Published in Central Coast Farm and Ranch, Spring, 2004
Equine Hospital Cares for Patients in a Big Way
By Mark Storer
This hospital has a full-sized flat bed truck-operating table; it’s the biggest one you’ve ever seen. Like the truck, it awaits its cargo to be brought to it, visibly shaking at its foundation when the patient is placed there. There’s a crane to lift the sick and injured patients onto the table. The surgical equipment is oversized to match them. At 1,000 pounds or more, patients can routinely outweigh the entire surgical staff combined.
Welcome to the Humphrey, Giacopuzzi and Associates Equine Hospital in Somis. Specializing in the care and treatment of horses and large farm animals, the hospital sees patients that aren’t always the most cooperative — and are a little surlier than most when injected, poked, prodded or medicated. Like a frightened child, they’ll squirm and bolt.
Owned and operated by cousins Richard and Mike Giacopuzzi (everybody calls them Dr. Richard and Dr. Mike), the veterinary hospital is the only clinic within 100 miles that is equipped for medical emergencies caused by broken bones, internal injuries, infections, punctures, rotten teeth, orthopedics or a suffering animal at the end of its life. Everything from breeding the animal to putting the animal down should that be required is available at the hospital. What is also offered is a level of care not easy to find in greater Southern California, where the next-closest clinics are two hour’s east in Chino in Riverside County or above Santa Barbara in Los Olivos.
With a lot of rural property and backcountry in Ventura, Los Angeles and Kern counties, horse owners know the road to the Giacopuzzis’ place. The practice draws heavily from the desert communities near Agua Dulce, off Highway 14 on the way to Lancaster, according to Dr. Richard. This is the place to find high-tech medicine and surgical procedures for large animals, yet also some of what is missing from human medicine: personable care, engaging bedside manner and doctors who make house calls.
The hospital is staffed by four to six doctors at any given time, depending on the time of year and patient load. There are numerous veterinary technicians and several office staff. Currently, Dr. Kerry Murphy, an intern Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M.) lives in the apartment above the offices 24 hours a day, seven days a week for emergencies. She does get time off, but not much. Dr. Mike and Dr. Richard also have Dr. Humphrey to consult with. Dr. Humphrey is 88 years old and is retired, but he comes into the practice often, sits at his desk with the latest journals and calls on his past patients to check on the animals and chat with the owners. “He’s still very much engaged,” said office manager Marsha Spencer. “He loves the place.” And they love him.
While Dr. Richard and his staff are on call for everything from fractures to emergency illness, one in four horses he sees for colic — a condition every parent has dealt with at some time or other, but that takes on a whole new meaning in a 1,000 pound animal. Not only is it the number one problem the hospital sees, but it is also the number one emergency situation with which the Doctors are confronted. “Frequently, we’ll get horses in here at all hours with colic,” said office manager Marsha. “The horse is either off his feet or pawing, sweating—something that’s making the animal too sick to function.”
“We think it has to do with the water they drink,” Dr. Richard said, chuckling that an East Coast veterinarian won’t often see colic in horses. “The water in California is very different from back east; a lot of different minerals are present and we think that’s what causes this.”
As most horse owners know, horses will occasionally eat things they shouldn’t, bits of wire, stones, pieces of wood — and if the foreign object is not expelled, it will occasionally get lodged so that over a course of months or even years, the minerals in the water, unique to California or perhaps the west, the chemical make-up of the food or whatever other cause, creates a stone like substance that can weigh anywhere from a few ounces to a few pounds. One such “rock” Dr. Richard held weighed more than three pounds.
“It can be there for years and the horse will show signs of what we call colic for six months to a year. But then it gets wedged and creates a blockage. Usually, that has to be operated on,” Dr. Richard said.
Colic is actually a generic term that describes any number of intestinal conditions to which horses are prone.
“Horses can get twisted intestines quite often,” Dr. Richard explained, “and that’s quite painful for the horse and requires immediate surgery.” To diagnose such ailments, the hospital employs an x-ray machine designed for its equine patients as well as several “field x-rays” which are portable and while they cannot penetrate the abdomen of a horse as the larger stationary machine can, they are useful for diagnosing fractures and ailments of the extremities.
Alan Albert, his daughter Chelsea and their horse, Special, pulled up to the hospital at about 4:30 on this particular Wednesday afternoon. “Are you the colic?” asked Dr. Richard. “We’re the colic,” Albert replied. Special had not been feeling well for some time and the Albert’s drove him from their home near Agua Dulce for an exam.
“Someone will be right with you,” Albert was told, as he unloaded an unwilling Special from the trailer. Dr. Mike was Special’s vet this day.
They don’t always wait for the horse to come to them, however. The equine vet, quite apart from other physicians, still makes regular house calls. “It’s just easier this way,” Dr. Richard explained. “Horses aren’t easy to transport and a lot of my patients don’t need to come in.”
