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Calls for the country vet

Column by Hal Walter

Agriculture – August 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE BULL CALVES went through the squeeze chute one by one, and the vet took a scalpel to their nuts. When each was released into the pen, it walked away from the site of its emasculation and set about eating grass.

“How bad do you think that hurts?” I asked Kit Ryff, the traveling veterinarian from Salida.

“Well, on a scale of one to 10, I’d say about nine and a half,” he answered.

I guess 9.5 isn’t enough to quell the bovine appetite, but figured Kit had that one pretty well pegged. And when all four of the bulls were steers, he and his helper Brooke, a high school student helping him for the summer, ran the cattle into the trailer and I slammed the door behind them.

Earlier Kit had asked if I wanted to keep the “oysters,” which frankly had been harvested a few months later than normal, and I had declined. I looked around the pens at a neighbor’s ranch where we were borrowing the facilities, and imagined a flock of magpies or maybe ravens descending onto the wood corrals after we were gone. I was certain these cojones wouldn’t go to waste.

As a ranch manager and also the owner of quite a few animals myself, I’ve developed relationships with a few veterinarians over the years. When I first moved here 17 years ago, Kit was the only vet making ranch calls in the area, and if I remember right, he did it on Thursdays. That was back when long-distance phone calls to Salida were considered really expensive, so what you did was call a local ranch to leave word that you needed the vet. Kit would stop by there first thing each Thursday to get his list. Sometime that day — or that night — he would show up and take care of whatever you needed. In fact, he gelded a burro here right at sundown one evening, and I also recall a late-night teeth-floating session under a dim light bulb in my barn.

A few years later we got our own vet in Westcliffe and since then I have developed a good working relationship with Scott Gillespie. In the last year, I’ve also had the pleasure of doing business with Dr. Gene Naugle of Penrose, who will make a ranch call up here if you have an emergency with a horse, and Anjuli Ninesling who is Kit’s associate. They are all really good vets in my book.

The thing is, with horses, you never know when a veterinary emergency will happen and which vet you will be able to reach when it does. Recently I was faced with a Friday evening situation in which I was lucky enough to reach Kit on his cell phone.

HORSES CAN DO some crazy things. I care for ten of them at Bear Bones Ranch. We were keeping a mare and a gelding separate from the rest of the herd, and since it had been dry I’d let the pair out to forage on the grass in the main compound area of the ranch. The rest of the horses were on the lower subirrigated pasture. I was bringing the mare and gelding in for the evening when one horse named Tony came barreling across the pasture to follow them and forgot about the fence. He hit it like a runner at a finish-line tape, slammed into the hillside behind the fence with a resounding thud, then bounced back on his feet, shook it off and galloped on up to the barn. I walked over to the point of impact and found about 15 feet of fence destroyed, wires snapped and steel fence posts bent to low angles.

I followed Tony on up the hill, where I found he was bleeding from the mouth, had superficial cuts all over his body, and had literally peeled the skin from below his left knee down the front of the cannon bone in what could be described as a long triangular shape. Obviously my night was just beginning, and I went home to see which vet I might reach.

When I called Kit he was just sitting down to dinner with his wife at the Twisted Cork restaurant in Salida. I told Kit that I didn’t think Tony would die if he ate dinner first, but I thought the wound definitely needed stitches as soon as possible. He said he’d call when he was close and I could meet him at the ranch.

So about 10:45 I drove over in the dark and by the light of pickup headlights through the dust Kit surmised that I was right and decided to lay the horse down with drugs in order to sew up the wound. It took a little while for the drugs to take effect, but Tony finally went down in the corral. Kit went to work with his curved needle and sewed up one side of the leg. Then we rolled Tony over — he weighs about 1,100 pounds. Kit had just started on the other side of the wound when the drugs started to wear off.

There’s really no describing a half-ton of half-doped, half-crazed horse flopping around in the dust inside a steel corral backlighted by headlights. He came down with his ass bashing the panels, bending one fairly severely. He landed on his water bucket, crushing it and sending a shower in all directions. Then, the worst possible thing happened. Tony flopped over and came down on the corral, somehow managing to hang a hind foot between two panels.

So now we had the wounded horse hanging upside down in the headlights with Kit holding Tony’s head up by the lead rope to keep him from struggling. I tried to push the hind foot up and out, but there was too much weight on it. I tried unhinging the panels, but between the bent metal and the pressure of the horse bearing down I couldn’t get the pins out.

Kit suggested that I take over the head, and he thought he might be able to get the foot loose. So we swapped places and I held the lead rope, twisting Tony’s neck so he couldn’t try to get up.

The second Kit knocked that foot loose, I felt the sting of rope burning my hand. Tony was up, floundering this way and that, and I couldn’t see anything in the headlights. I dropped the rope and ran across the corral. Kit, meanwhile, with his back to the headlights, could see what was going on and rushed in to grab Tony by the lead.

We got the horse calmed down and Kit finished stitching the cut with Tony standing up. He bandaged the wound, gave him an IV pain medication and penicillin, and we were done.

As he washed his hands from a tank in his truck, Kit remarked that he would never need to do drugs because he gets such a rush out of his work. I would have to agree, but I went home and had a big glass of red wine to calm my nerves.

A few weeks later when Tony’s stitches were ready to be removed, I knew I had to get the four calves castrated so I arranged to have Kit do it all in one trip. When it was all done he had Brooke gather up the testicles in a stainless-steel bucket.

Since I didn’t want them, he took the oysters home for his dogs.

Hal Walter writes from 35 acres in the Sierra Mojada near the ghost town of Ilse in Custer County.