STRIKE ONE! YOU'RE OUT! by Ken Keckler DVM
Originally posted 10/3/10
"Uh, Steph? Hello. Hey... are you still going to be home in a couple of hours?... Yeah, I need you to take a look at something... Um, you'll see when I get there."
That Saturday afternoon on the phone, my wife knew something wasn't quite right. Since she's an excellent veterinarian, I value her opinion on medical cases, bizarre bloodwork, and personal injuries. She retains an amazing amount of knowledge about multiple different species (including your typical pets as well as pocket pets, birds, snakes, reptiles, etc.) while it's all I can do to keep up to date with horse information. This time I wanted to know if a human needed stitches.
Northfield Park was a great proving ground: hundreds of Standardbred horses, most of them racing every week, with a myriad of lamenesses, respiratory problems and various other issues to examine. Every Saturday I could count on working there until mid-afternoon, and this day I had a couple of farm calls waiting for me. I would go from barn to barn, talking to the horsemen, and waiting for the walkie-talkie to crackle to life with a call to see a specific trainer. Crackle. "Dr. Keckler, please go to H barn." Aaaaand we're off.
Greg was one of the top young drivers: dark hair (with a touch of salt and pepper), good looking, and a little cocky. (You need to be pretty self confident to succeed in the fast paced, aggressive, split-second decision world of horse racing). He was trying to make a name for himself as a trainer and had a stable of about seven horses. Greg had grown up in the business; His father had been a trainer (and still had a few at the track), and was a fairly busy blacksmith. Today Greg had a simple request. "Hey Doc, this horse is hanging on the left line. Can you look in his mouth?" (This means the horse is pulling harder on the left "rein" than the right one as he's being driven. Frequently they will turn their head that way and drift the opposite direction. If they are "on a line" hard enough, they are impossible to steer. You can "throw the other line away" from lack of response. Sometimes this is a lameness problem, sometimes a bit or tooth issue, and occasionally it is psychological. Not being able to steer a racehorse is a major problem!)
As Greg stood outside the stall, I opened the door and approached the bay gelding. Catching his halter with my left hand and facing him, I reached up with my right and went to put my thumb in his mouth to check the place where the bit rides against his 2nd premolar.
WHAM! Before I could move, the horse had reared and struck with both front feet, catching me below my left eye on the outside margin of my cheekbone with his left front foot! Totally surprised, I staggered back, out of the stall, raising both hands to my face and turning toward the barn door.
Leonardo da Vinci
Bent over, hands still covering my face, I did a mental inventory. Run my tongue around the inside of my front teeth...phew- still there. Open the eye under my hand... OK- I can still see, although the lids are already starting to swell. Draw my hands away, and the scarlet liquid is not pooling on the floor... I'm not gushing blood. All the pieces I started with are still there. Well, back to business then. I strode back to the stall and gave the horse a piece of my mind. "Doc," Greg said, "it's alright. You don't have to look at him. You need to be looked at!" I was hurt, angry, and a little embarrassed: I know better than to stand in front of a horse! I let my guard down and made a mistake.
"Greg, I am going to put my hands in this horse's mouth." He was not going to win, and he was going to learn something. So I put my hands in his mouth. Numerous times, from either side, feeling his teeth for hooks, caps, or ulcerations on the gums. Prove to him that I was going to touch his mouth, and he would tolerate it. "He's fine. There's no reason in his mouth for him to be on a line."
As I came out of the stall, Greg's dad came walking down the aisleway. "Look at Doc." Greg said. "This horse just struck him in the face." His dad looked at me over the top of his glasses and a little smirk came over his face. "Oh yeah? I just put new shoes on him an hour ago!"
"I know." I said. "I saw the flash of shiny new steel as it came crashing down into my face."
Leonardo da Vinci
Adjusting the passenger-side mirror of my truck I scanned the damage on my face: a gouge where the shoe hit me, and a bloody, ragged, raw patch extended down my left cheek where it had torn. Upper and lower lids were swelling. Pretty. There was some question as to whether I needed stitches, but there was still work to do. If I had been looking for sympathy from my boss, I would have been disappointed. When Dr. Wilson saw me, he broke into a smile and shook his head. "You alright?"
" I'm fine." I said."I just need to get done and get to my farm calls."
Finally home, some three hours after the incident, my boys saw me, grimaced, and went the other way. Stephanie evaluated my face. "Oh my. Well, you don't need stitches at least. It looks like you could use some ice and ibuprofen though."
Ice and ibuprofen weren't enough. Sunday morning my left eye was almost swollen shut with a lovely, shiny, maroon and purple hue. I looked and felt like I had gone a round with Clubber Lang (come on... Mr. T in Rocky 3? "I pity the fool!") The inside of the left side of my nose and my upper left front incisor was numb, and stayed that way for the next six weeks. After two weeks, radiographs and an exam from a maxofacial surgeon determined that I had fractured my facial bone and damaged my facial nerve. Nothing was displaced, and no treatment was necessary. I carry the scar and when I look down, there's not as much face under my left eye. Less of my face, maybe that's a good thing!
Leonardo da Vinci
I was lucky, and I certainly re-learned something. You can't get too comfortable or complacent working around horses. You can't assume that they will all be respectful of your personal space. Standardbreds are typically calm and easy to work around, but they are still unpredictable. When fear kicks in, any horse can react violently, and with blinding speed. Yeah, it could have been blinding.
I guess that scar put an end to my future as a model...