Written by: Doug Breen

Humourist Doug Breen reflects on horse diseases and their folksy names

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I have spent the past two weeks trying to move a kidney stone through my ureter. If you’ve never had a kidney stone, I recommend that you don’t bother with it. I’ve had five, and that’s only counting the ones that I had to go to the hospital for. What many people don’t realize about kidney stones is that it isn’t the actual stone that causes the pain. The stone causes a plug in the drain (like a happy meal toy in a bathtub), and the back pressure is what gets you. Unlike the bathtub, which has an overflow drain, the kidney just keeps building up pressure like an over inflated volleyball, until something gives. In modern times, what ‘gives’ is the doctor ‘giving’ me buckets of pain killers until they can schedule a procedure to blow up the stone with sonic waves. A hundred years ago, I’d have simply taken those pain killers and drank heavily, until the stone either moved to a spot that wasn’t plugging the drain, or my kidney exploded and I died.

While I was lying on the examination table yesterday, a thought occurred to me. I’ve been through this process before, I have a pretty good understanding of anatomy from my years at the University of Guelph, and I’m speaking (in both of our mother tongues) with a specialist in the field of Urology. And with all of those advantages, there was still a fair bit of confusion in our communication (partially due to those buckets of pain killers). How much more confusion is there when our equine partners are ill? The patient can’t use words to communicate what’s happening from their perspective and even among the two-legged participants, there are multiple folksy names for most ailments, along with the official Latin names.

I’ve always thought that the diseases of the horse world sound remarkably like they were invented by a turn of the century medicine show salesman – and maybe they were. We have diseases like strangles and thrush. Foot rot and founder. Colic and heaves. We really ought to use the more professional sounding medical terms. If I tell someone that I’m having a coronary thrombosis, that sounds a lot more impressive than knumbarm coldsweaty nopulseitis. And while heaves is a pretty accurate description of what’s happening, pulmonary distress sounds a lot more like you actually know what you’re talking about.

Police have figured this out, and speak a kind of impressive sounding bafflegab all the time. ‘I attended the residence at approximately 10:16 p.m. on the evening of the 23rd, and found the alleged perpetrator at the scene, and in possession of the missing goods, which have since been identified as individually baked sweet dessert consumables.’ Or, in other words: ‘I caught him with his hand in the cookie jar.’

Teachers do it too. Krista and I got called in to a ‘safety net’ with a bunch of our son’s elementary school teachers a few years back, because they were ‘concerned that Walker might stand in the way of his own success.’ There was talk of ‘deferred learning curves’ and ’emerging maturity.’ It took me half an hour to figure out that they were annoyed that he was ignoring them and flirting with the girls in his class. I found it less surprising than they did, but found their teacher-speak quite impressive. They could have saved a fair bit of time by simply saying, ‘Your kid’s being a pain, tell him to stop.’

And maybe that’s why horse diseases tend to have these common, almost folksy, names. The Queen of England and a cowboy from High River both know exactly what strangles are. A more precise veterinary vocabulary might actually get lost in translation. If the purpose of communication is to encode, transmit, and decode complex ideas, then it seems logical to do it in as simple a manner as possible. When we already have the disadvantage of not being able to use language to communicate with the equine patient, perhaps keeping it simple for all the humans around makes a lot of sense.

The whole ordeal has also made me realize how important it is to learn to communicate with our horses in as many non-verbal ways as possible when they are ill. Either that, or learn to communicate directly like Dr. Dolittle – and to be honest, I’m likely only about a half bucket of pain killers away from being able to do that. I’m pretty sure that I overheard my dog talking to one of the ponies about me today, and I wasn’t too pleased with what they were saying.