Clydesdale Emergency

May 1980, Logan, Utah

On a still, clear morning, the snow-topped Wasatch Mountains glowing pink with dawn light, I went out to the truck to check my supplies for the day’s calls. In a couple of days, it would be my thirty-first birthday, and I was hoping Ron would give me the day off, I was beat from too many night emergencies the last week.

My husband, Harry was still asleep. The breeze brought the fragrance of new grass up the valley. The crescent moon shown clear in the dawn sky. I took a deep breath of pine-scented mountain air and stretched. Lee’s car was approaching from off in the distance—count on her to be right on time, she was such a dependable technician. A trail of dust followed her little yellow car up the dirt road. Her boots were clean, her green coveralls newly washed, coffee cup in hand.

“Got the list?” she asked.

“Yeah, just now off the answering machine. Not too bad a day,” I said.

“Who’s first?”

“The Jenson’s dairy, just out of town. Then we head north. All routine stuff.”

“Thank God for that! After yesterday, we need a quiet day.”

The day before, we had left at dawn and didn’t get home until after eight pm. A couple of emergencies had stretched the day to the breaking point. I ducked into the house to get my gear and brought out two blueberry muffins to share.

“Not homemade, but not too bad,” I said, mouth full.

We drove down the valley to Main Street, past the Straw Ibis café, the only place in town to get coffee, not yet open, and then north to the Jenson’s. They milked about a hundred and fifty cows, and ten were on the list for a pregnancy check, plus a couple of problem cows that had not settled—if they didn’t get pregnant soon, they’d be sent to slaughter. I wanted to check the cow whose leg I had stitched up a while ago. I’d been meaning to come by and check her but got busy and forgot. The Jenson dairy was small but known for high-producing Holstein cows. Like many dairymen in Cache Valley, the Jenson’s had a team of Clydesdale pulling horses that competed at the Utah State Fair every year. Giant horses that worked as a team to pull a sled with ever increasing weights, the team pulling the heaviest weights winning. Sherman Jenson had told Doc Ron Hamm, my boss, back a year ago when I started in the practice, that it might be OK for that Lady Vet to do vet work on his cows, but he wanted Ron to handle anything with his precious pulling horses. Ron owned a bunch of mules and liked equine work, so I was happy to have him handle the routine worming, hoof trimming, and occasional muscle sprain of the huge Jenson Clydesdale team. When I drove by the Jenson’s I often saw Lamar, Sherman’s son, out in the field with the big horses, harnessed to the pulling sled, working to build their stamina and muscle.

The gravel drive crunched beneath our tires on the way up to the milking parlor. I noticed a couple of extra pickup trucks down by the horse barn. Lamar heard us and waved.

“Doc” he yelled. “Got a problem. Come on down. Bring the truck.” I put it into first gear and drove down the hill. A couple of worried farmhands came out to have a look at the Lady Cow Vet.

“What’s up? Where’s your Dad?” I asked. Lamar was young, and if there was a real emergency with the horses, I needed his dad.

“Looks like there was a big fight in here last night.” Lamar pulled off his cap and scratched his head.

“The new gelding’s hurt pretty bad, Doc.”

I grabbed my kit. “Let’s take a look.”

The stall had been shattered, thick two-by-eight planks splintered to toothpicks. The huge young Clydesdale faced the corner, trembling. His teammate, the older black gelding, was out in the pasture.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Blackie and Clyde were our best pulling team, and you know, Clyde died of the colic a few months back.” Lamar talked faster than his normal Utah drawl.

“We got this here young fella, Gus, last week, and we thought Blackie was getting used to him.”

I could imagine what happened; the two horses had been housed next to each other before becoming friends, and Blackie had beat up Gus—badly. Gus had a huge hoof-shaped tear in the muscle of his massive butt, with a flap the size of a dinner plate hanging down, exposing the underlying muscles, ragged, bleeding scratches on his shoulder and more on his front leg. Lee bustled around, fetching some hot water, clean towels, and my suturing kit.

“Where’s your Dad?” I asked again. I was going to need Sherman’s horse skills to help me with this giant. Gus was tall enough I could walk under his belly without having to duck too far. Like his potential pulling partner, Blackie, Gus wore the horseshoes of a pulling team horse—heavy iron made to gouge into the earth for traction, matching the large size of the wound in his butt. Blackie had cornered Gus and kicked him mercilessly.

Sherman’s pickup came down the hill. He jumped out of the truck and slammed the door. His brown lace-up boots were caked with mud from the alfalfa field, his faded grey baseball cap pushed back on his head, matching the grey of his hair. Solid, Mormon to the core, big hands, six feet plus tall with a gentle demeanor that made him a good match with his pulling horses.

