One of the great pleasures we have at Trafalgar Square Books is working with equine experts from fields far different than our own desk-centric sort. This is not only a source of continuing education that we wholeheartedly welcome but a reminder of the amazingly different kinds of roles people play in the lives of horses and the humans who love them.
A couple weeks ago we had a chance to spend 24 hours with Dr. Bob Grisel, author of EQUINE LAMENESS FOR THE LAYMAN, whose practice is based in Atlanta. Today we hear from Dr. Jenni Grimmett, co-author of DRESSAGE THE COWBOY WAY with Eitan Beth-Halachmy–she is a large animal mobile veterinarian in rural North Idaho, and according to her, she’s never seen a “typical day.”
“Our days are often unpredictable and can change course at a moment’s notice,” says Dr. Grimmett. “That is one of the things I both love and hate about this lifestyle. I can’t really call veterinary medicine a job. It isn’t what I do, it’s who I am, and it’s a big responsibility to take on as you are servicing animals and the people that may depend on your services for their livelihood. Being a small part in the larger cog that is our agricultural community is very important to me, and I take it very seriously. It’s the main reason that I still provide services for the other livestock species (besides horses, I mean) because we sure don’t do it for the awesome pay or fabulous work environment!”
Here’s a glimpse at 24 hours in the life of Dr. Grimmett:
5:30 am We have an extra early start today, especially for this time of year. The truck, which is our livelihood, was down unexpectedly yesterday. When you are a mobile veterinarian who suddenly finds herself non-mobile it can throw a serious wrench into the day. Luckily, we didn’t have anything too urgent on the schedule and were able to move our appointments out a day or two. But, that also means that we are planning on a 12-hour day today…if things go smoothly.
So, after rolling out from under the three large Irish Setters who sleep on the bed with us, I’m starting my day by checking messages and drinking some caffeine while my brain begins to un-fog. Gone are the days I could roll out of bed 10 minutes before walking out the door to head to school. One of the blessings and curses of the aging process is that I must plan some time to actually wake up in the morning.
6:30 am I pick up my able-bodied right-hand woman, Carolyn, on the way to our first call of the day. I couldn’t do what I do without Carolyn. She keeps the truck stocked and ready to roll, assists me in every task throughout the day, and usually drives so that I can do paperwork, answer calls, or work on the computer between clients. Without that drive time between calls I could have never written DRESSAGE THE COWBOY WAY with my friend Eitan Beth-Halachmy last year. Most of my Cowboy Dressage organizational time is done between veterinary calls on the road, as well. Carolyn also used to be my traveling companion, groom, and caller when I attended Cowboy Dressage Gatherings. She just had a baby this summer and is back at work after a few months maternity leave. I missed her dearly and couldn’t be happier that she is back by my side.
7:15 am We arrive at our first call. It’s chilly this morning, and you can feel the fall in the air. I notice a gorgeous red maple tree that is already starting to turn but also notice that red maple is planted right next to the fence, dropping delicious red maple leaves right into the area where the horses are eating. I make a mental note to mention that to my client as maple leaves can cause cardiac problems in horses. I lost an older horse a few falls ago that was out grazing on the lawn and picked up too many red maple leaves.
Our patient this morning is a Quarter Horse gelding that is due for his fall vaccinations and is also in need of a respiratory checkup. We had another terrible fire season this year, and the air quality for the past month has been in the hazardous zone. We’ve seen many horses with coughs and runny eyes. After a rebreathing examination we determine there is no respiratory compromise on Buster and convince him his intra-nasal vaccination isn’t that big of a deal. I feel an equine veterinarian has a responsibility to handle each patient as if he was her own, and I try my best to make even unpleasant experiences tolerable for the horses. While it takes more time, it pays off in dividends as these animals become lifelong patients.
As we are discussing the red maple tree and Carolyn is readying the invoice, I look down at the little Terrier in her hot pink “jacket,” bouncing around on this chilly morning. A perk of being a mobile vet is the extra animal personalities we get to meet on the road. This jaunty, well-dressed Terrier puts a smile on my face.
8:00 am We stop at the gas station to meet up with a client that is driving a horse across the state line to Seattle this morning. I pulled blood for an Equine Infectious Anemia (Coggins) test and completed the health certificate last week. My client needs that paperwork in hand to legally transport the horse. Regulatory work is a large part of what we do. Health certificates and testing of animals for interstate travel is an important part of keeping our national populations healthy. While many owners are frustrated by the process and testing required, I see it as a way to be sure we are preventing the spread of disease at shows, rodeos, and other events across the Northwest.
