I began the day apprehensive. Scanning the appointment board this morning, I saw that not only was I riding with a different doctor today, but I would also be attending a dental on "Boris" this afternoon. Boris is a stallion. My only contact with stallions has been in clinics where they spend the day tethered to the wall in a padded stall, squealing while they wait for their turn with the dummy mare. I had never been faced with holding the lead rope of one of those muscular beings, let alone restraining one while a vet rasps the sharp points off of his teeth. As the the tech "L" and I head down the highway I have trouble paying attention to his polite conversation, staring instead at the dry hills with their spreading oak trees, and praying that this is not the day I get trampled.
Our first call is not to Boris, but to an ultrasound of an old gelding with a kind face who had been kicked in the pasture. This is where we meet up with the doctor, whom I will call Dr. C. C for cool, because this guy exudes it. This makes me nervous, because cool is a department in which I show serious deficits. My fears are soon assuaged, however, when Dr. C impresses me with his painstakingly thorough ultrasonagraphic examination of this gelding's shoulder. Though not a man of a thousand words, when prompted, Dr. C will explain in detail what he is doing and why, and my confidence grew as I was able to recognize not only the structures in fuzzy black and white, but also the abnormality.
The drive back to the clinic with Dr. C was long and I was able to pick his brain about many things, including the increased trend toward hyperspecialization in veterinary medicine.
"You've kind of got to know something about everything, and everything about something, right?" I ask, using what is evidently my current favorite quip.
"Exactly. For example, my specialty is lameness. I want to know everything I can about lameness. I think internal medicine is interesting, but there is not enough time to really delve into it."
"It's like how mixed animal practice is not really feasible anymore, unless you have different practitioners for each category."
"That's right," he laughs. "Sometimes people ask me to look at their dogs or cats. Or goats. I don't even open that door. I just say I'm the wrong person to ask."
I laugh, unable to imagine Dr. C's coolness, which serves him well when he is absorbed in an appraisal of a jogging horse, allowing him to kneel in a barnyard to examine a bleating goat.
Boris lives about an hour south, along the coast. The fog has burned off and the sky is a cloudless blue, so I look forward to a scenic drive. Dr. C and L (his tech for the day) are less enthusiastic.
"I hope nobody gets carsick," says Dr. C, by way of response.
I see what he means. The highway is one of those uniquely Californian roads carved out of the side of a foothill. Whoever first planned it never dreamed of anything as massive as a truck with a fully-stocked vet box in the back. I try not to look at the precipitous drops that peek out where the eucalyptus thins in places, as Dr. C roars around each curve at interstate speeds. This is just the sort of highway that once made my five-year-old sister proclaim tearfully, "It's too wiggly!"
The road spits us out several hundred yards from the ocean, and I indulge in a personal nostalgia fest at my first glimpse of the Pacific in months. In short order, however we turn onto a road even wigglier, and much narrower, than before. There is no eucalyptus now, just that green grass that looks like little wheat stalks and ripples appealingly, like velvet.
"What happens if someone comes the other way?" I ask, looking down the rock face to my right?"
"You're screwed!" Dr C laughs. It occurs to me that someone had to drive a horse trailer here at some point. The winding road didn't make me queasy, but this thought does.
After half an hour more of winding through nowhereland, we arrive. There is a large house with a gate and a simple barn at the end of the driveway. I see no horses, only several paddocks of that same ripply green grass. It is silent, and with the pattern from the moving ocean clouds on the grass, I have to admit that the property is breathtaking. We are here, however, to float the teeth on a stallion, and so far see neither man nor beast.
A sign on the gate instructs us to ring the bell. We look around for a doorbell, and find none. Suddenly, I realize that the bell in question is right in front of us; it is one of those temple bells formed from an old compressed air canister. I point out a rock balanced on a fence post, ostensibly for the purpose of ringing the bell. Dr. C looks at the rock for a few seconds before banging it against the bell. Nobody comes.
As we are deciding to go in search of the horse ourselves, a woman manifests onto the driveway. She is of a sort that I recognize; white hair left au naturel atop an ensemble of a shapeless blue work shirt and jeans. Something about her gaze suggests a certain detachment from reality.
"The stallion moved next door, I'm afraid."
"Next door?" D. C scratches his head.
"Actually, one canyon over. He's helping to stage the ranch that's for sale."
I see Dr. C and L exchange a glance.
"You can follow me in my car. It's too complicated to give directions, but I can take you right there."
