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Documenting life in the Horse emergency room

When freelance journalist Leslie Guttman set out to write about a year in the life of one of the world's premier equine veterinary clinics, she couldn't know the horse industry was about to be plunged into controversy over racehorse welfare.

But there she was, watching the 2008 Kentucky Derby with the veterinary staff at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, when one of their own, Dr. Larry Bramlage, told a national TV audience that second-place finisher Eight Belles had just been euthanized on the racetrack after breaking both front legs.

That moment set the stage for a year-long emotional roller coaster in her new book, Equine ER: A Year in the Life of An Equine Veterinary Hospital, released by Eclipse Press in August.

For Guttman, who grew up in Lexington, the stories of the vets and animals were as compelling as any competitive drama.

"It's a whole other subculture," she said. "It's a very sophisticated hospital medically. It's like being at the Mayo Clinic. ... It just happens to be horses instead of humans."

Despite the professional atmosphere, the work was often emotional. "Sometimes you see these very stoic, cowboy-like horse farm managers who were just distraught over a horse they couldn't save," Guttman said. "You just feel so humbled that people would open their lives like that."

The veterinarians and nurses also took failures hard, such as that of Piaff, a Dutch warmblood gelding who came to Lexington from Chicago with severe neurological symptoms.

"They tried to use interferon; they tried so many different options to save him. He was there for so long everyone got attached to him," she said. In the end, after weeks of treatment, the horse had to be euthanized.

"They take it very hard when they lose a horse," Guttman said.

Guttman said she hopes the book also captures how special Central Kentucky's horse culture is.

"I really wanted the book to be a postcard from the Bluegrass. ... It's so unique, and it's endangered."