Legacy: A Horse Called Ghost

Love, whether or animals or people, involves risk.  Let me amend that, love involves the certainty of pain and eventual loss, always. Because we know that, every moment that we spend with each other or with a “quasi-human” pet should be filled with awareness and appreciation of life. Over a lifespan, the love we enjoy far outweighs the pain of separation. It leaves us enriched, more experienced, and better able to process what we know will come.

For some reason many of us as children were fascinated by the idea of sitting on a horse. Our mothers set us up on the horse of our choice on the carousel.  Maybe we got to ride a real pony around in a circle at the fair. We read Black Beauty, and watched My Friend Flicka. I did all these things. So did my children.

For many of us the fascination wears off. We discover that real horses are bigger than we thought, and stronger than we knew, and less inclined to be caught and gently led, let alone ridden.  But for some, like my daughter Julia, the dream goes on, and if horse ownership is denied for lack of money, time or any other practical reason, the dream builds pressure until it explodes.  And so, a horse entered the life of our family and had effects that are still in operation today.

Julia, her sister Esther, and I had ridden and worked at a small stable in northern Wisconsin for several summers when the owner brought in a new string of horses she had bought in Minnesota. They had to be ridden a lot and carefully gauged for their trustworthiness before any of the “dudes” were put on them. The owner, Miss Lolly, had one that was her favorite – a nearly white quarter horse mare she called Ghost.  She rode her most of the time but occasionally one of her better outriders were asked if they wanted to try her. That was the summer Julia fell in love with Ghost.  The next year she bought her, one payment at a time, with her own money.

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Julie and Ghost in their first parade, Hayward, Wisconsin.

Logistically, it was crazy. We had moved to Florida and had no place for a horse. So Ghost lived in Wisconsin on Lolly’s farm and she and Julia continued to work together in the summer. But the time came when school and work made the summer trips up north shorter and Julia missed her horse. It was time for Ghost to come to Florida.

We knew little to nothing about trailering a horse over that distance. Our borrowed one-horse trailer was hitched behind a mini-van, of all things, and I have pictures of our travel arrangement that make me wonder how we ever made it. The roughly 30 hour trip had one overnight, as I recall, and lots of stops where we would check on Ghost’s water and hay.  Only once did we actually take her out of the trailer briefly and let her walk around at a country exit off the interstate. I think we were worried we wouldn’t be able to get her back in.

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Ghost with the new filly Fea.

She made it to Florida and to Springrock Farm where she spent a number of years with J.C. Barnhill watching over her.  Julie’s regular trips to care for Ghost benefited the horse but also furthered Julie’s interest as she learned how to trim hooves, care for horse teeth, and feed and exercise horses.  One of the biggest surprises was when it was discovered that Ghost had come to Florida in foal.  Rocker, a pretty paint colt was added to the family.  Several years later Ghost was bred to Barnhill’s thoroughbred stallion, Officer, and had a filly.  Julie named her Fea, and although she came out brown, she soon was the spitting image of her mom.  The family was a herd of three.

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Left to right: Fea, Rocker and Mama Ghost in festive dress.

The family spent time at several other properties as the years unfolded, always necessitating Julie to travel daily to watch over, feed and ride. They were her charges, her dependents. Her knowledge and interest in veterinary care of large animals increased and ultimately led her to enter the DVM program at UF, Gainesville.  Ghost and the family moved to a small farm there for four years.  The next move was to Jacksonville, FL where Dr. Julia began her job with Jacksonville Equine.  At the small boarding pasture where her herd now lived, Dr. J. had to deal with Ghost’s problems of advancing age, especially weight loss and inability to compete with other horses for feed.  The last few months were a triumph for Ghost and Dr. J. as Ghost was healthy, energetic and looking well nourished.  Only a few weeks ago Dr. J. and some friends took her on a trail ride with Rocker and Fea and all did well.

We’ve all heard of the benefits of having pets. There Is even more to a long term, committed relationship to the care and welfare of an animal. It is much like parenting, in that patience is learned, along with so many other skills. Love is practiced through good times and bad. Faithfulness has its demands for both owner and animal. Those demands, decisions and courses of action can be stressful and sudden.

