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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Horse doctor has the cure

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Dr. John Bennett calms his patient as he eases the endoscope into the horse's windpipe. He watches the progress on a monitor and can see signs of infection or injury right away.
(T-G Photo by Mary Reeves) [Order this photo]
When Dr. John Bennett heads out to work, it's still dark outside.

Many days, by the time he gets home it's dark again. In the meantime, he will have traveled hundreds of miles, seen dozens of patients, and swapped jokes and friendly insults with grooms. trainers and owners.

"I love the horses," he said. "The horses are great animals, and the horse people are great, too."

Bennett visits with trainer Mickey McCormick after he checks out his patient's stride. Bennett specializes in lameness issues with horses and uses the latest technology for fast and full recoveries when possible.
(T-G Photo by Mary Reeves)
Bennett is one of several local veterinarians who specializes in horses, operating his Equine Services on his property on U.S. 231 North near Deason. The compound includes a house, an "office" which is a large pre-fab barn especially adapted to meet his veterinary needs, a breeding pen, several paddock and a stable "hospital" set-up that looks better than most people's houses.

More is being added on because -- despite the number of equine specialists in this particular corner of horse country -- Bennett's practice and his client list keeps growing.

"We see about 40 horses a day," he said.

Of course, they aren't all dire medical emergencies. In fact, very few of them are. Bennett travels from farm to barn to stable to stall, delivering vitamin shots, allergy shots, Coggins tests and vaccinations.

"Most of my clients are walking horses," he said. "I keep everything working in the horses and make sure they're healthy."

Emphasis on shots

Common sense and preventive measures are his favorite prescriptions for a healthy horse.

"All of our owners are on a strict vaccination program," said Bennett. "Prevention and common sense go a long way."

Those vaccinations are crucial, especially in horse show and sale season, when the animals are sharing strange quarters with strange barn mates and can pick up strange bugs. In fact, some of the tests are so crucial that the horse can't be shown if it doesn't have proof it has been vaccinated.

"The Coggins test is for equine infectious anemia," said Bennett. "It can be spread by any blood to blood connection -- flies, mosquitoes, needles -- and there's no cure for it. The horses have to be put down."

He said even if the horse survived the disease, it would be a carrier and the only way it could be kept alive is to live the rest of its life in quarantine, 500 yards from any other horses -- not a feasible factor in horse-crowded Bedford County.

"To be in public, to go to shows, to go to sales -- you have to have a Coggins," he said.

Other infectious diseases can be just as bad, but vaccinations aren't necessarily required before showing.

"There are three types of equine encephalitis, Eastern, Western and Venezuelan," said Bennett. "We haven't seen the Venezuelan around in a couple of decades, but we still have the Eastern and Western."

The virus that's been closing down shows out West this year is the equine herpes virus, a bullet that the Southeast largely dodged.

"It seems to be under control now," said Bennett. "It didn't get this far before they got it under control."

The best way to prevent any of these, and a myriad of others such as rabies, medical issues is in what the veterinarians call the "core vaccine." Whether these shots are required at shows or not, Bennett strongly encourages his owners to sign up with the vaccination program.

Calls vary

Unfortunately, sometimes the calls Bennett and his assistant, Larry Lowman Jr., make aren't for prevention and maintenance. There are pulled tendons, laminitis ... even sore throats. At one barn, Bennett and Lowman unloaded some of their portable equipment to perform and scope on a horse who didn't seem to be breathing as well as he should, especially after a good workout. The veterinarian threaded a slender cable with a light and camera at the end of it, through the horses's nostril and down its throat. On the monitor screen, you could see a little swelling, a small sign of infection, and the horse's tongue, which seemed to fall back too far in its throat as it swallowed, limiting air intake.

"We carry our whole lab on the truck," said Bennett as the horse went off with an antibiotic and the equipment got loaded back into Bennett's Mercedes van with the interior customized to exactly fit the practice's needs. Locked drawers hold medicines and supplies. The portable endoscope and a portable X-ray machine roll into their niche and are fastened down.

"My wife helped me design it," he said.

His wife, Vicki, also rides, although she prefers hunters and jumpers. They have two daughters, Rachel and Mary, and a son, Aaron, and the girls have often shown walking horses.

Taking to the air

"She just got her pilot's license so now she can fly us around," said Bennett, referring to his wife.

He's not kidding. Because many of the walking horse owners who have come to know Bennett through his work in Bedford County live in other states, such as Florida and even California, they often ask him to come out and give their animals some hands-on attention.

"We're licensed to practice in five states," said Bennett.

One reason is that Bennett specializes in lameness issues, from bowed tendons to founder. That specialization is also one reason why he and the other equine veterinarians in the area find themselves coordinating more often than competing.

Everything from an x-ray machine to medicine fits neatly into the customized cabinets in Bennett's van.
(T-G Photo by Mary Reeves)
"We all have something we specialize in," said Bennett. "I do lameness, but if I've got a surgery, I'll probably send it over to Jim (Dr. Baum). It's really great. I practiced for a while in Lexington, Ky., and it wasn't anything like that. It was cutthroat."

In fact, most, if not all, of the equine vets will be on the grounds at some point during the Celebration, and most will end up helping the others, whether it's a consultation or loaning supplies.

"You think you pack enough for the Celebration, and you never pack enough," said Bennett, laughing.

Specific problems

Every breed has its own health issues, and the walking horse is no exception.

"They do so much with their back end, it can really put a strain on tendons," said Bennett.

The overstride that gives the horse its unique, gliding gait can also knock off the front shoes and even nick hooves and fetlocks.

And, of course, Bennett is always on the look out for injuries that might not be accidental.

"If I suspect something, I report it," he said.

He uses a thermography cameras like the ones used by the USDA horse show inspectors to look for problems in hooves and legs. While he uses it for medical purposes ("It picks up on inflammation faster than an X-ray will, said Bennett) it also gives him an idea if the horse has been sored or the inflammation is from natural causes.

It was Bennett, along with Dr. Steve Mullins, who helped get SHOW up and running. SHOW is the Celebration's Horse Industry Organization, a self-policing entity that oversees the training and regulation of inspectors and the welfare of the breed. Once SHOW was under way, Mullins took over full time and Bennett went back to practice full time -- and his time is plenty full.

"It's cyclical," he said. "In the spring, you've got foaling and breeding and getting ready for the shows. In the summer, it's the shows, and in the fall it's the fall foaling and breeding season. There's something all the time."

Of course, not all the endings are happy ones, but Bennett has even found a way to bring something good out of the loss of a horse.

"If a horse has to be destroyed, we usually send in memory of it to Great Strides in its name," he said. "The owners get a card telling them."

Care for all

Other than the occasional adventure with mules, Bennett works exclusively with horses, but not on exclusive horses. In the course of one day, he went from stable to stable and they ranged from glossy, magazine quality spreads where even the barn nails glistened, to humbler backyard barns filled with trail horses. At each place, the owners were greeted with the same grins and handshakes, whether they drove up in a Lexus or a lemon. The horses were given the same careful care.

Through the sweltering heat, the dusty barns, the sweaty horses and the long days, Bennett admits he spends the summer sweating off the weight he gained over the winter. It's not easy work, and it's certainly not air conditioned, but he wouldn't swap with any one, not even for a nice cool office and waiting room full of placid lapdogs.

"I had to do a small animal rotation for three months to get my license in 1980," said Bennett. "I haven't done small animals since.

"I'll retire first."

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