THE surgical staff flutter around their anaesthetised patient. A large ventilator hisses in time with the patient’s breathing. A heart monitor beeps. The team talk matter-of-factly about different aspects of their subject’s status.

The only other sound is the slightly incongruous beat of pop music playing from a distant radio, but really this could be the scene in any surgical theatre during an operation.

But this patient is 10ft long and weighs half a tonne. The endotracheal tube helping them breath is clamped between inch-long teeth. They had to be winched into place along the ceiling, and now they’re unconscious, on their back, with large inflatable pillows stopping them from rolling over.

This is the first time I’ve witnessed equine surgery and it’s quite extraordinary: the size of the beast, the sight of it lying prone under blue sheets, tongue lolling and eyelids twitching sleepily, its vitals being monitored by an array of machines.

To the surgical team - surgeon, anaesthesiologist, vet interns and vet nurses - it’s less extraordinary, of course. This is what they do. The operation is, to my eyes, a relatively minor one; the horse has had an unspecified accident in its field and now has ligament damage in its hock, and a splinter of bone which requires removal.

The offending leg is raised up by rope. The surgeon, Jonathan Anderson, goes in through a keyhole incision. He threads a tiny camera into the leg. A small video screen mounted over the surgical table shows the problem almost immediately.

About 80 per cent of patients at Rainbow Equine Hospital, based in an old farmhouse on the outskirts of Malton, are admitted due to issues related to lameness. But whatever condition the horses come in with, the chances are it can be treated here. The hospital has been quietly evolving for 30 years and it’s now almost unique in the north of England.

It was founded in the 1980s by legends Bob Ordidge and Ieuan Pritchard in the very premises it still occupies. At the time it was a mixed ambulatory practice - Bob and Ieu would go out on the road each week to clients in Hull, as well as spending time at the clinic, working magic with basic facilities.

Lorraine Colgan, the practice manager who started in 1996, says: “When Bob first came here he tells stories of a barn with bales of straw, and operating on horses with chickens flying over his head.”

Now, a team of vets - headed by Ieu - still works on the road, travelling all over, with a large client base in East Yorkshire. But the clinic itself has gained hospital status and now offers a number of specialist treatments.

On our visit, we find the hospital bustling and warren-like. There’s large rooms on the ground floor where the equine patients are seen, outbuildings housing scanning equipment, a computer suite and a fully-stocked laboratory with microscopes, centrifuges, hormone analysers, biochemistry analysers, incubators and arrays of test-tubes and petri dishes.

Since the early days, there’s been a big growth in the number of people working there. “When I came there were four vets, two nurses and two office girls,” Lorraine says. “There was eight of us. Now there’s 54. But even so, we’ve kept the big family feel. We look out for each other.”

Ordidge and Pritchard, as it was known, became Rainbow Equine in the 1990s when a vet called Alistair Nelson joined and became partner.

Alistair, who died of a heart attack in 2009 aged just 46, was described by Bob as “the Einstein of the veterinary world”. A Cambridge graduate and expert in lameness diagnosis, he drove huge technological advancements, including designing the first-ever standing computerised tomography (CT) scanner for horses, removing the need for general anaesthesia.

His obituary still hangs in the hospital’s reception area.

We’re discussing his legacy when clinical director Jonathan Anderson breezes into the office. “Sorry, I had my head in a horse’s mouth,” he says cheerfully.

Jonathan joined in the early noughties. After some time doing surgery in the US he returned just after Alistair died. “This whole concept of CT is a massive deal in horses,” he says. “For us, to image a horse is everything. In the human world, if you had a broken bone or had something wrong in your head, an MRI or CT is just the next thing, it’s so easy. But with horses, because they’re so big, there’s no CT big enough. Alistair designed this way we could CT horses’ heads and legs.

“It really was amazing. He was the first guy to do it. And now the systems are all over the States, and they’re all over the UK. So that was a useful technology for us to develop.”

One key change at Rainbow over the last 30 years is how, just like in human medicine, everything is becoming more specialised. In diagnostics, there’s nuclear scintigraphy, CT, and, importantly, MRI.

“We use MRI for looking at horses’ feet,” Jonathan says. “About 80 per cent of lameness problems are in the foot. With an x-ray, all you can see in a horse’s foot is the bones - you can’t see all the soft tissues.

“A horse’s digits are compressed into one and the ligaments and tendons and muscles are all in the hoof. MRI transforms what we can do.”

The MRI at Rainbow Equine Hospital recently passed a landmark - 1,000 horses scanned. They undergo the non-invasive scan standing up. Rainbow is one of the few equine hospitals to have the equipment and a specialist radiologist on-site.

Another rare aspect of Rainbow is its lab. “With humans,” Jonathan says, “when a blood sample is taken it goes to a lab, gets run through a machine and then it gets sent to a clinician who interprets the data and then back to your doctor and after several weeks you get your results back.

“Rainbow has an independent lab so we get samples sent from all over the country. We’re the third biggest equine laboratory in the country. The other two are down south. There’s nothing else like it in the north.”

These capabilities all contribute to Rainbow’s offer to the equestrian community in Yorkshire and further afield. The reputation of the hospital and the staff who work here brings in customers from all over the country.

The day before our visit a show jumper had brought 12 horses down from Edinburgh. The size and location of the hospital also draws people, but the hospital relies on referrals by equine vets, with whom they maintain good relationships.

“We’re the largest equine hospital north of London, in terms of capacity. Malton is a great location. Ideally we’d be a bit closer to the A1, but it doesn’t matter. People come for the reputation and to see individuals. But we massively rely on good relationships with other equine practices.”

The hospital is a big operation. Over the years, from the days where Bob and Ieu did everything, everything’s become more specialised, mimicking what’s happening in human medicine. There are surgical specialists, medical specialists, dental specialists, a radiographer, anaesthesiologists.

Jonathan adds: “But then to support all that you need this ground support of excellent staff. It’s a massive team effort. We’re a speciality hospital that does everything from a pony that comes in with a sore foot to surgery on a horse to fuse its spine. It’s the whole gamut. Just like any human hospital. The point being that you come here and don’t need to go anywhere else.

“Everything is about training and specialism now, which is a good thing. It’s just like the human field.”

“But more difficult?” Lorraine suggests. “Because a horse can’t tell you where it hurts.”