8:15 am We arrive at our next appointment, which is a busy show and breeding barn for both Quarter Horses and Paints. We have two mares that were serviced by the ranch stallion this spring that they haven’t checked in foal yet. Both mares are large-bodied halter mares that I palpate in the field to confirm pregnancy. I would like to have ultrasounded the mares at this stage of their gestation for placental thickness and to catch early placental separation, but my ultrasound machine went in for repairs last week. So, it’s the old-fashioned palpation. The owners were concerned that the mares would require sedation, but I find that, in most cases, if I just take my time and go slow, I can palpate mares without. I prefer not to sedate as long as I can safely do the palpation because I don’t feel sedation is good for the foal.
Unfortunately, at this call we also have to perform a humane euthanasia on a broodmare that has become too lame to safely go through winter. She was able to carry and feed her last foal who was recently weaned, but an old injury finally caught up with her. I’m sure that other veterinarians in northern climates are familiar with the rush of fall euthanasias. It’s a necessary but so-difficult part of our job, and as we move further into the fall, we will be doing more and more of them. I often envy the southern veterinarians that don’t have winter challenges to deal with. It’s tough to have a “season” for euthanasia.
9:00 am We are off to see a Jersey cow that is due to calve any day. We have a lot of backyard milk cows in our area. Some of the families use the milk themselves, but many of them take advantage of the Rural Milk Certification Program offered by the Idaho Dairy Council. In order to be compliant for the sale of raw milk, you must have your cow tested annually for tuberculosis (TB). TB testing in cows and goats is done by injecting a small dose of TB test medium into the tail head of the animal, and then coming back 72 hours later to “read” the test for a reaction. Reading the test means that you digitally feel each side of the tail head for a reaction. A positive (or false positive) animal will have distinct swelling at the tail head.
This particular Jersey has already seen me twice in the past month for her vaccinations. She remembers me well and is not too happy to see me again. Our restraint consists of a post in the field to which she is tied. She is owned by a lovely family trio of mom and her two daughters, all very involved with the animals on their small farm. Her three owners try valiantly to slow the spinning around the post as I perform the quick injection into the tail head. She’s mad but recovers quickly when they pull out the alfalfa cubes as an apology. Since the only time the cow is tied to this post is for veterinary examinations, I encourage them to do some “post desensitizing” and alfalfa-cube-feeding before my next visit to read the test. The cow is no dummy, and she is not appreciative of the “post torture routine”!
My client (the mom) whips out her ever-present list of questions about all things dietary, calf, and milk related. This will be their first milking experience, and they are anxious to get everything right. I remember when we were in vet school there was a movement that tried to make oral examinations part of our curriculum. The student body was appalled at the thought, but I don’t think anything could have been more appropriate now that I have been in practice for 16 years. The ability to field a barrage of questions and think on your feet while dodging your patient’s attempts to distract you is a skill that every veterinarian must have.
9:30 am The 30-minute drive to the next call allows me time to return calls, and check text messages, Facebook messages, and emails. The multiple ways for folks to communicate now make it even easier for people to check in with me about treatments, wound care, prescription refills, and ask questions that would take more time over the phone. However, these grand new options in communication mean I may be having three conversations at once. Keeping it all straight and fielding phone calls at the same time can eat up a 30-minute drive in no time!
10:00 am The next call is to see a patient that I have a soft spot for. Buckskin (as she is lovingly called) is a six-year-old AQHA mare, heading off to training this fall. As a four-year-old she suffered a catastrophic wound to the dorsal cannon bone in her right hind leg. At least 50 percent of that bone was exposed, and by the time we saw the wound for the first time, it was at least four days old, full of contamination, and very painful. With diligent and thorough debridement and very careful and attentive care by the owner, she is left with a nice clean scar on that leg with no proud flesh and no lameness. She is stout and gorgeous and is going to be a good one. The mare’s owner is one of my favorite clients, an Idaho State Patrol woman who has some great road stories to tell. We often compare the horrors and challenges in our jobs—I sure wouldn’t want hers and she feels the same about mine! I float Buckskin’s teeth to make sure her mouth is comfortable, and she is ready to concentrate when the trainer puts a bit in her mouth next month.
