Horses Don’t Have Gall Bladders
By April Horowitz
(The Heart of a Horse Story, part 14)
Shortly after Mayisha’s event, I received a call from a lady named Lilly Steiner whose organization had brought a group of children from the Israeli border town of Sderot to Los Angeles. The children had been living under daily rocket bombardments and had been brought to the United States for a visit to provide them relief from these traumas. Lilly said that they had been taken them to Knott’s Berry Farm and Universal City, but all they wanted was to see a real cowboy and horses. I said to her, “Lilly, I’ve got something in mind. But I have to see if it can be arranged. Let me call you back.”
I called Dan Daponde, who is pictured in the photo and is a horseman with exceptional western riding skills. When I told him the youngsters’ request, he said, “I’ll do whatever I can. Let’s put on a little rodeo for them.” About a week later, about ten adolescents wearing yarmulkes showed up at the ranch Dan had selected for the show. Dan didn’t disappoint them, roping a calf and doing spins on his horse, wowing everyone while persuading them that he was the real deal. He talked to them about horses and had each of them ride, and through it all looked so much the part that when they left they all were saying in their Israeli accents, “We want to be Dan Daponde.”
Afterwards the youngsters told Lilly that it was the best experience they had in America. The rabbi who came with them made a little speech when the rodeo was over expressing his gratitude. He said, “We brought them out here to show that people care about them. We thought that would give them hope, and it has.” These children had come from a world away, but when all was said and done they were not unlike the kids from Compton, and the horses were a gift to them too.
My work in the horse community covered hundreds of square miles, and brought me new acquaintances, including trainers like Dan Daponde and Kandice Watts. Kandice had her horses at a ranch in Agoura, and worked mainly with children. When Heart of a Horse held events, Kandice would organize activities centers for young people. With new friends and new experiences, my life was becoming richer and fuller. My horizons were also widening as the ranches I visited ranged from ramshackle and hard scrabble to million dollar estates.
One of my visits to a high-end ranch came about because of a video feature I was making for our website with Kevin. It was called “Vet’s Q&A” and consisted of short scripted sequences with a celebrity asking Kevin about horses. This particular one was with John Stossel, co-anchor of ABC News’ popular prime time show “20/20.” We had written a funny script in which Stossel asked Kevin, “Why are people so crazy about horses? To me they’re just big and smelly. There’s all these big amounts of horse poop. Flies. What’s the attraction?” Kevin replies, “The poop is just used hay, and the rest is about maintenance. When you maintain them right, horses are the most beautiful creatures in the world.” We then showed images of the horses on the ranch where we were shooting Kevin. In the last shot, the ranch trainer rides up on a white horse and comes to a stop right beside him.
The owner of the ranch was one of Kevin’s clients, and a breeder of Paso Finos – Los Caballos de Paso Fino – literally, “the horses with a fine walk.” The breed dates back to the importation of Andalusians and other Spanish horses into the Caribbean by Christopher Columbus. The Paso Fino is distinguished by its unique gait, which has been described as “balanced in flexion and synchronous from front to rear.” There are four beats to the gait, evenly spaced with each hoof being planted independently. This creates a rapid unbroken rhythm and the smoothest ride imaginable. The effect looks as though it is the result of expert dressage training but is in fact natural and exhibited by these horses from birth.
While we were at the ranch, the owner, a large, brawny man, came out and asked me if I’d ever ridden a Pasofino. Of course I hadn’t, so he asked me if I would like to do so. I quickly said yes and he saddled up an elegant chestnut horse. I climbed into the saddle and began to circle the arena. At first it was strange — so different from the rides I was used to. But as we circled the arena, I began to feel like a little girl again, and it felt like dancing.
