(Continued from Part II: Welcome to the Adult World!)
Ok, so for small ailments, I was won over. And so very curious! I found myself asking about and reporting every tiny complaint about myself or one of the horses. I started picking up on behavioral and physical quirks that were helpful to take note of. Sometime later, my ever-complaining bum knee started acting up, and I found myself sitting with a light emitting diode on my knee. Brilliant! My knee could be kept working! Perhaps it could help with my creaky, straight-stifled but utterly loveable warmblood. And indeed it did (see Rhus Tox on the homeopathic information page!) – his washing machine trot vanished quicker in warm-ups. Maybe there was something to this after all.
But still, while this was great on the tiny things, for major injuries a vet was still essential, yes?
Now firstly, let me say I have not become nor will I ever be a vet-hater by any means. This is just my personal experience on this one occasion. I still encourage people to contact a veterinarian in cases of emergency, and do not hesitate along that line of thought myself when the need arises. But it was an eye-opener to say the least, and I feel it if it drove the point home for me, it might just help you as well.
As I had mentioned, my beloved jumper Hootie had been battling mysterious on-off lameness at my old job. Deciding it was just his age (16) combined with the rigors of a race horse turned competitive amateur-owner jumper, and finding myself leaving my indoor arena privileges behind with my former job, I figured January to April 1st off would take care of the issue. We would start fresh in the spring with a little rehab and a clean outlook.
So spring came, and we started back to work. Ok, a little creaky. I expected that. A little weak from the haunch too, but he was “old” and had been sitting for 3 months. It takes time to build fitness, said the ever rational professional mindset. But he’s outside all day! How can he still be so stiff, and so weak, when he’s outside from 8am to 6pm every day? He’s not as fat as he was either, and he never stumbled so much my overly worried horse-mom voice argued. The manager in me argued that his toes might be long, and to just give it time. So we bumbled along as best we could.
Ignoring the new found sluggishness and once a workout stumbles, I set my sights on a local jumper show and got to business. I buckled down expecting the first jumping sessions to be rocky – after all, when he had time off from his horrible feet at college, he was a wild beast when he saw jumps again.
But to my surprise, aside from pricked ears my lively TB gelding was a school pony, stepping carefully over raised cavaletti and hauling himself over small jumps - albeit cheerfully. Well, maybe with age came a beter grasp of conserving energy. And the arena where we were boarding was tiny. So of course he was going to be smart and take it slow, and sure he might stumble in the corners that came up fast. Why would he want to drive from his haunch when we were forever on a 30 meter circle? I kept up with those lies, trying to rationalize away the nagging concerns, telling myself I was just being a hyperactive horse-mom, and it was time to grow up and relax.
I figured a good wake-up to his senses would be a course schooling at work, and then a few 2’6” classes at a local show. That would get the old Hootie back to life! He schooled fine – no excitement, and was indeed jazzed up at his show. We had 2 seconds and a third, and I really can’t say if we were a little slow because of my nerves, or because adrenaline just wasn’t enough to boost him up. I gave him time off to recover, and found myself mounting a completely foreign horse a week after the show.
He was a mess! Stumbling all over, no hindquarter to be found. In frustration I found myself grumbling at him for his sloth, though I knew this horse did not have a lazy bone in his body. If anything our common problem was too much exuberance. Who was this tired old nag I was prodding along? Where was my jumper? Something was wrong, and I didn’t have it in my to push more until I found out. I succumbed to the pleadings of the farm owner where I kept him, and resigned myself to calling a vet for a lameness exam. But which one?
I made an appointment with the vet used at work, and slogged through the wait for his visit self-assured that THIS time, the vet would be able to find a solution. This time I would NOT be throwing my money away to hear things I already knew about my horse. But fate it would seem had other plans. The day before the appointment I did morning feed and turnout, cleaned some stalls and promised my visibly healthy horse goodbye a grooming when my work day was done.
The image of the horse I found in the paddock that night still rocks me to tears if I reach too close to it. He was dragging his hind limbs behind him, and the entire right side of his face was dropping, paralyzed. His ear splayed to the side, his eye was sunken into the socket, and the corner of his bottom lip hung limply from his mouth. I groomed him and started crying – how had I lied to myself for so long that I had let such a lively animal get to this state? Who had I been kidding? My job was horse care, and here my own horse sat in a pathetic state. I hugged him and promised that tomorrow, we’d have an answer.
