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Pets Large & Small

Bart: A Tribute to Beloved Horse

Dr. Kimberly Brokaw, DVM
Walkersville Vet Clinic

(5/2016) I bought Bart when I was in college at the University of Maryland. My neighbor had gone to live in England for a few years after she finished college. She purchased several horses in Ireland and brought them home after her time in Europe was finished. Upon her return, she decided to get married, and realized her future husband was not happy about supporting all of the horses. She placed a couple of them up for sale. Bart was not an athletic looking thoroughbred. He was an Irish draught, Connemara pony, Holsteiner cross, so rather than being a horse that you could describe as sleek and shiny, fat and hairy was more appropriate. He had a great butt, strong legs, and a winning personality. He also had a beautifully shaped head and fantastic facial expressions.

His personality was probably the best part about him. He had a great work ethic and was willing to do whatever you asked of him but he also had a sense of humor. When I went to look at Bart she advised me that he had a ‘quick spook’, a term for his precipitous nature of jumping sideways away from perceived danger. Another neighbor also confirmed that he liked to spook and also had a habit of refusing to jump the first fence out of the start box. That being said, Bart always jumped for me. He was happy to leave the start box and hop over all the fences. I think in our entire eventing career we only had one refused fence and maybe a handful of knocked down show jumping rails.

He seemed to take pleasure in eventing with me. Perhaps because in between phases I'd let him eat extra yummy hay and always provided him with something new and exotic to eat. He was always one that could be persuaded with food. At one horse show, he and my dad shared crayfish covered in Old Bay seasoning. Bart loved the crayfish. While I don't remember if he won the event that day, I do know that, like usual, he jumped flawlessly.

The spooking on the other hand was a trait that stayed with him for life. It usually wasn't a fearful spook but rather a quick hop to the side of "oh what is that?". Up until he died the only things that ever scared him were wild boars and push brooms and truthfully as he got older the push broom became less frightening. Moonbounces, tractors, chainsaws, plastic bags, and other things normal horses found scary didn't faze Bart. While as he got older his spookiness got less frequent, you could still expect a spook on almost every ride though.

When I first got Bart, he would spook and I would fall off almost every week. While some horses would wait the fallen rider to get up and remount, Bart would instead run home and leave me in the woods, field or creek. I would walk home or sometimes my mom would drive down and get me. After about 6 months I was no longer falling off of him weekly. In recent years, I still fell off of Bart about once per year. With age, instead of running home, he would wait for me. Most of my falls were from me doing something stupid like trotting through the woods while talking on the cell phone and holding onto the phone when he spooked rather than trying to stay on the horse. To be fair, I had medical insurance, my phone did not. The majority of my falls from Bart involved no serious injuries aside from grass stains or a small bruise, with one exception.

One time we were schooling cross country at an eventing facility near Leesburg, VA. Bart was jumping well, and while it was hot and he was getting a little tired, we decided to jump through the preliminary-level water complex one more time. He jumped the first obstacle, then dropped down the bank, ran through the water, jumped back up the bank and then it was two strides to the table jump. When we approached the final table jump, I noticed we were out of stride for the jump and told him to leave long and jump big. Luckily Bart over-ruled me and chipped-in with an added stride. He lightly bumped his leg on the jump while fixing my mistake.

Bart has always been one of those horses with a sense of fairness. If he does his part then I better do mine. Luckily for us both, Bart fixed my mistake and possibly prevented us from having a catastrophic rotational fall. However, he was mad that I didn't hold up my end of the deal and proceeded to buck me off. While I landed on my feet, I fractured a couple of pieces of bone off my tibia, avulsed the anterior cruciate ligament, as well as sustained mild tears to the infrapatellar ligament and insertion of the quadriceps tendon, basically, "OW! My knee!" Bart did not run back to the trailer but instead waited for me so I could ride him back since I couldn't walk on my leg. After Bart's death everyone has said that he will live in your heart forever. Well, he will also live in my right knee forever too.

With a history like that, it was shocking when Bart gradually became my guest horse. Even in vet school he started taking friends on rides while I would ride my nuttier "Fruit Loops" horse. While I wouldn't exactly say that Bart mellowed with age, I'd instead say that his sense of humor changed. Up until the day he died he had plenty of go, a little spook, an excellent gas pedal, and good brakes. While he could ride like a hot rod muscle car, he could also ride like a lazy-boy recliner as he leisurely walked through the woods while his rider enjoyed a beer. The inevitable spook resulting in beer being spilled on his neck, but he never seemed to mind that.

As he aged, rather than finding it funny to spook and have his rider fall and watch as they crawled away coughing, he now took enjoyment out of showing off his fancy dressage moves as he would leg yield off the trail to go eat grass, tasty shrubbery, or the neighbor's field corn and soybeans. He also developed a taste for disgusting things when being ridden by guests. While he wouldn't eat swamp mud or Ace's poop in his pasture or when I rode him, when friends would ride him he would do just that. The more the rider pulled on the reins and laughed while saying "No Bart, that's gross!" the more vigor Bart would put into eating the disgusting thing.

