Wylie’s World: The panic button

Horses are masters of self-destruction. When it comes to injuries, how do you know when to hit the panic button?

I read somewhere that the vet comes to Phillip Dutton’s barn once a week to watch all the horses jog. If something seems amiss, they can get to the bottom of things right away rather than waiting for it to develop into a more serious issue.

Good for Phillip Dutton. If I had a barn full of upper-level horses and owners willing to foot the bill, I’d be doing the same thing.

Unfortunately, I’m not. I’m your average horse owner, trying to do the best I can by my horse on a limited budget. I can’t afford to run my horses to the vet every time they get nicked, dinged or dented.

It’s hard. I wish I was more like the mom whose kid comes limping into the house with a skinned knee, and she tosses them a band-aid and kicks them back outside with some sage parental advice: “Next time, don’t fall down.”

When it comes to my horse, however, my natural inclination is to overreact. I want to hit the panic button every time.

Puffy leg?


Off his grain?


Runny nose?


I’m a naturally gifted panicker–and I’m sure many of you out there are, too. Stick around horses long enough and you’ll develop a list of rational and irrational fears as long as your arm. We’ve all experienced or eye-witnessed nightmarish equine emergency situations, and at some point you start absorbing all that paranoia into your own psyche.

Of course, sometimes hitting the panic button is precisely the correct thing to do. If your horse’s health and well-being appears to be in immediate jeopardy, there is no other option than reacting with urgency.

Other times, though, things are a little more murky.

Last week my horse Esprit came in from the field with a big, hot, swollen fetlock. Without any obvious trauma, my mind raced to worst-case scenarios: shredded suspensories, torn tendons, that seemingly innocuous P1 bone chip we noticed on a radiograph a couple years ago come back to haunt us.

The other facts were these: He was only slightly off, and my bank account was nearly empty. So I reluctantly talked myself into a more conservative approach: three days of cold-hosing, five days of bute, seven days of rest. If it didn’t look better in a week, I pledged, we would go get it checked out.

The swelling was gone within 48 hours, along with most of the heat and unsoundness, but the windpuffs on that leg were still extra-puffy–which I interpreted as an indication that something still wasn’t quite right.

A week later the windpuffs were still going strong, so I made an appointment at the University of Tennessee Veterinary Hospital. I requested Dr. Steve Adair, whom I’ve always trusted to be the cool-and-calm yin to my panic-button yang. I’d actually brought Esprit in to see him a few weeks earlier, in a state of duress because I thought there was a vertebrae protruding from my horse’s back. (There wasn’t; he’d either rolled on a rock or was having a reaction to a bug bite.)

Anyway, flexion tests didn’t yield anything out of the ordinary, but an ultrasound showed fluid in the deep digital flexor tendon sheath and a thickened synovial membrane. I stared in horror at the wavering gray blob on the screen: What could it mean?


“It means he probably whacked it real hard on something,” Dr. Adair explained.

Rx: Two weeks of rest, followed by two weeks of light riding. If the joint seemed to be giving him grief when we went back to work, we’d do some further investigating.

Three cheers for a best case scenario!

On one hand, had I not taken Esprit to the vet, I probably would have proceeded with a similar course of action. On the other, it feels SO much better to know exactly what’s going on–I might even get some quality sleep tonight.

Esprit, you sure know how to push my buttons.

C RWN13-0784081

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