Scooter is a horse.
He's a beautiful, sweet, gentle brown who LOVES his food. Bermuda, alfalfa, grain, grain supplements, you name it; he loves the stuff. He greets me every feeding with an enthusiastic nicker, and sometimes comes trotting from the back of his pen so quickly I worry he'll knock me over. He never does, though.
I've been a feeder at M2 Sporthorses for about three weeks. My next-door neighbor owns a horse and stables him at M2, so when an email went out from the owner that she needed a feeder during the week for an hour morning and evening, my neighbor texted me and asked if I would be interested.
While I don't think I quite classify as a "horse person" the way I classify as a "cat person," I still love being around them (so long as they don't step on my toes). Naturally, I texted back a resounding YES.
While we waited for the barn owner to email back, my neighbor, having worked in the industry for several years, gave me the skinny on the little-known duties of a barn feeder. " A feeder doesn't just feed the horses their hay and grain," she said. "They keep an eye on them, watch their behavior, check for obvious discomfort or deviations from normal patterns. A feeder watches whether a horse is losing or gaining weight, and makes sure this is supposed to happen. A feeder is the one person that sees a horse most frequently during the day - up to three times, depending on the barn. You will see the horses even more than their owners, sometimes. If something bad happens, you will be the one to notice it first."
She gave me the abbreviated lesson on two of the most common and critical situations and how to identify symptoms, and informed me that "simply walking a horse while you call the emergency contact could save the horse's life."
Having this information floating around my brain, I began my duties at M2 with a sense of great responsibility. Heaven forbid a horse get injured or die on my watch. I'd be mortified. No, I'd be devastated.
In my brief time as a feeder, I've noticed that each horse has its unique personality, but they're all INCREDIBLY excited when it comes to food.
So last Friday, when I drove up to Scooter's stall in my Gator and poured his grain and supplements in his pan, and he DIDN'T MOVE, an alarm went off in my head. Even when I offered the grain to him in my palm, he didn't take it. Up close, I could see his sides heaving and his nostrils flexing rapidly, and when I tried to get him to move, he stumbled.
As in he couldn't keep his balance and nearly fell over.
Witnessing a horse fall over when it doesn't want to is a horrible sight. My riding teacher often said that a horse is a very proud animal, and it doesn't want to embarrass itself. This is why you give it its head when going downhill. It can find its way better than you can.
Seeing poor Scooter panting, barely standing, his head drooped, and pawing incessantly at the ground with one hoof, of course I knew something was wrong. I grabbed my cell and called the guy who trained me (he's a retired equestrian professor). "Bill, there's something wrong with Scooter..."
Two minutes later, Bill and I were checking Scooter head to hoof, and we found one hind leg swollen three times its normal size. Unfortunately, we couldn't seen an obvious cause. Bill sent me off to finish my feeding rounds while he called the owner, and I promised I'd come back and check on Scooter after I was done.
Come time I finished, Bill walked to meet me where I parked the Gator and informed me that it was a possible snake bite, but we wouldn't know until the blood tests came back. "You're a hero today," he said with a teasing grin. "And the owner is thankful it happened before you came to feed rather than after." His grin slipped. "Who knows what you might have found tomorrow morning." He frowned and crossed his arms. "That's not something you need to see."
I didn't ask. I could tell he was thinking of all the times he'd found a horse beyond help laying in its stall. The helplessness. The suffering.
He's right. That's something I don't want to see.
Thank God this time it turned out okay for the horse. The vet reported the blood work indicates something called cellulitis - basically inflammation of cellulite tissue, an infection; excruciating, and in many cases, life-threatening. Not for Scooter, though. "His is mild," the owner told me today. "His recovery time should be comparatively short. It's still quite painful for him."
So while I don't exactly have the distinction of saving a horse's life, I do have the satisfaction that I'm taking good care of the creatures in my charge.