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What if my horse needs surgery while I'm gone?

From: Alice

Dear Jessica, you are so understanding I hope you won't laugh at me. My husband thinks that I am completely neurotic (his words) about my horse. But my situation is that we (my husband and I) travel a lot, and in the last few years we have settled into a routine of being out of town for perhaps one week out of every six. My husband has friends everywhere and he is planning to retire in another year, so we are looking around the country, visiting people and deciding where it is we will want to live. As long as there is a good place to keep horses, I will be happy. My husband plays golf so we will need to be near some good golf courses. But here is the problem, which at this point is (thankfully) just in my mind.

Last month one of my friends at the barn, a much younger and very sweet young woman, lost her horse to colic. She was out of town and the horse became ill with colic symptoms, the barn manager called the horse's owner's regular vet and he did what he could but then said it was more than he could handle and the horse should go to the clinic because it might need surgery. The barn manager, who is also a very sweet young woman, put the horse in her own trailer and took it to the veterinary clinic. But once they were there, nothing happened, because the clinic vets could not do surgery without official authorization from the owner, and someone to pay in advance or at least to guarantee payment.

This went on for some hours and they did try to give the horse some medical treatment but it just got worse, finally the barn manager said "If you operate right now can you save this horse?" and the head surgeon-vet said "I don't think so, we could try but he is too stressed". The horse had a very high heartbeat and other signs that it was close to dying. Everyone was arguing about whether to try to operate or whether to euthanize the horse, when the horse went into a convulsion and died.

The barn manager had been trying to call the horse's owner, but she was out of town and having dinner out and going to the theater (we found out later she was out with her host and hostess which is why nobody was home to talk to the barn manager when she called repeatedly). So this was horrible, just horrible, and now I am very afraid for my own horse. You see, when we go out of town, we often (usually) go out to dinner and a movie, or just very long late dinners, with the friends we are staying with, and I am now terrified of what would happen if something happened to my horse and the barn manager or the vet couldn't reach me. I don't think I could live with myself if my horse could be saved by prompt surgery but I wasn't around to give them the official "YES". The money would not be a problem for me. We are not poor people and I would not hesitate to pay for anything that would save my horse.

I am so upset I don't want to leave town next week, which is when we are supposed to visit friends in another state. My horse has never had colic and is very healthy, but so was this other horse! My husband has said "NO" to carrying a beeper or cell phone turned on, we both hate cell phones, but I would be willing to do it for my horse if he weren't so against it. Is there anything you can think of that might help me? I trust Linda (our barn manager) completely, but if she is there and I am not and they need me to permit (and pay for) surgery, what will happen? I am so worried sometimes I think maybe I'm crazy. I began riding when I was over fifty, and I bought this horse when I was sixty. He is wonderful and I would pay anything they asked if he needed surgery, if only I were there to authorize it. Please, please help me. Alice

Hi Alice! Don't worry, you're not crazy, just obsessive, like every other horse-owner. ;-) The situation you've described is very, very sad, but not all that unusual. Horses can colic very quickly, and since "colic" is more of a syndrome or collection of symptoms than a specific ailment, it isn't always easy to diagnose and treat. By the time someone at the barn notices and identifies signs of colic at suppertime, it's quite possible that the horse has been getting steadily worse since breakfast, and is already so stressed that it's not a good candidate for surgery.

At some veterinary hospitals, the vets can still treat the horse first and worry about payment later, but at an increasing number of facilities, payment - or the signed promise of payment - has to come FIRST. Sadly, there are a good many horse-owners (and dog- and cat-owners) who will say, tearfully "Do everything you can, Doc", thus contracting for costly diagnostics, procedures, and drugs - and then refuse to pay when the bill arrives. If the veterinary hospital is a large one, like the teaching hospitals associated with major universities, it may have a business office that dictates what can be done and when and by whom, and those decisions are made on a financial basis.

Is there something you can do about this? Yes. If you know where your horse would be taken in the event of such an emergency, you can go to that veterinary hospital and let them know that if your horse is brought in and you are not present, they should do whatever they deem necessary. If your own vet, the barn manager, or both have permission to make the decision on your behalf, ask that this information be put into your file.

If the vet clinic has a policy of "payment up front", you may be able to put a credit card number, expiration date, and signature on file with them, just as you do when you check into an hotel. Be sure that they spell your name correctly, watch to see that the file goes into the right place, and put a large, clear SIGN on your horse's stall explaining that IF it needs treatment whilst you are unavailable, it should be taken to the clinic immediately, and that you have payment arrangements already in their filing system. Be sure that your barn manager and regular vet both know about this arrangement. Then relax, and enjoy your trip. If something happens to your horse, its treatment won't be held up for financial reasons, even if nobody can reach you for several days.

When you and your husband move, and your horse moves with you as I'm sure he will, you'll need to go through this same process with your new boarding stable manager, regular vet and nearest large equine veterinary hospital. If it gives you peace of mind, it will be worth the effort.


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