Updated: May 18
This is a true story. I wrote this to share with Napa Valley Writers, a branch of the California Writers Club
When Horses Go Bump (and Worse) in the Night
At 2:15 AM, a violent banging woke me. It was coming from down in the stable. The horses occasionally clunked their hooves going in and out of the stalls so I didn’t think much of it. I take comfort in hearing them breathe, drink, and sigh deeply. Soon all was quiet and I drifted back to sleep. With a staccato of bangs and kicks, I was again startled awake. I jolted upright in bed, and threw off the covers. I told my sleeping husband, Mike, this sounded serious, and I might need his help.
As I rushed down the path to the stable, I glanced up at the starry sky and tried to remember how to tie ropes to a horse's bottom legs to help them roll over if stuck, or “cast,” too close to the wall. The crashing and pounding of hooves on walls is a horse owner’s worst nightmare, and owing to the noises that woke me up, something was wrong.
I saw the silhouette of Mustang Yogi watching me from the corral as I rushed towards the heavy barn doors. I heard grunts and a prolonged groan, then more banging. All was dark in the stable as I entered and reached for the light switch.
With the breezeway flooded in light, I looked into the stalls, and saw Arteiro, my four-year-old buckskin, collapsed on the floor with his hind leg trapped up high, through the bars of the divider. His solid body was hanging by his delicate hind fetlock. I squeezed my eyes shut because I could not see what I was seeing. He has big hooves, and the stall bar space is narrow. This made no sense!
Arteiro groaned and twisted his head to look at me, vulnerable, pleading for help. Blood trickled from his mouth as he writhed on the floor. Everything was wrong. Sweat darkened his golden neck, puddling on the stall floor as he went into shock. As I approached, I smelled his dank sour fear. I wanted to rush in to help, but knew to stay well back from his thrashing legs, and to keep my face away from his powerful head, even as he rested. At any moment he could lurch up into the air for another struggle. I grabbed a towel and covered his eyes, hoping to help him relax.
I searched my phone for the vets’ emergency numbers, while he intermittently fought by launching his body side to side and kicking his other legs into the wall. These attempts only drew more blood from the growing wound. His trapped leg was fully extended upward as he pushed away from the wall. The angle of the stuck leg was WRONG. He twisted and pulled, but could not free himself. The heel-bulb and fetlock, anchoring his eleven-hundred-pound body, dripped blood down both sides of the wall. I tried pushing his foot through from the other side but it was so jammed in, I couldn’t do anything. Helpless, I adjusted the towel covering his eyes, “It’s okay, easy, it’s going to be okay” I could only hope he’d be still.
With the phone to my ear, I hustled up the path and rousted my husband from a deep sleep.
There was no improvement when we returned a few minutes later. He had tossed the towel from over his eyes and sweat puddled under his body. I slathered the foot with Vaseline and tried pushing up again from the other side of the stall divider. I was sure his leg was broken. His hoof is bigger than the space it had squeezed through, so this did not make sense. With tremendous force, he must have kicked up with a pointed toe, then tilted and rotated with just the right momentum to slide through the bars. With disbelief, Mike and I talked about HOW this could have happened.
I could picture him giving his neighbor and friend Mustang Yogi a playful look, then shaking his mane, kicking out, and finding himself on three legs. With the fourth trapped up high, he wondered what happened, lost balance, and folded down to the floor. He then alternated thrashing and resting, thrashing and resting, and blood ran from his mouth. I told my Mike that we’d most likely have to end this misery. His trapped leg must be broken.
I had left messages with the Napa Valley Equine emergency line and with the Kenwood vet, Peter Ahern, over on the Sonoma side of our mountain. Both were a good forty minute drive, at best. I texted both, and called again. Certain Arteiro was broken beyond healing, I begged them, “Please come quick. This is an emergency. You may have to euthanize.” While on the phone with my Napa vet, Dr. Ahern called saying he was on the way. Both vets heard Arteiro, thrashing and groaning in the background.
The wait seemed impossibly long. We tried to think of solutions, though my heart was falling apart. I remember taking the first breath of my three-deep-breath practice. That breathing carried me through although I don’t remember following through with the second or third breaths. While I comforted Arteiro, Mike gathered tools from his work bench, and tried sawing the steel bars. Then he pried from various angles using a crowbar. Nothing worked. I massaged Arteiro’s ears and neck, and comforted in a soothing tone. “I’m sorry Arteiro. We are here. Easy…”
When Dr. Ahern arrived, he administered a sedative. Arteiro calmed a little, but it was clear he was aware of us. With a slightly quieter horse, Dr. Ahern set about trying to free the trapped hoof. He repeated things Mike had tried already - saw, crowbar; no luck. Then he and Mike tried 2-by-4 wood wedges with the crowbar to get more leverage. That didn’t work either. It was hopeless.
With a sheer burst of determination, Dr. Ahern hoisted the sledgehammer and swung it into the bar trapping the hoof. BANG CLANG BANG. He aimed just above Arteiro’s trapped fetlock joint. CLANG CLANG BANG, I flinched with each slam, sure if entrapment didn’t break his leg, the heavy sledgehammer would. The bars vibrated and spread just a little, so I pushed his hoof free, blood dripping from my wrists.
With a thud, his freed leg rested where it belonged. I noticed his labored breathing. We waited. Arteiro folded his legs, then rocked his body until he had his knees underneath, and with a giant grunt, he was standing! Gingerly he tested his right hind. Three humans stood by observing his primal instinct to survive. He balanced with one hoof lifted.
Dr. Ahern inspected and palpated Arteiro’s ravaged leg and body, but didn’t say a word. Was this kind man trying to find a way to gently tell me my horse was a goner? Was he making a mental list of all the horrible damage he was feeling with his experienced hands? With a deep sigh, and shake of his head, Dr. Ahern said, “I don’t feel anything broken.” He recommended ten days' stall-rest, topical antibiotic, and oral anti-inflammatory.
As we watched, Arteiro stepped carefully outside and drank deeply, then hobbled inside to chew a bite of hay. With that, my veterinarian hero said, “I’m going to head home and get some sleep. I’ll circle back to you in ten days or so.”
In Portuguese, Arteiro means mischievous. And he lived up to his name by taunting his sire to the point of rage. In his new home with me, he gives Mustang Yogi, our herd leader, some sass. I realized that poor stable design, physics, and a young horse’s attitude had led to this accident.
Arteiro, the mischievous one, has proven to be resilient. Just three-weeks post accident, he has moments of kicking out with that leg, as if he’s remembering being trapped. I made sure this never happens again by retrofitting the stall bar space from the standard three and a half inches to two. But other than being a bit sore, and needing time to heal, Arteiro acts like a normal four-year-old gelding.
There are cracks in the hoof, and a deep cut where the steel rubbed his skin raw. It will likely be months before I know if he will make a full recovery. But, he’s alive! We are scheduled for radiographs and a progressive rehabilitation exercise plan, once the swelling goes down. In the meantime, it’s Reiki to the rescue.
I am thankful for my husband, and I am filled with awe for Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, Peter Ahern.