10:45 am Another gas station meeting, this time for some prescription drug refills. As a mobile veterinarian, it can be challenging for my clients to get refills for the medications they need. So, we do an awful lot of “drug deals” in local parking lots. We service two counties and 15 zip codes: It’s a large area, and we average 200 miles on the truck every day. Catching up with clients for refills takes effort from both parties.
11:00 am We have an hour’s drive to our next appointment, so more time to return calls and schedule other appointments. I’ve had three calls from folks scattered over two counties that would still like an appointment today. Since we already have a 12-hour day on the schedule, it’s tough to fit them in, but we promise to add the urgent ones to the list, hoping we finish some of our calls a little early.
The driveis also how we spend our lunch time. We don’t ever actually stop for a lunch break. We only stop to refuel. Patrick, my male Irish Setter, always eats with us, and he insists on his share of whatever is for lunch that day. We refer to that as “Paddy Tax”—we are liberally taxed daily.
We made a quick stop to pick up mail and drop off samples being shipped out to the lab, then off to the next zip code. On the rare days when we are doing lots of “windshield time” with no cell service, Carolyn and I will listen to audiobooks. We’ve been through the entire James Herriot series and always listen to the Harry Potter series at least once a year. Generally this is a winter activity as the phone is just too busy in the summer months. Lately we have been searching and selecting music when we get a lull in the phone calls. The search for good freestyle music never stops!
12:00 pm We arrive at our farthest and largest appointment for the day. We have a herd of cattle to work through the chute for vaccinations, ear tagging, and castration. These cattle are range cattle that only get worked once a year, if we are lucky. They are wild as deer, and it’s a mixed bag of 4- to 18-month-old heifers and bulls. The oldest ones are part of a bunch that jumped the gate and headed for open country midway through last year’s gather. The rancher’s wife, who scheduled the appointment, thought we had about 10 heifers and 10 bulls, but when we arrive there are closer to 30 head in the pen, and they are already milling restlessly.
Before we can get started, the owner has a couple of horses he wants me to look at. The first is a young Curly Horse that was pushed through the barbed-wire fence by his pasturemates sometime the day before. I’m told to just take a look at the wound, but it’s obvious that it needs some serious attention beyond the ointment and vet wrap the owner applied yesterday. Due to the advanced stage of the wound, it is a challenge to close it, and I reach for my standard tension-relieving trick, using dollar-store buttons I keep in the truck. These are always a big hit with the client and are a must for wounds that have retracted and require a bit of muscle to put back together.
Once the Curly is repaired, we move on to two more horses at the other end of the property. One is a mare that is likely foundered and has been lame for somewhere between three weeks and four months, depending on which side of the he said/she said conversation you choose to listen to. I recommend x-rays and schedule another appointment later in the week for that. The other horse is an older POA that unfortunately has developed a cancerous growth on his penis. It is about the size of a silver dollar and non-painful at this time. We discuss multiple treatment options, but due to budget and the inability to get him to a surgical facility, it looks like we’ll just be keeping an eye on it, hoping it doesn’t get too aggressive, too fast.
Rural medicine means that not every patient gets state-of-the-art treatment. Real-life budgetary constraints and environmental limitations are a constant factor in all our medical decisions. I consider it my job to offer all the available options along the entire scale and allow the owners to decide what they are comfortable with. It’s tough, especially when I know I could save an animal if given the opportunity, but I try to remain neutral. It’s a tough decision for families who love their animals.
We move on to the cattle. There are four of us working the herd, one in the pen, one at the head gate, one pushing in the alleyway, and one dropping the tail gate. The cattle are wild, and the sorting and pushing setup is not ideal, resulting in copious amounts of shouting, whipping, and hot-shot usage. (I don’t know if it is a common method of cattle handling in other parts of the country, but here in Bonner county, the buggy whip is king for moving feisty cattle. I can imagine Temple Grandin cringing if she were watching from the sidelines.) As an added treat for me, the chute has fencing on either side of the head catch, so the only place to stand to ear tag and tattoo the heifers is right in front of them, giving them a very good shot at breaking my arm when I reach for an ear. The four-month-old heifers aren’t bad, but the older ones are a bit tougher.
