Holding his horses

Feisty mobile vet makes his rounds to Butte County’s equine population

EQUINE AMITY <br>Dr. Jim Edwards delivers dozens of horses each spring. He’s been a veterinarian for 39 years and was born in Durham.

Dr. Jim Edwards delivers dozens of horses each spring. He’s been a veterinarian for 39 years and was born in Durham.

Photo by Tom Angel

Horse sense: The vast majority of horses are born between the quiet hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., when the mare giving birth feels it’s the safest for her new foal.

Walking slowly toward the nervous mare, Dr. Jim Edwards holds out his hand, clicks his tongue and talks softly to this 1,000-pound animal like she’s a toddler about to have a tantrum.

The mare gave birth just four hours ago, and her foal stands on wobbly legs behind her. She’s not pleased that Dr. Edwards has entered her quiet birthing stall, and her sudden jerk, snort and whinny let him know it.

“Whoa, there,” Edwards says, as she takes a couple of trots around him, getting increasingly upset about his presence. “You’re all right.”

Just as I notice that the stall door isn’t latched and this protective—and huge—momma horse could come hurling out toward me, Edwards grabs hold of a harness around her head and strokes her muzzle. The mare begins to calm down, and Edwards smiles as he looks up.

“See, you just have to speak in a monotone, let her know you’re not going to separate her from her baby,” he says, nudging the foal over to his other side. “And everything is fine.”

Although approaching a mare that’s just given birth is a notoriously dangerous practice, it’s a necessary part of Edwards’ job as a mobile veterinarian. When I ask him if he’s ever been kicked, he steps out of the stall (after examining the mare and her foal and declaring them to be in perfect health), laughs and replies, “You mean this week?”

Even those kicks—several in the head, a couple in the arm—haven’t dampened Edwards’ enthusiasm for his job. He’s been at it 39 years, and as we drive around north Chico to his next job with the mellow tunes of Harry Belafonte streaming from the radio in his big white truck, Edwards tells me all about the task of taking care of Butte County’s horses.

Edwards, who grew up in Durham, decided in sixth grade that he wanted to be a vet. His family had several cats, he said, and he wanted to be able to take care of them. They also had a horse that lived in their backyard, but early on it was the small animals that he loved the most.

So, after graduating from Durham High School in 1959, Edwards managed to get a coveted spot at UC Davis’ pre-veterinary school. Two years later, he got an even more coveted spot in the university’s well-respected veterinary school. School, he said, went fast, and by the time he was 24 years old he’d earned his degree in veterinary medicine.

He moved back to the Chico area right away, and with his wife—whom he’d met in second grade—bought a house near Durham. He got a job working in Dr. Hank Evers’ vet clinic, where he treated mainly small animals. Evers, Edwards said, treated most of the large animals that came to the clinic and made a few house calls.

But by 1966 more and more people started buying “ranchettes,” and the hottest trend was to stock them with farm animals. Edwards had developed a keen interest in farm animals, especially horses, from a talented clinician at UC Davis, and he said he saw an opportunity in the new trend.

“Before, it was only the wealthy who had horses, but when all the ranches started coming up, and everyone wanted a horse,” Edwards says, “I figured I’d go treat the horses.”

Edwards started his own vet practice—Chico Equine—in 1966. He’s been at it ever since.

Although he treats some beef cattle, 98 percent of his practice is horses. He charges $30 for a home visit and barely keeps up with the demand for his services. Edwards makes an average of 10 calls a day and spends about an hour at each site, he said. He’s on call 24 hours a day, and especially during the spring—when foals are born—he’s on the road a lot.

“Usually, I just see how many more hours of daylight I have,” Edwards says. “I’m always going.”

Like today, for example. Edwards started work early this morning and has already been to visit a mare that retained some of her afterbirth when she gave birth yesterday, euthanized a horse that was sick, and administered vaccinations to a third horse—all before lunch. He’s in a talkative mood as we drive toward his next call, to where the nervous mare has just give birth at Schumacher Farms. As he passes the farms out in north Chico on the way there, he points out some of his clients’ homes.

“There’s the Livingstons', and there’s Del’s place, and old Merle,” he says, waving his arm out his window. “I know a lot of people out here.”

After examining the mare and her foal, he finds the afterbirth sitting in a metal pail outside her stall. It looks rubbery, bloody and a bit gross to me, but he doesn’t miss a beat as he swings it onto the barn floor to make sure it’s intact and that none of it remains inside the mare.

He kneels as he stretches it out, looking for the uterine horns that will tell him if everything came out OK. He roots around in the bloody mass of what looks like a beaten-up liver and finds what he’s looking for. Everything, he says, is fine.

His hands are bloody from the demonstration, so he strides over to his truck and washes them with a hose he’s got installed in the bed.

He chats a bit with the horse’s owner, then gets back into the truck and prepares for the next visit. Harry Belafonte sings from the radio as we drive away. It’s a routine call, he says, just an exam and some vaccinations, but he seems excited even by that. This is, without a doubt, Edwards exults, the best job there is.

“Sometimes I even feel a little guilty calling this work," he says, smiling. "I mean, I get to go out and mess around with animals, take care of them, talk to their owners and be outside. What’s better than that?"