I was the first veterinarian to reside and to practice in the Conejo Valley of Southern California. Sparsely populated by people, it had an enormous animal population. Thousands of beef cattle grazed the valley back then. The ranchers, of course, had many horses and there were also several horse ranches, mainly breeding and training racehorses. The only other industries at the time were a couple of dog boarding kennels and an extreme wild animal industry, which included a large private zoo supplying animals to Hollywood for movie and TV productions.
If you’d like to read about my practice adventures, get my book, Yes, We Treat Aardvarks.
Because I was the only local veterinarian (the Valley didn’t yet have a resident physician or a dentist), I was busy from day one.
But, this article is not about my patients. It’s about a few of my clients. Because of the area’s proximity to Los Angeles County, a number of Hollywood celebrities purchased ranches in and around the Conejo Valley. Now, I am not, and was not at that time, a celebrity fan. Even today, I don’t recognize the names of the very popular entertainment celebrities. Moreover, not all of them are nice people. There were a few who had ranches in my practice area who really weren’t qualified to own cattle, or horses, and most did not pay their bills on time. This problem (for me) may have been due to arrogance, but it was also due to the policy most of these people had of relying upon an agent to handle their finances. Such agents did not hesitate to ignore bills for many months, or until the service provider complained.
There was, however, one kind of celebrity client I valued and enjoyed. These were The Cowboy Stars. The most prominent in movies and TV back then were Westerns, and quite a few of them had ranches in my area.
Now, when I say “Cowboy Stars” I don’t mean movie stars who played cowboy roles. Nearly all big name male stars did such roles even if rarely. The riding scenes often had to be faked, or skilled “extras” were substituted for the stars, many of whom were incompetent riders.
No, when I say “Cowboy Stars” I mean those movie actors who had come from an actual working cowboy background. Usually they had started their Hollywood careers as stuntmen, or horse wranglers and were recruited for screen roles by directors or producers who saw their potential.
Without exception every one of such Western movie stars were modest gentlemen whose fame and fortune did not erase their “salt of the earth” rural backgrounds. They were never imperious or demanding, were always respectful to me and my staff, and importantly, they paid their bills promptly.
The first of these people I met was Wild Bill Eliot. He was into cutting horses, and I did a lot of work for him. Soon after we moved to California from Arizona, my bride found work exercising cutting horses for a then prominent trainer, Dwight Stewart.
That’s how I came to meet Wild Bill Elliott.
The Cowboy Star I got to know best was Rex Allen. He grew up on an Arizona ranch and we had mutual acquaintances in that state. Rex had the best singing voice of all the Western stars. It was so good that I believe he had the potential, if he had been given the opportunity, to become an opera star.
Rex was, as I said, the “salt of the earth”. I remember driving into my animal hospital once at the end of a long day. The receptionist came out and said, “Rex Allen is on the phone. He has an emergency.”
I clearly remember the call.
“Doc? This is Rex! I’ve been trying to pull this damn calf all day and I can’t get it out. You better come on out.”
We had an internship program in our practice for 25 years. One year our intern was from Germany. Doctor Sabina Brüse went out on large animal calls with me on the final day of her one-year internship.
As we drove she mused, “It’s my last day and I wish that I had some souvenirs to take home.”
I asked what sort of souvenirs she had in mind.
“Oh” she said. “I’d like to have a rattlesnake skin. We don’t have rattlesnakes in Germany. And, I wish I had bought an album of authentic cowboy songs.”
This was first thing in the morning. Abruptly, the office called us on the radio.
“You have an emergency! A snakebite!”
An Arabian horse had been bitten on the nose.
After we treated the horse I asked the owner if he had killed the snake.
“Sure, and I skinned it. It’s only a baby, only a foot and a half long.” He took us into the barn and showed us the snakeskin, hanging up with eight others. Sabina’s eyes opened wide. I told the client what Sabina had told me only two hours earlier. He gladly gave her the snakeskin. She had one of her souvenirs.