“Hi Doc! I went looking for Doc Hamm, couldn’t find him. We got us a real bad situation.”

“I can see that.”

“I know you aren’t much for horse work,” he said, stepping into the stall and murmuring reassurance to Gus, patting his neck.

“You’re right about that,” I said. He wasn’t keen on having the Lady Cow Vet near his prize pulling horses, but right now, he didn’t have much of a choice.

Sherman stood close to Gus, gently rubbed his muzzle and talked softly into his ear. There was no way I was getting near that butt to suture it without Gus being sedated. My go-to sedative was a fast-acting drug that usually calmed an animal down for about thirty minutes. To calculate the dose, I guessed Gus’s weight about a thousand eight hundred pounds.

“Okay, Sherman. I’ve gotta give him an IV. Can you hold his head?”

I moved slowly into the stall. Gus’s tail started switching. Lee moved to his left side, next to Joseph.

“I got him, Doc. You go ahead.”

I leaned into the left side of the horse’s neck. His head towered over mine. The huge jugular vein stood out in his massive neck. I eased the needle in, pulled back the plunger, saw a stream of purplish blood run into the syringe, and slowly injected the dose.

Within a minute after I’d administered the sedative, Gus should have slowly lowered his head toward the ground and become calm and sleepy. But he just turned his head in my direction, put his ears back, and stared at me with his huge brown eyes. The barn was quiet except for some flies buzzing. I looked at Lee. We both knew the drug should have taken effect by now.

“I’ll check the expiration date,” she said.

We waited. It was mid-morning, bright sun warming the stall through the open door. The barn smelled of alfalfa hay and warm oats. Barn cats sat in the corners, licking their paws. Everyone had work to do, but no one wanted to leave until they saw how this was going to turn out.

Gus needed stitches in his butt, and to put them in, I had to stand directly behind him in the line of fire of two hindlegs, big as lampposts.

“I hate horse work,” I said under my breath to Lee.

“I know,” she said. We waited for the sedative to kick in.

Sherman looked at me. He held Gus by the halter and ran his big hand over the horse’s soft muzzle. “Maybe you can give him a little more?” he said.

“I can’t. If I give him too much, he’ll go down and could hurt himself.” I tied my red bandana around my head to keep my hair out of my eyes while I sutured. “I think it’s not working because he was in such a state.”

“Poor guy is shaken up for sure,” Sherman said, patting Gus’s neck.

I busied myself with my stethoscope, checked Gus’s heart, his breathing, ran my hands down his legs, thinking I should have done a physical before administering the sedative. What if he had some internal injuries? Lee brought a couple of bottles of lidocaine and a large syringe from the truck. She was right, I would have to do the sutures using a local anesthetic, since the sedative didn’t seem to be working.

Gus’s tail switched nervously. He was a young gelding, about three years old, shiny brown coat with a white patch on his left front foot. His magnificent mane cascaded over his massive neck. He was built to pull—well muscled and beautifully proportioned.

“Here’s the plan.” I put some iodine in the bucket of hot water John brought. “You hold onto Gus’s halter and get that twitch on him. You’re the best man with a twitch. Get him thinking about his nose so he’s not thinking about killing me.” I looked around the stall, planning an escape route should Gus explode.

“Sure Doc, I got him,” Sherman said.

“I’m gonna stand right up close to his butt, close as I can so he can’t wind up a kick,” I said. The best escape strategy seemed to be to duck under the shattered boards dividing the stalls. Gus could probably charge through them, but they would delay him enough that I could get away. Joseph stroked the big gelding’s nose and gently pulled a section of his nose and lip through the twitch chain and twisted it, not too hard but hard enough to draw Gus’s attention.

“This big needle is going right into his wound,” I said, holding up the thick steel needle attached to a sixty cc syringe. “He’s not going to like it one bit, but once I get it in there, I’ll inject this stuff that’ll numb him up, and he shouldn’t feel much of anything after that.” I handed the needle and syringe back to Lee. “Hold this while I get into position,” I said.

I leaned on Gus’s left side with my body pressed against his flank, and slowly slid along and around his hip until my chest was pressed directly against his huge rear end. I stood as close as I could, feeling the heat of his body through my coveralls. From this position, his kick could throw me across the barn, but he couldn’t wind up a kick that would break my legs. His rear end was taller than me, and the nasty, ragged, bloody oozing wound was at the level of my face.

When Lee handed me the lidocaine-filled syringe, needle attached, I almost dropped it my hands shook so badly. A hush came over the barn. I took a deep breath and plunged the needle deep into the wound, simultaneously pushing on the plunger to deposit some local anesthetic.

