I grew up in a suburb of New York City. The houses on our street stood next to each other on 60 x 100 foot lots. Next door to us was a family with a son named Billy. Billy was blind from birth. He passed by our house walking to and from high school every day. No one held him by the arm; there was no seeing eye dog, and no white cane. Billy was about 10 years older than the pack of kids I played with on the street every day. We all admired Billy. As he walked by we always stopped our games so that we could talk to him. Even before we spoke he could tell us apart just by listening to the way we walked or ran, and always greeted each of us by name. Sometimes when I visited next door I would sit with Billy, and he would read to me with his fingers moving across the page of one of his books written in braille.
Billy went on to seminary and became a minister. There was never any question about Billy’s intelligence. Yet, he was handicapped. From the time that we were old enough to play outside, we were told by our parents to keep our bicycles, wagons, and skates off the sidewalk so that Billy wouldn’t run into them, get tangled up, and fall. When we were called into supper we looked around for toys on the sidewalk and asked ourselves, for Billy, “What could happen here?”
I consider horses highly intelligent, but they are blind in many ways. Not vision blind, but blind to dangers of our “toys” in this domesticated world. There are hundreds of ways horses can get in trouble that wouldn’t happen if they were just running out on the plains like their ancestors.
I am thinking about the times I have gotten out of a warm bed to suture a horse’s leg- the leg that got caught in a harrow or another piece of equipment lazily left in a pasture; the occasions that I have probed deep wounds suffered by horses running into nails sticking out of stall walls, the many times when I had to pump mineral oil down a tube into a horse’ stomach because someone made a radical food change which resulted in a roaring colic. Lately it’s been calls to treat a whole stable of sick horses because the new rescue horse wasn’t isolated long enough from the susceptible horses in his new barn.
Any equine vet that has been out of school at least 5 years will have stories about emergency trips to farms that needn’t have been. We all have lots of stories. The incidents happen because of the way that horses are “hard wired.” Locked into every horse’s DNA are hundreds of thousands of years of getting chased, pulled down, and eaten. When danger comes, those old reflexes take over. Run! Run as fast and you can, because the hunter has teeth and can run too. When you are the hunted, it doesn’t matter where you run to, or what you might run into, just run. When trapped, thrash around until you break free and can run some more. It worked in the wild when a horse was trapped in a thicket. Tangled up in wire thrashing doesn’t work as well. The quiet horse that nickers to you when you walk in the barn and allows you to cradle his head has the same potential of any horse to panic and get hurt.
We admire their intelligence. But we are their caretakers, after all, and this includes our thinking in areas that they can’t. For example, there are things for horses to explore when bored in their 12 by 12 stall. No animal is more grounded and therefore more subject to electrocution than a horse. Four feet firmly planted on the ground, often with steel shoes. If you have a frayed wire or an electrical outlet within reach of a curious tongue, at the least your horse is subject to a nasty shock. Along the same lines, thunder storms may upset or scare a horse, but there is no way that they can figure out the safest place to go. They simply don’t think, “What could happen here.” I was once asked by an insurance company to examine three horses found dead at pasture. Lightning hit the tree that they had gone under for shelter.
About 20 years ago one of our clients thought he should bring his mare and foal in from pasture just before a summer storm. John could feel the storm coming, but delayed going out because he thought it might blow over. After the lightning started, he finally ran out of the house to bring in his mare and her baby. He snapped the lead onto the mare’s halter and ran as fast as he could toward the barn with the foal running behind her mom. After a tremendous boom and simultaneous flash the lead went taut in his hand, and he looked back to see the mare lying just four feet from him, killed by the lightning. The foal was unhurt, but in that one second had become an orphan.
Twenty odd years ago I was asked to repair a very serious front leg injury on a thoroughbred mare. She had hobbled in from the pasture that evening, dragging one front leg. All of the extensor tendons were cut, and the laceration went deep enough to carve a half inch deep gash in the cannon bone. It looked like someone had hit her leg with a machete. After putting her back together the best I could, I walked the large pasture with the owner. At the back of the pasture was a long ridge of land that separated the lower from the upper pasture. The ridge was penetrated by a galvanized drainage culvert sticking out several inches. The sharp edge of that pipe had hair and blood sticking to it. The owner had never considered that a horse would run into a pipe. Grazing quietly, they never would. But horses playing together and running at a full gallop across a field and up a rise aren’t thinking of possible consequences as you and I might (and should).
I don’t see it as much barbed wire as I used to on horse farms, but occasionally still do, and I think of the horses I have seen trapped in it, fighting to get out, cutting their legs terribly. Barbed wire is made for cattle, and because they tend not to panic, it is fencing that works for cattlemen. Horses and barbed wire don’t mix so well. You may have some on your farm that’s been there for years. Today is one day too long. If you have some, do the thinking for your horse. Put on your heavy duty leather gloves, roll up that wire and take it to the dump.
I recommend regular walks through your property, looking carefully at everything you see, always asking the question, “What could happen here.” Similarly, always be on the lookout for nails sticking out of walls or buildings. As buildings shift, nails can poke out. If you are having a new barn roof put on, insist that the workers use one of the large wheeled bar magnets to snag any nails that a horse may step on. Drop a handful of roofing nails on the ground and take a look. There is a good chance that at least one of the nails will land with the point standing straight up because of their wide heads. In our practice it would be a rare year that we don’t pull a roofing nail out of a foot.
With horse ownership comes responsibilities. Clear the way for your horse just as we used to for my friend Billy. Given the nature of the horse, a good question is always, “what could happen here.”
–David A. Jefferson, DVM