Luckily I have 16 years experience in not getting my arm broken, and all goes fairly smoothly…that is, until we get a large heifer (I swear this one is closer to 18 months!) in the chute that happens to have a rather large set of horns. The owner is sending her to the auction in November and knows that he will get a better price on her without horns, so the things have to come off. I like to do my dehorning on heifers that are about 120 pounds under full sedation with local anesthesia. That’s my favorite method. The old-time cattleman’s “lop ‘er off in the chute” method is not. It’s quick and it’s effective, but it’s painful and bloody, and there HAS to be a better way. So, we compromise, electing to nerve block and restrain the heifer while I figure out a good position in this boxed-in head catch to try to remove these horns. They are too big for my loppers so I have to use my wire saw. It works great but is exhausting and requires just the right angle to be effective. Imagine a Nordic Track exercise machine or a rowing machine that is trying to thwart all your efforts at establishing an effective rhythm.
Try as we might we cannot get this heifer in a position that allows for a good angle for the wire saw. The solution? We put 2×4 boards across the fencing on either side of the chute so I can stand on them up above her, sawing those horns off while three people hold ropes to stabilize her head. The block works and she feels next to nothing, but a wild heifer is still not likely to enjoy having her head restrained, and she definitely does not! There are relatively few spurting blood vessels, and I am able to get them cauterized quickly. Unfortunately, when we take the ropes off her head after the second horn, we realize that one of the ropes had been creating a tourniquet, masking the spurting from that horn. The rancher jumps back, screaming as the heifer sprays him across his chest. Of course, now I have to try to cauterize with her head unrestrained and flinging blood everywhere. She sure didn’t appreciate me wielding a red-hot dehorning iron and tried her best to ram me with her head.
After the dehorning/gymnastics event, we move on to the rest of the herd, which by now is thoroughly worked up from the whipping, zapping, and cussing. The smell of blood and burning horn isn’t helping to calm them or lure them into the chute either. The cattle collectively take out a panel being used as part of the alleyway and start to rear up like jumping the fence is next. In an unprecedented move, the rancher chooses to use his bulldozer to attempt to corner the unruly bunch. I look at Carolyn and ask if she has ever seen a bull jump a bulldozer because I am pretty sure it is coming right up. Sure enough, once they are cornered, about half of the cattle choose to jump the remaining panel, while the others jump the blade on the bulldozer. I have to admire their athleticism.
4:30 pm By now Carolyn and I are about two hours past schedule and out of cell service so we are unable to contact any of our following clients that we attempted to add into the already packed schedule. We’d managed to inoculate about 1/3 of the herd prior to the mass exodus over the top of the bulldozer. I ask to use the house land line to let my clients know the status, and we call it a day at the ranch so we can head out to try and salvage part of the schedule that remains.
As we get back into cell service a rush of “dings” on the cell phone are testimony to missed appointments, urgent calls, and messages that we missed while chute-dogging unruly young cattle. We decide that our next call better be an ailing patient, as it is an add-on for the day and about 30 minutes away. I spend the drive time sorting through the calls and making apologies where appropriate for missed appointment times.
5:00 pm When we arrive to see our next patient the owner reports that he is doing much better than when she called in the morning. The gelding had been running a temperature for a while but now is normal and starting to pick at his hay. The old guy is 36 this year and definitely showing his age in the dropped back, knobby knees, and gray sunken face. He has no upper teeth and precious few lower teeth. He’s on a completely pelleted and soaked diet with multiple supplements and has a nice cozy barn to live in.
After a thorough examination, including a rectal exam, I step back and take a look at the bigger picture. These are the tough calls. This is a healthy older horse. The only thing ailing him right now is that he is 36 and the weather is rapidly changing. I have a hard talk with his owner about his age, his condition, and the plan for this winter if things don’t go the way we like. It’s my least favorite part of the job. The owner tearfully tells me she is committed to attempting to take him through the winter, and we make the necessary arrangements if things take a turn for the worse.
5:45 pm Next we are off to see a very annoyed little Holstein cow that has been waiting for us to come and do a milk test. She’s been suffering from a recurrent mastitis problem in one quarter. The owner has attempted several at-home treatments, but the problem keeps coming back. Her bag is full and tight with the delayed appointment, and after taking my sample, she is more than ready to be milked out. She has to wait for a while, though, as we spend some time going over the milking procedure and sanitation practices the owner is using in an attempt to track down the source of the problem.
We decide to send the milk sample off to the lab for cytology and culture, and in the meantime, I recommend a different brand of teat dip with a little better bactericidal scope. These backyard milking parlors are a testimony to the ingenuity of our rural clients. Each parlor is completely unique, and the setup generally depends on the level of cooperation for the cow in question. This particular setup includes a long rope that goes around the cow and attaches to partial wall on one side of the head catch. This cow is apparently adept at kicking the milking machine off, but with the rope, she is stymied and doesn’t even attempt to protest.
