There are all kinds of websites giving novice horse owners advice on how to choose professionals such as a trainer, a vet, a shoer or a boarding stable. Aspiring horse owners can even get tips on how to choose the right horse.
Well, experienced horsemen know the prettiest horse isn’t always the soundest, sanest or most suitable for your discipline and experience level. Likewise, the fanciest barn may not be the best run or the vet with the newest clinic the most dedicated to horse health. Behind an expensive façade, the barn might be full of filthy stalls and the vet clinic focused more on fees than sound horses.
For me, the bottom line when choosing a practitioner, whether vet or trainer, farrier or barn manager is quite simple – the person must above all else care about the horse. The professionals I support must be people for whom horses’ health, safety and well-being always come first.
Yes, a vet or a bodyworker or a farrier must have acquired knowledge and skill and experience. But if he doesn’t have heart, if he’s just a technician working on a machine, I don’t want him. Because if, for example, it comes to a life-or-death decision for my horse, I don’t want a vet who will do what is easiest for him or what is most lucrative. I want a vet who will do what the horse needs. Without question or hesitation. Every time. That’s my bottom line.
How do you know which type of professional you’ve got? Unfortunately, sometimes you only find out after there’s a problem. Case(s) in point, true tales of two equine professionals, each of whom made a mistake that caused lameness in a horse.
One is a bodyworker (BW), someone with whom I was considering a professional collaboration. As a rule, I don’t recommend people, facilities or products to my clients unless I have worked with them first. So, after watching BW work on a couple of horses and having several conversations with him, I made an appointment to have him work on my two horses. One was a fit 14-year-old gelding. The other was a 28-year-old school horse for beginner students.
BW’s technique involved a lot of stretching and he went through his routine with both horses, who were fine with him and seemed to gain some freedom of movement from the work. Unfortunately, the next day the school horse was extremely lame, showing signs of extreme pain and neurological deficit. (If you’ve ever seen a horse with stringhalt, that’s pretty much what this looked like.)
I suspected an injury to his psoas complex, and that was the diagnosis of my veterinarian. I informed BW of this and he examined the horse himself about 10 days after the initial symptoms. He concurred with my assessment and promised to call a person he referred to as his mentor for advice how to help the horse back to comfort and soundness. I made it clear that I felt I needed help to bring my horse back to soundness. But I never heard from him again regarding a rehab plan for the horse. Nor, to this day, has he ever inquired about the horse’s soundness. Rene Noriega
Professional two is a farrier (F), who trimmed one of my barefoot horses too short during the rainy season, leaving him footsore on all four feet. The horse is normally very sound and has never worn shoes, so this type of lameness was completely unprecedented for him. I contacted F to let him know that my horse was lame and to inquire whether he or his assistant had done the actual trim. F had done it himself and expressed regret that the horse was uncomfortable.
I updated him about the horse’s continuing lameness a few days later and in the intervening time he had discussed the case with his assistant and was able to tell me in detail what they recalled about the feet before the trim and why he had intentionally trimmed a bit shorter than usual. His reasoning made sense to me; it just didn’t work for this particular horse. We kept in contact regarding the horse’s progress, developed a strategy for helping him become more comfortable and adjusted the schedule for his next trims to allow him to grow out more. The horse recovered completely.
Of course, I wasn’t thrilled in either case that a routine procedure left one of my horses lame. But neither bodywork nor farriery is an exact science and mistakes happen. The real test of these two professionals came after the mistakes were made. Which one showed he had the best interest of the horse as his priority? And which one did not, even though his mistake was career-ending and potentially life-threatening for his four-legged client? (And which one do you suppose I would never, ever again allow to touch a horse in my care?)
You sometimes hear people say they want to board at a barn where the owner/manager cares for all the horses as if they were his/her own. And that’s fine as long as you take the time to ensure that person cares for his own horses in a way that matches your expectations. Just because someone owns and manages horses does not mean she is fit to care for yours. Here are some scenarios, all involving fairly inexperienced horse owners, which I have witnessed:
At Barn A, a boarder contacts owner/manager at home for advice how to care for an injury and is yelled at for bothering O/M on her day off. At Barn B, owner/manager spends several hours working with a traumatized pasture-board horse to get a bandage on a minor cut that just isn’t healing properly and only bills the absentee owner minimally for supplies used. Or Barn C, where the owner/manager calls a horse owner to say her horse might be colicking but doesn’t offer the horse owner any assistance or even check on the horse’s condition later in the day.
In all of these cases, the barn managers were treating the boarder’s horses like they would treat their own. Which of them would you want looking after your horse? I want my horses at Barn B (and was lucky enough to have that as my barn for several years.) Of course I want an experienced, conscientious person directly overseeing the daily care of my horses. But most of all I want a true horsewoman or -man, someone who puts in the time and effort to be familiar with my horse’s quirks and habits, his “normal” and the warning signs when something isn’t quite right.
For me, the bottom line is always the horse.