We pile back into the truck and take off after the woman as she roars out of the driveway. It seems that the large ranch-become-artist community in the area is up for sale, and its sellers believed that Boris's presence would help move the property. We drive on, unsurprisingly, another winding road, watching the woman almost collide with a mail truck rounding a blind curve. I catch sight of L's green face in the rearview mirror, and offer him the front seat, but he waves away the offer.
We arrive at the ranch by way of a wrought iron gate with the emblem of a llama. It's actually quite spectacular, and I would not have minded taking a picture of it. I make no mention of it, however, remembering Dr. C's opinions about the non-equine species. I do smile to myself, however, when we pass the emblem's flesh and blood inspiration cushed in a field, tufted ears held high.
The road eventually ends in a circle surrounded by gigantic oak trees. The parking lot abuts an old-fashioned circular paddock in which a black and white tobiano paint grazes.
"Is that our guy?" I ask doubtfully. He must be, since there are no other horses around, but this smallish creature grazing blissfully, surrounded by a few dozen chickens is not quite the stallion I was expecting.
"This is Boris. Boris loves carrots." The woman shakes a black bucket toward us to underline her point. "But I will warn you. Boris hates vets." She glares at us, as if by potentially offending Boris, we had already offended her. The woman coos and fusses over Boris while L and I spend a chunk of time trying to address the fact that there are no electrical outlets present into which to plug the dental tools. The woman is unconcerned about this fact, choosing instead to tell us about Boris's lovely natural life.
"He's a lucky horse, getting to stay a stallion and live up here. His teeth are good because he's eaten grass all his life."
Dr. C mumbles some assent while throwing the rope of the dental speculum over the ceiling beam in the parking garage where L has located an outlet.
The woman coaxes Boris over. As L slips the dental speculum over his head and Dr. C injects the sedative into his vein, I concede that there is something undeniably appealing about him, but he his far nothing like the stallions I have seen at horse fairs, who are, frankly, living embodiments of sex. I begin to feel a fondness toward Boris, perhaps born out of my relief that he is not the snorting, flaring dragon of my fantasy. He doesn't even seem to bear any animosity towards us, despite our being veterinary types.
"Oh no, the chickens! Could you, can you-" the woman has left the paddock gate open and the chickens have started to expand their foraging radius to include the area outside the paddock. The woman gesticulates wildly at me, entreating me to catch the runaway chickens. I glance at Dr. C and L, but they are already hitching Boris's head up, as the sedative takes its effect. I walk toward the chickens in an arc, trying to channel Temple Grandin and herd them back into the paddock, praying they don't scatter. Luck is on my side, and the runaway fowl shamble back into the paddock with a few irritated looks at me.
Teeth floating in horses in the modern day is a power-tool operation. Whereas until recently a large rasp, called a float, would be used to smooth off the rough points that horses develop on their teeth from constant chewing, motorized floats are now the standard of the industry.
Dr. C allows me to feel the inside of Boris's mouth after the bits of chewed grass have been flushed out. I feel points along the outside of the upper arcade that are causing ulcers on the inside of his cheeks. This is normal for a horse, since their molars do not occlude completely with one another as they erupt continuously throughout adult life.
Boris turns out to be a lightweight as far as the sedative is concerned, and I take a new post at his rear as he sways off balance. I push his hind quarters to the side to encourage him to square up his feet and lock his knees. Instead, Boris takes this as a cue to lean his entire weight against my outstretched arm. After an eternity of rasping by Dr. C at the front end, I gingerly take my hand from the wobbly stallion and venture to back to the mouth. This time, where there used to be points is a smooth arcade.
L and I pack up the truck while the woman flutters around, talking about a trip she is going to take to track wild mustangs. While she is fluttering, a lanky man with a dark, oily braid down to the waistband of his paint-stained jeans sidles up. He carries a bag made from a different pair of paint stained jeans. Everything about him screams "artist."
"Ah, Joseph," cries the woman. "Dr. C, this is Joseph. He is the ranch manager." I slide my eyes back over him, surprised by my misinterpretation of his profession.
"I just got back from milking the goats," he announces. I read the subtext in this statement, and it says, "I am so in touch with the land." Learning that Dr. C is a veterinarian, his eyes light up.
"Would you look at one of the goats?"
I catch Dr. C's eye for a split second, and then turn away. I take Boris by the lead rope and coax him back toward the pasture. Boris is still wobbly and unwilling to move his feet, so I smile as I listen to Dr. C's hasty dissembling. I thank Boris for being a good first stallion for me, and take in the effect of Boris in the paddock with his chicken harem. I have to admit, the effect is good. As the three of us finally pile into the car, Dr. C and L shake their heads in exhaustion. I just smile. It's good to be back in the land of my birth. I wonder who is going to see the goat.