“Hold This!” and Other Tales of Veterinary Ride-Alongs

What do veterinarians do all day? I learn that and more when riding shotgun in my brother’s vet truck.

“Don’t worry, Erin, you can just come with me. I need to do a dental on a horse tonight, and then tomorrow, I need to ultrasound a horse, do a prepurchase, and check a splint.” Fantastic—just exactly the type of weekend fun I was looking for while visiting my brother in California. The bacchanalian delights of wineries are so…overrated. And now distant. I’m just glad that I wore my last pair of good black shoes. These will look stunning in the barn.

I throw my bag in the back and climb in. The pickup cab has that same war zone/army surplus feel as our dad’s truck: black-handled scissors, baling twine, soda bottles and Skoal cans, an extra jacket, the mandatory black-and-white dog giving me stink eye as I kick her to the back seat, a cell phone, crumpled burger wrappers, pens that don’t work, old messages with scrawled phone numbers. It’s just like being home except that there is no snow and not a cow in sight.

Our father is a veterinarian, and now my brother, Matt, practices the same profession. We grew up in a very small town in south-central Montana, close enough to Yellowstone Park so that when fires ravaged the forests, crisped pine needles drifted down. Our dad has a mixed veterinary practice, mostly cattle and horses but with a few dogs, cats, some buffalo, and the odd zoo animal thrown in to keep things interesting. Matt, on the other hand, just does horses. I’m still hopeful that he’ll learn how to spay and neuter dogs before it comes time to work on one of my own, but I wouldn’t bet the ranch. He and I lead very different lives, you see. I live and work in Austin; he is a veterinarian in Hempstead, Texas. I write software manuals; he works on horses. The closest I get to a horse, unfortunately, is when I write the odd magazine article, and the closest he gets to a computer is, well, let’s just say he tries to involve any trysts with software applications.

And now I’m spending the day on vet calls with him—this could be interesting, painful, or both. My experience with helping veterinarians who also happen to be family members is that I qualify as free labor. Hold this, unplug that, can you get me the clinchers from the vet truck, hold some more of this. If you’re really lucky, whatever “this” happens to be is not completely disgusting. While at university, if friends asked what I did over spring break, I’d just tell them that I went skiing. True, I may have gotten in a day of skiing, but there was often more to it than that. I dipped buffalo, tested bulls, cleaned stalls, and stuck my hand places I dare not tell my husband about now. And now I’m out with my brother, holding back a smile when people call for “Dr. Randall” and he is the one that answers. Don’t they know that he used to bring snakes to school and made pterodactyl noises in the shower, that he once shaved his head bald at the AQHYA convention when he lost a bet?

While on the way back from the airport and to his house, he stopped to do some dental work on a dressage horse. I don’t remember dental work, but I do recall floating teeth. Dad would basically take a farrier’s rasp and saw it back and forth in the horse’s mouth for a bit. No one, horse included, was very happy with this procedure, but that was pretty much all that was available. Not anymore. Equine dental work has come a long, long way. Matt strapped on what looked like a miner’s headlamp for cave spelunking, tied the horse’s head up, and went to work. New, specially made drills filed down sharp teeth and balanced out the horse’s mouth. Matt kept running his fingers along the teeth, feeling for sharp points that would distract the gelding if he were carrying a bit. Jokingly, I asked if he was going to fill any cavities while he was in there or perhaps explain the importance of flossing. “Nope,” said Matt, “but there is a dentist out in Idaho that will fill cavities for horses.” Oh. While trying to be funny, I had stumbled headlong into reality.

Saturday morning featured a trip to the vet clinic itself. After mistaking the plastic Canada geese for the real thing (Matt found this to be uproariously funny), Matt introduced me to the Saturday skeleton crew, including a possible new intern. His first appointment pulled up in a trailer: an exam and ultrasound on a three-day event horse named Epic. The big black gelding had a sweet temperament (or perhaps it was the Rompun injection Matt delivered that made him so personable) despite a nagging stifle injury. The injury is non-debilitating, but one that makes it difficult for him to train regularly. Matt helped Rebecca, Epic’s owner and trainer, to see and understand exactly what he was seeing in the ultrasound and what that meant for the horse’s future performance. His bedside, or rather horseside, manner has matured since the days when he would get two donuts in the morning: one for him, one for his horse, Leo.

Matt finished up the day by doing a prepurchase exam on a filly. Prepurchase exams haven’t changed all that much as hock tests, trotting away, and x-rays are still the main features. This was somewhat of a relief as I had begun to fear that veterinary medicine had changed altogether since I’d been a fixture in Dad’s vet clinic. Matt obviously had this under control, so I wandered off to see Pete, the miniature horse that ruled the clinic barn. Pete was eating dinner at the moment, so the aforementioned plastic geese gave me more attention than he did.

The weekend was much as my brother described, or rather, warned that it would be, but he doesn’t know that I wrote this post. He thought I was just taking photos for our grandmother, all the while hoping that something really embarrassing would happen to him that I could put in my annual Christmas letter. And while it’s true that I was hopeful for holiday fodder, my eyes see a different story, one of admiration and respect. As I watched Matt work over the weekend, I came to realize that I am proud of him, inordinately so, and not just because he is my brother. I actually like the person he has become. I don’t know how many people are able to get to know their siblings outside of that person they squabble good-naturedly with at the holidays, but this day in the truck has given me the chance to see my brother in his element. When I look at Matt now, I see that he is a good teacher, knowledgeable, and has a quiet hand with horses. He’s great at what he does, and the horses and the people he works with like him. Matt sees the humorous aspect of life and is quick to make a joke. “Hey Matt—remember that time Dad tried to pull Mom off caffeinated coffee?” “Remember that time we almost ran away from home?” We laugh, remember to order our parents (and indirectly us) some coffee for the holidays, and head off in search of lunch.

So, on that Saturday, I fetched and carried, held a few horses, and mostly just tried to stay out of the way. The latter part, I must confess, was probably my strong point. But the next time my brother asks me if I want to spend the day with him in the vet truck, he won’t have to ask twice. I’ll just make certain to leave the city-girl shoes at home.

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