Horse Play – Fun Until it Isn’t


We were just wrapping up a routine day of limping, itching, and diarrhea (ah, my patients, not me) when Jamie arrived. She’d been frolicking in the pasture with the neighbor horses when she was kicked by a creature 20 times her size. I remember her sad gaze from the treatment table.

This 11 year old black and white Australian shepherd was no stranger. Jamie was one of 3 dogs in Cathy and Jeff Robb’s home, each an obedience competitor. They meant everything to their people in part because of the years they had all invested in building trust and commitment. Cathy and Jeff wanted only the best medical care for them. Sweet, smart, and gentle Jamie was my favorite.

With my steady and competent veterinary nurse Amos holding our trauma patient’s shoulders I carefully examined every other part of her anatomy first. Had I gone for the obvious first, and possibly missed other injuries or a traumatic heart arrhythmia, I would have been practicing less than thorough medicine. When everything else checked out, I gently rubbed this good girl’s head while I gingerly raised her lips. Her upper jaw was only partially caved-in but her mandible, the lower jaw, had suffered a compound fracture between the third and fourth premolar teeth. The front and rear halves of that broken bone were so far apart they were hardly in the same county. At 5:30 our day was just beginning.

Jamie’s idyllic life changed in a split second when her face was in the wrong place at the wrong time – the receiving end of a lightning fast equine appendage. Horsing around with a young stallion is fun until somebody gets hurt. Confident and brash, this arrogant stud wasn’t going to tolerate some pip squeak dog herding him.

There was no time to lose. This dog was hurting. I started an IV catheter for shock doses of fluids and corticosteroids while Amos took x-rays of Jamie’s jaw, chest, and abdomen. Finding no internal damage we heaved a sigh of relief and pushed ahead with anesthesia.


Knockout from a Mean Left Hook

When Amos rolled Jamie, prepped and sleeping, into surgery I was already scrubbed, gowned, and gloved. I remember standing in front of the x-ray view box (pre-digital) studying the films and planning my strategy. Every case is different. A bone plate might have worked well, had that evil equine been a bit more considerate in aiming his kick. We’d play the hand we were dealt.

With Jamie’s blood pressure and heart rhythm stable and her breathing steady, I made my approach. Carefully elevating her gums away from the site of her broken mandible I saw the problem up close and personal. The break was diagonal and jagged. We could work with it.

Amos had the orthopedic drill ready. I handed him the sterile end of the hose to plug into the nitrogen cylinder. Then he scrubbed and gowned. Our nurse Shannon would take over anesthesia monitoring.

While retracting Jamie’s gums, and keeping them moist, Amos provided good exposure. I drilled holes through the bones, between tooth roots, and passed orthopedic wires across the fracture. Tightening them one twist at a time brought the ends slowly together, locking the serrated edges back to their normal position. When it all felt good and tight I stitched the gums.

Bones need rest in order to heal; chewing and horse chasing were off the table for at least 6 weeks. After gently rolling Jamie onto her side Amos clipped the hair on her neck and gave her skin a good surgical scrub. I made a short incision, passed one end of a feeding tube into her esophagus and sutured and then bandaged its other end to her skin. Our patient would live on a canned dog food gruel, syringed into her esophageal feeding tube. Until then this canine gourmet’s taste buds would take a sabbatical.

I then fashioned a comfortable tape muzzle that would make Jamie a local spectacle. She could open her mouth only an inch to lap water. With pain meds already on board she looked good as she exhaled the gas and started blinking.


A Career-Ending Injury

When Jeff and Cathy Robb brought their first collie puppy to me for vaccinations, back in the early 80s, I remember proselytizing on the benefits of training class from my exam room pulpit. They picked up the dog obedience ball and ran with it. When they added Jamie several years later it was clear, early in the game, that they had a stand-out.

Jamie was more than a great working dog; she was a cherished pet. In the competition ring she watched Jeff constantly, never missing a cue. At age 11 she was still scoring in the high 190s but she’d lost her edge in the game of dodging horse kicks. She was lucky. I’ve known head injuries to end much worse.

As the post operative weeks progressed I could palpate a hard, healing callus bridging the fracture site of Jamie’s lower jaw. I also kept an eye on her damaged maxilla – her upper jaw.

A dog’s maxillary bones are thinner and more prone to shatter with blunt force trauma. Jamie was lucky again. The surrounding structures, with their generous blood supply, did a good job of holding the fragments close enough to fuse back together without my help.  Mother Nature is often kind.

There was collateral damage that could not be repaired. A couple of Jamie’s non-essential upper teeth had been lost during her short bout, sparring with that easily annoyed young stud. She would eat fine and look completely normal and beautiful but an obedience judge always checks for missing teeth. Without a full set of pearly whites Jamie would be disqualified every time.

This special girl had already achieved her Utility Dog title, the highest level in obedience work. Now her career was over. It was a sad day for Jeff and Cathy when I shared the bad news but their love for Jamie would never fade. Our final x-rays showed complete healing. We removed the now sticky, stinky tape muzzle and handed our patient a celebratory treat to chew.


Knocked Down, a Good Dog Gets Back Up

Jamie’s mandatory retirement from obedience competition at age 11 was followed by an acting gig, appearing in the Albuquerque Little Theatre production “Of Mice & Men”, to rave reviews, I might add. Not even the casting director noticed her two missing teeth.  Cathy and Jeff have said that she may have been the best dog they ever had – but they’ve thought that of each of their dogs. Jamie was nobody’s fool. She never chased another horse.

When Jeff and Cathy went rummaging through stacks of old photos it came to them why Jamie’s massive facial/skull remodel would have been worth it to her – the great jack rabbit chase north of Cheyenne, Wyoming. They’d pulled off the road to see the original ranch house of the “My Friend Flicka” book, in the midst of nowhere, and let their 4 dogs out to sniff and investigate.

Suddenly a huge Jack-a-Lope creature leaped in front of Jamie. She took off with Jeff in hot pursuit.  As the rabbit pulled away, Jeff’s hat was all that could be seen over the rolling hills.  No cell phone (early 90’s). Jamie returned 2 hours later covered with burrs and stickers, then another hour later Jeff (in the same shape).  Jamie was smiling. It took hours to clean her up, but that grin never left her face. The jack rabbit’s fate remains a mystery, even to this day. Lesson learned: never take a dog off leash who loves to chase, especially in the middle of nowhere.  Jamie was 12 or 13 at the time and still going strong.

A wild and active Border collie puppy, “Mick Jagger”, entered my life 2 years ago. This fine young barbarian started puppy kindergarten at age 12 weeks at the Aztec Animal Clinic. Following graduation we enrolled our young rocker in basic novice class at Sandia Dog Obedience Club. Our instructor was – Jeff Robb. With that strong foundation Mick has advanced to Rally competition, scoring first place in his first two trials. Dogs are wonderful; obedience instructors are salt of the earth.