18. Bog spavin
The horse is a digitigrade. Similar to a classical ballerina on her ballet slippers. And so the ankle joint of a full-grown horse is located at around a half metre above the ground. This joint is not referred to as the ankle in animals, but rather the tarsal joint or hock. An excess of joint fluid in the tarsal joint is called bog spavin. There are multiple causes of bog spavin; one of these is jarring the leg. Compare it to spraining your ankle.
During the office hours per telephone, a request is made by Jan van Loon for a visit in Oirschot. He trains young stallions for the studbook inspection. Presenting horses at such inspections is an art in itself. Jan van Loon has a reputation of being one of the best. Horses that he trains and presents show their best side. Owners watching from the stand are surprised by just how good their own horse looks. One of the horses jarred its leg during the training and the tarsal joint is somewhat swollen. Spraying the leg with cold water and a couple of days’ rest have had no result. The initial selection is in three weeks. The stallion will not have a chance if it has bog spavin. But Oirschot is near Eindhoven, outside the practice’s region.
Would it be possible to bring the horse to the clinic? Yes, he can do that. We agree to meet the next day at half past one. A series of X-rays of the stallion had already been made. There were no signs of OCD (OsteoChondritis Dissecans) in the joints. That is a disorder involving loose fragments that cause swelling in the joint. Which would be reason to reject the stallion. The studbook has stipulated that X-rays are compulsory for studhorses.
The next afternoon, I place everything I need in a small tray. The car and trailer stop in front of the practice and then park between the trees along the parking area. Loud thumping and neighing can penetrate the building. The assistants look up from their work. The trailer is shaking on its axles. Jan van Loon reports to the front desk. I grab an extra bottle of sedative.
The loading platform of the trailer is lowered and the stallion exits the trailer walking backwards. He immediately stands on his rear legs: his head reaches to between the branches of the beech trees. He starts to buck, alternately lifting his front and rear legs from the ground and fiercely kicking backwards. He then rears up again high between the branches. Jan is standing by and watching calmly.
‘he is still a bit fresh’
“He is still a bit fresh” is his explanation. The stallion had been resting in his box the past few days and had therefore not been trained. And they are fed very well for the inspection. He is bursting with energy. The assistants watch from behind the windows with some concern. The lead rope has no small chain, as is often used for stallions. The chain gives you a bit more leverage over such a muscleman. Not necessary, according to Jan. Then I grab the twitch from the tray. “What are you doing?” I explain that I am going to put on the twitch and give him a sedative to calm him down. Also not necessary, according to Jan. There must be some kind of misunderstanding. I explain that I have to stick a needle in the tarsal joint to draw off the excess fluid. After that, he will need a small articular injection. Finally, the joint will have to be well bandaged.
“Fine, go ahead” Jan says.
I hesitate. This is Jan van Loon and I am familiar with his reputation of handling horses. Even very difficult stallions. But this is mad. Sticking a needle in the rear leg of a three-year-old stallion without any means of coercion or precaution! I am willing to give it one go. But if he kicks even once, I will definitely give him a sedative. Top-class horse or not: I don’t want to be injured or killed. The stallion is dancing high on his rear legs again.
Jan then gives the lead rope a slight tug: “Keep still for a minute”. That is literally what he said. Without raising his voice, without being threatening. A simple message: you are to stand still from now on. And that is precisely what the stallion does. I carefully approach his rear leg. Leaning far forward, I can just disinfect the joint with my arm stretched. He is still standing still. I put on sterile gloves; take a needle from the packaging: “Well, here we go.” As I stick the needle in, I leap back to avoid the kick. But there is no kick: the stallion is standing motionless. He has not moved a hoof.
This is a miracle or horse magic. And the stallion continues to stand still. Drawing off the excess fluid in the joint takes several minutes. Then the injection of cortisone. Applying the bandage takes some time as well. The pressure of the bandage should restrain the discharge of new fluid in the joint, while the cortisone will restore the over-stimulated joint capsule. All in all, treating the stallion takes at least twenty minutes. And the horse did not move, not even once, not even a hoof. As he is being led back to the trailer, he pulls his rear leg high up: his response to the bandage. It only lasts a few steps. I am sweating from tension. But Jan van Loon had been right: Fine, go ahead.
How it ends
The stallion did well at the inspection: he passed the initial selection and was presented a second time at the central inspection in Den Bosch. But things went very wrong with Jan van Loon. No, not his stallions, they were never a problem; they always obeyed him. He was at the riding association helping out with braiding a horse for a show jumping competition. It was a good-natured horse, never did anything wrong; a young girl’s horse. Jan was kicked in the face as he was trimming the horse’s tail. He initially survived. But after months of treatments and rehabilitation, he was never the same again. He went jogging in the woods. Because you have to run fast if you are presenting a horse at an inspection. One afternoon he was found dead in the woods.
Jan van Loon was an artist in his profession. An artist with horses.
© Leo Rogier Verberne