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Riviera Equine veterinarian Dr. Phoebe Smith is a former Kentucky belle, who enjoying going to cotillions with young, white-gloved southern gentlemen. But the seeds of her future had been already planted when she was a little girl.

After hearing her many pleas, Phoebe’s parents bought her a green broke horse that she immediately leapt aboard and rode through the fields of rural Kentucky, where just about everyone owned a horse. However, later, when she was she accepted in veterinary school, she had not yet decided whether it would be for large or small animals.

“It was amazing that they were doing brain surgery on dogs and putting pace-makers in small animals!” She says. “But pretty soon, I realized that I was spending most of my free time out in the horse barn studying their medical records.” After graduating, she did an internship here in the Valley at Alamo Pintado Equine Clinic, a Residency Training at UC Davis in Internal medicine and then taught for three years at Ohio State. But it was the large horse population in the Santa Ynez Valley that lured Phoebe back here.

Phoebe remembers that one of her first cases, as an intern, was being called to treat a mule with severe colic, high on a mountain top. “It could only be reached by an aerial tram, so I packed everything into two buckets and got on the tram. When I finally got to the top and jumped off with all my equipment, the man took one look at me and said, ‘Oh, you’re new. You brought so much stuff!’ However, I ended up using it all, as the mule had a very serious, painful condition that indicated that he needed to be let go. We ended up burying him on top of the mountain.

“As a veterinarian of internal medicine, I treat horses of all ages and a lot of my work is by referral,” she says. It’s also interesting that she has found a special niche as an expert on baby horses. “Most foals absolutely try their hardest to get up and nurse, because this is how they are programed. But there are others that just give up and you do everything you can to bring forth that little spirit of survival. Young horses get sick more easily than adults, because their immune systems are more naïve. Infectious diseases can enter through the umbilical stump, the GI tract or the respiratory tract. Every case is a mystery until you find the answer.

“One of the absolutely most wondrous cases I ever had was a foal that was born very prematurely. He arrived after just 290 days in the womb and the normal gestation period is 320-360. Those last days are incredibly important for the bones, lungs etc. The owners saw this black object lying in their pasture and thought it was a dog. But then they realized that their warm blood mare had given birth prematurely. The little colt was born with a defect in his body walls, an enlarged bladder, and his lungs were not completely developed. He also did not have bones in his knees or hocks. He certainly couldn’t stand, but his desire to survive was very strong!

“He would need surgery and in spite of a costly prognosis, the owners gave me the go-ahead to try to save him. We had to keep him from trying to stand, and his weak lung function ruled out being put in a sling, so we put curved pads under him. We kept the mother nearby and milked her out to feed the baby.

Often when a baby horse is finally well enough to come out of his little cubicle in the mother’s stall, the mare will reject them, but this loving maiden mare welcomed him completely. The whole thing was such a beautiful experience that I wrote it up and sent it to my mother and grandmother on mother’s day.

“It’s important for a horse owner to be able to recognize normal temperature, manure and actions.” Phoebe says. “With present technology, I can get videos from clients of wobbly horses and iPhone photos of cuts, eye injuries, worms, etc. This and other sophisticated devices enable me to bring hospital medicine right to the farm.

“Dryland fever (also called pigeon fever) was a big problem this past year. But probably the most common health condition at any time is colic. It can come on from several sources and is a generic term for abdominal discomfort. A kidney stone, liver disease or a twisted colon can cause colic, and horses are prone to this because they have a very long gastro-intestinal tract and it’s not very well fastened down so it can flop around. There is only about a 30-minute window, to wait before calling the vet, if the pain does not stop.

“As for feeding and colic, horses secrete gastric acid 24 hours a day. The ideal thing is for them to eat all day, like grazing. Local hay here is of excellent quality; this includes, alfalfa, oat hay grass hay and forage. The average horse just needs good quality hay and a salt-mineral block unless they are in special training regimes. One can also have their hay evaluated and then provide any supplements needed.”

Phoebe’s client, Barbara Shuler, then joined our conversation with another heart warmer: “I had a maiden mare, belonging to a client, who had gone way over her gestation period with her first foal. The poor little guy was finally born in April, with teeth and long hair but couldn’t get up. Sometimes, he couldn’t even wake up.

But he had such a strong will to live, that in his struggles to get up he had worn the skin off his forelegs and stifle right down to the tendons! The owners said they were done and to put him down.” But, says Barbara, “The poor little thing had struggled so hard to survive that we decided to hang in there and take over.

We named him Teeny and dressed him in my long-sleeved Ralph Loren polo shirts to further protect his sores. He finally was able to stay awake and stand up, and he fully recovered. Teeny is now right out there in my front pasture enjoying life. Saving a baby horse is an unbelievable pleasure!”