Oct. 24, 2022
Story and photos by Jens Odegaard

The last horse is waking up. The day’s dust, kicked up by horse hooves and leather boots, filters the golden rays of a hot October afternoon. 

Warm Springs Rodeo Ground sits on an arid rimrock plateau above the confluence of Shitike Creek and the Deschutes River in Central Oregon. The foothills of the Cascade Range rise to the north and west. 

Johnny Smith (left) is changing his cowboy boots for a pair of Nike runners. It’s been a long day with no clouds and temperatures hovering just below 90 degrees. 

Twenty-six horses (mostly colts with a few full-blown stallions) passed through Smith’s hands. He and his fellow horse handlers of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Branch of Natural Resources sent them through the squeeze chute to be anesthetized and then out into the open corral where their legs were tied and secured by thick, soft cotton ropes. Smith was working with his brother Leander Smith Sr. (behind Johnny in photo), Joe Culps, Ricky Graybael and Jeremiah Blackwolf. The horses were palominos and paints. Buckskins and bays. A mixture of old Spanish mustangs and crossbred ranch stock that’s been turned loose on the reservation over the years. 

“It was all good feelings today. Good medicine today. The four-leggeds brought us together,” Johnny Smith says. “We worked all together, and there was no friction or anything.”

All Together 

Before the sun peaked over Mt. Jefferson and Three-Fingered Jack in the Cascades due east of Corvallis, Oregon and started to warm the turning-brown grass fields of the central Willamette Valley, more than 23 veterinary students, faculty veterinarians and veterinary support staff loaded into Oregon State University passenger vans to volunteer their Saturday.  

Pulling out of the parking lot of the Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine, they headed for Warm Springs with medical boxes full of anesthesia drugs and surgical packs. 

Around 9:30 a.m. they pulled into one of the rodeo ground’s stock pens serving as a parking lot. They were met by some CCVM alumni that practice in the area, who also volunteered to help out. Ringleading the group was Dr. Kate Schoenhals, rural veterinary practice clinician at the CCVM.

“It's a great learning experience and opportunity for the students,” Schoenhals says. “They get exposed to a population of horses and a community that we don't get day-to-day exposure to at the vet school.

Heading up the logistics from the Warm Springs side is Suzi Miller, a rangeland management specialist on the reservation. “Today we're doing a castration clinic for horses. We've been doing this in collaboration with OSU and OSU vet students for as long as I've been here. And I've been here for about 12 years,” Miller says. “We do it annually, and hopefully we can start doing it twice a year. It's been a great relationship that we've had with OSU, and we really appreciate the the vet school doing this for us.”

Fewer Horses, More Resources

There’s a glut of horses on the reservation. Some of them are owned by tribal members, but there is also a substantial wild horse herd. One of the natural resources branch’s main focuses is the Horse Herd Reduction Program. According to the branch website, the program “was created to ensure that the horse populations are balanced with resources.” 

Too many horses damage ecosystems through overgrazing, soil erosion, decreased water quality and consumption of resources that wildlife like elk, deer and birds rely on. Too many horses also mean herds with generally poorer health as they overpopulate the landscape. 

The castration clinic is one tool in the herd reduction strategy. “We have lots of horses, and the reservation is considered an underserved community. So we have lots of horse owners who maybe can't afford to have the castration done for themselves. It's a great opportunity for us to help individual tribal members get their horses castrated,” Miller says. “Also we use it in conjunction with our wild horse program to try to reduce the numbers of horses out there.” 

“We get to provide a service for the community,” Schoenhals adds. “We get the practice and the benefit of learning on the horses and also providing the horses free veterinary care that includes appropriate pain management, anesthesia and surgical technique. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Dr. Charles Estill, Dr. Kate Schoenhals and veterinary assistant Christopher Holland prepare the anesthesia shots.

A stallion awaits his turn.

Dr. Charles Estill administers an anesthesia shot while a horse owner looks on.

Cut The Herd

Castrating a horse, when all goes smoothly, only takes about 15 minutes from start to finish. Run the horse into a squeeze chute. Give it a couple of smooth injections of anesthesia drugs while it’s secure. Open the chute and turn it loose before the drugs fully go into effect. Watch the horse wobble and wooze before temporarily going "nighty night." Tie his legs securely to allow for appropriate patient positioning and crew safety. Then (sparing the gory details), a tactical removal of the testicles. Check for any bleeds and tie them off with a suture or two if needed. Finally, wait for the horse to wake up. 

