Vet Adventures: High-Altitude Rescue, Part 1

Another law enforcement intake requires getting 30 horses in poor condition off a mountain-top ranch.

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In this edition of Vet Adventures, another law enforcement rescue intake requires getting 30 horses in poor condition off a mountain-top ranch.

Horses on a mountain ranch. In this edition of Vet Adventures, Dr. Diehl must help with a rescue intake from a mountain ranch.
Read on to find out what happens in Part 1 of this edition of Vet Adventures, where Dr. Diehl helps with a high-altitude rescue intake. Photo by Smallredgirl/Adobe Stock

Police radios blared, lights flashed from squad cars parked around the house, and a fourth police truck roared up the unplowed driveway. After the police served the warrant, we had a horrible time getting our huge trailer up the road and turning it around. The angry owner gestured furiously at us as we maneuvered the trailer around the junk and snowdrifts in the driveway, then backed it up to the gates of the back field.

A Sad Sight

An old bay mare with a large crescent star on her forehead stood a short distance away. I sadly studied her jutting ribs and prominent spine. Her hindquarters were atrophied, her winter coat coarse and dull, and her flanks were drawn up tightly. It seemed to take most of her strength to remain standing.

There were a few scattered, yellow hay piles, and the herd was jostling around them. The old girl tried to join the scrum at the nearest pile, but the horses just packed in tighter and wouldn’t let her in.

There were almost 30 horses in the herd, and it was obvious that the owner had only thrown hay out because they knew we were coming. There were several empty feeders on the property that were partially filled with snow, and it was clear that they hadn’t seen hay in a long time. Horses kept in these conditions should have feeders stuffed with free-choice hay, not occasional scant piles getting blown across the frozen valley.

The herd ranged from visibly underweight to emaciated, and I made a beeline for the only blanketed horse in the group. In my experience, the horses that we investigated in places like these were only blanketed to hide their awful condition. Sure enough, when I pulled the blanket off, the poor horse was nothing more than a skeleton with fur. I shook my head as I ran my hand over his sharp hip bones, then took some photos and put the blanket back in place.

The Mountain’s Challenge

My colleague was at the other end of the group snapping pictures and writing notes on a pad, and I shivered as the wind came screaming around the side of the old barn, pelting my face with tiny pieces of ice.

We were at an elevation of 9,200 feet in the Rocky Mountains, and there weren’t many trees to provide a windbreak. Immense snowy peaks loomed at the edge of the broad valley, and bands of sunlight illuminated the ice crystals in the wind.

Normally, those mountains delighted me. Every time I drove through this area, I’d have to pull over. I’d get out of my truck and just breathe the icy air and gaze at the silent behemoths, a trail of snow lifting from the mountains as the relentless wind tore at them. But today, they just seemed ominous. The wind screamed in the distance, and a few horses quickly lifted their heads from their sparse meal.

“We’re going to get you out of here,” my colleague promised them as she went to meet with the police officers. We had four more trailers waiting on the main road, and as soon as the officers had given us their blessing, we loaded the first group. The horses practically leapt into the insulated trailer, and soon we were headed back down the long driveway.

Within the hour, all the horses were safely loaded and we began our slow convoy back to the ranch. On a normal day, the drive would take about three hours, but today it would be more like five. The team chatted back and forth on the radio, making sure everyone stayed together, and I glanced back at the desolate property, growing smaller in the rearview mirror. The trailer rocked gently as the horses settled in for the ride, and I said a silent prayer for their safety on the long journey.

Road to Recovery

We reached the ranch safely, and the waiting staff opened the gates wide. Trailer after trailer backed up to the alley and deposited their charges, and soon the herd was gathered in a large round pen.

We moved them carefully through the chutes, where they were weighed and evaluated, then given ID tags and names as a medical record was completed for each one. Over 80 percent of the herd was in poor condition, and I was shocked to learn that the “old” bay mare that had caught my eye on the property was only 5 years old. We named her Doreen.

When the exams were completed, we moved the tired herd up to a large pen that had several loafing sheds and massive feeders brimming with fragrant green hay. There was a place for everyone at the feeders, and the hungry horses settled in quickly. The entire team leaned against the fence and watched the horses enjoying their hay. It was the best kind of therapy after a long, hard day.

Doreen found a place at the feeder too, and her head was so far down in the hay pile, I could hardly see her. I watched her for a long time, but she never lifted her head from the feeder, and I chuckled to myself. She was finally going to have some good food and hopefully would begin to gain weight soon.

Down and Out

Every time I checked on the herd, Doreen was always in the same position with her head buried in the feeder. I’d watch her for several long minutes, then move on, knowing that she was getting great care and high-quality feed.

About a week later, a staff member came into my office looking worried.

“Dr. Diehl, it’s Doreen. I was cleaning her pen today and I saw that she was dropping a lot of hay out of her mouth. I watched her for a while, and even tried hand-feeding her, but I don’t think she’s able to eat.”

To be continued …

This edition of Vet Adventures about a high-altitude rescue appeared in the April 2023 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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