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  • The Horse Lady

Dancing Shoes

You know, in anyone's estimation, Duke is a pretty special horse. His original training as a cart horse and a trail riding horse, as well as his exposure to large numbers of people really made him laid back and easy going. Well, for a horse.

But something has happened between Duke and me in the years since. It was originally my intention to use Suzy and Duke as a team when I opened the carriage business, but when Suzy made her wish to be a stay at home mare very clear, Duke and I were left looking at one another with silly looks on our faces. We tried a few times to find him another partner, but in the end, we made the choice to work together, just the two of us.

In the past four seasons, Duke and I have done a thousand things together. With Brett and I, we did thousands more. Duke has trotted many hundreds of miles back and forth to Almonte with me on the reins. He taught me what tired looked like. He taught me what tooth pain looked like. He taught me what his love of children looks like.

He taught me how not to back up a boat ramp, how to navigate all of Almonte, and that he will never, repeat never, willingly cross a manhole cover. He has persisted with us purely because we love him, crossing concrete, wood, and asphalt just because we said he should. He has tolerated really big drums, marching bands and rock music (he prefers folk).

Sometimes I wake up at night and go out to the barn to make sure the horses are okay. I go out and put my head against his and we breathe together. He is truly the most wonderful horse I have ever met (don't tell the others)

I have been writing for months about Duke and his abscesses. He had a few last year, but the problem really started in earnest this spring. Always the right fore, sometimes responding to Epsom salt baths (we should buy shares), and often responding to poulticing compounds in his blue Davis medicine boot. (we have both a six and a five, read that as supremely large and extra supremely large).

In August we broke open a big nasty abscess that had been growing and shrinking in cycles for some time. It drained for a week or so and then healed. I started making him rubber sneakers over the summer, as I illustrated in the last chapter of this blog. I did finish them, but he won't be needing them for a while. Here's why.

In October we did two weddings, one at Stone fields and an East Indian wedding at the Crown Plaza in Gatineau. He hadn't done anything for a while before those two weddings, and nothing since healing from his last round with the abscess monster. The Indian wedding was Saturday Oct 20. He was lame by Monday.

We got back on the soak, poultice, clean, soak, poultice treadmill for four days. And I called the vet. We scheduled a date for Monday, Oct 29.

By Friday, Duke was barely putting any weight on the foot at all, and he was laying down more than he was eating. In the morning I made an emergency vet call. I was frantic. I spent that entire Friday with him, petting him, brushing him, singing to him (don't knock it!) and sitting by him in the barn so that he would feel me close. Melissa, from Mississippi Mills Animal Hospital, was here at 4:30. He was so bad I thought she was going to tell me to put him down.

Melissa X-rayed Duke's foot and found three gas pockets in the hoof, probably created by the repeated abscessing, and badly infected. She prescribed antibiotics and bute (equine aspirin) for two weeks. I asked how I should administer these drugs and she looked a little confused. I reminded her that although I have been working very hard for five years to teach myself what my grandfather could have taught me in a matter of days, there are lots of things I have yet to learn. We settled on oral administration.

Melissa was also very specific about our care of the foot itself. Baths and poulticing, and he was to wear his blue boot 24/7 until he was equipped with shoes. It was not negotiable. I volunteered that I would need to cancel our parade season, but she disagreed. Two weeks was lots of time for him to heal and for us to get him shod.

So let us define Oral Administration shall we. First we take the powdered drug and put it in a plastic container with a screw on lid. This includes, remember, both the antibiotic and the painkiller. Then we add just enough water so that all of the drug and the water will still fit into a 60ml syringe (that's the biggest syringe you can imagine). Screw the lid on and shake thoroughly. Removing the lid, suction up all of the drug, now in liquid form, with the syringe. Then placing the syringe in the corner of the horse's mouth, push it to the top of the throat and push the plunger all of the way down.

It sounds easy but there are a few points that need to be made. First, somebody has to hold the plastic container so that the liquid will all pool to one side so that it can be all sucked up. If one is alone, the rest of the household being asleep because it is, say, 5am, then you precariously balance the container on the top of a coffee travel mug. Stay with me on this.

Another point that needs to be made is that 60ml syringes really don't have a long life expectancy when they are being reused and washed regularly. About five days actually. What happens is that the rubber stopper on the head of the plunger tends to warp out of shape, thus making it increasingly difficult to withdraw the plunger and requiring increased muscle power to continue its progress up and sucking up all of the liquid.

You will understand that when I tell you this: in two weeks we used up several doses by applying it, through accidental over withdrawal of the plunger or knocking the travel mug base, or trying to eliminate air in order to make room for the rest of the liquid. Eventually the counters, the floor, the cupboards and even the ceiling had a thin cloudy film that would not wipe off without calling in a crime scene cleaning crew.

Administering a drug by syringe down the back of the throat of a 1700 lb animal requires cooperation on the part of the animal. And rarely does a 1700 lb animal willingly cooperate with having a liquid drug piped into the back of his throat. Unless, of course, that 1700 lb animal is Duke. Well, cooperate is an interesting word. Lets just say I got good at bribery and he learned that apples do a great job of getting rid of the taste of apple flavored medication. Go figure.

Regardless, we persevered and Duke received two weeks worth of doses. His limp gradually disappeared, and as he started to feel better, he lost patience with the foot baths - everyone else was eating outside, and he wanted to join them. (he had hay of his own, which he promptly pooped in). He kept his pretty blue boot on until last Friday evening, November 16. The required shoes, with pads, were on at last.

If you have seen the photos of Duke at the parade, you can see that he was his usual adaptable, friendly self. He allowed his photo to be taken with a Paul Bunyan style mascot. The reason he looks so calm in the photo is because, well, he is great, but also because I was telling him that guy was okay and he was safe with me. (hope he doesn't go all over befriending strange mascots now)

And if you see a picture of him taken from behind, you will see his pretty new dancing shoes, his orthopedic shoes, as he trots off into the distance.

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