I’m writing this review of Willow Oak Equine to both describe my pre-purchase exam experience and review the clinic, which I was (spoiler alert) favorably impressed with. Everyone reading my blog probably has some kind of experience with a PPE — if not, enjoy the description! — but a lot went on while we were at Willow Oak that contributed to my appreciation of the clinic as a whole.
Last week, I took my lease horse Murray into Willow Oak Equine Clinic in Woodland, CA, for a pre-purchase exam with Dr. Linda Harrison. While the appointment originally just started as me and my friend M getting PPEs done on “our” horses, we ended up adding three other horses to our appointment as well. A needed his hocks injected, L needed an os-fos injection, and D needed a leg ultrasound. The first thing that impressed me was Linda’s flexibility in fitting us all in — it made it easier on us and her — and how well she took care of us when we arrived. Willow Oak is a small clinic with some stalls for overnight patients, and Linda had five clean, freshly bedded stalls awaiting us upon arrival, so that our horses didn’t have to spend their time standing tied to the trailer.
Linda knows my trainer well and has come out to our barn many times to do field exams, so after she showed us around and we gushed over the adorable cow twins in the field near our stalls, we got to work. Linda had scheduled the day so that the quick appointments would be first and the pre-purchases last. Since two horses (R and I) needed ultrasound services, Linda’s partner in the practice, Dr. Lisa Wallace, would be arriving in an hour to do the ultrasounds. First, Linda gave the os-fos treatment, so we could monitor the horse for possible discomfort or colic while we did the other appointments, and then she started scrubbing A for his hock injections.
While she scrubbed, Linda’s assistant arrived to help and got to work scrubbing A as well. I had never seen joint injections done, and will admit I was a little disappointed by them. A little sedative, a lot of scrubbing, and four quick shots later and they were all finished! So much build up for such a (seemingly little) thing. I really appreciated how quickly and quietly Linda moved around the sedated horse to get his injections done, and how well she and her assistant (okay, he’s also her husband and clinic co-owner) worked as a team.
Once A was done and put away in a nearby stall for monitoring, it was time for my PPE. The other horse in our party getting a PPE needed his ultrasound done first, as if the ultrasound showed problems we wouldn’t move forward with any other exams, and so Murray had the great delight of going first. Linda started by asking me, the buyer, a series of questions about Murray, about his basic information (age, breed), training history (how long have you known him? how long has he been in training? tell me all about his history to date.), medical history (up to date on shots and teeth? any colic episodes? lameness? other medical treatments?), and finally about his behavior. When Linda asked me if Murray had any bad habits I burst out laughing and said “Where do you want me to start?”
Linda commented on how good it was that I’ve had a chance to get to know Murray before doing my PPE, as it can be really hard to evaluate a horse when you know nothing about his training history, behavioral history, etc. She noted that he has “bad habits, but the buyer is aware of them” on her PPE report.
Then we moved on to basic physiological measures. Linda took Murray’s temperature (which he objected to shockingly little) and tried to listen to his heart rate (ausculation! I learned a new word!). This was where Murray’s bad habits kicked in (nooo don’t touch me with that shiny thing, I will just side pass away from you!) and my barn manager took over holding him from me, as I was fairly useless at that point. BM took Murray for a little reminder discipline trip down the driveway, and Murray suddenly remembered that he does, in fact, know how to stand still for a stethoscope. Linda listened to his heart and gut sounds on both sides.
Then we moved on to hoof testers. With BM still holding Murray (she would do the entire PPE for me actually), Linda used what I think looks like a medieval torture device to squeeze Murray’s feet all around the circumference of the hoof and the frog. When she got no reaction from him at all, Linda commented on it — usually, evidently, she gets some kind of reaction on the hoof testers, but Murray remained serene. I assured her that he was not stoic at all, so if anything was going to show up, he would let us know. I also told Linda that I wanted to do front hoof x-rays regardless of what showed up, as Murray has a krazy foot and I wanted to know what was going on in there, but also wanted to do radiographs of anything that concerned her during the rest of the exam.
Around this time, Linda’s husband answered a phone call from a worried horse owner regarding a possible emergency, and Butch warned us that an emergency would be coming in shortly. Linda proceeded with flexions, and talked to me about what she was seeing/hearing/feeling as she did so. The only thing that turned up, evidently, was a little stiffness during the flexion itself of Murray’s hind legs, but which didn’t show when he trotted out. Yay more good progress!