Kevin was my guide in my journeys into these new worlds, and was by far the most important friend I had made both for myself and for Heart of a Horse. I decided to shoot a video of Kevin and call it “Mobile Vet.” I wanted others to have some of the experiences that I had. I had more ambitious ideas as well. Following Kevin on his rounds with all the situations he encountered and interesting people he met, and especially the dramas that were part of his work, I thought would make a terrific reality TV show. Although we didn’t get this opportunity we posted the video on the website, and show-cased our interviews with Kevin, in which he revealed some interesting things about himself, including how he became a veterinarian in the first place:
“Being a veterinarian just seemed like a natural thing for me to do. Animals were always interesting to me; science was always interesting to me.” He went over an incident that happened when he was a young man. We used to go over to these people’s house in Glendora, and we’d ride around what used to be the Monrovia nursery. I came over one day, and there was this horse on the ground suffering. I didn’t know anything about medicine at the time. The gal there said, ‘My father’s called the veterinarian,’ but there wasn’t an equine vet in the area. They just let the horse suffer for a day, and then the next day they put the horse down. I thought why couldn’t they have done something to save him. Then I made some inquiries and found out he had a stone. My curiosity continued and I looked into that, and how stones are treated, and I said to myself, ‘I could do that.’ There were a lot of things that just led me there. When I was a kid, a sparrow landed on me. How many sparrows land on people for no reason? I think basically the horses wanted me to come out and work on them. They pretty much recruited me.”
It was always a source of fascination for me how Kevin was constantly facing decisions of life and death. I was interested in how that worked inside him, how he was able to handle it. As it happened, he had had to deal with one of these situations the day before we shot his interview, and he talked about it on camera: “Last night I got a call about a horse named Toby that was down and thrashing. I knew I would have to decide whether the horse was going to live or die. The horse was definitely old and arthritic and had serious problems with his feet. He’d been colicking, which was some serious pain, but by the time I got there, he’d settled down. The owner, who loved that horse dearly, was afraid that the horse was going to go through this again and again, and was trying to figure out whether to let the horse go. In the end he decided to let me go ahead and treat the horse, save him. Toby’s still here. Whether it was the right move or not, time will tell. While we have to be careful that he doesn’t suffer needlessly, we’ve given him at least some days of happiness.”
The job Kevin does is also fraught with dangers, even when the protocols of handling horses are followed. One time he was doing pregnancy palpation on a mare whose owners did not speak English. Kevin’s Spanish is limited to requests for beer or food, so he wasn’t alerted by them to any problems, in particular problems that existed between the horses on the ranch. The mare he was set to palpate seemed totally normal and happy, and he didn’t see any reason to sedate her. But when he went to palpate her, another horse that was loose in the pasture and didn’t like the mare came up behind him and kicked him in the back. It fortunately hit the muscle but it did a lot of damage and Kevin was in extreme pain for more than a month. Another time he had his big toe stepped on when somebody opened an umbrella in front of a horse he was performing a lameness exam on and it reared up and stepped on him and broke this toenail off. The toenail grew back six months later but then a Clydesdale stepped on it and broke it right off again. Kevin laughed when he told me these stories but I winced at the pain he must have suffered as a result of his work.
He had a lot of stories that made me laugh too. My favorite one was of the time he went to a million dollar ranch in Malibu after getting a call about a Belgian warmblood named “Dutch” who was colicking. When Kevin arrived, the horse was writhing in pain, and he could see the situation was quite serious. He went right to the horse who was sweating and shaking. When he had looked Dutch over he went back to his vet truck and started to pull medicines out when he felt a hand on his arm. It was the wealthy woman who owned the ranch and she said, “I don’t want anybody touching him until the doctor comes.” Kevin was taken aback. “I am the doctor,” he said with a mixture of irritation and surprise. But the lady didn’t budge. She looked into Kevin’s eyes and in hushed tones said, “I mean the real doctor.” Just then, that personage arrived. It was Mark Hughes, the founder of the hugely successful “New Age” weight loss company, Herbalife. Hughes lived in a $20 million mansion on the ocean nearby, a house in which he later committed suicide. Hughes was holding some herbs in his hand and he went over to where the horse was sweating and shaking and gave him some herbs. Then he passed his hands over the horse’s flank and began humming. After a few minutes he said, “It’s his gall bladder.”
At this point Kevin was beside himself. With forceful movements he withdrew the syringe from his medical bag, filled it with serum and in the firmest possible voice said, “This horse will die if he doesn’t get medication, which I am going to give him now.” Then, looking Hughes directly in the eye, Kevin said, “You understand of course that horses don’t have gall bladders.”