Rebecca Barton of Westminster, a nurse, knows what to do when a person doesn't feel well. But when her "patient" is a horse, she doesn't know where to begin.
That's why she joined a group of Orange County horse enthusiasts enrolled in a course this month at Golden West College in Huntington Beach. Taught by Walter de la Brosse of Santa Anita race track, the seven-week horsemanship seminar is designed to familiarize both amateur and experienced horsemen with equine health practices and treatments.
"A horse can't tell you when he's sick or where it hurts, so you have to know what to look for," says Barton, a former horse owner. "Before I buy another horse, I want to learn first aid because injured animals need immediate treatment."
The problem is, too many well-meaning horse owners start the wrong treatment, says de la Brosse. In a recent class, he discussed the relative merits of banamine, a muscle relaxant and pain-killer often effective in treating colic. But when the drug is misused, he told the class, "you can lead your horse on a pleasant high--right into the autopsy room."
Alarmed by what he views as common misuse and overuse of equine medications--especially antibiotics--de la Brosse urges students to medicate their horses under the instruction of a professional. His course is designed to teach students when equine drugs are appropriate and when simpler remedies should be used.
Through a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on practice at local stables, students learn to recognize symptoms of equine illnesses. De la Brosse says his students learn to diagnose whether a horse is suffering from tying up, founder or colic--three potentially life-threatening ailments with similar symptoms.
"Most horsemanship classes just discuss these things. My class goes out and does them," de la Brosse says.
On a field trip last week to Pico Rivera Stable, his students gathered around the "village smithy" for a farrier science clinic. As the hot forge glowed, students watched the farrier trim and measure the horse's hoof, pound out the correct size show and nail it to the hoof. Some students helped measure the angle of the horse's hooves to determine balance; others watched the horse walk afterward to evaluate the shoeing job.
In a recent classroom lecture, de la Brosse told students: "You spend a lot of money on exercise and correct nutrition for your horse. You probably feed him corn oil for a nice, shiny coat. Then you take soap every weekend and wash the sheen right out of the horse."
Instead, he says, horses need just a good hosing off with water. He says many horse shampoos are too strong and have some of the same ingredients as carpet shampoo.
Fred Hunter of Irvine, who gave his daughter a horse for her 10th birthday in June, enrolled in the class to learn general horse care. "My only experience with horses has been one week every summer at a dude ranch," he says. "That's not enough when you have full responsibility for a horse of your own."
Cindee Seacrist of Westminster has owned two horses for the past 10 years. "But the more I learn, the more exciting horsemanship is to me," she says.
Other class members include Laura Jensen of Bellflower, who grew up riding horses in New Hampshire, and Jon Van Dellen of Fountain Valley, who owns two Western pleasure horses. He joined the class to meet other horsemen in the area and to learn proper methods of horse training.
Some professional horsemen and veterinarians have taken the course because of de la Brosse's expertise in equine nutrition. "I want people to learn that if they take care of their horse, he will take care of them," he says. "I've seen too many people spend lots of money to buy a horse and then have it go lame in a year. That's what the course is designed to prevent."
Darlene Sordillo, an author of two books on horse training, covers equestrian sports for The Times. Readers are invited to send horse-related news to her at: Orange County Life, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa 92626.