D. E. Larsen, DVM
I could see Dan waiting at the gate to the barnyard when I pulled into his driveway off of Pleasant Valley Road. There was still some snow on the ground from a late spring snowfall, and it added a chill to the air.
“Dan, I got the message that you wanted me to stop by, but I didn’t get any other information,” I said as I extended my hand.
Dan shook my hand. His hands were heavily calloused, and his fingers bent from arthritis. I am sure his handshake was much firmer in past years.
“I want you to look at my old horse, Joe,” Dan said. “This time of the year, I keep him in the barn. I’ve noticed that he has one heck of a time eating. He takes a mouthful of grain, and more of it dribbles back into the feed rack than he swallows.”
“That might be something pretty simple,” I said. “How long has it been since his teeth have been floated?”
“They probably have never been floated, since I don’t know what that means.”
“The horse’s teeth continue to erupt throughout their life. They wear against themselves, and sometimes, when they get a few years on their mouth, they develop sharp points on the edge of the teeth that need to be filed off.”
“You just say, open wide, I guess,” Dan said.
“Some horses object to the procedure more than others, but we have a little device to help hold the mouth open. Some horses stand right there and let it happen, some need a twitch, and then there are a few who need some drugs to help them relax.”
“Joe, he’s a pretty mellow old horse. He’s sort of like Mom and me. He was a lot prettier twenty years ago than he is today.”
“Let’s go get a look at Joe,” I said.
“I’m a little embarrassed to take you into the barn,” Dan said. “This place looks like a widow woman’s ranch anymore. I’m too damn old to keep it up anymore. Our son, Stan, died in that war, and our daughter doesn’t live close. She tries to help some. But you probably know how it is when you are working and have a young family. There is just so much time you have to give to the old man.”
“I’m sorry about your son. There were far too many young men lost over there. I was in the Army for four years, but I was able to avoid Vietnam. I had a good friend who came home in a box, though. I am glad that it is over.”
Dan didn’t respond to my comment. He busied himself with the gate that we had stopped at on the driveway leading to the barn. Dan was having some trouble untying some baling twine that held the gate closed.
“I’ve never heard the term, ‘widow woman’s ranch’,” I said.
“Nothing is fixed. All the fences lean this way or that. Everything is held together by baling wire or twine. The wire lasts a lot longer than the twine, but they don’t bale hay with wire much anymore. Or maybe, I just don’t buy alfalfa much anymore. Twenty years ago, I would’ve replaced any leaning post. Or at least, reset it. Now I just support it with a mesh made out of twine. It is a good thing I don’t have much stock anymore. We feed out a steer for meat, for ourselves, and our daughter’s family. And then there is Joe. And Joe knows he doesn’t want to get out. He’s got it made here, three square meals a day, and nothing is expected in return. Even the grandkids don’t seem to want to ride him anymore.”
I helped Dan with the large barn door. We had to lift it a bit, and then it would slide. It looked like the rollers needed a little grease, but I wasn’t going to say anything.
I was shocked at the inside of the barn. It was immaculate, like stepping into a barn twenty years in the past.
“I try to keep this place like Stan would remember it,” Dan said.
Joe was in a large stall. He whinnied and tossed his head happily.
Joe was old, a buckskin. He was probably a striking horse in his day. Now his face was grayed, and his muscle mass was fading.
“Let’s get a halter on him so I can look at that mouth,” I said as I reached for a halter and lead rope hanging on a hook at the gate leading into the stall.
“Don’t use that one,” Dan said. “Stan hung that one there the last time he rode Joe before going to Vietnam. Joe was Stan’s horse, you see. Joe is the only connection I have to Stan. I worry what will happen to him if this old guy outlives me.”
I could see some moisture in Dan’s eyes as he spoke. I had to look away for a moment and take a couple of deep breaths before I tried to talk.
“I’m sure your daughter will take care of Joe,” I said.
“She has nowhere to keep him, but I guess she could find someone to take care of him. I have it all spelled out. I have a place picked out for him behind the barn. Joe and I go out at times and talk about how things used to be when Stan was around.”
I grabbed the old halter that Dan had been holding and stepped into the stall. I needed to get to work to change the subject.
Joe nuzzled me when I slipped the halter over his nose. I tied the lead to a ring hanging on the feed rack. Joe had no problem when I ran my index finger along the insides of his cheeks to feel the points on his back teeth.