Schoenhals, along with Dr. Charles Estill, professor of theriogenology, Dr. Lindsey Bohard, a 2017 CCVM graduate, and Dr. Kait Link, a research veterinarian at the University of Oregon, head up the four surgical teams. They provide guidance and assistance to the fourth-year veterinary students actually performing the procedures and monitoring the horses’ anesthesia. “I think it's pretty cool when the students make the right choice. You know, I'm not prompting them or directing them, but they'll say something, and it is in fact exactly what needs to happen,” Schoenhals says. “And the progression to that throughout the day is pretty cool.” 

Theriogenology resident Dr. Olivia Stricklin and visiting veterinary student Emily Johnston perform a castration while an unknown wrangler secures the horse.

Fourth-year veterinary student Gavin White starts a castration while Johnny Smith (left) and Joe Culps secure the legs.

Large animal fellow Dr. Julia Gaida performs a castration while Dr. Kait Link (center) advises. Fourth-year student Zoe Shelton takes notes while classmate Shelby Hubick observes.

Of course, a castration doesn’t always go perfectly smooth. 

Some of the wild horses being gelded are upwards of five and six years old. Their size and lack of human contact presents unique challenges that the students and their mentors have to face. “It's definitely more challenging working on horses that are not used to being handled by people,” Bohard says. “In this type of situation, we're gelding them when they're usually much older, much bigger than we would typically be doing in private practice. This presents challenges that we don't often have on the smaller guys. But as a student, especially, if you can do it in this setting, then you should have a lot more confidence doing it in smaller, more handleable animals down the road.” 

Marine Lugo, class of 2023, is one of the students benefiting from this experience. “We’ve castrated under controlled conditions in a surgical room where we have anesthesia running, we have dedicated anesthesia people and we have everyone super sterile in surgical attire. This is my first field castration,” Lugo says. “It’s a top-10 experience in vet school.”  

Speaking of this contrast between controlled operating room and real-world field work, classmate Hannah Grumbling (right) adds: “Instead of inhalant anesthesia, we're using injectable, and we are learning a lot about how to keep the anesthesia right for that. We're also learning to be adaptable with surgery techniques. If one thing isn't working, we've been switching to another at the direction of the doctors.”

Dr. John Schlipf, retired CCVM faculty member, runs anesthesia. Christopher Holland, CCVM veterinary assistant, and Becky Paasch, CCVM large animal client services representative, prepare the shots for Schlipf.  “To be able to come out here and castrate these horses and be involved with the field anesthesia, doing it where you don't have all the amenities that you do at the university, I think this is great opportunity for the students,” Schlipf says. “And I think it's also really wonderful that they can help out a community as well.” 

“I thoroughly enjoy being able to see the students have the opportunity to see real life in action, because you can't recreate this in a clinical setting.  I think it's a wonderful opportunity for the students to be able to come out and help Warm Springs people and horses. It’s pretty awe inspiring. Yeah, that's what it's all about,” Paasch adds. 

There are plans in place to come again next spring and make this a twice-a-year partnership. Schoenhals also hopes to provide additional preventative care options for horses at Warm Springs. 

“I wish this program could do more,” Culps said. “We're really happy for you guys to come be part of the tribe here and part of the program. Come back every year. Come back every spring time and fall time.” 

Settled Dust 
The crews load up. One clambering back into transit vans with the Oregon State University crest emblazoned on the side. The other into heavy-duty dually pickups with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Branch of Natural Resources logo on the doors.

They drive out of the stock pen at the rodeo grounds while the horse herd ambles – picking at the flakes of spread alfalfa on the dusty ground. 

“All the OSU college students and their professors and the natural resource employees and our supervisors — we all nailed it and we did good,” says Johnny Smith.

Leander Smith Sr. and brother Johnny Smith during a bit of downtime.

Horse wrangler Jeremiah Blackwolf takes a midday break.

Fourth-year vet students Abigail Drotzmann and Sierra Grubb walk away from the last castration of the day.