I don’t know if I could have stopped it, or if it was just a result of his ataxic hind end plus the right side of his face being lifeless plus his tendency to rush through his stall door. All I remember is stepping into his stall and turning to see my horse flailing, his hip caught on the doorframe to his stall. Before I could do anything, he threw himself into getting free and slammed himself out of the predicament, standing curled to his right in his stall, his right leg in the air, entire body shivering and twitching in pain and I’m sure fear. Oh god, I thought. I just watched my horse break his hip and did nothing to prevent it.
Since the vet I had an appointment with for the next morning was an hour away and I was certain at this point it was just time to put the old man out of his misery, the farm owner called her local vet while I got his records and tried to get a grip. It wouldn’t do to present myself as a hysterical, amateur horse owner. By this time it was too dark outside to do a full neurologic exam, and I had one scheduled the next day, so the likelihood of a broken hip was ruled out and I was left with a list of horrific possible diagnoses: Rabies, EPM, West Nile, Stroke. I was advised to send him into a clinic for a full workout, and heartbroken to discover neither could I afford this nor would my parents offer any financial assistance in the matter. I guess over the phone it must have sounded like I was reaching for excuses to keep my horse alive.
The next day I spoke to my boss, and called the vet about to come examine him to be sure they were up to snuff on the occurrences of the previous night. I was told that the vet assigned to my horse was very, very pregnant, and not prepared to handle such a grueling exam. At the insistence of my boss I asked about the possibility of neurologic lyme disease, curious as to whether tetracycline would be needed. I had taken a lyme titer, and it had come back “minimal”. I spoke with a different vet, who talked me through the possible dangers of tetracycline treatments, assured me horses didn’t get neurologic lyme disease, and told me to just continue with the vet who had seen him the night before.
In come the politics: I will NEVER understand the following events. I was told by Vet B to continue with Vet A, who had already seen the horse. Though I explained to Vet B they were my first choice, and I only called Vet A so as not to let a possibly broken horse in need of euthanasia suffer in his stall all night, they still seemed miffed I had dared speak to another vet. Vet A commenced to call the farm owner where I had my horse, and rant at her at how it was “not appreciated” that they were called out on an emergency to treat a horse who was not a regular client. It didn’t matter that at that point I HAD no regular vet, or that I had paid my $300 bill to the vet that came out on the call that night. Given that happening, no way was Vet A setting eyes on my boy again. But Vet B insisted I should continue with the original Vet on the case. So…what to do?
I am very blessed to work for the owners of a small animal clinic, with access to a lab that takes on cats, dogs, AND equines (and I’m sure other creatures too!). So, armed with the potential diagnoses and a knowledge for how to draw the blood and fill out the forms, we tested. In the mean time, my boss gave me a remedy to combat the facial paralysis and ataxia, to hopefully get my horse comfortable walking and eating.
Rabies: he was still alive, so that was ruled out easily. West Nile: Negative. EPM: Inconclusive. For a horrifying few weeks waiting for a second test, I agonized. I couldn’t afford the treatments for EPM. I had always said if this horse became permanatly lame, he would NEVER be happy as a pasture potato. He loved his job. But looking at my droopy-faced trooper otherwise content with life, I was torn. Would I have to make that call so soon? Would I have to face the fact that this problem was in fact nothing we could beat? When the second test for EPM was negative, I was overjoyed, but still flustered. WHY was my horse falling apart then?
We turned back to the lyme titer. It was minimal…but possibly his body was losing so quickly to the lyme that antibodies were limited? A second, slightly higher but still qualifying as “minimal” test had me beating my brains out. Minimal meant something – he’d never HAD lyme before anyway. So, I went for broke and started the doxycycline, continuing with homeopathic remedies and even breaking out the “big guns” to hopefully restore his face from its paralysis.
And slowly, he did come back. His hind end stopped wobbling. He could grab carrots with his lip, and his right eye and expression were less and less like something from Night Of The Living Dead. My luck being what it is, a week before I meant to get on him under saddle that fall, I found myself the one in need of a doctor, and told I was ground-bound until mid-November. So I settled for fitness with ground work, long lines, and free lunging until the ground thawed.
To Be Continued