by Laura Crum
The midwinter solstice always seems to be a difficult time. This is when old things die, be they dogs, horses or people. At least, that’s been my experience. It’s when troubles come and critters get sick. It’s when the weather (at least here in the northern hemisphere) is the most unforgiving. It’s when people get depressed. So I’m not totally surprised that I’ve been having some struggle.
My old horse, Gunner, who will be 33 this spring (I have owned him since he was three), got cast this last week. I have pipe corrals and he isn’t in a stall, but he lay down in his shed with his back to the fence and got stuck in a hollow (dug by the previous occupant of this corral) with his feet uphill from his body and his back wedged up against the fence. He wasn’t caught in the bars, so a solid wall wouldn’t have made a difference. It was the slope of the ground that got him. I found him at morning feeding, and I think he had been down for several hours, judging by the appearance of things. He wasn’t struggling, but I could see at a glance that I wasn’t going to be able to get him up from that position.
I called some friends and though we rolled him over and then dismantled the corral, we still couldn’t manage to get him in a position where he could get up. Finally the vet arrived (he’d been off on another call), and with his help we were able to roll and tug Gunner onto a slope that allowed him to get up. And he did. All this took two hours and Gunner was in really sad shape. He never struggled, but being down that long was very hard on him. I was pretty sure I should put him down, judging by how stressed he looked when he finally got up.
But the vet checked him out and said no, he thought the horse had a good chance of recovering.
“At 32?” I said. “Should I really put him through this?”
The vet said that he had seen other old horses come back from this and do OK. My only experience of the sort was when my last old horse, Burt, went down at 35 years. We tried to get him up, but he seemed very out of it, and was having seizures. So I chose to euthanise him. I said as much to the vet.
“This horse got up by himself,” the vet said. “And he’s eating.” (I had put some senior food in a bucket and Gunner was gobbling it, despite being shaky).
I looked at Gunner, and it was true. He did not seem like he wanted to give up. So we took our first steps down the path that we’re currently on.
The next day was worse. Gunner was very sore, despite lots of pain med, and had little appetite. He kept restlessly moving, constantly turning in circles to the right, we think because his left hind leg was/is so sore. He had a big swelling on that side. I walked him several times during the day, and hand grazed him. He would nibble a bit. I was very worried that he was just in too much pain. The vet told me this would be the worst day and said I could up the pain med a little. And at least it was sunny.
The next day Gunner looked a little perkier and had more appetite. I had the vet out to check him over and all vital signs were good, lungs clear, he was peeing and pooping normally and eating and drinking. He moved pretty well, considering. But he was still pretty uncomfortable. And then it started to rain.
I had Gunner blanketed, of course, but I couldn’t lock him up in a stall. My biggest worry was he would get down again and be unable to get up, so I had him in the biggest, flattest corral I have (about 100 by 100). It has a small shelter, but Gunner wasn’t choosing to stand there. But he needed (and needs) to move and I just had to let him be out in the rain. I checked him often and he was warm and dry under his blanket.
That night it poured. Though Gunner was warm under the blanket and not shivering, by morning the blanket was wet through. I swapped it for a dry blanket and gave Gunner pain meds and took him for a walk and to graze. He seemed, all things considered, pretty perky, and grazed with enthusiasm. But…he is still only eating maybe a quarter of what he was eating before he got cast. He nibbles his equine senior feed (if I hand feed it to him). He nibbles his hay. I graze him three or four times a day. Its not enough food.
So here is this poor old horse standing in the pouring rain, eating very little. He’s not in distress, but still, I feel terrible. The vet says that as long as Gunner keeps improving, even if it’s little by little, its OK. He isn’t terribly concerned if the horse wants to stand in the rain as long as he has a blanket. And Gunner has looked a little better every day. Every day he eats a little more.
But me, I look at my old horse in the rain (and the mud) and feel awful. I take him for walks three or four times a day and let him graze as much as he wants to, but still…At the same time, I don’t want to put him down if he wants to go on. I only want to do for him what it is that his own heart wants. And he still marches out to graze with some zip. He looks at spooky things with his ears up (he was always a big spook) and strikes up a trot to get away. He goes after that green grass like he wants it. And though obviously body sore on the left side, he can march up my long hill of a driveway pretty freely.
So what can I do?
My only conclusion is to take it one day at a time. As long as Gunner wants to go on, we’ll go on. If he looks like he’s had enough, then I will put him down. It’s perfectly possible that in a week or so it will be sunny and Gunner will be almost back to normal. Before he got cast he was sound and in good flesh. Here’s a photo from last summer.
Anyway, many others have suffered far greater grief than I am having, so I don’t mean to complain. But for sure owning horses, or any critters-- well, OK, loving any living thing-- opens the door to many sad moments and some very difficult choices. I have been there many times before, so, of course, I knew this. But it strikes hard every time.
I know that every single morning when I walked down to feed and saw the horses looking at me, bright-eyed, everybody fine (as it has been for the last four years), that I said a small thankful prayer. Because I knew that one morning it wouldn’t be like that (this is inevitable). So when I saw Gunner down last week (he was so still that I thought he was dead), I felt both acceptance as well as grief. This is the way it is to own horses.
As it turns out I wasn’t faced with a dead horse, but I am now on this tenuous path of trying to decide if Gunner’s quality of life is good enough to persevere. So far we’re persevering. But it is not easy for me to watch him stand in the rain, favoring that sore left hind, with little appetite. I know the rest of you will understand. I can only hope that tomorrow will be better.
And on a brighter note—we’ve passed the darkest day of the year. In a certain sense, tomorrow WILL be better. So happy whatever you celebrate, and many good wishes for the new year. Cheers--Laura