The text said, “I need to talk with someone I trust.” Her 7-year-old horse had just died from impaction colic. What words could I say to help her overcome her loss yet allow her to grow from it?
Our phone conversation, boiled down to its essence, was about two things. The first was anger over the inept handling of the event by the attending veterinarian. The second was the impossible task of doing the right thing in caring for our horses while being given wrong and harmful instructions and misleading information.
1) Inept Veterinarians
There are a lot of talented veterinarians filled with integrity doing amazing things to care for our horses. Sometimes there are limited resources and these vets do what they can with what they have. However, there are some things that every vet does every time no matter what and one of those things is a rectal exam of a horse with colic. The attending vet in this story, a recent graduate and new associate in the practice, refused to do a rectal exam. Her reasoning was that her arms were too short and because of this, she wasn’t very good at rectal exams. Because of this she missed the diagnosis and delayed the referral of the horse to a well-equipped hospital. Time is always of the essence in colic cases. She also said that her truck was inadequately stocked to handle horse emergencies requiring large volumes of fluids. She had 2 liters available which were enough for a large dog. The horse waited 24 hours before adequate treatment could be given.
Who should this horse owner be angry at? Let’s look at the possibilities. Obviously, the attending vet comes first to mind but why her and not the training she received at her vet school? There should be minimum standards of practical expertise beyond the ability to hold information in the brain. Firefighters who are smart people can’t effectively fight a fire without the skills of climbing ladders and the bravery to enter burning buildings. Why would this person be considered for a job involving horses when she didn’t possess the basic skill of a rectal exam? The answer to this is even more troubling for rural horse owners where events like this are more common.
Horse vets are divided into two categories: good horse vets and bad horse vets. It doesn’t matter what criteria I use for this because it’s irrelevant to my point. The good ones generally go to horse-dense areas and the bad ones generally (or eventually) end up in less-paying jobs in rural areas. It’s pure economics as the dense horse areas generate more income in a day and the practices there can afford to pay the good vets more money. The rural country vet practice has 20 to 50 miles between farms with 1 to 3 horses per farm. This thin distribution of horses brings in just enough revenue to support little more than the owner and an inexpensive associate. But the owner of the rural vet practice is human and needs time off. They hire anyone they can find with a vet license willing to work hard for less money and less time off. They don’t ask about their rectal exam skills. They just assume the skill comes with the degree and license.
The rural vet practice also can’t afford to adequately stock the vehicle or set up a hospital. In a small animal clinic, the animal is brought to a building near town (no trailer needed) and using a tight scheduling system and efficient staff, a lot of small animals can be seen in little time. But horse vets need to go to the horse farms where most horse owners are unaware of the traffic and idiot drivers they fought through just to arrive on time. The horses are often not ready in the stalls with the halters on but rather they are still turned out in the furthest field from the barn. Rounding them up adds up to 30 minutes at a farm and at the end of the day, these delays add hours. During a busy breeding season, a horse vet may work from 6 am until 9 pm or later 7 days a week. This becomes dangerous and unhealthy as well as unattractive to the good horse vet. In today’s society, people want “quality of life” over career advancement. A horse dense population provides this quality of life but the rural horse vet rarely gets this. They only have the scenery out the front windshield to lift their lonely spirits as the never-ending day turns into night.
The reason for the split between rural areas with sparse horses and urban areas with horse-dense populations is the high cost of land. Rural land is less expensive. Horse owners (including most horse vets) want land for their horses and farms and the affordable land is in the rural areas. Unfortunately, this more affordable land is spread over a large geographic area leading to a sparse or less dense horse population. But there’s more to it than horse density. The people in these areas want the same services and technology as those in the wealthier horse dense areas.
The horse owner reads about the quality of horse care available and wants all the high technology but at a rural price. A digital x-ray machine used on 20 horses a month will cost more per use than one used 200 times a month. A dense horse population easily provides the need for the technology but the rural practice works hard to develop the demand for its use. The cost for high-tech veterinary care rises and that cost is distributed over the limited number of horses in the rural practice which the rural horse owners have more difficulty paying. What is left is a rural practice with a debt load that can’t afford to hire the best vets who don’t really want to work the long hours anyway. This leaves the practice owner in a burn-out position, hiring poorly trained associates that provide lackluster care that leads to frustration of the horse owners who feel they are being treated less than their wealthy counterparts in the horse dense areas. The end result is that when a horse owner loses their horse to colic at 7 years of age they are unwilling to go out to replace that horse. The rural horse population gets thinner and the rural vet goes out of business when they retire leaving no vet to care for the rural horse. This is happening now throughout the United States.
