As a vet who generally deals with small companion animals, horses have always been an enigma to me. The study of equine medicine, husbandry and surgery was an integral part of my veterinary course at university, and I certainly know more about horses then the average Joe, but I have never treated horses and that makes me very rusty in this particular field.
During my studies, many of my fellow students were from farms where horses were common. These friends grew up with horses like I grew up with dogs and cats. They knew how to communicate with these majestic beasts and I envied them. Like people who are scared of dogs and cats, during my initial contact with horses I felt quite nervous and fearful.
It was not an illogical fear - and it was not the fear of their size and power, or the pain they could inflict on an unsuspecting attendant.
I was used to cows and bulls, which can be twice the weight of a typical horse. There's an important difference between cows and horses: horses have a keener sense of survival, some would say intelligence. Their fight-or-flight response is much keener.
It is this flighty personality that one has to respect and be wary of when dealing with horses. I remember seeing for the first time a horse's skull in anatomy class and it was scary. It wasn't the skeletal features that were scary but the sheer size of the thing, welded onto a massive muscular neck, that made horses scary to me in those early days.
I realised quickly that horses were potentially very dangerous. Not only could a kick or being trampled be fatal, but a swift swing of its head could knock you senseless.
In time I learned to control my fears by acquiring knowledge, but during my fledgling years as a student it was a challenge. Every time I had to handle a horse my adrenal gland was pumping. But it was an experience that I will never forget.
I remember vividly the time I was taught how to give a horse an intravenous injection. It was much easier than it is with a dog or a cat because horses' veins are like giant hoses and you would have to be blind not to be able to find a suitable vein.
It was the idea of causing pain to such a large animal and its reaction that scared me most. I was surprised to find that most horses are quite well domesticated and trained to deal with the pain from a needle jab.
In time I discovered that horses, like people, dogs and cats, have distinctive individual personalities. Some horses are quite docile while others are highly strung. They have body language that tells you their moods, but reading that body language took time to master.
The bringing together of city folk and horses tends to generate entertaining stories, like the time I had to collect semen from a stallion. First, you get a mare on heat in a paddock to excite the stallion. You have a large contraption that represents the female horse in the next paddock. In reality it is just a large log on stilts that can carry the weight of the stallion.
I had never seen the procedure done before, let alone been a participant. You can imagine the surprise on my face when they handed me an artificial vagina and a motorcycle helmet. The artificial vagina is a large plastic tube, about the thickness of my leg. The inner lining of the tube is padded and warmed with warm water, and well lubricated. The end of the tube has a small bag which collects the semen.
The helmet was for my protection. They gave me the instructions and I was dumbfounded, and I almost refused; it was just too scary.
A person led the stallion into the paddock with the fake female horse. The 700kg stallion started going crazy because of the mare on heat nearby, rearing up on its hind legs and snorting at the sight and smell of the mare in the next paddock. I could see that the man leading the stallion was struggling to stop the stallion from bolting towards the mare.
I then entered the paddock and readied myself next to the fake horse. The man led the stallion behind the fake horse. Once the horse mounted the fake horse with its front legs, my job was to deflect its penis into the artificial vagina.
I almost panicked when the stallion mounted, because it was flailing its front legs about in a frenzy. Fortunately it only took seconds and I was rewarded with a good quantity of semen in the collector.
When I got back to safety away from the stallion, I collapsed. My knees gave way from the excitement and I found myself trembling - but elated. Not an experience I care to repeat, but it was certainly a thrill.