He heaves his front end up, flinging the cloth off his face, scattering all four humans. His legs collapse and he falls heavily to one side. He scrambles up, half-slithers across the lawn. We give him space but position ourselves carefully, to keep him out of the trees and pond. Then Erin gets a halter on him, and now we can give him support and direction. He rises to his feet again and this time he sways left, wobbles right, and then steadies himself with a wide stance. One hoof trembles. One blink. Two. An ear flick. His eye finds a focus, no longer glazed with panic. He exhales with force and we breathe a sigh of relief.
The posterior digital neurectomy (PDN) operation is one of the most common equine surgeries in the world. It’s a routine procedure that can be done in a ranch call, without having to transport the horse to a hospital and rig him up in slings and restraints.
(Note: I couldn’t find any explanations of the PDN procedure online, and certainly nothing from a layperson point of view. I am writing it out for anyone else who is researching what PDN is and whether to schedule it for their horse and will post it soon.)
But Rocky’s full name is Rockstar for a reason. He has never been an average, everyday kind of horse. He is extraordinarily intelligent, very sensitive, playful in his own subtle way. He thinks. A lot. And he is a survivor.
He has no trouble with sedatives other than his faster-than-light metabolizing of them so that they wear off too fast. But as we discovered yesterday, he has an idiosyncratic reaction to general anesthesia. Even though Appaloosas (and paints) are known for fighting off drugs faster than other breeds, Rocky’s reaction was extreme. The vet had to give him more frequent anesthesia boosters than any horse in the past 30 years of his practice. He even added a side order of valium. Even then, Rocky’s muscles never relaxed, and his body twitched and jerked as if in an unending seizure.
I got a battlefield education in how to keep 1200 pounds of should-be-completely-unconscious-but-does-not-seem-to-be prey animal down on his side. I’m keeping the details private as they affect people other than just me. Suffice it to say that it was an abnormally long and difficult example of what should have been simple.
But because of it, I have left my apprenticeship behind. I am now a journeyman horseman. I am now fully confident about my ability to make decisions about what is best for my horses, no longer automatically deferring to those I perceive as more experienced than I.
For hours, I crouched over Rocky’s poll, hands on his neck, leaning hard on him every time he moved his front end. A horse uses its head and neck to swing himself up; it was my job, as vet tech draftee, to keep that powerful fulcrum down.
They say your horse is your mirror. It’s even an English proverb: Show me your horse and I will tell you who you are.
I am 19 and scheduled for a routine umbilical hernia repair operation. My doctor hands me a valium to relax me before they wheel me in. But instead it makes me anxious, tense, jittery. I can’t keep still. I have full-body spasms when I try to sit down, so I pace, four strides each way. Eventually they strap me on a gurney, then transfer me to a table and strap down my wrists. I try to breathe and there’s a prick for the IV and then I spiral down and it’s dark. But suddenly there’s an excruciating pain right in the hernia and I can feel the surgeon’s hands inside me and I hear him saying “don’t let her cross her legs” and someone straps my ankles wide and they can’t hear me screaming that I am awake, I should not be awake, I should not have his voice booming in my ears, his fingers pressing in my guts.
I held Rocky down and I breathed for us both, deep into my belly, breathed like my wellness trainer is teaching me. Connect to the breath and you cannot get trapped in future or past. (If your mind has run off, you’ve stopped breathing properly.)
I watched Rocky’s nostrils and imagined him slowing his breath to my rhythm, grounding himself through me even as I grounded myself through my breath. This steadied me, although after one huge spasm in which Rocky almost rolled onto his belly, I choked with tension and tears, and the resulting snot inhibited my airflow.
We got through it. Rocky returned from anesthesia at a gallop instead of a sensible amble and so he ended up with some skinned knees, which the vet painstakingly cleaned and treated with antibiotics, just to be on the safe side.
Obviously, we’ll have no more field surgeries, no matter how routine and simple. (“Clinics are great, but give me a drafty barn and equine surgery anytime, that’s where I live,” I once overheard the vet say to another owner.) Should Rocky ever need another operation, it will be at the hospital, in a sling.
Erin has also sworn off such things, even though Rocky’s reaction is so rare and had the vet not taken off his halter to make his head more comfortable, we’d have been able to help Rocky even though he tried to stand too soon. Any other horse would have come to much more slowly, giving us time to halter and help him.
By dinnertime, we had Rock settled in a deeply bedded stall, munching away on grass hay, drinking water, peeing and pooping like normal, a bit woozy but steady on his feet. He has to be cooped up for a week before he can be hand-walked, but he can stick his head outside and we put Salsa in the stall next to him. Salsa hangs out in the run where Rocky can see him and both are taking comfort in the proximity. This morning, Rocky licked my hand, and then put his head on my shoulder for a moment before returning to his hay net.
A special thank you for your supportive comments in the “pre surgery” post. I had your words with me during the unexpectedly dramatic day.