Out of the Woods – Creepy Farm Call #1

In the spirit of Halloween, I was thinking back to some of the more creepy farm calls I’ve been on in the two years. I definitely place this one in the top 5, but certainly isn’t the scariest or eeriest story by far. Saving that story for a future post.


Last June, I was sent out on a very remote farm call…almost an hour into the middle of the woods. Our appointments in google calendar were also linked with Google maps, so that navigating to the next call was automatic. I rarely entered in or checked a destination address. I passed through a couple neighboring towns, and then through small “ghost towns” …old wooden buildings with the planking peeling away and paint long gone, old decrepid cars with all the tires flat. If listed, town population signs never sported a number over 300.

Cell service became intermittent, and then non-existent once I turned off the highway onto a paved road. After 15 minutes, the paved road turned to gravel, and after passing a ntional forest sign, I started passing foresty service roads. After 30 minutes, I still hadn’t passed a single house as I wound down through a valley along a wide, fast-paced river.

The appointment was for a feral, lame horse. The horse had already received 2 tubes of dorm gel prior to my arrival. I had tried to find this place before, but after an hour of searching, called it quits. We arranged for one of the owners to meet me today, the spot I quickly approached (a Y in the gravel road with a tree inbetween the forked paths). He waiting there in a weathered mid 80’s ford truck. He had already turned around to servce as the pilot car, and a plume of exhaust fumes serged up from where the exhaust pipe would’ve been.

We didn’t pass a single house, driveway or other sign of residence. Gated and overgrown logging roads intersected the gravel road, which wound deeper and deeper into what I presume, was still national foret land. The gravel road faded to dirt road, and as we came around a sharp corner, his truck suddenly disappeared from sight. I hit my breaks to see his exhaust plum leading my like an obnoxious bread crumb trail. He veered down a dirt path, certainly no road. An assortment of dust-laden vegetation crept far enough over the path to make it invisible. I remember thinking they didn’t have a mailbox, and that I was probably coming up on a squatter compound…but squatters or not, they had a horse that was severely lame.


The truck stopped at a widening of the dirt path, and then pulled away to park amongst an assortment of rusty, scrapped and stripped cars, trucks and vans. Dispersed beyond the cars, amongst heavy tree trunks with low lying branches, were 5 large tents. Picture safari-style hunting tents…aged, mossy, holed and sagging canvas between the frames. Beyond the tents, a small paddock was built with an assortment of scrap metal, poles, logs and other makeshift materials. The guy said nothing and disappeared into a tent. All the tents had ventilation through welded pipes, the canvas material cut to give the steaming pipes a wide bearth.

An older woman was standing with the horse, and motioned for me to come over. I got out the basic tote, head lamp and wandered through the brush to the coral. The horse’s hooves were overgrown to the point of making 6 inch long skis, with the toes almost curling back like elf shoes. With the horse sedated, I could complete my exam and figured the lameness was a result of the unmanaged toe length and laminitis. It was while I was discussing this with the owner that I motion caught my eye. From all directions in the woods, coming around and between massive tree trunks, people slowly emerged. Men and women, ranging from (my guess) early 30s to mid 60s, silently made their way out of the woods. Some of them didn’t seem to notice I was there, others shot furtive glances. One by one they disappeared into various tents. If any of them spoke a word, I certainly didn’t hear it.

My heart was racing at this point, and I felt vulnerable and exposed. The only thing I could think to say was that I was going to grab my phone from the truck (not that it had cell service or would do any good). I got to the cab and grabbed the only real defense weapon I had. It was a can of mace my friend had gotten me after I was attacked by a farm dog a couple months earlir. As I was returning, one of the flaps to the tent was flapped back. Inside, there were large burn-barrel with lids…5 or six with pipping going towards what I assume isthe main pipe coming out the top of the tent. I glanced to make sure the vet bed was closed, ie locked. It was.

As I finished discussing my recommendations, the various tatter-clothed people emerged from the tents one by one. They randomly accumulated around the bed of the vet truck, looking it over curiously. They were 5-10 feet away from the truck, inspecting it and ocassionally me. I confirmed no cell service, and never wanted a distress beacon so badly in my life.

