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GET A LEG UP by Ken Keckler DVM

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GET A LEG UP! by Ken Keckler DVM originally posted on 6/27/2010

In the spring of 1993, I was a young, energetic veterinarian, eager to get out into the world and see horses. I was learning that the non-medicine side of practice (aka business) wasn't a bed of roses. Billing for something and actually collecting the money turned out to be two very different things. I had been doing the broodmare work at a very nice farm: getting them pregnant, caring for the new foals, and cleaning up the mares' uteri after stillbirths or infections. The difficulty was in getting paid. The barn manager would tell me there was a check from the owner left on the desk in the office, which was great. Somehow, the client would just happen to "forget" to sign the check, making it pretty much useless. “Oh, he must have forgotten to sign it.” Umm hmm. It was quite a game: just string 'em along and keep getting your work done without paying for it.

One sunny, spring Sunday morning, I received an emergency page from the weekend student help at this farm. She was a little panicky, and I soon understood why. "One of our mares just aborted a leg!" she exclaimed. "Can you get here soon?" During the short trip to the farm I tried to think of possible causes for aborting just a limb. Schistosomiasis, a horrific disease where the fetus basically develops ”inside out”? Some strange twin type anomaly? A dead foal that has necrosed and is falling apart inside the uterus? These were all terrible, foreboding ideas, likely meaning a high risk/low reward situation for the mare, and a potential nightmare for me: trying to “pull” tangled up foals, dealing with a torn uterus and a dying mare, or having to perform a fetotomy (basically dissecting the dead foal inside the uterus to try to get pieces out). Not a butterflies and rainbows kind of thought.

Within a few minutes I was pulling my truck into the farm's driveway. As I climbed out of the truck, I had to maneuver through several lurpy dogs (trying to sniff, lick, or jump up on me) to get to the foaling barn. I entered the barn, and the young lady gave me the story: It seemed that the mares had been turned out to pasture early this morning; placed outside so that the stalls could be cleaned by the Hispanic gentlemen working there. After the stalls had been cleaned and bedded, the mares were brought back in. Shortly thereafter, this young lady had gone in to check on each mare, and she found a foal leg in the stall with her! This mare had aborted a leg! Of course, the experienced manager was not there, so they called me right away!

My first concern was for the mare, since I couldn’t possibly revive the leg. I rushed to the stall with my thermometer, stethoscope, rectal palpation sleeve, and lube. (It seems I rush to a lot of stalls the same way!) To my shock, the fat, sleek, shiny mare was casually munching on her hay, apparently not aware that her world and my day was about to come crashing down in a disaster of epic proportions! Hmmm. Temperature normal. Heart rate normal. Mucus membranes pink, healthy. I pulled on my plastic sleeve and lubed up. Her backside had no traces of blood or amniotic fluid. Hmmmm. By now I was a little suspicious of the validity of the “aborted leg”.

On rectal exam, her uterus was large and in charge, with an active, moving foal. The cervix was not open. If this mare had aborted a foal’s leg, she patched herself up awfully quickly, and seemed to be NORMAL.

“Ummm, maybe we should look at this leg.” I said. “Mom seems OK for now.” The young lady recounted again how they had found the leg in the straw, AFTER the stalls had been cleaned and the mares were brought in. “It had to be from her. It wasn’t in here before.” It was a spacious foaling stall, heavily bedded, and we waded through the straw to the limb. It was definitely a foals’ leg. Definitely. On closer examination, however, it didn’t look overly fresh. And by some apparent miracle of fetal development, a piece of orange plastic twine had been tied to its pastern. Hmmm.

“Ummm, I don’t think she aborted this leg.” I said. “This came from somewhere else. I don’t think Mother Nature has learned how to make and tie binder-twine in utero. Did you lose a foal recently?” “Well yeah,” she considered. “The stall cleaners buried him in the field a few of days ago.” That’s when I remembered the lurpy dogs. Apparently, after the stalls were cleaned, before the mares came back in, one of the dogs had dug up the foal, chewed off a leg, and found a nice cushy place to savor it in the straw. I felt a (very) little like Sherlock Holmes or maybe Inspector Clouseau. (Pardon me, does your dog bite?)

No Schistosomiasis, no fetotomy. Thank God! Disaster averted! (For now.)

We still probably haven’t gotten paid for it. The check is on the desk.

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