By Laura Crum
All of us who own horses have dealt with colic. At least, all of us who’ve owned more than a few horses and for more than a few years. Colic is relatively common in horses, and by far the likeliest cause of death. And yet some of us skate through many years of happy horse ownership without ever facing that dreaded situation—the horse who is about to die of colic. I was one of those someones until five years ago. At that time I lost my great horse, Flanigan, to colic. Surgery was out of the question for Flanigan, because he had the pre-existing condition of a diaphragmatic hernia, diagnosed a year previously. So the decision to euthanize him came fairly easily, though it caused me much grief.
The next five years passed without another serious colic. My son’s horse, Henry, a reliable, bomb-proof mount, much loved by us all, had a couple of mild colics that resolved easily with a little banamine. And then…
Several weeks ago Henry had another mild colic. I treated him, but the symptoms returned. I had the vet out. We oiled Henry up, gave him fluids, more painkillers. But the symptoms returned. Henry was never very painful. His heart rate stayed normal. His breathing wasn’t much elevated. He wasn’t ever sweaty or distressed. He was merely uncomfortable. He looked at his sides. He stood camped out. He wouldn’t eat his hay. He wanted to lie down.
We spent thirty-six hours (and two sleepless nights) treating Henry. We walked him, we kept him from rolling, we gave him banamine and fluids. Every time the drugs wore off the symptoms came back. I cannot describe how helpless and depressed I felt. Henry is my son’s beloved horse. I desperately wanted him to get better. But he didn’t.
Early Friday morning, Jan 30th, we hauled Henry to the closest equine center, convinced that despite the apparent mildness of his symptoms, something was seriously wrong. At the equine center, X-rays showed what they said was a large pocket of “gravel” in Henry’s large intestine. Surgery was recommended. I stared at Henry, who still looked calm and relatively normal. Was this really a horse who needed surgery? The surgery is both expensive and also a danger in itself. 20% of horses that go through it have serious complications. I had no idea what the right choice was. In the end I asked the surgeon to look me in the eye and tell me what I should do.
He took off his sunglasses, met my eyes (pretty tear-filled by now, I will admit), and said “If he was my kid’s horse I’d operate on him right now. I wouldn’t wait.”
“Okay,” I said. And I left Henry there for colic surgery.
Do any of you know exactly what colic surgery entails? I didn’t. I do now. The vets at the surgery center explained the process to me very carefully. After lying the horse down, they open his belly, making an incision from belly button to near the sheath (in a gelding). Man, it’s a long cut.. Then they take the large intestine out of the horse’s body, drag it several feet away and open it up (This is to avoid contaminating the body cavity and the subsequent risk of peritonitis). In Henry’s case they found a section full of one gallon of black sand and small enteroliths (these are stones the horse makes in his gut—they looked like river rocks) ranging from two inches to one quarter inch in diameter. This is what they expected to find. But in the course of cleaning Henry’s large intestine out, they found another stone, in a place they hadn’t expected it, much further up the colon. They had to make a second incision to take this stone out. It was bigger than the biggest grapefruit you ever saw and weighs over fifteen pounds. I kid you not. It is on my desk as I type this.
While all this was going on, I was at home, alternately biting my fingernails, leaking tears, and trying to appear relatively normal for my son’s sake. Four hours later I got the call that Henry was coming out of the anesthetic, shaky, but okay…for now.
Henry stayed at the equine center for five days. The young vet who took care of him called me every day to let me know how he was doing. Henry, as she said, was a “rockstar of a patient”. He recovered smoothly, had a good attitude, was easy for them to handle. Our family visited him several times at the equine center and took him for walks. It cheered us all up to see how normal he looked, even just one day after his very major surgery. They showed us the bucket of sand and stones that came out of him and gave us the big stone to take home. It cheered me up to realize that I’d made the right decision. Henry would never have survived without surgery. It was his only chance.
I examined the bucket of “gravel” that was removed from our horse. The black sand never came from our property. There is no sand that looks like that here. We have owned Henry for a year and a half and my son has taken him on over one hundred rides. Three hour trail rides over many hills. Twenty minute loping sessions in the arena. Henry has always been sound. He had plenty of strength and air. He never showed the slightest sign of weakness. And yet Henry was packing that load of sand and stones, not to mention the big stone, on every single one of those rides. It boggles my mind.
After five days we were allowed to bring Henry home. He had a big “belly band” around his middle, supporting his incision and keeping it clean. He had to be fed four small meals a day. He had to be kept in a stall. He had to be hand walked for ten minutes two to three times a day and allowed to graze on green grass. I’ve been keeping quite busy with his care, especially since it has chosen to rain pretty much non-stop since I brought him home.
But I’m getting it done. Henry’s bandage stayed clean, he got his walks and meals and grazing. At his first re-check he was said to be healing well. He is still not out of the woods. He will have three months of rehab before he can return to normal use. We still have the risk of potential hernias and future colics to get through. But I am grateful we have come this far. We’ve given Henry a chance.
For any of you who ever face the same choice, I can only say that I’m glad I listened to the surgeon. I had Henry operated on before he was too far gone to save. I will be eternally thankful I made that decision.
Here’s to Henry…