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  • Writer's pictureDavid Jefferson

It Goes with the Job

Unless their work is in a laboratory, any veterinarian you talk to will have his or her war stories of getting hurt by their patients. Large animal vets have their own unique encounters. In dealing with cattle and horses there is always the potential for serious injury. I have been the recipient of a few bites, countless kicks, many body slams, and lots of getting stepped on.

On more than one occasion I have been knocked flat on my back. Thirty years ago an Arabian horse recovering from general anesthesia got up too soon. He was completely disoriented, fell on me, and broke my leg. That followed my removal of his testicles, so we can count that injury as payback. It began a long unplanned vacation. A very opinionated race horse kicked me squarely in the crotch. Great aim! That ended that day’s work. It was an uncomfortable ride home and the start of another vacation.

A friend of mine at vet school was too trusting with a dairy bull. The bull got him in a corner and pressed his head against him in a corner. That episode resulted in the removal of my friends spleen and a few feet of intestine.

A body slam is when a horse wants to be in the space you are occupying and moves in fast. Done slowly and deliberately it’s called crowding. When a horse weighing 1000 pounds moves into your space, you either give way or should have a plan to enable you to stand your ground. When you are in tight quarters with a horse, a plan going in is essential.

Years ago, when I first started in practice, most draft horses were housed in straight stalls, sometimes called slip stalls. These stalls have two high side walls and a front, but no rear wall. It’s like a big wooden chute, 6 feet wide and 8 feet long. The front is cut away so that you can access the manger which is built into the front wall. Hay and grain can be delivered from in front of the stall so that you don’t have to get in with the horse. Horses with feed anxiety don’t pay much attention to the rules of proper behavior.

While straight stalls are rarely seen today, they are educational in teaching how to handle a horse in tight quarters. To lead a horse into a straight stall you walk in with him, on his left side, using a lead shank attached to his halter. At the front of the stall you pick up the end of a rope that is tied to an iron ring attached to the manger. There is a snap on the rope’s free end that attaches to his halter. Once he is secured, you remove your lead and push against his left shoulder so that he will step over to give you some space to get out. The rope securing him is a few feet long. It’s long enough so he can move around, but not so much that he can get a front leg over it. I am describing the stall in detail to highlight what a potentially dangerous place it can be if you are in there with a big horse.

Draft horses used to be the farm’s power source, doing the hard work of plowing, planting, cultivating, logging, and haying. They usually weigh from 1500 to 2000 pounds. In the old days they were put up in straight stalls. Days they were either worked or were in an outside pasture.

Straight stalls made for economical housing as three horses can fit in the same space that one box stall would take up. The only time farmers would go into a straight stall themselves was when they were putting the horse in or taking him out. Grooming, harnessing, and shoeing were all done out on the barn floor. It was just too tight a space in the slip stall for you and the horse, especially if a horse had a tendency to crowd you or to panic.

When you are in a straight stall with a big horse and he moves in your direction, you can only back up so much and you’ll encounter the wooden side wall behind you. Draft horses all had single syllable names for reasons of economy. Moms with kids with long names know that. Horses know their names and simple words like whoa. As they worked in teams, the preferred address is their name first and then the action you want them to take. “Bob, Haw!” or “Sam, Gee!” If you were in the horse’s stall and he started to move your way, you would say, “Pete, git over!”, and push against his shoulder. If that didn’t work, your next move would be to slap him on the rib cage and repeat the command, but louder and sharper: “PETE! GIT OVER!” Occasionally that might be ignored too, and you are suddenly like the guy between a rock and a hard place. The horse may not respond because he is interested in getting to his feed and is not paying attention. Sometimes, rarely, you might have a willful horse on your hands.

An oldtimer who worked his horses in the woods shared his knowledge with me about handling such situations. He always carried a 10 penny nail in his shirt pocket. A 10 penny is three inches long. If crowded by the horse, he would reach into this pocket, grab the nail and hold it in his fist with just about ½ inch of the point exposed. If the first, “Pete, git over”, didn’t get a response, he would hold the nail against the horse’s side. It wasn’t a jab, it was more like a steady push. Horses have very sensitive skin, and their immediate reaction is to quickly step away from anything sharp. It takes very little pressure, and should always be accompanied by “Pete, git over!” so that the next time just the command will make the horse move. Another old timer told me, “No sir, I never use a nail. I make a fist with my left hand but leave my thumb ticking out. One good poke in the eye with my thumb and they move. Works every time.” I can tell you from a couple of experiences, he was right.

Working with cattle and horses you have to be quick on your feet and be able to predict their next move. Horses in particular clearly telegraph what they are about to do. I call the expression on their face and their ear carriage the crystal ball. When you are around an animal that outweighs you, it’s important to be aware of what their intentions are. If you are mindful, the chance of getting hurt is minimal. It’s interesting that horses can be dangerous even as they are being euthanized. You can’t predict which way a horse will fall in this procedure, and following your vet’s exact instructions at that time is critical.

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