Photo by Jane Stanley/Shutterstock
Marvin the pony was a rare find, and his owners knew it. When young Lucas went for a ride, Marvin always brought him home safely. You’d never catch Marvin ducking and weaving around an arena as his rider held on for dear life. Marvin would never drop his head and come to a screeching halt, launching the unsuspecting child headfirst into a small cross-rail jump. He would never buck furiously as though demons were pursuing him, and then prick his ears innocently at his unhappy rider sprawled on the ground. In a world full of children terrorized by devil-minded ponies, Marvin was pretty much a saint. Or so he seemed. But this pony held one very bad habit.
One day when I was working on the farm, I saw Lucas climbing Marvin like a tree, his coattails flapping as he struggled sideways into the saddle. The gray pony never moved a muscle, but the saddle did, rotating 180 degrees and dumping the child into the dirt under Marvin’s legs. I gasped as the boy struggled to his feet, and his helmeted head thudded into Marvin’s belly, but all Marvin did was nose Lucas’ side and stand patiently while his saddle was fixed.
Another time, Marvin and Lucas were jogging around the arena during a lesson, and an out-of-control horse charged past them, kicking out viciously. Marvin dodged the kick, unseating Lucas, who ended up straddling the back of the pony’s neck.
Marvin came to a stop immediately, and Lucas, who was apparently part monkey, was able to scramble back into his saddle without ever hitting the ground. He straightened his tweed coat, and they trotted off with dignity.
The only time Marvin was less than perfect was when I had to give him his shots. Lucas’ mother, Daphne, would take a firm grip on Marvin’s halter, walk him off, and I’d follow, syringes uncapped and ready.
When I first started doing Marvin’s shots, I’d give the pony a chance to behave and would try giving the shots in the usual manner. I’d take hold of the skin on his neck and ease the needle in, but when Marvin felt the first poke, all hell broke loose.
While he usually bolted forward, sometimes he’d rear, and sometimes he’d spin into me. He was powerful and fast and was instantly enraged by the pokes. We had found the bad habit of this pony.
By then, I’d either dropped the syringe into the dirt or bent the needle, and Daphne would be panting, hauling on the halter and scolding the pony. Lucas would hide behind a nearby stall door, chanting, “Come on now, Marvin. Marvin stop that! Marvin, you behave yourself! Marvin, you bad boy!”
On one memorable visit, the full syringe was left dangling from Marvin’s neck after he exploded, driving him into a frenzy of charging and rearing until he’d managed to shake it loose and trample it into the ground.
I retrieved the broken pieces of the syringe but never did find the needle. Daphne found it the next day, wedged in the sole of her muck boot. Clearly different tactics were needed to get the shots into this pony, and after some dramatic mishaps with a rope twitch, which I quickly abandoned, I’d discovered an approach that sort of worked.
Daphne would walk Marvin briskly along the gravel path, rattling a feed bucket and distracting him. I’d sidle up to him with my heart pounding and syringes uncapped and tucked between my fingers. I’d rapidly shoot them into the gray neck without any warning, and—if I was lucky—I was in and out before Marvin had a chance to react.
Daphne would swiftly distract him with the grain, and all was well. If I messed up, it was war, so I made a point to get it right.
One spring, there was a new vet sniffing around the barn, and while I normally
welcomed new colleagues, it was clear that this woman had no interest in any sort of a professional relationship with me.
She wanted my clients and was doing everything in her power to lure them, launching direct email campaigns, hanging posters, and offering discounted vaccine and Coggins clinics to all new clients. It was a free country, and horse owners had a right to use whichever vet they wanted, but it still stung a little when I didn’t hear from Daphne and Lucas that season.
I was very busy with my regular barns, so I put Marvin out of my mind and focused on my work. But one day in late spring my phone rang, and Daphne’s number popped up on the screen.
“Dr. Diehl, I’m embarrassed. We decided to use another vet this spring to save money, but things didn’t go so well.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “What happened?”
“Well, as you know, Marvin’s a little tricky with shots. He kind of outdid himself this time.”
I hid a grin at the pony’s probable display of his only bad habit..
“Yes,” Daphne said. “The vet wouldn’t listen when I told her how you do it. They tried giving the shots the usual way, and he knocked the tech down and ran away. Then they tried to twitch him when I said not to, and he struck the twitch off, and it hit the vet in the face and broke her nose. I feel absolutely awful. We’ve arranged for a trainer to work with him, but can you please come vaccinate him?”
I said that I would, and we got Marvin vaccinated, barely. After his experience at the vaccine clinic, he was worse than usual, but my old trick eventually worked, and soon he was munching his handful of grain, and I was shakily capping my empty syringes. Lucas emerged from his hiding place, wideeyed, and marched up to Marvin, shaking a small finger.
“Marvin, you’re naughty, and I’m very, very mad at you.”
Then he produced a carrot from his coat pocket. Marvin crunched the carrot adoringly, and Lucas stroked the lowered gray head. “But you sure showed that other vet, didn’t you!”
This Vet Adventure column about a pony’s very bad habit appeared in the July 2020 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!
Courtney S. Diehl, DVM, has been an equine veterinarian since 2000. She is the author of Horse Vet: Chronicles of a Mobile Veterinarian and Stories of Eric the Fox, first place winner of the CIPA EVVY award. She is currently working on her third book.
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