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The turkey may be cooked and ready to carve, but horses have a habit of becoming ill or injured at the most inopportune moments. For a vet in practice, the patient must come first — even if that means leaving gifts unopened and an uneaten Christmas dinner on the table.

“Being on duty on Christmas Day isn’t the most appealing part of a vet’s job,” admits Roger Lee MRCVS. “It’s the small-animal vets who have a hectic day, treating pets who have gorged themselves on mistletoe, turkey fat and wrapping paper with unfortunate consequences. Most horses are given their treats in the morning then left alone while their owners do battle with the sprouts and turkey, so the number of call-outs during the day is often small.”

Sometimes, however, the present-giving can have unfortunate consequences.

“I spent a good part of one Christmas morning stitching up a three-year-old who had taken sudden fright at being dressed in a violently coloured new rug and galloped straight through the fence,” recalls Roger. “It was quite jolly, though, as there was a good crowd in the stable and I was well supplied with mulled wine and mince pies during the repair.

“My old boss had less luck one year when he received a call on Christmas morning from a very grand-sounding client who demanded that he come straightaway to examine her daughter’s laminitic pony,” he adds. “There isn’t much lush grass around at Christmas so, somewhat surprised, my boss asked how long the pony had been lame. ‘Several weeks,’ came the booming reply. ‘But I’ve run out of bute and now it’s worse.’

“Reluctantly, my boss decided he couldn’t leave the pony in pain — no matter how disorganised the owner might be. He agreed to forsake his family celebrations and make the 40-minute drive to meet the lady at her stables.

“‘Oh, I shan’t be there myself,’ she replied. ‘I’m off out to lunch in a moment. I’ll leave the headcollar on the stable door and you can help yourself.’”

Impactions and infections

Last Christmas Eve, Rick Farr MRCVS was explaining to his young children about leaving out carrots for Santa’s reindeer.

“A call came in that a horse was on three legs,” says Rick, of Farr & Pursey Equine. “Typically, with a non-weightbearing lameness, we must always attend, so I headed out.

“The horse had sustained a scrape while out in the field that morning but appeared sound out hacking in the afternoon — only to go lame later in the day,” adds Rick. “The client was very apologetic and even better at holding the X-ray plates. Luckily, I was back in time to tuck the kids into bed.”

The previous year, Rick’s Christmas had been disturbed by an emergency colic case.

“You’re never popular when you leave your other half to deal with two small children and prepare the Christmas dinner,” he says. “It was impaction colic, most likely due to a dietary change over the holiday season and more time spent in the stable. Thankfully, it was managed medically at a referral centre — although I felt even worse referring the horse on Christmas morning. It did mean, however, that I got home to cook the sprouts.”

As surgeon-on-call last year, Phil Cramp MRCVS was relaxing after Christmas lunch with his family when the phone rang.

“The referring vet had visited ‘Blackie’, who had been found non-weightbearing lame on her left hind,” he explains. “Joint fluid could be seen coming out of a small puncture wound on the front of her hock, so there was a possibility that the joint could be contaminated.

“When the mare arrived, the whole family had come with her — armed with mince pies,” says Phil, who is based at Hambleton Equine Clinic. “They were really concerned because they’d left the horses out for longer than usual due to it being Christmas. The horses had most probably become bored and started to play — with disastrous consequences for Blackie..

“A fluid sample indicated that the joint was infected, so we took Blackie straight into surgery to flush the joint,” adds Phil. “All went well and she was able to return home five days later after spending the holidays in hospital.”

Let it snow

Boxing Day duty can be much busier, according to Roger.

“This is chiefly due to the number of hunting crashes involving people whose port-fuelled ambition exceeds their own — and their horse’s — ability,” he explains.

“At one veterinary hospital I worked at, we had three cases in, one after the other, with a conveyor belt of thorn removal and joint flushing.”

Wintry weather can bring an extra edge to festive call-outs, as Kieran O’Brien MRCVS of Penbode Equine Vets explains.

“A 5am call to a foaling mare was the last thing I expected,” he says of an early New Year start. “The mare had returned from the stud not in-foal so the owner had decided to run her, more in hope than in expectation, with her three-year-old colt.

“I set off along the snow-covered roads with some trepidation,” adds Kieran. “My overriding concern — apart from the foaling — was the long, steep hill I would have to descend to get to the farm. I paused, apprehensively, at the top, feeling exactly as I had on my first skiing holiday when we were taken up an incline by chairlift to descend into what looked like an abyss below.

“I crept down the hill, hoping I wouldn’t have to touch the brakes, and with a small skid I swung into the yard.”

The mare had delivered by the time help arrived.

“The foal was weak, so I gave him a large dose of colostrum by stomach tube and we popped him under a heat lamp,” recalls Kieran. “I suggested that they call him Snowman.”

Peter Green MRCVS spent many Christmases working while in practice.

“Christmas Day duties usually fell to us as senior partners,” he says. “It was mostly the usual: colics; high temperatures, usually from respiratory infections; severe obstructive airway attacks from being shut up in stables, and lameness, often caused by severe mud fever.

“I always took my children to the clinic early on Christmas morning to do the round of hospitalised in-patients,” adds Peter. “The children have now grown up and have families of their own, but they still comment on how fitting it was to be in a stable. If clients were embarrassed about calling me out, I always took the line that there’s no more appropriate place to be than in a stable, with animals, on Christmas morning.”

Ref Horse & Hound; 21 December 2017