Bart also learned that the typical guest rider really was just along for the ride and he could do whatever he wanted while they were on his back. While he was very good about following the other horses, a couple of times he had flashbacks to his eventing days and tried to take the guest rider for a run up a hill and over a jump. He also liked to take detours to the bird feeder, chicken food, deer corn, and low apple tree branches, while the inexperienced rider would pull on the reins and try to redirect him. When I took him on trail rides, I'd let him snack as long as he kept walking while he did it. While in vet school we used to trail ride around Pandapas pond.

It was a college town so the park was a popular hiking and picnic destination. It was when riding these trails that Bart learned ,in addition to being able to eat the shrubbery, people with picnic baskets also had food. As we would ride past them he would always crane his head to see what was in the basket and if he could con the person into feeding him something tasty out of it.

My senior year of vet school was all clinic rotations. While most of my rotations were in Virginia, some were in Maryland, West Virginia and Florida as well. Each rotation lasted 3-6 weeks. This meant that almost every 3 weeks I was moving and Bart always came with me. The nice thing about being a "soon-to-be" veterinarian is that most horse people are delighted to invite you and your horse to stay with them. Bart got to stay in some very fancy barns as his consolation prize for the fact that he was always being moved. He didn't seem to mind and always stepped right in the trailer, traveled to wherever it was we were going, and hopped out, never missing a beat.

Early on in his life he learned that I saved the extra good hay for the trailer. The second cut or alfalfa blend was too rich to be his regular hay but was always provided in the trailer as a travel snack. This meant that if I left the back of the trailer open, Bart would walk in to check for the good food even if I had no plans of going anywhere that day and had simply just left the trailer in his field. When we were eventing and competing a lot, he got used to traveling, in that we entered competitions from New York all the way down the coast to Florida. He was never the sort of horse who just wanted to hang out in the field all day. If work was busy and I didn't have time to ride for a few days, I would always see him hanging his head over the gate and watching me. It's like he was saying, "Hey! Come take me out for a ride! It's boring in here!"

While at my various homes and during rotations he was always turned out with a friend and in a field at least 5 acres big, so you would have thought he'd have been content to stay in there and wouldn't mind having a couple days of missed rides. While he enjoyed his years of traveling for competition, I think he enjoyed the travel with vet school rotations and camping trips more in that his work consisted of leisurely trail walks where I let him taste test all the new and exotic greenery. I also organized my rotations so that we could winter in Florida. While he didn't mind snow, he really enjoyed sleeping in the Florida sand.

On one of these rotations he became friends with a skunk, yes, skunk. Every night he would go to bed and the skunk would come and nap on his head. The first time this happened I wondered if Bart had gotten sprayed by the skunk as his head had the faint skunky aroma on it when I fed him breakfast. By dinner time the smell had faded and yet the smell was back again the next morning. This went on for about a week and a half before I came home late from an emergency call and saw Bart and the skunk together in the field. Apparently Bart thought it was perfectly normal to let a skunk sleep on his head. I wonder how many other woodland creatures he has be-friended over the years?

When I took my current job at the Walkersville Veterinary Clinic, one of the perks was that a house was provided. During the interview I inquired as to the barn by the house and they told me that I could use that as well. Bart had always lived with me and that wasn't something that was going to change now. I have always been the type of person that would take a job based on the living accommodations of my horse. While Bart lived at the clinic barn, he used to enjoy sleeping in the sun out in the field overlooking route 194. Sleeping stretched out on his side, not curled up, but stretched basking in the sun. The clinic would frequently get calls telling them they had a dead horse in the field. One lady who called was adamant that he was dead, despite the clinic reassuring her that he always slept there and was fine. She refused to get off the phone until we told her that a vet would go out and check on him. I laughed as I went out and gave Bart a carrot and told him that he had tricked yet another driver with his macabre sleeping behavior. Eventually I moved out of the clinic house, and while my new house had a lot of road frontage, Bart's favorite sleeping hill was further away in the back so I no longer received the panicked calls from people driving by.

The new house also had a half acre pond on the property. Bart enjoyed wallowing in the water, much like a hippo. He was quite content to go in up to his shoulders but he never swam. Instead he would wade across the pond nibbling on the aquatic plants as they drifted by. His farrier always cringed come summer time as he knew Bart would stand in the pond frequently and his hooves would get soft and not hold shoes as well. His hoof quality was actually very good, but Bart was a champion shoe puller. It was his unique ability to step on his own shoe and pull it off that made me learn how to nail on a lost shoe myself. It never failed that Bart would lose a shoe right before a trail ride or camping trip so that skill came in handy. One of our favorite summer trail riding destinations was Lake Codorus. I'd take him into the water and stand on his back, use him as a diving board, and cannon ball off. While my young horse would go out in the lake and swim a little, Bart would just stand and splash in the water.

