Photo by Budimir Jevtic/Shutterstock
The barn was dark and empty when I pulled up, and all the horses were far away in a huge field. I parked the veterinary truck in what I hoped was a convenient location for the emergency at hand and scanned the facility for some sign of life before I started to care for a horse in the middle of the night.
Where was Vivian, the trainer who’d called me about Frisco, the colicking horse? She was supposed to be meeting me at the barn. More importantly, where was Frisco? I called Vivian back, but no one answered, and the voicemail was full.
I’d known Vivian for a while, and she was notorious for not answering her phone and not showing up when she was supposed to be somewhere. I waited for about five minutes and then texted Frisco’s owner, a nice woman named Dana, but she was several states away, knew nothing about a colic and suggested calling the barn manager.
So I did. She also knew nothing about a colic and replied that she was at a party and to call Vivian, who was dealing with Dana’s emergencies while she was out of town for a few months.
I was by myself at a creepy, cold barn, and it was nearly 9 p.m. The horse had to be somewhere not too far off. I pulled a halter out of my truck, put my headlamp on and set off to find my patient, a bay Thoroughbred in a sea of bay warmbloods and Thoroughbreds.
After half an hour of trudging around the field of bemused horses and scaling fences to check the contents of various pens, I located Frisco in a small pen behind the barn. He was nibbling hay happily and had passed several large piles of normal manure.
I slipped the halter over his head, and he nudged me in a friendly manner and stood agreeably while I checked his vitals and looked him over. Everything was normal, and his gum color and gut sounds were perfect. I monitored him for a while, updated Dana, and headed home.
At 11:30 p.m., my phone rang. It was Vivian, demanding to know what the status was on Frisco. I was sleepy and grumpy, in no mood for late-night phone calls about healthy horses with irresponsible trainers. I filled her in, but I was very short with her and told her I didn’t appreciate her not showing up to meet me.
Oh, I had to be somewhere,” she said dismissively. “You’re going to go back out and check on him later.”
It was a statement, not a question.
I thought fast.
“No, actually I’m going to need you to do that. I might have another emergency to tend to.”
There was an annoyed silence on the other end, so I soldiered on.
“In fact, if you could just run out there around 3 a.m. and make sure all’s well, Dana and I would really appreciate it.”
Vivian grudgingly agreed to check on the horse. Chuckling, I went to bed. Since I might have another emergency, I wanted to be sure to get plenty of rest.
The line stayed quiet for the rest of the night, but over the next few months I received a series of evening and weekend calls from Vivian demanding emergency visits for various elusive medical problems and mystery lamenesses that always seemed to have resolved by the time I examined Frisco. Sometimes Vivian would even show up to meet me, but she always arrived 15-20 minutes after I did.
Interestingly, Vivian usually had me work on her own horses while I was at the barn, telling me to bill Dana, and she’d often ask for refills on various drugs that Frisco “needed” and which I was fairly certain that Vivian was using on her herd.
When I calculated the total bill that Vivian had racked up and that Dana had approved, the amount was appalling. I also noticed that Vivian was driving a fancy new truck and trailer that Dana had bought a few weeks ago.
It took a year, but eventually Dana must have realized that she was spending a fortune and not getting much in return, and hired a different trainer.
Meanwhile, Vivian had found another wealthy owner, and in a matter of weeks had managed to move all of her horses into their barn and was living on their property.
“Dr. Diehl, isn’t it wonderful how my horse never seems to get sick now?” Dana asked me one day when I was doing a routine dental on Frisco. “And he’s moving so beautifully in our lessons and hasn’t had any more lameness problems. I think it must be the feed change and that joint supplement that my new trainer recommended.”
This Vet Adventures column on veterinary care in the middle of the night originally appeared in the January 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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