Gus jumped straight up. He levitated a foot in the air, and the full weight of his body came directly down on all four hooves, the crash shaking the barn. I heard Sherman suck in a sharp breath. I kept my eyes on the wound and my hand on the syringe, with the needle still embedded in Gus’s butt. Thank God it hadn’t flown into the hay. Then—silence. I waited to the count of sixty for the first bit of lidocaine to take effect.

Gus dropped his head down and started to look like a sedated horse. Maybe the sedative was starting to kick in after all. I took another deep breath, my heart pounded like a jackhammer. Slowly, I backed the needle out half an inch, hoping that the area was numb enough that Gus wouldn’t feel it while I infused the lidocaine around the circumference of the wound to numb it completely. My hands shook and sweat pooled in the small of my back. Lee watched from a few feet away, ready to fetch anything else I might need.

Still pressed up close to Gus’s butt I reached back to Lee. She handed me a bottle of saline to pour over the wound, cleaning it up as best I could. The sturdy, thick black suture material was the heaviest gauge I had in the truck. I placed individual sutures, about thirty of them, in a horse shoe pattern around the wound, and then sutured in a drain. Gus shifted his massive weight from one foot to the other. Suturing is hard when your hands are shaking.

“Doc, you okay back there?” Sherman said. He had been holding Gus’s head the whole time and didn’t have a view of the action.

“Almost done,” I said. Lee pulled up a big dose of penicillin.

“Okay for me to give this?” she said.

“Sure,” I said, “But not in his butt. Use his left neck muscle.”

“Okay, Sherman, you can let him go,” I said, after I had backed away and was more than a leg distance from Gus. He loosened the twitch and leaned his face against Gus’s, whispering to him it was all over and everything was going to be all right. Those pulling horses were Sherman’s big babies.

“Let’s see what you did, Doc” he said, walking around to look at Gus’s rear end.

“Mighty neat job.” Sherman hung the twitch on a nail. “You think he’ll be okay?”

“Should be fine, as long as you can keep him away from Blackie,” I said.

Gus moved toward the water trough, lowered his head, and took a long drink. Good sign. He looked steadier on his feet. The trembling had stopped. His butt would be numb for a few hours, so at least he would feel a bit better now. None of his other scrapes needed suturing.

“He’s going to be one sore guy for a couple of weeks,” I said. “Call me if you see any discharge from that wound, or if he runs a fever.”

“Nice job, Doc,” Lamar said. Sherman nodded.

From these two guys, this was high praise. I remembered when I came to the valley, they had told their neighbors that “No Lady Cow Vet was gonna touch their horses.” Although they might be okay with me doing routine things with cows, their prize pulling Clydesdales were off-limits.

“I’ll come back next week to check on him and pull the drain. The sutures should be ready to come out in about two weeks. Try and keep him clean—plenty of straw in the stall.”

Lee washed up and had the equipment back in the truck when I climbed behind the wheel, and we smiled at each other. It was the beginning of another long day.


After graduation from Sarah Lawrence in 1970, I joined the exodus of suburban, liberal arts educated, tree hugging soon to be hippies and went to California, where I milked goats on a commune in exchange for room and board. After a couple of years of communal back to the land adventures, I had the wild idea I wanted to be a large animal vet. Since I had never taken a biology course, except in high school, I had to back to school. I moved into a commune located in Hop Bottom, Pennsylvania with my college sweetheart, Harry, his brothers, my sister and her daughter and various other folks, including a St. Bernard named Inga. The guys played in a band, I waitressed and worked at a ski rental store at Elk Mountain Ski resort, and all lived together in the rent-free house in exchange for upkeep. This is the story of my first foray into getting the credits I needed to apply to vet school.

The college closest to Hop Bottom offering biology courses was The State University of New York at Binghamton, about an hour north. I chose to start with a course in organic chemistry, a notoriously difficult course known to weed out the weak from pre-med and pre-vet programs. For my re-entry into the world of academia, it was perfect. If I could manage organic chemistry, I reasoned, I would be able to manage the rigors of veterinary school. And even better, the course started in early June, just enough time for me to save some money, find a cheap apartment, and get settled. I kept my plan to myself. Instead of putting all my earnings into the communal bank account, I started a small savings account of my own. Money was a worry. My parents had made it clear that after my bachelor’s degree, I was on my own. Financial support from Harry was out of the question. He could barely pay for food and replacement guitar strings. He borrowed weed from his brothers. I would need money for my pre-vet classes and piles more money for veterinary school if I ever got that far.

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