Reading Leslie Guttman's book, Equine ER: Stories from a Year in the Life of an Equine Veterinary Hospital is like watching ER on television back in the good ol’ days when George Clooney was still its star. You don’t want to know what happens if it’s not a success story, but you watch anyway, unable to turn your attention away because the story has you in its grips. Guttman’s nonfiction work is an intelligent but sensitive look at the daily operations of Rood & Riddle Animal Hospital. For those who are unfamiliar, Rood & Riddle is located here in Lexington and is the premier veterinary facility for Thoroughbreds – or other horses – in medical distress. Horses’ natures are so delicate, it only takes one wrong turn of the foot or the digestive tract to create an equine emergency, and Guttman’s work highlights the veterinary treatment of these powerful but fragile animals whose owners make the Bluegrass their home.
"This book is about the year I spent starting in spring 2008 following around the veterinarians at Rood & Riddle, one of the most prominent equine hospitals in the country. It is about these veterinarians' world and the horse-smitten clients and four-footed patients within it. Hospitals are places where life turns on a dime, and this one is no different: I saw lives saved, lost, and remade. I also saw that alongside the advanced veterinary medicine being performed exists something timeless about the job of an equine veterinarian … found in experiences such as the small miracle of watching a foal ... get up and walk for the first time, wobbly but persevering. Or in the ritual of an equine vet making a farm call in spring, his or her truck rattling up to an old black barn, past paddocks colored kelly green from the rain and dotted with mares and foals.”
Throughout the book, Guttman's careful observations give bullet points in such rapid succession, it seems impossible to remember them all, but she breaks out of the starting gate with a vivid prologue recounting the unforgettable history of the 2008 Derby, when Big Brown made his move in the middle of the pack to win, and the filly Eight Belles, finished second. Guttman describes the heartbreak as news came to the Rood & Riddle facility that Eight Belles had broken both of her front ankles, and the decisions that had to be made within seconds to euthanize her. Guttman was at the vet hospital on Derby day, a day she appropriately describes: "For horse people everywhere, but especially in the Bluegrass, Derby Day is a religious holiday. Thousands of people were preparing to watch the race at Churchill Downs or on TV, and between taking care of patients some Rood & Riddle staff members would be able to catch the race in the admissions office. Although they didn't know it yet, those staff members would see the death of Eight Belles, the charcoal gray filly who would break down after finishing second and be euthanized immediately because of the depth of her injuries. Her shocking death on national television would bring significant changes to the racing world, with equine vets such as Rood & Riddle's Dr. Larry Bram age playing key roles in the debate and discussion the filly's death ignited.”
Eight Belles was the first Thoroughbred to die in 134 years of the Kentucky Derby, and although her tragic story reverberated in the hearts of horse lovers everywhere, the event caused the industry to reconsider some options and changes were and are being made to make tracks and racing safer for these sturdy but delicate athletes.
Guttman’s account takes the reader on the journey from the veterinary hospital’s humble beginnings in Dr. Bill Rood’s “one-man show in his garage, the hospital’s origins in1980” to its contemporary setting on the sprawling “twenty-four acres of what used to be part of the old Nursery Stud Farm, where Man o’War was born on a spring day in 1917. The grounds are lush, with plantings such as lilac and forsythia bushes, azaleas and Russian sage, and white pines, red oaks, magnolias, and spruce trees. The practice has more than 50 vets and a staff of over 200 people: nursing techs, farriers, barn crew, business staff, administrative assistants and more.
Rood & Riddle’s beginnings, however, were modest. “The staff then consisted of one retired neighbor stocking the pharmacy and a former waitress Rood had hired away from a Mexican restaurant to be its only tech. Rood first met Dr. Tom Riddle in 1981; both men were looking for another equine veterinarian with whom to form a partnership. They teamed up the following year, and opening the hospital in its current location in 1986. It was about a quarter of the size it is now.”
Equine ER is replete with photographs and chapter after chapter of inspirational stories of success, perseverance and acceptance, as well as providing a window into the world of decisions within and without the operating rooms of some of the world’s best veterinary facility. The chapters are stories of horses who are not necessarily racing or foaling, though, as there are depictions of a host of conditions suffered by geldings and barren mares as well. Guttman has changed the names in some cases of the owners and horses to respect the wishes of those who wish to remain anonymous. The chapters give a peek into the very human side of the vets who provide care.
For example, there is the story of Piaff, a gelding who suffered from a neurological condition that caused him to be wobbly and his treatment by Dr. Stephen Reed (whose veterinary students refer to as “a god”). Piaff had endured the journey on his side the entire ten hours it took to get him to the hospital: “He'd tried to get up several times when the owner stopped to check on him, but he was too weak. It's not good for a horse to be down that long; they can't take full, deep breaths, or eat, drink, urinate, or defecate normally. It took about ten hospital staff members to get him out of the trailer, with Piaff sedated and pulled on an emergency glide (a large sheet of hard green plastic).
The mood was tense among everyone in Piaff's stall. "Get a bucket of water," said Reed to a tech standing by the door. "Something normal, something he might relate to. He's kind of trying to move his lips. I don't think he's awake just yet." Water was fetched, but Piaff wouldn't drink.
"We have to look out for his hind legs," Reed said. "If they're caught underneath, he'll go back down." The vet gave the go-ahead, and tech Megan Howard started raising and lowering the hoist again in tiny increments. But soon, Piaff's legs started to crumple and the horse began to spin around.
"Stop, STOP!" yelled Reed, walking toward Piaff's left side. The vet's head came up to the horse's back. Howard stopped the hoist. "Down, just a mite," said Reed; she complied. "Let him balance, guys!" Reed said to the interns . . . ‘I don't mean to be so bossy,’ he added, and everyone assured him it was OK. They knew he was just worried about the horse getting injured.”
Piaff’s story is just one of dozens Guttman relates to give a clear picture of the loving care the veterinarians at Rood & Riddle devote to patients in their care. The book is certain to be scooped up with great interest as the horse world readies itself for the Breeders’ Cup and next year’s road to the Derby, which of course, will be followed by the World Equestrian Games presented by Alltech right here in the heart of our gorgeous home with the rolling hills and grass so filled with limestone, it’s called the Bluegrass. As we prepare for the visitors that will certainly be watching the WEG activities, Guttman’s nonfiction work is a must-read for those who want to know what goes on behind the scenes before and after the best of the best equine athletes perform for the world.
IF YOU GO:
Where: Keeneland Gift Shop
When: Sunday, October 25, 11 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
What: Author Leslie Guttman will be signing copies of her book on Equine ER: Stories from a Year in the Life of an Equine Veterinary Hospital
Guttman will also be signing copies at Ace Gallery Hop at Woodland Computers,
November 20, 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.
===============ABOUT THE AUTHOR=============
Leslie Guttman was born in upstate New York, into a family with a love of books and of the public library, and grew up in Lexington, Kentucky. She received a degree in journalism from Indiana University at Bloomington and also studied at the University of California at Berkeley. She worked at the San Francisco Chronicle as both an editor and writer, and her work also has appeared in such publications as the Washington Post, Salon, and Orion. In addition, Leslie has worked at Wired magazine, and her public radio commentary has been broadcast on KQED-FM in San Francisco and nationally on “Marketplace.”
Guttman has been honored by the Society of Professional Journalists for outstanding journalism, as well as a “Salute to Excellence” award by the National Association of Black Journalists. She has guest-lectured at college journalism programs in both San Francisco and the Bluegrass.
Leslie currently lives in Lexington. Equine ER is her first book.