About three months ago before Thanksgiving, I noticed that Esperanza had an itchy place along her belly line, a few inches forward of her udder. She would point to it with her nose and lift her right hind leg up high in a kind of horse-yoga three-legged stool, patiently waiting for me to scratch her itch. Of course I complied. How could I resist when her directions were so clear? Besides, I was happy to be treated like a member of her herd.
But the itchy place started to swell and inflame and spread to a few places which oozed a clear pink liquid. Esperanza increased her requests that I scratch her, which I did, but clearly this problem was more troublesome than I thought. I called the vet, a young woman fresh out of vet school, freckled and muscled in her manure-stained jumpsuit. She poked around Esperanza’s abscess looking for pus and suggesting some diagnoses. Pigeon fever, otherwise known as dryland distemper, can present a line of abscesses along the belly line all the way to the chest, eventually making the chest swell and protrude like a pigeon, hence the name. But perhaps there was some foreign matter inside; maybe Esperanza rubbed up on something and got a splinter, which was now clearly infected. The young vet scrubbed the infection with betadine solution and left me with some, as well as a bottle of antibiotic powder to put in Esperanza’s feed. I dutifully scrubbed the abscesses every day and then smeared them with my homemade salve made from comfrey, calendula, lavender, golden seal, oils and beeswax.
When the abscess persisted and grew, I called the young vet a second time. She sedated Esperanza so she could scalpel the largest abscess and see what she could see. Not finding a magic splinter, she dosed Esperanza with a shot of intravenous antibiotics supplemented with another bottle of antibiotic powder in her grain, but this didn’t help. The abscesses would subside slightly, then worsen, and eventually the young vet stopped returning my calls. This was disconcerting. Did she think I was crying wolf? Or had she run out of ideas?
So I eventually called her father, by reputation a more seasoned and experienced vet. He took a good look and promptly scared the shit out of me when he said it could be cancer. I was so relieved when he retreated to a safer diagnosis that straddled pigeon fever and a foreign object. He sedated Esperanza, shot her up with strong antibiotics, and scalpeled her much more aggressively than his daughter had, which made Esperanza bleed for a long time. He assured me that the bleeding was a good thing, something that would cleanse the area. The antibiotics knocked the infection back for a few days and we thought we were out of the woods, but it came back again, this time swelling her right teat, so I called him out again, and again he shot her up with strong antibiotics. He thought we might have to lay Esperanza down in the field and really operate on her, but it never came to that. What DID happen, however, is that Esperanza learned to hate the sound of the his truck and fight us, me holding her head and him attempting to penetrate her vein, when it came to the needle. Not good to teach a 1000 pound animal that she can win those kinds of fights.
Then the bill came. Six hundred bucks. Shit.
So now, almost three months later, I have stopped calling the vet. I could almost hear Esperanza breathe out a big sigh of relief from her home out in the field. I started consulting my herb books. Not being a big fan of western medicine and its overuse of antibiotics (among many other things), I decided to treat her infection as I would treat my own.
The herb book I consulted, now happily back in print after being out of print for many years, has helped Henry and me innumerable times with maladies ranging from warts to fevers. It is Ten Essential Herbs by Lalitha Thomas, and I’ll bet you dollars to dimes that you have at least five of these common and inexpensive herbs in your kitchen right now: onion, garlic, ginger, peppermint, cayenne, cloves, slippery elm, yarrow, comfrey, and chaparral. In the index under abscess, it recommends a poultice made from chaparral tea.
Chaparral is a desert plant Henry and I are very familiar with because it grows all over the Mojave Desert near Darwin where we lived long ago. There, it’s known as the creosote bush, a spindly bush with very bitter, small, olive-green leaves that grows as if evenly spaced apart and offers only a sprinkling of shade to a resting jackrabbit or rattlesnake. We have collected the leaves, flowers and small twigs whenever we’ve traveled by car to California; freshly-collected herbs are usually far superior to store-bought.
