Reflections of a Modern Horse Vet
by Ingrid Edisen

[Note to the reader: Dr. David Garza was graduated from Texas A & M University. He worked in different settings as he practiced his chosen field–equine veterinary medicine. Eventually he bought a large piece of rural land near Austin, TX, and established Southwest Hills Veterinary Hospital which has a 12-stall clinic barn and three examining stocks plus multiple turnout paddocks. His practice which is 95% equine and 5% small animal grew until he found it necessary recently to add a second vet to help him–Dr. Bill Symm, who also studied at A & M. It took me almost a full year to get this interview as that’s how busy Dr. Garza is.]

“Certain kinds of cases are so rewarding and wonderful,” Garza began. “I get to enjoy that. Perhaps it’s a sick horse that’s pulled though...or we are successful in getting a difficult mare bred. There’s so much joy in all that. It takes a lot of dedication. During breeding season, for instance, mares are ovulating at all hours of the day and night and it gets a little stressful for me but I get to be a part of the process and see the emotions their owners have. It’s very rewarding for everyone involved–to actually see a nice, healthy foal after all the money, time and effort folks have put into the process.
“Then there is also the issue of euthanasia. Sometimes we have patients that are severely ill and won’t get better or they’ve suffered a serious injury that cannot be repaired. When you get involved with euthanasia, people react in different ways. It’s hard to describe, but I really feel honored to be a part of that process. I mean here are folks who have taken care of an animal all its life and perhaps it’s time to put the animal down and they bring me into the equation. I try to do that job with empathy and sensitivity. I consider it my responsibility to help people through that process. There is a lot of human emotion to it.

After so many years as a horse vet, Garza has become accepting of the difficulty in leading a normal life and always being on call for emergencies.

“In general, an equine vet is dealing with critically ill patients on a regular basis. In small animal practices, a regular vet may never deal with an emergency as there are special emergency clinics for such. In equine, we do all our own emergency cases. And in an emergency situation you have the same type of emotions. If things are in a very bad way, I have to try to get the animal out of its predicament, get people calm and basically get the situation under control. Yes, it can be very emotional, too. And it’s great if you can get a horse back from such a situation, to get the horse well again. Usually I first hear about the situation on the phone and I try to get people to stay calm and do what it takes to keep the horse calm. Perhaps it’s a horse out in a pasture with a broken leg... Sometimes the horse can deal with pain and a crisis better than we can. I may ask them to scratch his head if he can’t get up or something like that. In the case of a serious colic, I ask them not to let him roll as that may get the horse into more trouble. Walking him is best until I can get there. Once I was called in as a horse had fallen out of a trailer and broken its leg and was standing in the middle of a major road. The police department had called me.”

Garza described that while working at another clinic he and another vet were working on a horse that was in distress. No one knew why but the horse was having trouble breathing. Suddenly, ten to fifteen minutes into their examining the animal, the horse went from simply having a hard time breathing to not being able to breathe at all. Garza locally anesthetized the horse’s throat and inserted a tube to for an emergency tracheotomy. He recalls the huge gulp of air the animal took as it finally could breath with relief. All they could figure is the horse had suffered from some type of allergic reaction and strangely enough, the animal never had any problems after that but they cautioned its owner to always be on the lookout.
Garza’s seen horses with azoturia, aka Monday Morning Sickness or “tying up.” “The horse may be very stiff and can barely move its back end due to lactic acid build up in the muscles. Usually these cases come back and we can be successful with them but we have to explain to the owners how to manage things so it won’t happen again. Certainly educating owners is part of our job,” Garza observed.

“And nutrition has become much more important in equine care just as it has in human medicine. You eat better; you feel better.

“Sometimes you see how people’s personalities are put onto the horse. It depends on where the owner is coming from, the personalities involved. And it shows up in the training of the horse–the philosophy of the owner and the philosophy of his or her training methods. Some horses behave well and others are difficult to deal with. It depends on the owner. There is so much information out there–in books, on the Web, from other people–on horse care. Everybody has an opinion. We as vets have to take that and work with it.

He asked me if I knew what “choke” was. “We see choke fairly often. It happens when a horse swallows his food too quickly and it forms a plug in the esophagus. The horse then keeps on trying to swallow but his salvia has nowhere to go and returns out of the nostrils usually in a steady green stream mixed with bits of food. The animal can still breathe and you do have some time to work on this without damaging or scarring of the esophagus but if it goes too long, for a day or so, the animal can get into trouble. I had this one case in which the owner brought in an animal with choke and I did the customary treatments of tubing it every three hours or so and trying to flush the plug down. But what was strange was the debis that was coming out the horse’s nose as it was white and hard and spongy-looking. After 24 hours we were worried about possible permanent damage to the esophagus. The owner and I finally realized that what had happened was that at a party she had recently hosted, some young children had taken the vegetable tray over to the horse and it had eaten a whole bunch of cauliflower. My main worry was that if we didn’t get the plug to move, the horse would suffer necrosis in that area of its esophagus and would likely have future blockages there due to the narrowing from all the scarring–sort of like a crimped pipe. On the third morning, after two-and-a-half days of intensive treatment, I went out to examine him and he was running around and drinking from the water bucket. I realized he’d finally worked the plug down. He’s been fine ever since.

“We deal with a lot of severe trauma cases and we spend much time putting these horses back together. We’re grateful that horses have an incredible ability to heal,” he noted. “One of my most memorable cases recently involved a yearling Quarter Horse gelding with a gentle but curious demeanor. The horse has a wonderful personality and his owner is an excellent horsewoman. She found him in his pasture a couple of months ago with a large wound just above the left front fetlock. I was called out and after examining him I gave them the bad news. His laceration had completely severed both of his flexor tendons. His prognosis was guarded and we weren’t sure if he would every be completely sound. I performed emergency surgery on the leg and repaired what I could. We managed the wound with constant care and strong support bandages. We had to carefully work our way through healing problems complicated by the torn tendon sheath as well as the persistent proud flesh. Two months down the road the wound is healing nicely and there are no signs of lameness. We’re optimistic that the horse will make a full recovery and return to training as a reining prospect. I am fully convinced that his success was achieved through early aggressive treatment and the excellent day-in and day-out care given by his owner,” Garza said.

At the barn I board at, Garza was game enough a few years ago to pull a Missouri Fox Trotter through that had accidentally smashed his face against the side opening of his stall as he’d raced in to get away from another horse in the middle of the night. At least that’s what we presume happened. The spray of blood was four feet long and three feet wide down the outside wall of the barn. When the owner came out the next morning to feed, Black Jack, was perkily facing him and waiting for his breakfast but he sounded like a roarer with every breath. The huge hole in the bridge of his horse’s nose gave the owner much alarm. Later, at his clinic, Garza gently picked out all the loose smashed bits of bone and explained how to care for the wound so infection wouldn’t set in. It took over a month for the basic wound to heal. To this day, Black Jack, now 21 years old, looks like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, ever the prize fighter. His nose may not be pretty, but the main thing is he is alive and well and back to his old self.

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