Taking a deeper look at horses

Juneau gets its first-ever equine X-ray machine

Posted: Thursday, September 22, 2005

Veterinarian Rachel Berngartt makes "barn calls" with a tie-dye-colored lead vest and a small yellow box that is Juneau's first horse X-ray machine.

She estimates about 200 horses are in Southeast Alaska. Occasionally, while stomping along on trails, backyards or indoor arenas, they hurt their legs.

"We have a machine now," Berngartt said. "If there is an injury we can do something about it."

After working in Fairbanks and other Alaska locations, Berngartt and her fiancé, Mike Dziuba, opened a Juneau practice in February, Bridge Veterinary Services, that focuses on large animals.

The portable device is standard for equine veterinarians elsewhere in the country. It's not practical to have one in her home office the size of the entire animal, she said.

When it comes to injuries, owners in Juneau are used to playing a guessing game, said Mark Fitzjarrald, who owns two horses.

"Horses are fragile animals," he said, adding that one could get hurt even riding in circles at Juneau's Swampy Acres indoor arena.

Berngartt also X-rays heads that show suspicious swelling. With a small plate no bigger than a manila envelope, she aims the machine at the infected spot and takes a picture.

The photographs are developed in a dark room at Aurora Chiropractic Center at the permission of Steven Messerschmidt, whose two daughters own horses.

The machine plus the gloves and the vests costs between $17,000 and $20,000. Berngartt will buy a portable ultrasound machine later this year.

Taking care of Southeast Alaska's horses is not enough to support a full-time practice, she said. She does it out of compassion. Berngartt works side jobs with the Gastineau Humane Society and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"Those 200 horses are really important to 200 owners," she said.

On one recent Friday night, Berngartt was picked up near her home on Douglas by floatplane and flown to Petersburg to sew up a horse that lacerated his face.

The horse clipped his head when raising his shoe.

"A lot of horse injuries are done by themselves," she said. Berngartt is checking on its progress by digital photos the owners e-mail to her office.

The demand for horses is here, though the city has run out of barn space to house them, Fitzjarrald said. His daughter Bonnie is active in a 4-H chapter that travels to Fairbanks, Palmer and Whitehorse for competitions.

"I'm more of a Western-style rider. That's what I do and that's what 'Charlie' does," she said about her horse. "He's too lazy to do anything else."

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com.

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