Those Who Touch Horses

By Kimberly S. Graetz

A good friend and mentor, Dr. Doug Byars, head of the internal medicine clinic at Hagyard-Davidson-McGee near Lexington, made a recent comment that struck home. While we are extremely fortunate in Central Kentucky to have skilled and learned professors, veterinarians, researchers, nutritionists, agronomists, and all the other people with degrees, it's the people who touch the horse every day who have been the unsung heroes during this spring's equine health crisis.

"Kentucky is one big campus, and everyone has the same major--equine," said Byars.

Think about it for a minute. What other industry in this country draws so many people, from so many different places, just because of an interest in the same thing? Even those who don't come to stay, come to learn. Kentucky is the cradle of the Thoroughbred industry, and we need to remember that everyone involved makes a difference.

The farm workers have been extremely busy with broodmares these past few weeks, whether or not it is supposed to be part of their normal work routine. Manager after manager has said how everyone has pitched in and made certain everything possible that could be done for these horses has been done. Farm workers have moved a mountain of muck because of horses staying in their stalls more than usual. They've walked horses to make sure they get at least some exercise if they were pulled from pasture turn-out. They've spread muck on the paddocks to cover the grass, and mowed from daylight to dark.

The many people without degrees in the vet clinics are the reason some of these foals born with problems have survived. It's not just the medicines that cure, but the care. Turning foals, propping them up so they breathe better, getting to know each one intimately so the slightest change -- for better or worse -- can be noted, makes the difference in survival.

It's amazing that while burnout and disinterest are ravaging the human nursing profession, these professional "nurses of horses" work on. People from all walks of life, and all areas of the world swell their ranks.

For the vet technicians, those hands-on caregivers of sick horses, it hasn't been easy. Their patients might not complain like humans, but the mares still are protective mothers who sometimes don't understand why someone is attending to their offspring; there also are the unruly kids who won't stay in bed (foals need to be kept lying on their chests, known as sternally, to prevent pneumonia); and visitors who interrupt their work.

There are the oxygen lines that emit a sound -- one that might drive a dog crazy -- whenever a foal moves and kinks the line, which is often. There's feeding, and cleaning up, and medications, and treatments, and always, in this situation, the occupant in the next stall waiting to be tended and another coming through the door.

This crisis isn't over, but it is slowing down. Hopefully everyone will be able to breathe easier and get some rest in the upcoming weeks. But for now, the researchers are working around the clock, trying to find answers to all the questions raised. Farm managers still have the job of getting mares in foal and keeping them that way. Stallion managers not only have their individual horses to worry about, but all the mares that make or break a stallion's season. Veterinarians are working on adrenaline and caffeine, burning out ultrasound machines and offering hope where they can.

Amidst all of that, in the middle of the night, a vet technician walks into the stall of a very sick foal and cradles its head in her arms, talking soothingly to the dam and offering words of encouragement to the little one. Will this one make it through the night? If shared determination and hands-on care make any difference, then the answer is 'yes.'

Mother Nature isn't always kind, but she does have an understanding for those who care for her own.