“It’s no wonder that burnout and depression rates are so high in this profession, especially here where vets are expected to have expert knowledge not just on people’s pet horses but on cattle, swine, sheep, goats and god only knows what else folks have running around on their farmsteads.”
My senior draft gelding was pretty clearly impacted: he was off his feed and showing signs he was uncomfortable, but not violently so, like a gas colic or a more serious rupture or torsion. The usual rural horse owner tricks hadn’t done much to help him: a dose of banamine, pulling the feed, and even a fake trailer loading. It had been over 36 hours at this point — high time for an intervention.
But our regular farm vet, who deals more frequently in cattle and hadn’t worked an equine colic case in a while, hadn’t been able to successfully tube him. The backup farm vet didn’t think he sounded sick enough for him to come see him. The other local horse vet wasn’t taking emergency calls that day; the local multi-animal clinic wasn’t taking any new large animal clients. The ambulatory service based in the next closest major city let me know, regretfully, that I was outside of his area.
And so now I was back on the phone with the backup farm vet, hours later with the horse still no better, shooting my shot.“Look, if you don’t think you can do anything for him, I’ve got my trailer here,” I told him. “I’m going to have to haul him to a clinic.” The nearest equine clinics were about two hours one-way in either direction.
“Don’t haul him,” the vet said quickly. There was a pause, a sigh, and I could picture this man rubbing his temples. “I can come out this afternoon and give him some oil. But if that doesn’t work, you know what we’ll have to do.”
Fortunately, it worked. Twelve hours later somewhere in the dark watches of the night, the gelding passed a large load of oil-slick manure, and another 12 hours after that he was bucking and playing like a colt in the springtime.
Crisis evaded, for another day.
Colics happen, of course. It’s par for the course when you have horses. Large bloody wounds happen too, as does lymphangitis, fevers, eye irritation. Horses get kicked; horses get bitten. And while there’s a certain amount of self-reliance baked into a good horseman if you’ve been around long enough to have seen your fair share of the ridiculous and horrifying things horses can do to themselves, a good horseman also keeps a good vet in their corner.
Largely, I understand. From speaking with our regular farm vet, I get the struggles. We’re a poor, sparsely-populated community, and the unfortunate reality is that many local animal owners do everything they can to try to doctor something along well after the point they should have called the vet, and then call the vet to make an eleventh-hour save that’s not always possible. It’s no wonder that burnout and depression rates are so high in this profession, especially here where vets are expected to have expert knowledge not just on people’s pet horses but on cattle, swine, sheep, goats and god only knows what else folks have running around on their farmsteads.
But here I was, ready to call professional intervention when it was needed, willing and able to pay for the veterinarian’s services. And that was exactly the thing I was unable to get before I very nearly begged for it. That’s what’s scariest: I felt that I was doing everything right and I still could not get the help that I needed, when it was needed. It was chilling to know that despite being a responsible horse owner, my animals still might suffer simply due to a lack of available veterinary care.
I recall earlier this spring, when posts were going viral on Facebook about how some animal medications would now require a veterinary prescription, and the uproar from my fellow rural animal owners. “Feed is already almost too expensive,” read one comment. “How are we supposed to afford to call a vet every time an animal needs antibiotics?” Read that one again: if you’re giving prescription-strength antibiotics, why on earth is a veterinarian not already involved?
I realize that calling a vet out every time a horse has a scrape or a cut that requires a few days of SMZ probably feels excessive. But well before we get to that point, an established vet/client relationship can make that process as easy as sending a text message. (That process in and of itself can also lead to veterinarian burnout, but that expectation of 24/7 service is a topic for another editorial.)
It would be easy for me to say those of us in poor, rural communities have been let down by our veterinarians as they move to small animal practice or wealthier regions of the country with more clients. But the reality is that we’ve let down our vets for a long time now, and we’re starting to reap what we’ve sown. Supply follows demand.
Reach out to your rural vet. If you don’t have one, establish a relationship with one, before it’s too late to find anyone at all. Communicate, listen, and be a good client — for the sake of all of our horses.