We were on our way home after a busy day when the office called again. Rex Allen had a sick cow.
After we treated the cow I got an idea. Maybe Rex had an album I could buy for Sabina. I told him of her wish. He said, “Wait here!” Then he went into the house and came out with two identical albums, titled, Boney Kneed and Hairy Legged Cowboy Songs, by Rex Allen. These were hopefully going to be marketed,” he explained, “but they decided against it. I have several copies and I want you each to have one.”
Mission accomplished, and I still cherish that album.
Roy Rogers was arguably, the “King of the Cowboys”. He and his wife influenced an entire generation to grow up “good guys”. For several years he had a ranch in our area, and I treated his horses including the immortal Trigger. But, I dealt with his ranch manager and never saw Roy when I was at his place. Long after the Rogers moved elsewhere we visited The Roy Rogers Museum in Victorville, CA and, there he was, by coincidence, being interviewed by a TV crew. I spoke to him briefly; a very polite, unassuming, and pleasant man.
Slim Pickens made many Westerns, usually playing a secondary role to one of the big name stars.
Slim had an affinity for big rank horses. Back then tube worming was an everyday procedure for an equine practitioner. The modern parasite gels and pastes and today’s improved drugs had not yet been developed. So, while attempting to pass a stomach tube through the nostril of one of Slim’s geldings, the horse struck at me with both forelegs. He put a foot over each of my shoulders, but missed my face or skull. Close call! I never let that happen again.
I once wrote a movie script based on and starring one of my mules, “Jordass Jean”, who became a Western and English show champion and was eventually awarded The Mule Hall of Fame.
I wanted Slim Pickens to play the leading role as an old time mule trainer who takes a humble mule to a great mule show victory. I showed the script to Slim, and he was enthused. Sadly, Slim died shortly afterward, so the project never went any farther.
Ben Johnson was a lifelong cowboy who made his way from a horse wrangler, to a Western star, to an Academy Award winner for a non-Western role. A gracious gentleman, he epitomized the ultimate cowboy icon. Tall, handsome, courteous, honest, and dependable, he was liked and admired by all who knew him. He owned a ranch just a half-mile down the road from my home. Today it is a rural subdivision. For years I rode my horses and mules on his property. That is no longer possible.
There were a few movie stars that frequently played Western roles even though they didn’t grow up in a cowboy culture. Joel McCrea, for example, had a cattle ranch at one end of our valley. I realize that I am over using the word “gentleman”, but I can’t use a more appropriate term to describe these clients, and Joel McCrea was a true gentleman.
He was a Christian Scientist and did not approve of drug use, but I remember one exceptional case. I was doing rectal palpations on several mares in order to determine if they were in early pregnancy. The mares were examined in a chute. When I did this one mare her body heat seemed to be too high, so I stopped the examination and went to the other end of the chute to see her head. Her eyes were dull, her nose running with thick mucus, and the glands in her throat were swollen.
I took her temperature.
It was 103 degrees.
“She’s sick.” I told Joel.
“Yes, we know.” He said, “What do you suggest?”
“I’d pump her full of penicillin and hope the cause of her infection is a bug sensitive to penicillin.”
He looked down, paced back and forth for a couple of minutes, obviously in a dilemma. He was torn between his religious faith and his concern for the mare. Finally he said, “Okay! Go ahead and give her the penicillin.”
Happily the mare recovered nicely and she was pregnant and eventually delivered a nice foal.
Ronald Reagan wasn’t from a cowboy background but he successfully played many Western roles before he went into politics. I made many calls to his ranch, which is now a state park, but I dealt only with his ranch manager, a very nice man from Lithuania.
Twice I saw Reagan riding while I was on the ranch. He rode English. An excellent horseman, he easily went through a jump course. I regret that I did not ask to formally meet him, but I did not want to act like a star-struck movie fan, especially when I was there on a professional call. Of course I had no idea that he would become a popular governor of California, and then President of the United States.
