Witness to Suffering

Witness to Suffering

I was nervous about the final horse to be gelded. We had tried to put Amigo in the chute three weeks earlier for vaccinations and coggins testing, but his desperation to escape was so intense and violent that we had let him out, untouched. He was, by far, the most beautiful of the thirty-one stallions: a clear brick-red bay with white stockings, and a white patch that defined his coloring as “pinto”. On the day he was to be gelded, I was afraid for him and so I left him for last.

Dr. Gonzales DVM, however, was not to be underestimated. He had gelded 27 wild horses in one day for the McKinley County Humane Society, dropping them, drugged and immobile, from the bucking chutes of the Pine Hill Rodeo Grounds. He came to us with excellent recommendations, and, as we considered it, just in the nick of time.

We were still under an order to vacate the premises by the Village of Milan by June 9th. With so many stallions in our keeping, our options were limited. They could not go in a pen as a group without blood being shed, bones being broken, and permanent scars. Where else could we find a facility with 30 individual pens that were stud-proof? Gelding would allow them to become a normal horse herd, but we were out of time. When Dr. Gonzales DVM agreed to geld them, a prayer was answered. 

The appointed day dawned and it was cold and snowy, despite being the end of May. I had two volunteers to press into service: Helene, the hiker who had walked from the Mexican border along the Continental Divide Trail, and Yijing, the Chinese art student who was trying to experience “true nature”. The three of us were shivering as Dr. Gonzales organized us, his father, and an assistant into the gelding team. Helene was to be responsible for the bucket full of disinfectant and tools. Yijing was to carry the tray of drugs. I was to cover the horse’s head with a towel and keep it’s neck straight. John would move the horses to and from their pens.

The first day was long and exhausting, but we only got twenty-four of the boys gelded. Some of them were over-adrenalized, but the doc had no qualms about bumping up the dosage to the limit for the wild ones. First a tranquilizer, then the knock-out dosage of ketamine. A high dosage of ketamine made them twitch as I held them. No one woke up prematurely and things went smoothly. Yijing hid her eyes behind Helene’s shoulder every time the vet cut open a scrotum. Nature was a little too gory for her. Helene took up the vet’s offer to let her do one of the geldings, but her incision technique was too tentative, and Dr. Gonzales finished the job.

The second day was merely cold and windy. It wasn’t long before we had only Amigo left. Predictably the beautiful stallion put up a fight, slamming into the walls of the chute and trying to climb out. I had never noticed that the upper edge of the gate hinges were bare sharp metal . Slamming his head into the metal, Amigo sliced his right eye lid into a gaping wound as the vet filled his veins with drugs. He fell out of the chute onto his right side burying his bleeding face in the soft dirt. I wrapped his head in the towel. They had to drag him away from the fence and I did my best to hold his head by the halter to keep the wound from dragging through the dirt.

The gelding team huddle around Amigo.

Dr. Gonzales worked fast, knowing this horse would not stay down long and that he needed to put some stitches on the eyelid. The wind came up from the west and it started spitting snow and blowing the duff off the ground. He swabbed the belly with disinfectant to get the soil particles away from his incisions. We all prepared to roll the horse onto his left side, but at that point it was “too much nature” for me too and I could not look at Amigo’s face. The other five members of the team huddled around his head and neck to create a windblock. The bone over the eye was broken. Doctor Gonzales cleaned the wound and put in a purple stitch to hold the skin over the exposed bone. It was a grim moment.

Amigo started regaining consciousness and we all moved to the fences. The horse willed himself to his feet, but his feet were not ready. He lurched from side to side, staggering and falling. Dr. Gonzales was tense, horses at this point can easily break their legs. We all held our breaths until the horse was able to stand again. The broken bones, blood, and permanent scars that I was trying to avoid by gelding, had been visited on the beautiful stallion. Dr. Gonzales prescribed some antibiotics and left us with a five gallon bucket overflowing with stallion testicles.

The Village of Milan Trustees met the next day and the wild horse advocates were there. The Trustees were a little bit miffed that the issue had made regional news and they looked like horse-haters, but that’s a whole other story for another post. The important point here is that they gave us until June 24th to get down to 50 horses. I would have to double up on my training effort to meet this deadline. 

