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.
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.