During the flexions, Dr. Lisa Wallace arrived for her ultrasound appointments and started getting things set up inside. I didn’t get to watch any of the imaging, unfortunately, so can’t really comment on it, but I did hear a bit of the results delivery, which I will talk about later.
After flexions, we put Murray on the lunge on a soft surface and a hard surface. Linda had us change his direction a few times on the soft surface, and I saw nothing, and neither did she. On the hard surface — the gravelled drive, not the paved driveway — Linda commented on a slight head-bob that was showing up irregularly as Murray tracked right. We changed directions here as well, and it was odd and inconsistent. There was nothing for a bunch of steps, and then 2-3 steps with a tiny bob, and then nothing again. Linda asked me if I’d ever experienced him being foot-sore after cross country, and I replied that I thought he’d been stiff after XC before but had always thought he was more stiff behind than up front. She commented that this was something to keep an eye on, but it didn’t overly concern her. As we were finishing up lunging on the hard ground, the trailer another trailer pulled in, and Linda asked me to wait with Murray for a few minutes while she evaluated the situation.
This was, to be honest, one part of the whole day that really impressed me. Butch opened the trailer door and immediately mobilized to get the horse into the main barn. Linda met them in a clean stall, and started working immediately — it was clearly an emergency that required action right then. However, Linda didn’t forget that I was standing outside either, and sent the intern out to tell me that she would be a while and that I should put Murray away in his stall and we would get back to his x-rays later.
Even though my appointment was put on hold, I was really impressed with the professionalism with which everyone at Willow Oak handled the emergency. It was clear to me upon seeing the horse that this was a serious emergency, and I did not at all mind my x-rays being delayed. Linda moved really quickly to get treatment going, but never once seemed frazzled or panicked, and they handled the horse safely and quietly the entire time. I would completely trust her with my horse in an emergency.
While we waited for Linda to finish up with the emergency, I watched a little bit of the ultrasound of R and unfortunately, could immediately tell nothing good was going on here either. Dr. Wallace was explaining to my friend M that the suspensory tear she had found was quite severe. M asked all the right questions — could this have happened after he came off the track? what is recommended time off and rehab? what is his prognosis for competing — and Dr. Wallace answered them thoroughly and well. I was pretty devastated for M, and obviously she didn’t go forward with the PPE after that.
Before we got back to Murray, Dr. Wallace started the second ultrasound, on D, and started off by asking the owner what her concerns were, what needed imaging, and what the horse’s history was like. I never got to see the whole appointment, but both the people who had ultrasounds done felt like Dr. Wallace did a thorough job with both history and ultrasound.
Finally it was time for Murray’s x-rays. I suggested to Linda that we give him a little sedation since I didn’t know if Murray would be able to keep his foot still on the plate, and I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time if he moved around during the radiographs. Linda was happy to comply, and I think it was the right choice — I could totally see Murray moving his foot JUST as we tried to take the image, just like how I always seem to blink right as I hear the shutter go off. Linda pulled Murray’s shoes, packed his feet with play-doh (to eliminate the visibility of the air between frog and sole in the images) and we got right to it. I opted to have all five views taken for good record keeping.
Beautiful, fairly-normal foot!
We started with the krazy foot, and Linda explained to me what was going on the entire time. She answered my questions about the weird black streaking in the coffin bone (it’s blood supply!) and exclaimed happily over the state of Murray’s navicular bones. Linda also took some time to show me the bones she was talking about on the foot model, and calm my fears about osteoarthritis and ringbone (fears, y’all, they are real). Linda did mention that if I didn’t have a long working history with this horse, she would recommend against buying him — an honesty that I appreciated. That Linda also considered Murray’s working history in his evaluation was important to me (how often does he work? what is his intended use? what level has he been working at so far?), and I think a valuable part of the exam. Thus ended the successful PPE.
Overall, my experience at Willow Oak was overwhelmingly positive. Despite the bad things that happened and the emergency, Linda took time to make sure every horse she saw was comfortable and happy, explained post-op care very well to those who needed it, and provided a quiet, comfortable environment for our horses to wait in during our hours there. If you’re considering using Willow Oak, I definitely recommend it!!