6:15 pm We have a message waiting for us when we get back in the truck from our last appointment—they are starting to get a little worried because we haven’t made it yet. We are only about four hours late! The other two appointments we on our schedule have been rescheduled for another (already full) day later in the week.
We arrive in 15 minutes to do a quick blood draw on a ram that is scheduled for a sale next month. All rams have to be tested negative for brucella ovis; this ram is one from a larger group tested a few weeks ago. Occasionally we have one come back as indeterminant, which just means the test didn’t work. So, we have to retest this ram to clear him before the sale. We have plenty of time, but the sample has to be mailed out tomorrow morning if it’s going to make the lab this week.
Luckily, this is a very experienced shepherd who has been through this drill a number of times. He wades into the flock of about 15 large rams, looking for the one that he had chalk-marked earlier in the day. Wading through sheep always reminds me of crowd surfing or maybe wrestling with live Charmin rolls. You are buffeted around by them, but it doesn’t hurt when they are in a large group like that. They sure can hurt you, to be sure, especially if they get a run at you, but wrestling them in a large group I always find kind of fun.
The particular ram we want is more intelligent than his buddies. He knows that the shepherd catches him with a hand under the chin, so he is a “crowd diver.” As soon as he sees one of us coming for him, he plunges his head down under all his friends and starts pushing. Then the whole flock rotates through the pen and we feel like we are in a woolen blender until they land in a corner again. It takes four or five rounds before I’m able to slip a hand under his chin and block him long enough for the shepherd to wade through and grab him. Blood draws on sheep can be a bit tricky when they are fully wooled, but the shearer was here right before me, and the nice smooth neck makes the job a cinch.
6:45 pm We are finally back in the truck and headed home. I drop Carolyn off with plans to see her again at 8:00 am the following morning. I head for home, hoping that I just might have enough daylight left to attempt to ride my horse. Cowboy Dressage World Finals is right around the corner, and I am still attempting to choreograph my Freestyle. I’m on call tonight so it’s a crap shoot, but I’m forever the optimist.
By the time I’ve pulled in at home, though, the sun is just on the other side of the trees, and my arena is about 10 minutes away from pretty darn dark. It’s so hard to get used to these shorter days this time of year. Besides, my horses are all sure I should be turned in for equine abuse by delaying dinner so rudely. My husband Dan usually does all the feeding, but he is out of town, so it’s my turn to do the evening chores.
7:30 pm Time to eat and do some computer work. The dogs are happily eating their dinner, and mine consists of a bag salad and a reheated “smokie.” It’s quick and simple and relatively healthy. I spend some time on the computer for my vet practice then switch gears to my other job with Cowboy Dressage. I’m working on plans for my final clinic of the year in New Hampshire in November. There is a Gathering this coming weekend that I won’t be able to attend, but we are sending a box of DRESSAGE THE COWBOY WAY over to sell. Dan will be coaching at that show but won’t have the time to take a horse along.
9:00 pm The Setters are sleepy and so am I. We hit the hay early tonight. It’s been a long day, and the dog-piled bed is calling my name. I go through my mental list of things that have to happen in the morning before we do it all over again. I set my alarm, reminding myself that chores are again my responsibility before I head out for calls. I have two phones by my bed side and look at them, pleading for them both to remain silent tonight. Midnight calls this time of year aren’t as common as they are in small animal veterinary medicine. Typically, if I can get through evening checks, my patients are all tucked in for the night, and I’m safe from emergencies until morning. I am on call 50 percent of the year, which is a vast improvement from the 100 percent of the year I used to be on call. Those first 10 years of being on call 24/7 were enough to make me question my career choice. I couldn’t pursue the other passions in my life without my fantastic work partner, and it is thanks to her coming into my life that I can be involved in Cowboy Dressage.
As I snuggle in, trying to carve out some room between Irish Setters, my last thoughts are of my Freestyle, and I go to sleep dreaming about dancing with my own horse, hoping it’s my turn to ride tomorrow evening.
DRESSAGE THE COWBOY WAY by Dr. Jenni Grimmett and Eitan Beth-Halachmy is available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.
CLICK HERE for more information.
All photos from Dressage the Cowboy Way by Eitan Beth-Halachmy and Dr. Jenni Grimmett.
Be sure to read the other installments of TSB’s “Horseworld By the Hour” blog series:
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