When I was in vet school, I had a mustang mare, Cascabella by name . She was actually a Christmas present form my sister M. An accomplished horsewoman, M had adopted Cassie from a group that had underestimated the mare's age. Once M realised that -and that consequently Cassie wasn't likely to grow much more and would therefore be a little smaller than M likes to ride - she started thinking about placing her.
"Well, she's the perfect height for me, so wrap her up and mail her," I said, jokingly. But as it happens, my sis thought that was a dandy idea, so she shipped Cassie to me mid-winter of my first year of vet school.
Well, how cool is that? I got a pony for Christmas. I was 28 years old at the time, mind you, but hey: It pays to keep asking.
Cassie arrived in good trim late one night in November. (Okay, so she was an early Christmas present.) She was wearing a custom-fitted black denim horse blanket (lined in gorgeous teal green wool) and matching shipping boots - all custom made by M, who is (besides being an accomplished horsewoman) also an excellent seamstress, a software engineer, a professional dancer (belly and ballroom) and a sheep farmer.
What can I tell you? It's an interesting family. We might be described any number of ways - some less flattering than others - but "dull" never enters into it.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch - or at least, sophomore year of vet school - Cassie decides one morning to lacerate her pastern in some manner I have yet to determine. I go out to find that she has a cut that encircles two thirds of her pastern. Blood has run down her hoof, staining it a dark red-black color, and I can see little crusty half-moons in the dirt where she has stood long enough to leave standing blood, now clotted into small, grim coronas on the ground.
Well, hell. I have class this morning - a cadaver surgery rotation, and moreover it's the first day of the rotation, the one least likely to have any flexibility in schedule. On the other hand - this is my horse. I love her, and even if I didn't, I am responsible for her. Any horseman knows the saying: "No hoof, no horse". This isn't something to be blown off.
I step between the strands of the fence and pick up her foot. I can see tendon along the back, a sight that makes my heart leap into my throat, leaving a sick, hollow place behind. Cassie doesn't seem unduly distressed; in fact, she seems markedly impatient for her breakfast. She stands on the injured leg without complaint or lameness and attempts to encourage me to feed her by means of judicious nudging and nickering deep in her throat. I look at my hands; the blood on her hoof is dry, leaving not the slightest trace or stickiness on my hands. This didn't just happen; she did it sometime in the night.
I feed up and go inside for Neosporin, which I slather liberally over her laceration, and, thinking furiously, I get ready for school. I sort through my options and place a call to the University's Equine Ambulatory service, who needs to know when I want her looked at: They need me to be there to catch her up and hold her.
"I don't know," I say. "I'm a vet student and I have rotations this morning. Let's plan on noon, and I'll go in and ask my professor if I can come back earlier."
Once at school - 15 minutes early, and in a welter of nerves - I hunt down the tech who is assisting with the surgery lab and set out my dilemma in front of her.
"You're in luck," she tells me. "The lab is being run by Dr. Sydney, who used to be an equine surgeon. He'll know whether you have to go back right away or if it can wait til noon."
I set up beside a cadaver - a dog that was euthanized at Animal Control, one of the heartbreaking cadre of animals who have no home. As sad as it is that these animals die for lack of homes, it's a small comfort to know that their sacrifice is redeemed at least a small bit by allowing us to learn surgical skills on animals who will not suffer should we make mistakes. In this way they serve us... but they also serve our future patients, their brethren, by letting us learn where our errors can do no harm.
Dr. Syndey arrives in due course and I explain my circumstances. He looks at me, his eye both keen and calm.
"Was the blood on her hoof still wet?" he asks me.
"No," I say definitely, having checked specifically.
"Then it won't make a bit of difference if you see Ambulatory now or at noon. I'll let you go now if you want, but I promise you that if the wound has already dried, a few hours will make no difference. She'll be fine," he adds with a smile, seeing the tension in my body. His voice and manner show not the slightest doubt,and I feel my shoulders loosen and drop, reassured by his expertise.
"I don't want to miss the lab," I say. "I'll stay and do it, if you're sure."
"I'm sure," he says, with a smile. His eye is level and kind, and he pats me sympathetically on the shoulder.
Comforted, I do the lab without distraction, and make it out to my house in good time. Ambulatory calls me to tell me they'll be there in 20 minutes and to be sure of the directions to my house. I give these to the student on the phone, who I can hear relaying directions to the clinician (who is, of course, the one driving).
"As a by-the-way," I add to the student, "this is a mustang mare. She's very manageable, but she'll be a little shy at first. It would be best if you didn't all just pile out and mob her all at once. She'll need a minute to get used to you."
"Gotcha," says the student. We hang up and I go catch Cassie up, bringing her out of the fence and letting her graze on the lawn while we wait.
A few minutes later Ambulatory pulls in in their big white truck. This is a crew-cab pickup, absolutely jammed with vet students. All four doors pop open and vet students come boiling out like clowns out of a VW beetle, so many that you can't figure out how they all fit in there. They immediately descend on Cassie and I like a plague of locusts. Cassie takes two quick steps back and tries her best to hide behind me. I step in front of her face, offering what protection I can, and tell the vet students, "Whoa, stop! You have to go slow with her, she's a mustang. She's going to flip if you crowd her."