I grabbed Joe’s tongue and pulled it to the side, causing Joe to open his mouth a little. With a small penlight, I got a good view of the left side of his mouth. Switching hands and pulling the tongue to the other side, I viewed the right side of his mouth.
Joe had jagged points on the inside of his lower cheek teeth and the outside of his upper teeth. I could see sores on both sides of his tongue and on the inside of both cheeks. Joe should feel much better with these teeth floated.
Joe was remarkably tolerant. I grabbed his tongue and inserted the float in the left side of his mouth. With long slow strokes of the float blade, you could hear the points disappear as the sound went from a rough rasping sound to a smooth, almost silent sound. I finished the floating in a couple of minutes.
I smiled as I felt Joe’s teeth after I was done.
“These are as smooth as can be now. I think you’ll see a big difference for Joe.”
“I hope so. I am a little surprised that Joe wasn’t bothered by that whole thing,” Dan said.
“Yes, he is pretty exceptional to stand there and take it with no restraint and no speculum.”
“Do you think he is going to be able to eat now?”
“I think you’ll find he is a new horse. But to be sure, I’ll check with you in a few days.”
I was driving by Dan’s place a few days later, and when I noticed him coming out of the barn, I stopped to ask about Joe.
“Good morning, Dan,” I said. “I just wanted to check on how Joe was eating after I worked on him the other day.”
“He’s doing great. Doesn’t dribble a bit of grain. I think he enjoys eating now. If I had known that was a problem, I would’ve had you do his teeth a long time ago.”
“At his age, we should plan to check him every year, just to keep him as comfortable as we can for his old age.”
“That sounds like a good plan,” Dan said. “I’ll try to remember to give you a call.”
It was probably 3 years later when Dan gave me a call. He wouldn’t talk to Sandy when she answered the phone. He only wanted to talk with me.
“Doc, this is a terrible day for me,” Dan said. “I think I need you to come and put Joe to sleep for me. He sliped going out of the barn the other day, and he must have hurt a hip or something. He can hardly walk.”
“Do you want me to examine him first?” I asked. “It could be something simple that we help with some medication.”
“No, I think it is time for him to go see Stan. I’ve already had a neighbor over. He dug a hole with his backhoe, out behind the barn, under that big maple tree.”
“When do you want to do this, Dan?” I asked.
“The sooner, the better, do you have time to come now?”
“I’ll make time, Dan. I’ll be out there in a few minutes.”
Dan was waiting for me at the Barn door. I helped him with the door again. Joe was lying down when we entered the barn. It was quite a struggle for him to get on his feet.
Dan had tears in his eyes and one running down his left cheek.
“Can you get Stan’s halter down for me?” Dan asked. “This getting old stuff is no fun for me either.”
I remembered that Dan didn’t want to use this halter when I was out before to look at Joe.
“You want the one that Stan hung up?” I asked.
“Yes, we are going to bury him with it. I figure that is what Stan would have wanted.”
I carefully, almost reverently, lifted the halter and lead rope off the hook. Dan took it and held it close to his chest as he walked through the gate to Joe’s stall. Joe snickered softly as he smelled the halter. Dan slipped in on the halter and patted Joe on the neck.
“We can go out the back door,” Dan said as he started Joe toward the door. Joe was hardly bearing any weight on his right hind leg. Dan was correct. It was probably time.
Dan lead Joe out and had him lying down by the large hole that was recently dug.
“He knows the routine. I’ve been bringing him out on good days for the last year. He lays down, and I sit here with him, and we talk about the old days.”
“Dan, do you want to stay for this?” I asked. “You could wait in the house or the barn.”
“No, Joe wants me to be here. It’s okay, Doc. Joe’s going to see Stan.”
“This is pretty fast stuff. I’m going to give him an injection to sedate him a little. Then, when I give him the big injection, he’ll be gone in an instant.”
“Okay, let’s get it done.”
Joe went quietly, resting his nose on Dan’s legs when he was sedated.
Dan shed a couple of tears, patted Joe’s neck, and stood up.
“Do you need me to help to put him in the hole?” I asked.
“No, the neighbor is going to come back with his backhoe. Our daughter will be here before too long. She and her husband will be able to take care of everything. You can stop at the house, and Sue will give you a check.”
“There’s no charge for this, Dan. Stan paid the bill some time ago.”
I walked back to the truck alone, leaving Dan to pay his last respects to Joe. I sat in the truck for a moment, took a few deep breaths, and dried my eyes before pulling out onto the road.
Photo by Idella Maeland on Unsplash