Another very successful actor who owned a ranch near us was Tom Selleck. Although not from a working cowboy background, he has very realistically portrayed cowboys in his motion picture roles. Like all of the Western actors I have mentioned, I found him to be a very courteous man, entirely devoid of the attention seeking behavior so common in super stars.
Jack Elam played secondary “bad guy” roles for most of his Hollywood career, mostly in Westerns. Tall, with what can be considered a “cruel” face, one of his eyes looked off to the side causing a scary effect. His wife had a horse that was my patient, and a bill for services went unpaid for several months. I learned that a personal confrontation was more effective than turning the bill over to a collection agency.
So, when I had to attend a veterinary conference close to where the Elam’s live, I decided to go early enough to stop by their home to find out why the bill had not been paid.
At this time there were four veterinarians in our practice. Doctor Bob Kind stayed home to cover emergencies, and Doctors Rich and Simpson and I went to the meeting.
When I stopped at the Elam house, Doctor Simpson said, “I’m going with you. I need to learn how this is done.”
Doctor Rich said, “Me too. I need to see this.”
Please understand that, at this point, I had no idea who Mr. Elam was. I had simply treated a horse at a boarding stable, and the subsequent bills had been ignored.
With my two associates on either side of me I rang the doorbell. All three of us were of medium height. A most imposing and intimidating man answered the door. He was huge and his face was terrifying, one reason for his success in the film industry.
I introduced myself, explained that we were on our way to a veterinary conference and showed him a copy of the unpaid bill.
Mr. Elam said, “And who are these two guys, your bodyguards?”
I hastily introduced my two associates, and Mr. Elam said, “Come in please.”
We entered the house. The walls were covered with a collection of guns. The owner took a checkbook out of a drawer and silently wrote it out.
Then he handed it to me saying, unforgettably, “Doctor, I deeply apologize that you had to inconvenience yourself this way. Somebody erred and I will make sure that it never happens again. I know that my wife loves her horse and is very grateful for your services. Again, please accept my apology. This should not have happened.” He was, like all of the Western clients I have described, a very gracious gentleman.
When the three of us got back in the car, Doctor Simpson said, “Miller, you have more guts than anybody I know. When that door opened and I saw that face and those guns all over the wall I wanted to run away. The only reason we stood there was because you held your ground.”
“Are you kidding?” I responded. “When that door opened the only reason I didn’t break and run was because you guys stood still beside me.”
In addition to the big name stars I have mentioned, many of our clients were stuntmen or stuntwomen, or bit players, or horse wranglers. I think they liked the income Hollywood provided, but wanted to live in a more rural and non-urbanized society. Nearly all were decent people, interesting to know, and dedicated to an often demanding career.
The only horse that ever put me in the hospital was one of Buddy Ebsen’s foals. His daughter, Kathy called me. The Ebsen’s were regular clients and the family all lived on a ranch not far from Thousand Oaks, where I resided.
Kathy Ebsen said they had a half dozen foals ready for vaccination and worming.
“They are all halter broke and gentle,” she said.
“Except for one. We’ve never been able to catch him, he’s so wild.” Her dad usually played Western “old-timer” roles.
Mr. Ebsen was not at home. He had, as I recall, three daughters and a son. Kathy kind of managed the horses, and still does to this day, so many years later.
I decided to do the difficult foal first. His mother, an older mare, was tied to the fence in a training arena. When I entered, the foal stampeded around the arena. I loved to rope, so I got my lariat and asked my assistant to follow the foal so it would run clockwise around the arena. It ran at top speed along the fence and as it passed me I proudly caught it around the neck. It instantly turned and ran directly towards me. I waved my arms to divert it but it slammed into me and knocked me to the ground. But we still had a noose around its neck, so we were able to restrain it and worm and vaccinate it.
Then we did the other five gentle foals. By then my left knee was hurting and the next day I learned that the anterior cruciate ligament had ruptured. That put me in the hospital for surgery.
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