Getting the Big Picture

© Bucky Hatfield, MF

published in ANVIL Magazine, April, 1996

Y'all gather 'round while I tell you a story. Now it's very important that you listen (or read) closely, because if you're really paying attention, you just might find yourself in this story - the story of Bullet, the horse. Bullet was an active, happy 12-year-old buckskin Quarter Horse owned by Mrs. Smith. She liked to take Bullet to the local saddle club where he would demonstrate his considerable talent as a barrel horse. Most of the time, Mrs. Smith and Bullet won their class handily, with time to spare. But every once in awhile, Bullet would be a little off, not turning the barrels quite so tight as usual, and running the pattern a little less enthusiastically. Whenever this happened, Mrs. Smith would give Bullet a few days off and call out her farrier, Mr. White. Mr. White was a skilled farrier and recognized that there might be something going on in Bullet's feet, and always trimmed accordingly - balancing the foot wall while allowing a little extra heel. However, he never mentioned his suspicions to Mrs. Smith. In any event, after a visit from the farrier and a few days' rest, Bullet always returned eagerly to work and Mrs. Smith was happy.

At the saddle club, folks who watched Bullet run encouraged Mrs. Smith to take him to some open shows to win some money, or even to registered shows (when they were close by) to win some points. This appealed to Mrs. Smith, so she started training Bullet harder, getting him ready for the Big Time!

After a few weeks, Bullet went offagain, just as he had in the past. Mrs. Smith called Mr. White out again, just as she had in the past; Mr. White trimmed and shod Bullet again, just as he had in the past. But this time, Mrs. Smith did not give Bullet a few days of rest, as she had in the past, because there was an open show coming up soon and she didn't feel that they could afford to miss the training. At this time, although he improved some after the shoeing, Bullet still wasn't quite right. Mrs. Smith was upset by this, and instead of calling Mr. White back to consult with him, she asked a trainer what he thought might be wrong. The trainer, quick to advise with someone else's horse (as trainers sometimes are), suggested that perhaps she was using the wrong farrier, and then recommended that Mrs. Smith call his farrier - Mr. Black, who he was certain could straighten old Bullet out.

Following that advice, Mrs. Smith had Mr. Black examine Bullet, but she only told him what she thought he needed to know - that Bullet was off and that he was not much better since Mr. White had worked on him. Apparently, that was all the information Mr. Black felt he needed, since he asked no more about the history of the lameness. Eager to make a big impression, and now knowing Mrs. White's reasons for shoeing Bullet the way he did, Mr. Black noticed that the horse had a short, choppy gait and quickly criticized the steep hoof angle, stating that that could certainly be the reason Bullet wasn't moving properly. Mrs. Smith thanked Mr. Black for pointing out the shortcomings of her former farrier, and with her permission, Mr. Black corrected the horse's feet to extend his gait, by removing the excess heel and extending the toe just a bit.

When Bullet trotted off a bit sore, Mr. Black stated that it would take the horse a few days to get used to the new hoof angle and, in a few days, Bullet should be right as rain. Mrs. Smith was confident that Mr. Black was right, and told several of her friends that, although her former farrier, Mr. White, was a nice guy and all, she questioned his skill as a farrier.

But Bullet never seemed to get used to his new hoof angle. In fact, as she continued to try to work him he just seemed to get more lame, especially on his right front foot. Mrs. Smith became very upset. She had already missed one big show and another one was just around the corner. So she called for her veterinarian, Dr. Rush, to come out and look at Bullet, who, she told his receptionist, had been lame on his right front foot ever since Mr. Black had shod him. Dr. Rush's receptionist said that he was very busy, but that he could come out early the next morning. Mrs. Smith had to work mornings, so she had her teenage son, Bubba, stay at home to meet the vet. When Dr. Rush hurried into the barn the next morning, he had Bubba trot Bullet around once to confirm a lameness in the right front limb, which was actually quite subtle. When he asked Bubba about the history of the lameness, Bubba shrugged his shoulders in typical teenage fashion and said, "I dunno." Dr. Rush pulled the shoe and examined the foot more closely. Bullet showed a very slight reaction to direct pressure with the hoof testers at various places on the sole and frog, but this, too, was subtle. He considered doing serial nerve blocks and started to explain all the possible causes of this type of lameness. But the blank expression on Bubba's face and his own busy schedule for the day persuaded him otherwise. Instead, Dr. Rush gave Bullet a Bute injection and handed Bubba some Bute tablets. "It's probably just a bruise, or maybe your farrier quicked him a little, he said. "Tell your mother to give Bullet one of these tablets twice daily, and to call me if he doesn't get better." Then he hurried off .