The students nod and essentially ignore me, fanning out to either side, pulling stethoscopes from around their necks and getting out clipboards. The clinician, an extremely tall, lanky fellow wearing a battered Stetson and worn cowboy boots, unfolds himself from the cab. At a glance he takes in the situation. Behind me I can feel Cassie starting to coil like a spring, preparing for flight but unsure where to go; she trusts me, but she is a wild horse. The first two years of her life she lived where flight was a matter of life and death, and though she is unusually good at managing her fear - you can see her thinking when presented with a new situation, evaluating it to see if she should stand or run - when she decides it's time to run, she does it as if her life depends on it - which, often enough, I'm sure it did.
"You all want to hold up now and back off of that horse," says the clinician in a quiet voice. His tone is conversational but the effect is immediate: The students seem to suddenly melt back and stand off to the sides. Cassie is still vibrating like a recently-plucked guitar string, pressing her head against my back and feeding her tension into my body. The clinician ambles up to her, unhurried and relaxed. In his stocking feet I imagine he is at least 6 foot 5, and the battered heels of his boots add another couple of inches to that. I step to the side, giving him room, and he sets his feet apart, straddling them wide to bring his face closer to Cassie's without leaning over her. He takes the sides of her halter in his long hands, his knuckles curled up against her cheeks, and gives her head a gentle shake.
"Hey, babe," he says to her in his deep, quiet voice.
The effect is instantaneous and astonishing. Cassie, who one second ago was barely controlling her need to bolt, relaxes instantly into his hands. Her ears relax, her eye half-closes, and she lets her head fall into his hands, taking a half-step forward to butt her head up against his sternum. This, her body tells me, is my kind of person. Here is someone who speaks my language. Here is someone I can trust.
"Why don't you all get a temp, pulse and respiration," he says then, in his mild way. "Dr. Stace," he adds, nodding at me. I look at him, cradling Cassie's head, and close my hanging jaw.
"Pleased to meet you," I say. "Although not half as pleased as she is," I add with a crooked smile, looking at my mustang, who now has her eyes closed and is rubbing her forehead on Dr. Stace's clinic coat as vet students swarm around her. "Sorry about your smock," I say, as black and white hairs begin to accumulate on the front. Dr. Stace gives me a slow smile and looks back at Cassie, who is now allowing him to rub her ears.
"She's all right," he says, dismissing his increasingly hairy clinic coat as a matter of no importance.
The students report their findings and Dr. Stace has a look at Cassie's pastern. Completely relaxed now, she stands patiently while everyone looks, while she is given a mild sedative and clipped and scrubbed and sutured up, while she is bandaged and injected with antibiotics. Her sedation wears off while Dr. Stace details her aftercare and she gives him a little nicker as he hands me the meds she'll need. He gives her a little sidelong smile, a secret thing, that warms the back of his eyes: something that is just for the two of them, some shared recognition.
"That's a nice little mare," he says in tones of approbation, gives me a nod, and takes himself off into the Ambulatory truck, now tightly sardined with vet students once more. I find myself staring after them as they back down the driveway and disappear down the road.
"Well. I never saw anything like that before," I say to Cassie, who is now lipping at her aftercare sheet with an interested expression, as if contemplating eating it. I walk her back to the pasture and offer her a carrot instead, which she feels is a fair trade. I turn her loose and she wanders off, her bright blue bandage jaunty against the steel grey of her leg. In the end she healed well, with barely a scar to show for her adventure.
I never got to go on rotations with Dr. Stace, as he left the University and went back into private practice before then; he missed it, he said, and I could see why. The next time I needed a horse vet I tried to get him - willing to bypass even the student discount I got from the University's Ambulatory service - but as it turns out he had as many clients as he could handle and wasn't taking new ones. Well, I can understand that; there's only so much time in a day, and anyone lucky enough to have Dr. Stace as their horse vet isn't likely to give up their spot. But even though I regretted that I did not have the opportunity to have him as a professor, I'm pretty sure I learned nearly as much from Dr. Stace that day as I did in a week of Ambulatory rotations when I went on them myself. Don't get me wrong: I loved my ambulatory rotation and I learned a lot from a good professor - and had a great time with my rotation mates, who teased me (the only woman on the rotation) like brothers. I teased them back, mercilessly, and we all got a lot done and learned a good bit about equine medicine and enjoyed the doing of it. What I learned from Dr. Stace was less about the "what" of medicine and more about the how and why, I think. Why we do this; how we keep doing it and doing it well; what it is that brings us joy in this work, despite its many burdens; how the essential inner heart of who we are is perhaps the most important thing we bring to our patients... more important, sometimes, than our knowledge and our skills, than our intelligence and reasoning, than our meds and sutures and bandages.
I imagine Dr. Stace is either retired now, or considering it; I would hope he's still amongst us on this earth, walking it with his long, ambling stride, his pace all leisure but his eye as keen and quick as a striking hawk. I can be sure of one thing, though: Wherever he is, he walks on the side of the Angels.