Vet Adventures: Prolonging a Procedure

Dr. Diehl puts off a date with destiny, or possibly bodily injury.

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This edition of Vet Adventures earned a 1st place award at the 2023 AHP Awards in the Personal Column Single Article category.

I wasn’t worried about performing the actual mass removal; it was a procedure I’d done on many horses and wasn’t a difficult surgery. The mass was in a tricky location on the horse’s knee, and it would be difficult to get the area to heal well, but I was OK with that. What bothered me was that the mass removal needed to be done on Skip.

Skip was a beautiful black mare in her mid-teens, and if you didn’t know her, you might think that she was sweet. Mona found Skip languishing in a sale barn and had spontaneously purchased her before learning about the mare’s issues. To be fair, Skip was a pretty good horse under saddle, but when she decided that something had the remotest possibility of causing her any discomfort, she transformed into a land shark.

An angry horse ahead of a knee procedure
Photo by Luliia Khabibullina/Shutterstock

Reason to be Wary

Skip had demonstrated her lightning-fast moves on me on several occasions, so I had good reason to be wary of her. The first time was when I’d unsuspectingly stepped over to her shoulder to inspect a wound that had been stitched up by another veterinarian.

The second time was when I had to vaccinate her. I stupidly thought that I was ready for her bad behavior, but she was a great deal faster than me. Most horses will give some sort of a warning when they’re planning to maim you, but not Skip. Both interactions caught me completely by surprise and left me limping for several weeks.

We didn’t know for sure what had happened to Skip before Mona had acquired her, but it was suspected that she’d been used in a nasty event in certain rodeos where horses are roped and intentionally tripped for entertainment. Even though horse-tripping has been banned in most states, there were still places that secretly hosted these events, and Skip bore the classic scars and poorly healed skin flaps on her knees that were consistent with repeated hard falls.

Mona gave her new mare lots of love, and Skip had made a great deal of progress, but she would never fully overcome the trauma of her earlier life.

Postponing the Inevitable

Some scar tissue on Skip’s right knee had been steadily increasing in size, and Mona decided that she wanted it removed. I had X-rayed the horse’s knees (under heavy sedation) and was encouraged to see that despite the tissue trauma, the joints looked relatively good, but the large mass of tissue was becoming unsightly, and some infection was building up around it.

I’d rehearsed multiple imaginary surgeries on the mare, thought through every possible scenario and planned for every possible reaction, but Mona and I seemed to be taking turns postponing this particular horse’s procedure. Mona might develop a sudden migraine, or I’d remember an important meeting, or there’d be an emergency two counties away.

This went on for several months, but we were running out of excuses, and the mass was getting larger. I finally arranged to have Mona trailer Skip to a barn that would let me use their restraint stocks, and we set the date.

You might wonder why I didn’t just arrange to lay Skip down under general anesthesia, but honestly, I felt safer doing the procedure standing. After what the mare had done to me, I didn’t want to be the one holding her up against a wall and easing her to the ground while the general anesthesia took effect, and hiring an army of assistants was not within Mona’s budget. We either did it standing, or we didn’t do it at all.

Knee Procedure Day

On the appointed procedure day, Mona arrived with Skip, and coaxed the horse into the sturdy metal stocks with a bucket of grain. Skip ate happily while I prepared her injection. I strategically positioned myself near one of the upright stock poles to deliver the shot, and when Skip whipped her head around to bite me, she clonged into the steel pole instead.

Mona jerked Skip’s head away, so the mare seized Mona’s arm and tore a large hole in her coat. I finished the intravenous injection as down feathers floated through the air around us.

Unable to sink her teeth into me, Skip tried her best to kick, but was defeated by the stocks and finally gave up. I waited 15 minutes to allow the sedation to take effect, and for good measure, gave the mare a second dose before clipping and scrubbing the knee.

After bending several needles and chipping one of her front hooves on the stocks, Skip finally allowed me to inject a local anesthetic around the base of the skin mass. Soon I was hunkered down by the leg, happily cutting away the unsightly tissue. Skip snored loudly as I dressed and bandaged the knee, and Mona studied the nearby lump of tissue curiously.

“What is it, Doc? It looks like cancer or something.”

I smiled at her. “Oh, the lab will call it something or another, but I’m calling it ‘Afraid-of-Skip-itis.’ I should have done this two months ago.”

Mona pointed to her shredded coat. “Well, I don’t blame you one bit.”

Skip was now drooling and looked almost happy as Mona took hold of her halter and shook her gently. “What am I going to do with you?”

The tissue ended up being benign, and I was relieved when the knee healed quickly and we could stop the bandaging.

No Love Lost

Skip’s hatred of me had grown exponentially, and she was kicking and biting me regularly. But her knee looked good, and Mona was happy.

I had to do a two-month recheck on the mare, who I hadn’t missed a bit. As I entered the barn, a back door crashed open, and I saw a black streak galloping across a large field at top speed.

Mona laughed until she cried. “Well, that’s gratitude for you! So much for rechecking Skip today!”

I happily returned to my truck and drove away. I had to admit, I was grateful too.

This edition of Vet Adventures about prolonging a knee procedure on a difficult horse appeared in the July 2022 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!


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