A week ago Ghost had a medical emergency, colic, another name for equine bowel obstruction. It could not be resolved with initial treatment and Dr. J. took her quickly to the UF vet hospital for diagnosis and ultimately, surgery. Given every chance, Ghost was still unable to survive. She has been laid to rest in a quiet corner of her pasture and will not be forgotten.

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Ghost, may you be in pastures where the grass is always green and fresh…

Weekend on Call: episode 1

I have a talented daughter who is an equine veterinarian.  Although I am a registered nurse for people, she occasionally allows me to ride on calls with her as she treats animals. We have adventures. I call myself VetMa. (OK,  it’s a bit dramatic. So what?)

It was Thursday evening, the first of the long weekend on call.  It was getting dark. As often happens two emergency calls came in at the same time, but this time the triage decision was easy.  The horse with the eye laceration would have to wait, because the one with the heel bulb laceration would not.  The heel bulb is the area directly above the hoof of the horse and in this case, the owners reported fairly heavy bleeding. An artery had likely been severed.

The horse was standing in the driveway surrounded by a small crowd of people.  A blood soaked wrap was around it’s left front hoof and ankle.  It became apparent that there was no lighted barn in which to care for the horse, not even a floodlight over the drive so cars were pointed with headlights shining on the horse.

Almost all work done on large animals that involves pain, requires some degree of sedation and although this patient was standing fairly quietly, he would definitely need something for the treatment ahead.  Just like people, animals respond differently to sedatives. The doc estimated the animal’s weight and gave a starting dose before cleaning the wound. As it began to take effect, the bandage was removed.

Lacerations in this area are always going to be contaminated and prone to infection. This one was in the fleshy area in the back of the bulb and there were arteries involved.  Just cleaning and examining the area was difficult – a tranquilized horse has trouble standing on three legs so holding it’s leg up in a convenient position proved impossible. Our doc decided to let the horse stand on all four while she worked. That meant working in an unexplainable position close to the ground, nearly under the horse, in the dark with flashlights to guide the way.

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The perfect conditions and position for suturing, not.

The area around the laceration was blocked with local anesthetic and scrubbed clean. As the horse shifted its weight the laceration would open and close, each time making the small arterial bleeders spurt blood. It was difficult to see where to tie them off, but little by little the laceration was closed and the bleeding stopped.

While the tranquilizer was still in effect, the doc wrapped the ankle in batting and layers of gauze. A fiberglass cast was applied like a small boot to protect the area and allow the horse to stand and move while the cut healed. As the crowd dispersed, the doc gave instructions for care and dispensed antibiotics (and stretched her aching back).

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All fixed up with a small boot cast.

It was back in the truck and on to the next call.  Fortunately, the horse with the eye laceration was at an equine event where they had found another vet who was a participant. He was willing to stitch up the laceration so we went home, hoping for a quiet night.

A Simple Way to Effectively Ruin Your Vet’s Schedule

One of this days
One of this days “added” patients, up and about after surgery.

Having spent a few days with Jacksonville Equine veterinarian Dr. Dietz, I noticed a trend in her business. It goes something like this:

“Hey doc, while you’re here would you mind doing a Coggins on my horse. I just live next door. It will only take a minute…”

Well, as long as you’re here go ahead and float my horse’s teeth if it needs to be done…”

“As long as we knew you were coming, my sister brought her horses over too. Could you vaccinate them as well…”

“Hey, as long as you’re here, do you have time to castrate a goat, or maybe all three of them?”

Several days with only a few known appointments have turned out to be considerably longer days than expected. Some days this is good. Others, not so much. It can be a scheduling nightmare. However, Dr. J is getting good at upselling her services and rarely turns anyone down. Because farms are often far apart it is much easier to do more work in one location and apologize to the next client for being a bit late, than to come back later. The “while you’re here” conversation usually means a savings of time for her and is welcomed.

My unusual experience on this trip was the procedure on the three goats. I’m not going into details here but in general, she is good with the knife and it didn’t take very long at all. One was awake and walking around by the time we left, the other two were still sleeping off the anesthesia. Goats snore.

No, not dead - just sleeping it off, and snoring.
No, not dead – just sleeping it off, and snoring.

The five days I spent in Jacksonville were sunny and beautifully temperate which is different from our usual rainy weekends there. The farms we visited were green grassed and clean. Our own horses were looking sleek and shiny and their pasture was dry, not a sea of mud. I could imagine it being a good place for Dr. J to live and practice.