Rodeo Days

Rodeo Days

I was talking to a farmer recently and I mentioned that when I see a vet on the TV these days, they seem to have everything laid on, so to speak, in that either the patient is held in a metal crush or it is firmly held for him/her by the farmer or one of their staff. This was not so in my young days. If you wanted to get on with the job and finish before Christmas, you had to first secure the patient yourself and then hand it over to the farmer or, more likely, do the whole of it yourself.

This was not due to any laziness on the part of the farmer but mainly because they were not used to handling the animals themselves.  They did not vaccinate or worm their charges much, so that they did not often even get them in from the field.  Hence they were not accustomed to being handled.  I would often arrive at a farm to find they had not even got the stock in, such was their laid-back approach.  “It won’t take long”, I have heard so many times.  Of course the cattle or sheep knew something was up and refused to cooperate. Then we had to get them into a building and some of the sheds used were pretty ancient. I have seen a shed literally kicked to pieces. Then I had to go in amongst that lot and I soon learnt that to get out unscathed and finish the job, I had to catch them myself and I had to learn how to do it.  The secret was intense concentration.  Once I had my grip in the bovine nose I was home and dry, or at least snotty, and the horns, although dangerous, came in handy too.  Even so, I often came home well bruised.

My dear departed friend, Pete Hannaford, whom I had known since we were evacuated together at the age of 11, was once told as a student, to hold on to a horse’s bridle whatever happened. At first touch of the needle the horse bolted, went through the side of a greenhouse and out the other side before finally coming to a standstill with Pete still hanging on.  He was just reprimanded with, “I didn’t mean for you to hold on that much”.

There were several procedures which could be used to reduce the patient’s chance of turning you black and blue. One was to lift a cow’s tail as forcefully as possible where it joined the body, or when examining the udder, to press ones head into the flank in front of the hind leg.  It was not unusual for me to be doing pregnancy diagnosis unaided while the farmer carried on hand-milking his herd just beside me. If you did get any help, you might ask them to lift one foreleg or perhaps to hold the nose and turn the cow’s head back towards the tail, or the hind legs could be hobbled together. When it came to horses, nothing beat the presence of someone whom the horse trusted.

For dogs and cats, we were equally badly served. Such sedatives as we did have were slow and only partially successful. When Boringdon Hall was sold by its aristocratic owner to become a hotel, I was called in to collect its 10 semi-wild cats. They were all hiding in crevices in the vast old fireplace and, as the owner made it clear he would have nothing to do with it, I had to don gloves and catch them one by one.  I ended up black as a chimney sweep, but I must digress to point out that in those days we had none of the plastic cat baskets of today.  They were all wicker, woven willow; but not in the Elm Cottage practice. I have mentioned before that the senior partner was a self-sufficiency fanatic. He had bought a job lot of ex-army ammunition boxes and the handy yard man had cannibalised these into cat boxes with ex-army webbing for carrying straps. They were devilishly heavy and banged against your legs at every step. I was the first in the practice to buy a modern version, but even then it was only fibreglass. I have it still, to remind me of those early primitive days.

My first day at Plymouth coincided with a breakdown of the x-ray machine, so I was tasked with taking a racing greyhound with a leg fracture to another practice in town. I had nil experience of working greyhounds in Sidmouth, so I did not realise how taut with energy they could be, for at the first touch of the needle he shot straight out of my grip and jumped high above me.  When he came down he buried his teeth in the top of my head.  A good start.

On another occasion I called to a very smart house to inject a lively red setter. There being no table uncluttered with ornaments, the owner said she would hold her dog on the floor. I remember she was wearing a very smart tweed suit.  At first prick the dog jumped so violently that her owner was bowled over, legs in the air, to reveal that she was wearing a vast pair of knee length drawers, what my wife would call ETBs (Elastic Top and Bottom).  Another time, I paid a visit to an upmarket house in mid-afternoon, to vaccinate a Siamese cat. The door was opened by the lady owner, wearing a plunge neckline evening dress.  I tried to hide my surprise and look anywhere, but she insisted on helping and as usual, we ended up on the floor, the cat having decided on a non-cooperative role. Three times my attempts to inject ended with the owner and cat rolling on the carpet and every time her left breast popped out of her dress, albeit a short journey; and every time she seemed to have difficulty replacing it.  At the third attempt a great urge came over me to say, “here, let me do it”, but I never did, thank goodness!


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This article was written by

Ken Watson's career as a vet started many moons ago, after he'd attended Royal Veterinary College at Camden Town. Ken came to work at Sidmouth in 1953 at Steele & Wardrop (now Ikin & Oxenham). Subsequently Ken set up his own practice at Plymouth in 1961 before retiring in 1992. His pieces graphically map out the changes that have taken place in the veterinary business over the years and also allow great insight into human behaviour.