From Chatsworth to the east, Ojai to the west, Fillmore to the north and Malibu to the south, Drs. Richard, Mike and the staff make the rounds nearly every day.
A lot of what happens at the hospital has nothing to do with illness and everything to do with getting mares pregnant. It’s breeding season, a busy time for the Giacopuzzis.
The reason? Modern technology and the demand for horses to be bred at the most opportune time provides the hospital with much of its non-illness based business.
“House calls work for sick horses, but for breeding, it’s actually easier for us to have the horses here monitoring them,” said Dr. Richard. He runs a breeding program that is extraordinarily efficient, very high-tech and is done on the hospital premises.
“All of these horses,” he points to the paddock and several stalls within it, “are either pregnant or waiting to get that way.” One mare was 24 hours from birthing her foal.
How can Dr. Rich be so sure of the foal’s imminent arrival?
Simply, he said. “She’s starting to lactate and that indicates the foal is about ready to make an appearance.” One week later, I came back to the hospital and watched as the new colt prepared to stand up and nurse. It made several attempts but wasn’t succeeding on its own. The mother, a caring soul, turned herself around in the stall and nudged her young one to its feet, then prodded it to nurse. “Mares are terrific nurturers,” said Dr. Richard. “Their instinct is pretty clear. They’re just wonderful mothers.”
Receiving and shipping horse semen specimens from all over the world through cold storage and transport, Dr. Richard can pinpoint ovulation in a mare up to the minute at times. The result is a relatively successful breeding practice that allows for both collection and implantation of semen using the latest technology. It consumes most of his days this time of year.
Quite unceremoniously, Dr. Richard described the process: “Heidi,” he said, pointing out a red mare, “has been ovar-ectomized and she’s on estrogen every day of her life. She basically is in heat all the time. Her job is to make the boys feel important and then we get the horse on the phantom, collect the semen, bring it into the lab in the hospital, prep it for shipping and Fed Ex picks it up. The next day, the mare, wherever it is, is implanted. It’s not sexy, but it works, and according to Dr. Richard, “It has absolutely revolutionized horse breeding.”
“Generally, if a horse gets pregnant by Feb. 15, the foal will be born in January of the following year,” Dr. Richard continued. “But breeding season goes from February all the way through June and sometimes even into the fall.”
A walk through the “ward,” as Dr. Richard refers to it, reveals various maladies. One horse was brought in with pneumonia and diarrhea, for which the staff was attempting to keep him from becoming dehydrated.
A mare had given birth to a foal that had a rare type of blood disease that resulted in slight brain damage to the colt, just enough so that it would not nurse properly. So, mother and daughter were stabled together until the youngster could begin to take nourishment. Dr. Richard revealed the prognosis was good.
Outside in the paddock, Dr. Richard introduced me to a pair of horses that had been named after him. He was involved with the elder horse’s birth and now she was in the hospital with, of all things, a broken nose caused by a run through a fence. Ricarda, as she was known, had her colt with her as it was too young to be left alone. Rica stood proudly by her mom while Dr. Richard stroked her mane.
Special, the horse that had the colic was examined by Dr. Mike in the ward and found to have a brand of colic known as impaction or in laymen’s terms, constipation. “A lot of times you’ll get situations where the consistency is just like play dough, the impaction is so bad.” Special was registered and put into the ward with a prescription of intravenous fluids and oil to, how does one say it, force the situation. Special was boarded for a few days, but returned home, “doing beautifully” according to the Alberts, on Saturday.
Horse medicine can be expensive and while the care is high tech and top notch, there are no payment plans at the hospital. “Roughly 30-35 percent of our owners have health insurance for their horses,” said Dr. Mike. “It’s actually a pretty good deal and we recommend it to people.” But don’t ask your local auto insurance agent for the coverage, they probably won’t carry it. “There are about four companies that do it, mostly back east,” explained Dr. Richard. “It’s a good bargain if your horse is worth something. There’s major medical and mortality insurance.” Mortality insurance is essentially life insurance for horses and generally, it’s not necessary unless the animal is an investment or a profit maker.
If there is no insurance, however, then the bill comes due quickly. Office manager Marsha said she accepts all the credit cards, checks and of course, cash. And horse medicine is not cheap. An ordinary colic case can cost anywhere from a few hundred to $5,000.00 or even more depending on treatment, boarding or surgery.
When there’s an illness or an emergency and the hospital is 60 miles from home, nerves can be frayed and stress can be high. “A lot of times, we’re dealing with the people more than the horse,” said office manager Marsha. “Sometimes the doctor is already planning what to do with the animal, but the owner isn’t really there yet, you know?” It takes a bit of finessing to get people comfortable.” Good medical care is hard to find these days, but not in Ventura County, at least for your horse. It’s just up Donlon Road off the 118 in Somis—24 hours a day.