With a few days of rest and the medication, Bullet did improve. After about a week, Mrs. Smith determined that she might have just enough time to get ready for that next show. She called out yet a third farrier, a Mr. Gray, to put the shoe back on, since Mr. Black had quicked her horse. (Or at least that's what Bubba had told her the vet had said - she, herself, had never talked with Dr. Rush.) She put Bullet back to work, pushing him hard to get ready for the upcoming show.

Unfortunately, Bullet went lame again two days before the big show. Mrs. Smith had to pull him out, losing her entry fee. By now, Mrs. Smith was completely frustrated. She was put out with farriers, vets, horse shows, and especially with Bullet. She picked up some more phenylbutazone tablets and gave them to him for a few days. When he seemed better, she ran him through a sale, getting much less than she had paid for him. He was bought by a cutting horse trainer from another state - a Mr. Jones, who knew nothing about Bullet's history. So he took Bullet home as a cutting horse prospect, and the whole story repeated itself. Eventually, Bullet wound up wearing an Alpo® can.

I never said this story was a happy one. The story is even sadder because it is true - and being played out daily across the country. Saddest of all, if we are honest, we will recognize ourselves in this picture.

There were many mistakes that led to the avoidably tragic end of Bullet's career. The way to avoid most of these mistakes can be summed up in one word: communication. As a listener (reader), you may guess that Bullet was afflicted with navicular syndrome - a degenerative foot condition that affects middle-aged or older horses of many breeds, but Quarter Horses in particular. While navicular syndrome is not entirely curable, it can be controlled with corrective trimming and shoeing, medication and reasonable expectations of the horse's capability. As I said, you may have been able to guess this, but that is only because you know the whole story; you can see the Big Picture. Each of the players in this story could only see a small portion, and without open lines of communication with the other players, they each had very little hope of gaining a broad perspective.

It brings to mind the well-known story from India of the three blind men instructed to go examine an object, without being told what it was that they were feeling. Each went separately to conduct his exam and each reported back his findings. The first man felt the long, muscular trunk of an elephant, and reported back that the object in question was a large snake. The second man felt the elephant's thick, rough leg and reported back that the object was a tree. The third man felt the firm, broad side of the elephant and declared the object to be a wall. Each man, with the limited information available to him, was unable to correctly identify the object. Yet, had they each communicated to the other their findings, keeping an open mind, even these blind men might have been able to reason that they were all examining different parts of the same elephant.

In one of his books, renowned author and veterinarian James Herriott describes the custom in post-war England when an animal's owner approached a veterinarian for a second opinion. Etiquette required that before the vet agreed to look at the animal, he would contact the previous veterinarian and ask his permission.

As awkward as this custom seems, we must admit its merits. Consider the possible outcome in the story of Bullet, had the professionals in the story practiced this courtesy. Mr. Black, the second farrier, would have contacted Mr. White and would have discovered that he already suspected navicular syndrome. He then could have recommended that Mrs. Smith contact Dr. Rush to establish a diagnosis. With the history gleaned from Mrs. Smith and Mr. White, Dr. Rush could have done the necessary tests to confirm navicular syndrome. Then, together with Mr. Black, he and Mrs. Smith could decide on a workable shoeing, exercise and medication program to keep Bullet going. Bullet might never make the Big Time, but at least Mrs. Smith would have reasonable expectations of what he could do, and avoid her frustration. Mr. White's reputation would have been spared, perhaps even elevated. And Bullet? Well, he would have avoided winding up in a can.

We each have something to contribute to the horse owner and the horse. But we have our limitations as well, and if we are too proud, too busy or too lazy to communicate with the other people involved, we are dooming ourselves to live and work within those limitations - groping around foolishly like the blind men - never even glimpsing The Big Picture.

Special thanks to Kevin Brummett, DVM, of Franklin, Tennessee, for his professional assistance.

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