Hanging out with a hero
If a basketball player got the opportunity to be coached by Michael Jordan, or a golfer got to play for days on end with Tiger Woods, that might be a bit how I felt getting to work up lameness cases with Dr. Terry Swanson in Littleton, Colorado, for a week.
Dr. Swanson’s clinic had asked me to come and do surgery while waiting for a new full-time surgeon to arrive. In between my duties for the job, I had time to work with Dr. Swanson and see how my method of working up a lame horse compared with that of one of my lifelong heroes.
Let me back up a bit.
When I was 15 years old and growing up with my grandfather, my horse Sadie Jane became lame. When we took her to the local vet, he said she had navicular disease and there was nothing he could do to make her better. I had known this vet all my life and he could see that the news about Sadie broke my heart.
He told me he knew of a veterinarian in Colorado named Dr. Swanson who may be able to do something for her. I looked over at Pappaw, hoping that he’d say, “You bet, let’s go,” but he had that look on his face that I had seen a hundred times in my life. It was the look of reality that I wasn’t going to like.
“That’s 10 hours from here, Bo,” he started out. “We have too much work to do to take a crippled horse to a vet so far away. And besides, it would cost too much. Vets with a name that big can’t be cheap.”
So that was that, but I never forgot Dr. Swanson’s name or the town he lived in. I wondered what he did that was so much better than anything we had around home. What made him special with horse lameness?
Time passed and Sadie never got any better, just like the local veterinarian had predicted. I grew up and went off to college and then vet school, and still I never forgot about the expert in Littleton, Colorado. He had done something so outstanding with horse lameness that my local vet looked up to him, and I wanted to find out what it was.
Well, I found out just a few weeks ago, and Dr. Swanson never even knew that this snotty-nosed vet from Texas had been watching him from afar for decades. I stood right next to him as the first lame horse trotted off. The horse had his full attention for the next few hours while I observed him piecing together the clues it takes to diagnose and treat a lame horse.
I have always considered myself a keen observer of human nature, and it only took a few minutes for me to figure out why this man is a legend. Yes, he is very smart. Yes, he can really see even a tiny lameness. Yes, he has the most detailed and structured way of working up a horse I have ever seen. And, yes, he is incredibly skilled as a practitioner.
But the reason Terry Swanson is known around the world as a great veterinarian is because he is incredibly humble, amazingly attentive when people speak to him, interested in his clients and students, kind to the animals he is caring for, and loves what he is lucky enough to get to do every day, even at the age of 74.
He would ask me questions about the lame horse we were looking at, and, not only would he ask, he would actually listen to what I said and sometimes even thought it was a good idea. I couldn’t have been more flattered than to have the only man who could have fixed my Sadie Jane 38 years ago ask me questions about what I saw on a lame horse.
All of the people at Littleton Equine Clinic were incredibly nice to me. I feel honored to have spent a week there working with some of the best equine practitioners in the world. But spending a week in the shadow of Dr. Swanson was as good as it gets. I just wish Pappaw were still here to see it all unfold. I would have made him drive 10 hours with me and spend a week at the only place that might could have fixed ol’ Sadie.