We have a new equine veterinarian, Harvey, who just made his first visit to The Farm. This is a picture of Harvey from when he drove a team of draft horses while giving tours of Yosemite National Park.
Harvey’s story is an interesting one, to say the least. His family owned a farm, and managed and operated a seasonal zoo, Deer Forest, in Coloma, Michigan, so he grew up around cows, giraffes, camels, well, you get the idea. He says that he always knew what he wanted to be, and I can believe that. I’m also just a little envious of his childhood experiences and surroundings. I mean, what kid wouldn’t want to grow up feeding baby bears and zebras? Heck, I’d do it now, and for free, if somebody would let me. As it happens, his wife is a veterinarian as well, and she’s one of the wonderful doctors who take care of our two dogs.
This barn visit was a routine one. The horses get all of their vaccines and an annual dental exam. It’s the second part that I dread – each and every year. Taking a look inside of a horse’s mouth, never mind trying to fix anything you find in there, is a very involved and trying experience. It takes patience, strength, stamina and a sense of humor. The first thing you have to do is sedate them. Then you insert a device called an oral or full mouth speculum – something that looks like a medieval torture device. There’s just no way around the sedation or the speculum – it’s not like you can tell them to relax, open wide and then reach in there without either the drugs or the contraption.
This is what a horse looks like with the speculum in place and while the sedatives are working. In the horse’s defense, if you tried to put one of those things in my mouth, you better have a few drugs at the ready.
So Harvey gave Charlie, our Saddlebred, a shot, and he relaxed, his eyelids were drooping and the fun began. The doctor ratcheted the speculum up to keep the jaws apart and began to float the sharp, pointy edges of Charlie’s teeth. For those of you who don’t know what a float is, it’s a metal file or rasp, on a handle, and the process of filing their teeth is called “floating” because of the rasp and the movement of it over a horse’s teeth. Now, getting back to what this is about – my husband was holding the lead, Harvey was filing away and I was given the job of holding horse tongue out of the way. I usually take a more active role in this process, but I’ve been off my A-game for a couple of weeks, so yep, I was the designated tongue wrangler. Charlie took it well. He usually does. He started to come out of it about halfway through and needed a little more sedation, but, all in all, he was great. I felt around in there, and the difference in the before and after was amazing.
Abby, our mare, is a bit more stubborn – okay, a lot more stubborn – but she relaxed a little under the magical powers of sedation. Throughout what she saw as a horrible ordeal, she glared at me, the doctor and my husband, all while continuing to slowly back away from us and the float. When she backs up, it’s a little difficult to stop her. She’s a strong girl, as Haflingers are meant to be, with a very large and powerful backside. Let’s just say that there’s a whole lot of junk in her trunk and that she knows a little bit more about booty workouts than some of those ladies in Atlanta do. She survived intact, although she’d probably tell you a much different story given the chance. I didn’t check out the work that had been done on her. She wandered off to sulk and stare at us from a safe distance.
When I said that I dreaded this part of the vet visit, I was actually talking about the point when it came to dealing with Big Joe. By the way, he got his name the old-fashioned way – he earned it. He stands about 17 hands and weighs somewhere between 1,700 and 1,800 pounds. He also hates to have anything placed in his mouth, aside from treats that is. I ride with a bitless bridle, and even the syringe for the dewormer paste poses a problem, so I make him a molasses or applesauce sandwich, with the paste smeared inside and he’ll take it just as if I gave him a cookie. Long before he came to The Farm, his previous owner must have done on a number on the poor boy’s mouth, possibly by using the wrong bit or just abusing the bit entirely. I wish I knew who he or she was, because I’d like to hear just how they managed to make this horse so afraid of having anything besides food in his mouth.
I warned Harvey that Joe was going to be his biggest challenge – he’s had dental exams and his teeth have been floated before, but he’s never made it easy – and he didn’t let any of us down. One shot was administered and Joe got a little mellow, so Harvey massaged Joe’s jaw, carefully and gently slipped his fingers inside his lips and felt around a bit while whispering sweet nothings in his ear, but the minute we tried to place the speculum anywhere near his mouth, he’d start to rear up. Did I mention that he’s big? You should see him when he’s up on his back legs. Okay, so a second dose was given and Joe was looking a little wobbly. We tried again and, again, the horse was not having it. The three of us were getting a little worried by then, but when it comes to dealing with a half-crazed horse the secret is to never let them see you sweat. We mustered up all of the calm, courage and confidence we could, and Harvey gave Joe a third shot. Now the beast was staggering like a drunken sailor. I kind of felt sorry for him, but he still wasn’t giving in. My husband had a death grip on the lead, Harvey was trying to ensure that none of us were knocked unconscious by the float or the speculum and I was trying to hold onto a tongue, while telling Joe that everything’s going to be alright. He reared up, again, only this time, he was snorting and blowing and giving us all sorts of wild-eyed attitude – and my husband came right off of his feet, the lead still clenched firmly in his hands.
We knew then that this just wasn’t going to happen. Harvey probably could have given him one more dose of the sedative, but there’s a point where you start to run into problems. A horse that’s too heavily dosed can have respiratory arrest or a heart attack or just collapse under his own weight and break a leg. Even if none of that happened, the risk just isn’t worth it. If it were a life-threatening situation where Joe couldn’t eat, then we’d have taken more drastic steps, but my dear draft has no trouble eating, that’s for sure. Our hooved ones were placed safely back into their stalls to sleep it off, and we breathed one sigh of relief and one of exhaustion.
So my normally gentle giant won this round, this year. If I were him, I wouldn’t rest on my laurels quite yet, though. Next year we’ll be back, I’ll be operating on all cylinders, Harvey will be right there with me and I’m pretty certain he’s got a few tricks up his sleeve for dealing with the likes of Joe.