sticky part has dried up.  In this part of the high desert, you live with summer highs of 110 degrees and below freezing winters.  This winter it was sub-freezing so many days at a time it killed most of your outdoor potted plants.  So except for the stethoscope, your emergency kit is in the house, in the closet of the guestroom.  There is a digital thermometer in the tackroom, but when you grabbed it earlier, it needed a new battery.  So you had to dash back to the house and into the guestroom and grab the old-fashioned glass one you use for the dogs.  You don’t keep it in the tackroom because if it gets hot enough, the glass can explode, and that’s the last thing you need in your tackroom: tiny bits of shattered glass.   

When the vet calls, he gets your husband, because you gave the receptionist your home phone number.  But this fact doesn’t register until you see your husband walking up to the barn area with two towels over his arm.  “The vet said to wet these and wrap them around his nose.  The other goes around his eyes—if he’ll let us do it.  Can you get him out of this wind?”

While he hangs the towels over the tie rail and hoses them down, you lead Gunsmoke out of the corral to the not-so-windy area between the pipe corrals and the tackroom.  That’s when you feel the first tiny spark of hope.  This horse is always hungry—and Bermuda hay is mounded under each feeder.  He makes a lunge for the closest pile.  “This won’t work,” you tell your husband.  He agrees and you all move back in the pipe corral, which is not, as long as Gunsmoke is facing a corner, all that windy.  John wraps one towel around his muzzle.  That’s good, that’s okay—Gunner doesn’t care until John tries to wrap the other one around his eyes by tucking it under the cheekpieces of his halter.  Gunner reacts as though he’s being water-boarded.  Okay, no towel around his eyes.

You, meanwhile, look for possible suspects—especially anything that slithers—but also for black widow spiders, tarantulas, and scorpions.  You’ve seen them all around here except the scorpion, but there’s always a first time.

The vet skids to a stop outside the arena, muttering that he’s sorry he’s late and his GPS has some serious shortcomings.  After a thorough testing of the vital signs, he asks you the usual questions:  has the horse pooped lately, or peed, and is there any change in color or consistently?  No, no, no, and no. “But he’s eating,” you volunteer.  From past experience, you know this is a good thing.

“I can’t find any bite marks,” says the vet.  “But he’s reacting to something—look at the hives.”  Both sides of Gunner’s neck and shoulders have blossomed into quarter-sized bumps, even though the swelling around his lips has gone down, thanks to the cold-water compress.

Several shots later, plus a course of antibiotics and bute for the inflammation, the vet says cautiously that your horse should be okay, and to call him immediately if anything changes.

Nothing does, not later that day or the next day.  You email your vet progress reports.  By the end of the week, you have your nippy horse back—and you still don’t know what got him.  Thank you, Dr. Geoff!