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Animals are unpredictable creatures

Kim Brokaw DVM

Dr. Kim Brokaw and her horse Bart

(10/09) Animals are unpredictable creatures with horses probably being the most unpredictable of all. The only thing predictable about horses is that if you own them long enough they will get themselves into some sort of trouble - usually with a little help from their owners!

An old neighbor of mine was convinced that his horses would always follow him from their field into their stalls every evening for dinner. Of course at least once a month he was wrong and all the neighbors would get together to round up his horses who had gone gallivanting throughout the community. On one such escapade, one of the horses ended up in a swimming pool. Luckily the horse didn't weigh much and the owner was strong as an ox. He went in the pool and lifted the horse up and out of it. Other than being a bit cold, as it was the middle of winter, everyone was fine.

One of my most unique calls actually involved a very well behaved horse named Jelly Bean. Jelly Bean is a 6 year old black Tennessee Walking Horse. She is very sweet and has that youthful curiosity that has the potential to lead to trouble. Jelly Bean lived on an old dairy farm which her owners were in the process of cleaning up and converting into a ĎGentlemanísí farm.

The farm was beautifully landscaped with the colors of the garden flowers complementing the paint on the house perfectly. The foyer to the house, which at one time was the dairy barn, had large cathedral ceilings as the owners had torn down part of the hayloft to leave it open and airy. Large windows allowed the perfect amount of natural lighting. Jelly Beanís human mom had a gift for interior design, so in addition to the house being beautifully renovated the furniture, artwork, and throw pillows all tied together nicely.

Building a barn for Jelly Bean and her companion was on the owners Ďto do, list but was still a ways off. To provide Jelly Bean and her companion shade and refuge from flies, her owners had altered one of the trailer houses on the property to serve as a temporary barn. It wasn't perfect, but served their purpose until what Iím sure would be the Taj Mahal of all barns was built for Jelly Bean.

Up until this point, I had only been out to the farm for routine vaccinations, coggins tests, and teeth floating as Jelly Bean and her companion are fairly healthy horses. All the previous emergencies had involved the ownerís dogs. Still, I winced every time I looked at the fencing, most of which was held together with bailing twine and duck tape. It looked like an accident waiting to happen. But Jelly Bean was so content with her large field and the stream that ran through it, that she never challenged the make-shift fence. As far as Jelly Bean was concerned, she was in paradise and the grass wasnít greener on the other side.

Her owners were retired, and while they pretend they used Jelly Bean and her companion for trail riding, I don't think the horses had worn a saddle in the past 5 years. Instead, Jelly Bean's job was to eat grass, be brushed, and let the grandchildren feed them carrots. Certainly, she had a life that would be the envy of any horse.

Jelly Bean's farm is a bit further away than some of my clients but as it is a lovely drive through the woods, and as most of my visits were routine examinations, it allowed me time to take in the scenery. So I always looked forward to a call from her owners. Though Iím sure her owners didnít share the same joy in calling as I did in getting the call, they were always pleasant and happy.

I was on the road between appointments one day when I received a call from Jelly Beanís owner. "You're never going to guess what Jelly Bean had decided to do today," her owner said. One of the interesting things about her owner was how calm and collected he was. Because animals canít tell us where they hurt, or how hurt they are, most animal owners always fear the worst and you can hear it in their voices when they call. But Jelly Beanís owner was calm and collected. If he had said, ďJelly Bean has a little scratch on her leg and it might need stitches,Ē then what he might have meant was that his horse has just about cut her leg off and there are puddles of blood everywhere. So while his demeanor suggested that everything was okay, I was braced for the worst.

He said, "You know how we have been using that porch on the mobile home as a shelter for the horses to hang out under? Well, Jelly Bean decided to jump through the window into the house and strolled about for awhile before falling through the floor. I think you might need to look at her knee."

My immediate concern was where Jelly Bean was then and what was she doing. Some horses will thrash about when in trouble and others will stand quietly until help arrives. I hoped Jelly bean was one of the later rather than the former.

To answer my question of where Jelly Bean was he said calmly, ďshe is in the kitchen where her legs went through the old flooring. Fortunately, the trailer is only knee-high off the ground, so she is standing on the ground with only her body above the knees visible. I threw her a flake of hay, and last time I looked, she was happily eating away.Ē

When I asked how much blood there was, he replied, "none." I had my doubts but was pleased that the mare didnít seem to be distressed. Jelly Bean takes after her owners in that nothing seems to stress her out either.

As I made the long drive to their farm I tried to anticipate the injuries the mare most likely sustained. By my calculations, she should have multiple gashes on her body from jumping through the glass windowpane. Her legs were probably all sliced up from repeatedly punching through the floor as she walked about in the trailer. On top of all that, I had to figure out a way to get Jelly Bean out of the trailer without inflicting any more injuries.

I figured that I was going to be spending hours stitching up tendons and getting the skin to close around her multiple lacerations. After the initial repair I anticipated a struggle to keep infection under control. I thought repeat visits for antibiotics administration would be required. Then, I thought that they lived closer.

I decided to skip going my leisurely pace and headed to the farm as fast as I could. When I arrived, I found Jelly Bean in the front yard happily eating grass and her owner sitting in a lawn chair next to her sipping a beer. Both he and the horse looked just as happy and relaxed as if they had called me out for a routine vaccination visit.

I breathed a sigh of relief. At least from the car, no large puddles of blood or obvious wounds were visible. Upon closer examination, I find just one minor wound just above her knee. She also had avoided injury to the joint - which is very fortunate as joint infections tend to be difficult to treat and frequently fatal. I put in about a dozen stitches, gave her a tetanus shot and some antibiotics, and marveled over her lack of injuries.

I asked how he got her out. He replied that he just threw a rope around her neck and she followed him through the front door. It didnít surprise me. One of the lessons Iíve learned over the years is that the trust that is developed over the years between animals and their owners is a powerful tool. Even the most skittish of animals will develop a bond with their caregiver. A kind and soothing voice from a trusted person can almost always overcome a natural survival instinct. Obviously, Jelly Bean trusted her owner enough to allow him to lead her to safety.

After treating Jelly Bean her owner gave me a tour of the mobile home. It had been completely trashed with multiple hoof-sized holes where Jelly Bean had stepped through the flooring. The holes were about two and a half feet deep and could be followed through the hallway into kitchen. The floor was completely caved in at the back pantry where Jelly Bean fell through and got temporarily stuck. As I looked at the holes, I marveled at her lucky escape.

But that was the story of her life. Jelly Bean was a lucky horse. She was lucky enough to have wonderfully caring owners, lucky enough to have job that required her to only eat carrots, and a lucky enough to have a wonderful field that she could graze all day in and a companion to share it with.

I went back to see Jelly Bean 14 days later to remove the stitches from her legs. She and her companion were standing under the trailer overhang eating hay, both happy as could be, as all horse should be.

Editor's Note: Kim Brokaw earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech. She applies her talents and love of animals at the Walkersville Veterinary Clinic.

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