I started Night Watch in California after working for a similar service on the Arizona show circuit. At first, the purpose was to take care of emergencies, but over the years it evolved into much more -- anything and everything it takes for the horses' comfort and safety. For example, we take many preventative measures, such as tying up hay nets so horses won't entangle a leg and injure it.
I oversee 60 to 100 horses a night at about 30 California shows a year. At the Indio shows, with helpers, I take care of 300 horses a night. Two-thirds of the clients use my service all the time, so I know their horses.
At first, I though something was wrong when I saw horses sleeping, lying flat out, eyes completely closed, for two or three hours. This isn't what equine science classes teach, but I've found that if horses are undisturbed and comfortable enough, they do sleep deeply. I also see them in REM sleep, with the rapid eye movement and twitching legs.
Horses' sleeping habits are as varied as our own. Some make nests, spinning and pawing to arrange the bedding just so. Others always sleep on the same side of their bodies, and most assume the same position every time they sleep, no matter where they are. I see horses who use banked shavings as their pillows. A few lie with their noses right by the door.
The best sleeper I've ever seen was a grand-prix horse who snored so loudly, I could hear him two or three barns away. When he'd been down 15 or 20 minutes, the horses in adjacent stalls would lie down too. He'd sleep about four hours a night, and his snoring would put everyone else to sleep.
My job would be easy if horses all slept through the night, but that is when signs of illness usually show up, after the activity and distractions of the day are over. Just like sick people, horses feel worse at night. Each year, Night Watch saves about a dozen horses who need surgery after the lights go out. About 50 others require veterinary attention.
We've all been taught the classic signs of colic, but the diverse reactions I've observed would be a valuable lesson for any veterinary student. Horses have different pain tolerances. Some of them can be surgical cases and still not exhibit signs of serious discomfort; other have mild gas colics and act as if they're going to die. We've also been taught that if a horse passes manure, it's not a serious colic, but it really depends on where the impaction is. I've had horses pass manure and be in surgery an hours later.
Horses can colic very quietly. I came upon one horse standing in a natural position, but his breathing was strange. When I checked him, his vital signs were all over the place. He needed surgery. I've learned to read the signs -- behavior, attitude, posture, the condition of the stall. I've particularly noticed that horses purse their lips when they're colicky, the equivalent of a person clamping his jaws.
Horses know when you're trying to help and say thanks in their own way. One night, I found a horse standing on his blanket, which was over his head so he couldn't see or move. When I freed him, he breathed the sigh of relief I've heard so many times and he licked my hair. It was his way of saying thanks. After I get a cast horse up, even if it's not one on my service, nine times out of 10 he will smell me from shoes to head. My coat, of course, has stable smells, so it's probably comforting.
The next time I come by, he'll want to smell me all over again. One mare nickers whenever she sees me. When I got her back on her feet after she was cast one night, she gave a soft, personal nicker, the kind you hear in a barn when a foal is born.
This article originally appeared in EQUUS in April 1996.