So now, often three times a day, I bring my concoction of chaparral tea to a low boil and strain it into a container, put on my down vest against the chill and my boots against the mud, and head out to the pasture for a healing session with Esperanza. As soon as she spots me, she walks right over and stands rocky steady, gesturing with her head back towards her udder. Even if I’ve thrown hay to her and Cinnamon, Esperanza will stop eating, as if to better concentrate on the experience of the poultice.
When I approach her, I always ask her first: May I look? May I treat you? When I hear her silent assent, I wring out the washcloth and wait until it’s not too hot, then fold it and press it up onto her belly, right in front of her udder. There are two main places now, one almost directly in front of her udder that used to be swollen hard and dense, with no give at all, and one further along her belly that still drains clear pink liquid every now and then. The folded washcloth covers both these places easily. I press upward gently and firmly with my left hand, leaning my forehead against her flank. Sometimes I massage the area in small circles, holding the poultice in place. Sometimes Esperanza directs me with her nose, as if I’m missing a spot. “No, higher. No, lower. There, yes, right there.” Sometimes she lifts her right hind leg as if to make it easier for me to reach, and for her to point. When the rag cools off, I dip it in the hot tea again and fold it and apply it again. This goes on for several minutes until the tea is too cool, or until Cinnamon gets nosey and walks over and tips the tea bucket over, as if she wants to participate in the session as well. Most times I barely have a chance to thank Esperanza for her patience, to hold her head very briefly, before she knows the session is over. It’s like a trance is broken, and she moves off, or goes right back to munching hay.
Day by day, the infection is clearing, the swelling is subsiding. Are we out of the woods yet? It might be too soon to tell. I hope so. I’m sure Esperanza hopes so. Meanwhile, it’s after noon, time for me to bring the tea to a boil and head out to the field.
April 2014 update.
Esperanza’s infection is still present, pulsing every couple of days in a kind of ebb and flow. One day it appears to be subsiding, cooling off, drying up, but then the next it is hot to the touch, angry and oozing clear bloody liquid.
On the recommendation of an old friend of mine from Jaroso, a seasoned horsewoman and horse rescuer, I have added a honey salve after applying the tea poultice. To the honey I’ve added slippery elm, goldenseal and myrrh. In Thomas’s herb book it is called “people paste,” an all round healing salve. I figure if it’s good enough for people, it’s good enough for horses.
A young boy I know who can hear the thoughts of horses tells me that now, instead of occasional sharp pains, Esperanza reports a dull ache. Using a pendulum, the boy’s parents helped me ask Esperanza a series of questions: Do you want the vet to come back? The pendulum swung in the No direction. Do you want me to continue with the chaparral tea poultice? A decisive Yes. Do you want me to continue with the honey salve? Yes. Should I be worried? Yes and then No, which the boy’s parents interpreted as Maybe. If I continue with this treatment, the poultice and the salve, will the abscess eventually go away? Yes. The boy’s father gave Esperanza a Reiki treatment, to which she responded with deep breaths and the same kind of focused concentration she offers me when she and I have our healing sessions.
I often see her scratching herself out in the field. There are cattails reeds out in a low spot, and when she finds one the right height, she moves her belly back and forth over it in a kind of slow-motion “shake your booty” move. When she gets up from rolling on the ground, she lingers on the way up, sitting on her haunches like a dog, and then kind of scoogies her belly on the ground, back and forth, her lips pursed with obvious pleasure. Does she open up her wound because of these scratching sessions? Yes, but the swelling tells me the wound is not ready to close up yet; there’s still something in there that needs to come out.
I’m still applying the daily poultice of chaparral tea, now with yarrow, a natural antiseptic, as well. I’ve tried a Bentonite clay paste, and now a “black salve” that has pine tar in it, to help pull the infection out. We are definitely not out of the woods. But every other sign, her glossy coat, her bright eyes, her weight, her sprightliness, her spirit, tell me that on a fundamental level she is okay. More than okay.