Julie was one of my go-to people when I was writing about horses for Get Your Pitchfork On!. I remember her trying to decide if her second horse, Laredo, was the right horse; negotiating with his owner; training him and coaxing him to want to obey her. But her first love is River, whom she met nine years ago. They have worked hard together so I knew she was devastated when she posted on Facebook that something was wrong with him. I’m glad everything turned out all right, and she could share this story. She has others on her website.
More Than Just Riding
by Julie Hatfield Jindal
Owning horses is neither easy nor cheap, and definitely not boring. A couple of weeks ago, I stopped by the barn where my two horses live with my friend’s horses. My friend was out of town so I was tossing hay to the herd and checking their water, which takes only a few minutes.
My bay mustang, River, was the last horse to arrive from the pasture, which was unusual. Normally he led the herd. I glanced over to tease him about being lazy, and then I saw why he was so slow. He was holding one of his hind hooves off the ground, limping to the barn on three legs.
No visible wounds, so I took off my gloves to feel his entire leg, but I couldn’t detect any heat or swelling in his joints. He held his leg out to the side, as if his hip were dislocated. My vet’s office had closed five minutes earlier, so I called my other vet, reached his emergency referral service, and left a message for the on-call vet.
Meanwhile, River limped the last fifty feet to his dinner and began to eat. His appetite was a good sign. But the way he held his leg off the ground, his opposite leg quivering with the effort of supporting all the extra weight – I lost it and began to bawl as I imagined the worst. I realized that if I had to put him down that night, I had no idea what I would do with his body.
Two hours later the emergency vet arrived and I was grateful. She suspected a hoof abscess, although she couldn’t locate the entry point for the bacteria in the poor barn lighting, which meant she couldn’t open and drain it. However, she gave him some “bute” (an equine anti-inflammatory) and advised soaking his hoof in Epsom salt.
River and I spent the next morning at the vet’s. I was groggy after two hours of sleep but I doubt River slept much, either. I learned that an abscess is a pocket of infection, and in a horse’s hoof it can become excruciating in less than 24 hours. The buildup of pus and inflammation between a hard hoof and the soft internal tissue makes every step literally unbearable. In River’s case, my vet believed that this summer’s extreme stretch of dry weather, followed by sudden wet weather, created a tiny crack in the “white line” at the base of the hoof which gave bacteria an entry point. Puncture wounds or even stone bruises can also cause abscesses.
Once the entry spot was located, excavated with a knife and then drained (the surprised expression of relief on River’s face was comical), the resulting inch-deep hole had to be kept clean and protected to allow the horse’s physiology to regenerate the sole.
My vet recommended soaking the hoof in Epsom salt water for thirty minutes. A friend loaned me her Soaking Boot (an equine galosh that secures around the ankle) which was a godsend, as River thought that keeping his foot in a bucket of water was a stupid idea. After soaking, per my vet’s instructions, I filled the hole with a poultice of sugar and betadine antiseptic to draw out any remaining infection. I covered the poultice with a square of gauze and duct-taped it into place, with the tape covering the bottom and sides of the hoof, but below the hoof’s hairline. Finally, I latched a device called an Easy Boot (in my case, a Not-Remotely-Easy Boot) onto the hoof and hoped it would stay on. The next day River and I would do it all again.
River also received doses of bute for the next couple of days, until he stopped limping. We soaked and poulticed for three more days after that, then I no longer needed to soak his hoof, and I could simply infuse gauze with betadine and stuff it into the ever-smaller hole (then duct tape, then Easy Boot) for about two weeks. The treatment was time-consuming and I had to be vigilant about not getting kicked. River is not a “kicky” fellow but he grew tired of having his hoof handled. My total vet bill–including the emergency visit–was nearly $600.
My husband thinks that I was crazy to do all of this, but it’s what it means to own horses. It’s more than just riding. When we came back from the vet that first day, River looked at me as if to say, “You know, you may not be totally useless after all.” For a once-wild mustang who has always been skeptical of people, that was a hearty “Thank you.”