The owner went to retrieve her checkbook while I settled into the truck. Like every time your heart is pounding, pulse bounding, adrenaline serging…minutes in panicked reality feel like hours. This situation, no different. I sat there, on the verge of fleeing but forcing myself to wait. No one said a word amongst the six or seven scraggly, barefoot men that lingered around the truck. Women arrived, check in hand, and and said the guy who brought me here was just turning his truck around to show me the way back.

$%@$ that, I thought. No people or cars were behind me, and all I could manage to say cooly through the cracked window was “I’m good.”

I didn’t know that little ford vet truck could go so fast in reverse, and I’ve certainly never driven in reverse that fast for that long in my life.


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the Unexpected Problem #2 (ER case, part 1)

After seeing a couple of routine appointments, we started receiving back-to-back emergencies. Our emergency calls included a colic, a foot abscess, a case of cellulitis and a minor laceration. Around 9pm, right as we parked the work truck in the garage, my work phone rang. On the other end of the line, was a panick stricken owner who thought her horse had fractured its leg after getting kicked by another horse in turn-out. We regrouped, and made the short 25 minute drive to the ER.


The Presenting Complaint and (Most) Obvious Problem

When we arrived, we spotted the mare in the beam of our headlamps. She stood in the pasture, trembling, painful and unable to bear weight on her hind leg. Aside from a <1 inch long laceration through the skin located in front of her hip, there were no real significant findings on my physical exam. I could not palpate a fragment, fracture or instability in the limb. After ruling out a foot abscess, fracture of the distal phalanx, we confirmed no fracture from the stifle down. Our radiograph equipment in the field is not capable of shooting images of the hips or pelvis, and with no ultrasound, ruling out a pelvic fracture wasn’t going to be an option. Leaving her in the pasture, without water or shelter, was not an acceptable option. After giving pain meds and sedation, we inched our way slowly and steadily to the barn.

Discovering the (Less) Obvious, but Equally Serious Problem

In the barn, I turned my attention to the wound over the hip while I next steps for the painful leg. After clipping around the wound, I was both shocked and disturbed to find out the extent of the wound. What looked like a superficial, small tear in the skin, was actually a dime-sized penetrating wound. With a flashlight, I looked into the wound and probed the extent. Beyond layers of muscle, fascia, fat and connective tissue…I found myself looking through a tiny viewing window right into the mare’s abdomen. I saw the glisten of light off what I presumed to be the right dorsal colon.

Bad Gets Worse

A penetrating wound into the abdomen doesn’t carry a favorable prognosis, especially when managed in the field. The client’s financial constraints meant referral for hospitalization was not an option. Abdominocentesis (belly tap), bloodwork, ultrasound, SAA…also not within the financial realm. Dedicated to trying, and wanting to give the mare a chance, the client asked for the most aggressive approach we could take to treating in the field within set limitations.

Antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, suturing the wound and monitoring comprised the mainstay of our treatment protocol. To be honest, I was expecting these efforts to serve mainly as a comfort and reassurance that we had tried something. I’ve seen horses succumb to far less serious ailments with intensive treatments and hospitalization. We placed an IV catheter so we could start a robust course of antibiotics (kpen and gentamicin) and banamine.

Where it gets interesting

By 1am, we had discussed catheter care, administer meds, given extensive instructions on what to watch for…and when we left, the entire ride back was filled discussions on everyone’s thoughts, ideas, speculations …wondering about the source of the lameness as well as the surprising penetrating hole. The hole was clean through the side of the horse, with defined edges and minimal surrounding trauma…almost like it had been made intentionally, by someone blessed with the art of careful dissection. Without knowing the systemic status of the horse, I could hardly sleep with thoughts of the undiagnosed fracture, the possibility of punctured bowel, the chance that whatever punctured her side could be floating around in the abdomen, the imminent danger of sepsis and endotoxemia…this, combined with group speculation as to what caused the wound.

A stick?

A nail?

Fencing?

Tree branch?

What about a bullet? The client asked, explaining that the family dog had sustained a similar injury a year ago when he had been shot with a small-caliber gun (pellet gun or 22?) by a disgruntled neighbor. With so many unknowns, possible complications and serious risks associated with this emergency case… I was not optimistic about the outcome of our next visit, which I expected would in the very, very near future.