New York Times’ The Rail Bookshelf: Equine ER

This essay appeared on The Rail, the racing blog of The New York Times, on May 23, 2010.

By Leslie Guttman

Not too long ago, I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area one block from a busy urban thoroughfare and across the street from a large black dog on Prozac for his depression. My backyard was the size of a parking space, one for a compact.

I traded it in to return to Lexington, Ky., where I grew up and where I still have family. Now I have neighbors with a different set of quirks, including an affinity for extreme lawn care, and a yard big enough for my dog to run around in circles until she’s spent. I’m in Lexington in part because of an unanticipated connection I made with a Bluegrass publisher during a visit home a few years ago, who asked me if I wanted to write a book chronicling a year inside one of the country’s top hospitals for horses.

Uncredentialed

Despite having grown up in the Bluegrass, I am not a card-carrying horse person, although I did ride a bit as a kid and take trail rides on vacation. I know my way around Keeneland, but so does nearly everyone else in the area; going to Keeneland is one of our social rites, whether or not you’re a horse lover. Stories I had written as a journalist in the several years up until that point had been about subjects such as at-risk children and homeless people. My publisher wasn’t worried about my lack of horse knowledge, figuring I’d learn on the job, however, I was extremely nervous about screwing up.

But sometimes, you simply must leap before you look. D.H. Lawrence said, “Be a good animal, true to your animal instincts.” I didn’t make the quick decision to write “Equine ER” from my head, and I didn’t make it for financial reasons. It just felt right.

Herd mentality

For a year, I followed around a crazy pack of equine veterinarians passionately committed to their work. I witnessed equine births, deaths, surgeries and recoveries. I learned that a horse’s desire to live is just as important as a human patient’s when it comes to healing from a traumatic injury or a major illness. I saw that horses must belong to a herd or they will become depressed, even ill, and I thought about how people are that way, too. I learned the joy of being up with the sun and in rhythm with the day, one horse people know well.

The vets I followed appeared healthier and happier than numerous people I know. I spent many hours thinking about why this might be so and came up with the following theories: Equine vets work outside much of the day instead of inside airtight offices at desks sticky with microwave popcorn. They constantly mentor young people, taking seriously the role of training the next generation of horse doctors, a fulfilling task not found in so many professions that eat their young.

As a whole, equine vets are dry-humored, as well as very pragmatic. Once I finally caught up with a fast-moving vet for an interview as he was on his way out of town to go duck-hunting in Argentina. “Why Argentina?” I asked, thinking there were probably perfectly good duck-hunting grounds closer, say in Virginia. He looked at me a little kindly, “More ducks.”

Crisis at the track

Equine vets are also comfortable making split-second decisions without second-guessing themselves or suffering cortisol overload. One Louisville vet I met, Dr. Foster Northrop, saved a well-known colt that track vets were getting ready to euthanize after the horse broke down in a race. At the last second, Northrop arrived on the scene and discovered that the colt’s ankle was not broken as thought but dislocated. But the horse’s blood supply was in severe danger.

The vet thought back to his days in college football when his shoulder had been dislocated several times. Northrop then tried something he had never done before in 19 years practicing: With a colleague’s help, he somehow managed to pop the colt’s ankle back in place. Then Northrop had the colt rushed to Lexington for surgery. Today, that horse is happily retired in Arizona.

I wish I could tell you I foresaw writing “Equine ER” would be one of the best things I ever did as a writer and person, but I didn’t. Northrop told me later that once he saw the fallen colt’s ankle wasn’t broken, he didn’t really think about what to do so much as he just did it. Perhaps a good decision, like a good bet at the track, is a mystery, something to celebrate … and something you hope will happen again, and again.