2) Lack Of Mentorship
The simple solution is for the horse owner to provide a perfect environment for their horses to remain healthy. Then there would be little need for a veterinarian on an emergency basis. No colic would occur and owners would know how to dress a wound. This doesn’t happen because horse owners today have had poor mentorship and are misinformed on how to keep horses healthy. In the past, the vet was the mentor but today they lack horse husbandry skills. They are trained only to “fix” the horse but not to prevent disease. If horses didn’t break, how would they earn a living?
The current owner of the 7-year-old in this story had gotten him only 5 months earlier. Before this the care was unknown but it had been sent with feeding instructions which the new owner had followed. The most important thing to consider when receiving a new horse on your farm is that the horse is stressed. New places with new horses are as stressful on a horse as it would be on a human. Often it is more stressful because the actual transport of the horse, the new weather, the new herd dynamics and the change in food are usually more extreme.
Stress can lead to disease susceptibility. This is especially true if the horse comes from a farm where there are too many horses for the land and the sanitation is poor. It is important to either treat the new horse effectively for parasites or contain him in a quarantine area where feces are removed daily. The idea of a quarantine is also important to prevent the spread of diseases that can show after stress such as strangles.
The number one cause of stress in all animals is inflammation and the number one place to have inflammation is in the gut. The vast majority of our immune system lies in and is active in our gastrointestinal system and the horse is no different. The food recommended for this horse was very inflammatory. The first 5 ingredients included wheat middlings, rice bran, ground alfalfa, distillers dried grains and soybean oil. Four of these Ingredients are byproducts (waste) of human manufacturing and are inflammatory. There is also no assurance by the manufacturer of quality (molds, contaminants) and freshness (how were they stored and for how long) of these ingredients.
The stress from shipping, a new environment, lack of adequate parasite control and the inflammatory effects of the feed ingredients coupled with little shade in the hot summer sun all predisposed this horse to colic. Without mentorship, all of these risk factors were not even seen as risk factors.
Where Do We Focus Our Anger?
Owning a horse today is an example of the blind leading the blind. Guidance comes from agenda-driven sources rather than from mentors with a vested interest in your success. Farmers want to sell their grain. Distributors and feed dealers want to sell the farmer’s grain so the feed store promotes the grains with inflammatory ingredients. Magazine owners want to sell magazines and make money, they sell ad space. To attract readers they use content from authors who write compelling articles filled with inaccurate and misleading information or they offer up unproven theories as facts. Often they reflect positively on the ads used in the magazine. People want to make money by selling stuff to horse owners and they use marketing and advertising to do so. Selling things to horse owners is only half the story.
The other half of the energy that drives horse owners into making their horse care decisions is actually what they want for their horses. This includes winning in their sport, having the best-looking horse or having the best connection. To do so, horse owners become susceptible to marketing without researching the facts. They trust the person selling to make the right decision for them. This is how charlatans survive.
Beyond this though is something I constantly hear horse owners say. “I just want what’s best for my horse.” This is code for “I’m overwhelmed with information and I don’t know who to trust.” We all do this in all aspects of our lives such as car repairs, health care, investments, and home repairs. But in a horse the owner has grown to love almost more than anything else in the world, this attitude becomes dangerous. It leads to suggestive marketing and bad decisions. Then when something doesn’t go as planned we get angry.
Do we focus our anger on the inept vet who made the diagnostic mistake? The poor training of that vet? The overworked and underappreciated practice owner? Should the anger be focused on the misinformation about parasite control? How about the trust placed in the nutritional care of our horses who expertly market inflammatory ingredients never meant for consumption by horses?
Why not be angry at our parents and grandparents who knew nothing about horses because the car, truck, train and plane replaced the horse during their lifetime? Unfortunately, our relatives and our schools no longer think that horses have relevance in today’s world. To them, horses are dead – at least in America where they are not used as beasts of burden. There are approximately 90 million horses, asses and mules outside the USA where they are still needed for human production and survival. Ethiopia has the largest number of horses, asses and mules compared to the human population in any other country. However, in the United States, horses are mostly recreational and without mentors to teach about their care, charlatans will move in and young horses will be lost prematurely. Eventually, all horses will be gone.
There is little to be done to correct this. I can only offer what I know and over the years I will continue to do this through this website. Hopefully, anyone looking for help will find this information and use it to advocate for the horse. This is the best way to do the best for them. Through knowledge the veil of uncertainty will be lifted, the charlatans will be discovered and the horses will thrive in a human world.