But I couldn’t. I had a suffering animal to care for. His mane was entangled in the puss-seeping  scab that covered his eye. He needed care and he needed husbandry training if we had any hope of saving the eye. I spent three days working with Amigo and refusing to give the deadline a second thought. I trained him to let me spray his face with a spray bottle of water, then to let me put the scissors in various places to cut the mane, and, finally, to press his eye against a warm wet sponge. The weather turned warm and dry. The scab became as hard as any plastic. Scab material seemed to require three hours of soaking to even begin to dissolve, but the wild mustang only had two and a half hours of patience for his trainer. In order to avoid too much frustration, I reminded myself constantly to focus on the project and let go of the outcome. Just keep trying, it’s the only thing to do.

After three days the mane hairs that formed the hardened matrix fell away. One crusty bit hung down from the eyelid from a purple stitch. This hanging scab annoyed the mustang. The antibiotics were keeping infection from setting in, but with the eye now exposed, he quit letting me spray his eye. I couldn’t blame him. I searched for another way.

I lay awake and worrying almost every night. Should I put him in a darkened barn or would he flip out? Could I get a fly mask on him? Could I get an eye patch over his eye? What if I trained him in a different way?

I started training him to take an oral tranquilizer. Dormosedan is a gel that comes in a thin tube. He would have to let me put it in his mouth long enough to squirt it under his tongue. It was too expensive to fail on the first try.

His pain kept him distracted and unfocused. He could only train for two minutes at a time. He couldn’t blink, the center of his eye accumulated a thick pad of dirt and duff cemented with pus. Maybe it was protecting the eye in some way. Maybe it would be more painful to lose the pad of dirt.  I started not to be able to bear to look at him. It was too painful to my own self confidence to be so helpless.

His owner, Miranda, came with medications, sprays, ointments. We couldn’t do much but spray his eye. At this point, it probably was so painful he no longer avoided the spray and I think the moisture provided some real relief. I tried using spray and shade over the eye as a reinforcer to motivate him, but his fear was always too high and he ducked away from the shadow. I called Dr. Gonzales to see if I could figure out another way. He said put the Dormosedan in his food and forget about under the tongue.

The next day Miranda drove over from Algodones, where she lives. Amigo took the gel tube into his mouth and I gave him a quarter of the dose, followed by a handful of alfalfa. We left Amigo for 30 minutes to let the drug start to work, then came back to a slightly more relaxed mustang to give him the rest of the medication. Dormosedan takes 40 minutes of quiet time to take full effect. No adrenaline allowed.

He was not as quiet as I hoped, but he let me spray his eye, then take the dangling scab in my fingers. I fiddled with it to see how to get the scissors on it safely. One snip and the hated scab was gone, but the pad of dirt was glaring. It made no sense to try to cover the eye with a patch until it was clean. I started rinsing the dirt pad with pink eye solution. It seemed welded to the eye.

Amigo decided I was trying to help him and cozied up to me. He wanted to hang his head over my shoulder, but his drug induced friendliness was short lived and he moved away from our ministrations before the pad dissolved. It would take another Dormosedan day to do anything more.

It was a major improvement, but still I felt like a failure. My husbandry training was only half-effective. I had no real hope left of anything more than watching this beautiful creature suffer in the glaring sun and dusty wind. Waves of guilt and shame washed over me. I couldn’t bear to look at him.

I decided to try some human pain-relieving eye solution, so I mixed Visizine and pink eye solution. He didn’t mind me spraying. The dirt pad continued to grow like a stalagmite. Finally it seemed that it was going to break off. It was kind of terrifying to think about what might be under it. I kept his eye spray bottle in my training cart for quick treatments during my training day. Sooner or later the lump was going to fall off. We would just have to deal with whatever we found under it.

I dreamed that Amigo was in his pen looking at me through his left eye. It looked normal and I was joyous. I think they call these compensatory dreams, dreams that make up for the pain you are trapped in.

In Bennie’s trailer

Then, out of the blue, Miranda found a vet who would take him on as a patient. Dr. Thal has an equine practice in Santa Fe. Amigo’s transportation was arranged. We solidified the loading chute and let him stand around with the mares until the truck came. Bennie and his grandpa helped me load Amigo, and, just that quick, Amigo was gone.

He is lucky to have an adopter that loves him. Dr. Thal, take care of this special boy. He’s been through a lot.

UPDATE: 28 June. We just learned that Dr. Thal removed the eye.