While people like to measure success in life by accomplishments, I'm not sure a horse would evaluate it the same way. While in human terms, Bart was a successful horse. He evented through preliminary level (3ft 7 inch high jumps with maximum width of 4 ft 7 inches at the top and 6 feet at the base) and taught a lot of vet students skills such as taking x-rays, floating teeth, flushing nasal-lacrimal ducts, and evaluating lameness. Bart was almost never lame, which is rare for a horse. In fact, except for an abscess back in 2002 that caused him to be lame for a week, that horse never took a bad step or missed a day of work due to illness. However, I would think Bart wouldn't measure his success by those accomplishments but rather by how much quantity and variety of food he has eaten.

Bart loved his food, and his friend’s food, and your food, and my food. If he thought you had a bag of food he would grab the bag with his mouth and try to run off with it. He has smashed open multiple containers of treats that I've left unattended for a few seconds. Bart's food tastes were not limited to just the usual grain, carrots, apples, peppermints, and hay, but all food. The only food Bart didn't like was a disgusting carrot apple spice cake that was supposed to be for human consumption. I made it, thought it tasted gross but figured the horse would eat it. That was the only food Bart ever spat out, and yet he would eat swamp mud and poop.

Bart has eaten chicken food, flock blocks, sunflower seeds, grass seed, horse and human cookies, bread, candy, practically every fruit and vegetable known to man, and an assortment of various sandwiches. While at my house in southern Virginia, he learned that when the window in the kitchen opened, he should jog over as food was going to be thrown out of it. Some people compost but with Bart in the backyard, I just threw food out the window. He also learned that fridges contained food and if my parents left the back door to their house open he would try to walk into the kitchen.

I only saw Bart eat until he was full twice. Once when riding home, I let him stop under a neighbors peach tree and eat all the fallen peaches. The other time was at his sweet 16 birthday party. He got to gorge on carrots, apples, horse cookies, and cake until he was full. I remember some of the guests saying that it was a good thing his mom was a vet and could take care of him if he got sick from all that food (he didn't). Other birthdays I let his favorite cupcake lady give him a cupcake but it wasn't until he turned 21 that I let him gorge himself again.

For his 21st birthday, I did let him eat lots of carrots, apples, treats and cake but cut him off before he was full. I figured as he aged his digestive tract might be more sensitive and didn't want to upset it. For food, that horse would go anywhere. For his 16th and 21st birthday parties there were bands and moonbounces but he walked right by without spooking as he knew there was going to be delicious food for him.

Only a week after his 21st birthday party, Bart coliced and died. I'd gotten home from work and took him for a bareback trail ride. His typical trail ride consists of eating more calories of grass then he actually burned. After the ride, I gave him a quick warm water shower and a cookie. In typical Bart style he snatched the entire bucket of cookies off the chair and was trying to open the bucket while I tried to yank it out of his mouth telling him he could only have two cookies. In hindsight, I wished I'd let him eat the entire bucket. I

 turned him out in the field and started working with my other horse, Ace, when I noticed Bart was acting "not right". He was pawing occasionally and seemed agitated. Over the next few minutes that agitation turned into full out colic. I put Ace back in the field and grabbed Bart, gave him a shot of banamine and called Ed to come help me treat Bart. The banamine did nothing to help his pain and as I continued to examine and medicate Bart, I realized his intestines had twisted or displaced and surgery was his only chance of survival. Bart was immediately loaded into the trailer.

Even as I was putting him in the trailer, some part of me knew that he wouldn't be coming home alive. Ed drove us to the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center while I rode in the back with Bart, giving him medications to try and keep him standing and comfortable for the ride to the hospital. He was taken straight to the surgical prep stall and an IV was started and ultrasound and blood work run. He collapsed and started having difficulty breathing. Oxygen therapy was started and I watched him lay on the floor as his abdomen continued to distend. I'd treated Bart for lymphoma a few years ago and over the past several months I'd been monitoring his liver as he had elevations suspicious of a relapse.

Based on how he was breathing there was also concern that the lymphoma had spread to his lungs as well. The blood work showed that his liver enzymes were even higher than before. Based on his history of lymphoma and poor chance of survival, the decision was made to humanely euthanize him. I euthanized him myself so at least I would know I was the last person he saw, and not some stranger. I took Bart home with me and he is buried out near the fire pit under the trees.

Bart was a significant part of my life for the last 15 years. I was out with him every day for his breakfast and dinner, as well as taking him for a ride about 5-6 days per week. I've probably spent more time with Bart than with any other animal or person in my life. I know he touched many lives besides my own as well; lives of colleagues that learned from him, friends and family who rode him, acquaintances that fed him treats and gave him a pat, and everyone who loved him someway because he was so unique and special. While I feel that I gave him an excellent life and we had great experiences together, I still wish I'd gotten more time with him. I

 know every time the weather changes and I feel a twinge in my knee, all the memories of my once in a lifetime horse will come flooding back.

Read other articles by Dr. Kim Brokaw