2. Lameness inspection
A horse that has an irregular gait is referred to as lame and not crippled as humans are called. The lameness is often only obvious when the horse is walking on a hard surface. But not always. The walk may only be irregular if the horse is moving on soft ground. What complicates things in four-footed animals is that a disorder in one leg will influence the movements of the other three legs. And it gets even more complicated if the lameness concerns two of the four legs.
“Out of the way! Watch out! This is an Amor!” A man emerges from the waiting area at the patients’ entrance to the Clinic for Surgery leading his horse. They are walking across the inspection area to the stables. He has stretched his arm to keep the animal at a safe distance. He hands the animal over to an animal caretaker and they both disappear down the hall to the stables. It becomes evident the next day from the patient’s report that the gelding is a son of the stallion Amor. It has Trakehner blood in its veins. He was imported for the purpose of breeding recreational riding horses using workhorses from the provinces of Gelderland and Groningen. Their work in the fields had meanwhile been largely taken over by tractors. Stallions were imported from Germany, England and France for the transformation of workhorses into recreational horses. Amor was the most popular among breeders: he sired 1653 offspring here; was approved by the studbook and was declared 'preferent', being the highest predicate granted to a stallion by the Dutch studbook for riding horses (KWPN). There is even a statue in his honour.
This horse is presented with a difficult case of lameness: he has an irregular walk at times, but then he will trot around normally for days. The animal’s description is recorded: breed, sex, age, colour and markings. Identification chips for horses did not yet exist at that time. The horse is then presented for inspection by one of the helpers: he leads the horse along the inspection area. That is a large hall with a hard concrete floor. We check if there are any irregularities in the horse’s walk and trot, on a straight line and along a circle. But there are no signs of lameness. The procedure is then repeated on a soft surface in the adjacent riding stables. Again, no problems are observed. Back to the inspection area for the bending tests: the joints in each leg are bent one by one and flexed for two minutes. The horse must trot on after each test. The animal will be briefly lame if there is any hidden painfulness in or around the joint concerned. Each joint is tested, one leg at a time. The bending test of the hoof appears to provoke temporary lameness in one of the front legs. He is given two small injections on the spot in order to anaesthetise part of that hoof. If this is the cause of the lameness, then that will disappear (for the time the anaesthetic is active). The next step involves making X-rays. To that end, the horse is taken to the forge to have its hooves trimmed. I meanwhile complete the inspection report.
If I wouldn’t mind coming over to the forge, because there is a problem. The horse is standing in the stocks: four upright pipes in a concrete floor. There are two crossbars at the front, one below and one above the neck, that ensure that the horse cannot rear up or jump forward out of the stocks. There is a half-high door of wooden beams at the back. The sides have horizontal connectors between the standards that prevent the horse from ‘breaking out’ sideways. Two broad straps can be tightened under the belly so that the animal cannot lie down in the stocks. The gelding refuses to lift his hooves so that they can be trimmed. That is to say: he lifts his hooves alright, but only to lash out. He hits swift and hard at the slightest touch. The straps below the belly are already in place. The two blacksmiths ask me to give the horse an injection to calm it down. I have that with me. It is to be administered in the vein in the neck. But the animal is unapproachable: he is furiously kicking his fronts legs. Which is why we give him a twitch. That is a device that is used in the horse industry: a stick with a small sturdy loop at the end. The loop is placed around the upper lip and tightened by rotation of the stick.
This may seem barbaric, but the effect is similar to that of acupuncture: endorphins are released and this diminishes feelings of pain and anxiety. In most cases, this makes it possible to conduct minor procedures without requiring an anaesthetic. But in this case, it backfired: the use of the twitch causes the horse to throw a fit. The horse hurls itself forward and its legs are thrashing wildly under the beams: left and right and with both legs at the same time. Sparks are shooting from beneath his horse-shoes. Then the back door gets the full blast: he rams against the beams so hard that I fear he will break his legs. He must have a haze before his eyes: he is acting like a lunatic. The commotion has the forge rocking. Curious people are starting to crowd at the door.
How can you possibly give such a nasty piece of work an injection in its bloodstream without ending up in hospital or the morgue? The twitch is attached to its upper lip and the blacksmith is holding it. And once a blacksmith has something in his grasp, he will not let go. But as I move closer, the horse manages to turn its head away: you can only see the white of its eyes. I am safe standing next to the steel standard. Stretching my arm, I can just reach its neck and I press the vein with my thumb. But as I try to inject the needle, the horse again goes into a fit of rage. Its front legs are thrashing wildly under the beams. A second twitch is fastened to his upper lip. The horse can no longer turn its head away. He is given his injection. We then leave him be. The curious faces at the door leave.
Twenty minutes later, nothing has changed. A second injection seems to be the only option. He follows me with his eyes as I walk around the stocks. And he lashes out again, with his front legs and back legs, whenever I get near. We lay loops of thick rope on the ground next to all four feet. And without realising it, he steps into the loops a few minutes later. Each foot is tied to a standard. This evokes blind rage in the animal again, but he is ultimately firmly tied to the stokes. He can no longer lash out. He is again fitted with two twitches. Further resistance is impossible. Or so we think. Now that he can no longer attack, his legs give way and he lets his body hang. Lying down is not an option because of the straps under his belly: he can only drop a bit. Still, the beam under his neck is now pressing against his throat.
Death or play
We wait and see: once he becomes short of breath, he will stand up. But that doesn’t happen: he continues to hang. The white of his eyes begins to turn blue after a few minutes. “Come on, get up!” It is one of the blacksmiths. But the gelding does not respond. The white of his eyes is becoming darker. “Get going, get up!” Despite telling blows, he does not respond and continues to hang on the beam by his throat. Things then go quiet in the forge. The blacksmiths look at me with questioning eyes. The white of the horse’s eyes is now purple and veins resembling thick cords are visible under the skin of his head. But this fierce old dragon has meanwhile made me angry with all of his aggression and resistance. This time he will not get his way, no matter what. And so: “Don’t let go!” Things go quiet again; dead quiet. Everyone is standing stock-still. The bullhead is still hanging in the stocks. The white of his eyes is now gradually turning black.
But then, when everyone is convinced that his final hour has come, he suddenly stands up. A sigh of relief can be heard throughout the forge. “Trim him. Quickly! Before he gives any more of his lip.” But he is totally groggy; like a boxer after being knocked out. He is scarcely aware of what is happening around him and he yields to having his hooves trimmed one by one.
How it ended
From that time on, his behaviour is exemplary, not only in the forge but also when the X-rays are made: he actually seems to be tame. I cannot recall the end result of the examination, nor the result of his treatment. What I do remember is his father's name: Amor.
© Leo Rogier Verberne