Wednesday, February 18, 2009


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…
Laura Crum


Shanster said...

Definately. Here's to Henry!

My mare colic'd every spring. Before I bought her I knew she'd had a nephrosplenic entrapment colic surgery...

One spring it was so bad she was on IV fluids all night and we were a hair's breath away from taking her to CSU Vet Hospital. We didn't have to.

The colics decreased in severity every year. Last spring there was no colic. I'm hoping this spring there will be no colic. (knocking frantically on wood) We (my vet and I) have a theory that it was due to hormones and her heat cycle kicking back in.

Great job. I'm glad you made the right choice for Henry, yourself and your son. I hope Henry keeps making leaps and bounds toward perfect health and he is with you for a long time to come!!! Go Henry!

A.K. Alexander said...

Oh Laura--wow. I am in tears just reading it. I can't even imagine what you've been through. Thank God you made the decision for Henry to have the surgery. I will send out some prayers that he continues to heal. He is one brave horse. I wish I was there to hug you and him, cause you are one brave mom, too!

We lost two horses to stones the size of grapefruits back in the late eighties. My dad changed the water system after that as he discovered there were too many minerals in the water, but it was really tough to go through.

Thank goodness you caught this with such a stoic little horse!

I'm thinking of you.

Heidi the Hick said...

Cheers to Henry, the brave horse!

This story really lifts me, because I've lost two to colic. One was a VERY old pony who'd been retired at our place. The other, in August 06, was my 21 yr old half-arab gelding. He was so fit and healthy. He didn't look or act his age. It was a shock.

Of course I tried to figure out what caused it but considering our young mare was fine, the vet told me it probably wasn't a management problem.

Surgery wasn't an option financially, but even if I had the money, I couldn't do it to him. They couldn't guarantee that it would cure him, and I didn't want him to suffer through surgery only to have to put him down anyways. So I made the hardest, and quickest decision ever and he was put down immediately.

In your case, I think I'd do what you did. Henry had a chance and you opened that chance for him. I am sending you my best hopes and wishes for a full recovery for Henry! Sure sounds like he's worth it!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Heidi, Michele and Shanster--I can use all the good wishes I can get. I've only owned Henry for a year and a half (since he was retired from team roping), but I have known him since he was six, and he is a great horse. I am guessing (hoping) that the conditions that led to the stones and sand in his gut came from his previous home, since it takes a horse many years to develope these stones. (Knocking on wood.) But yeah, it's one day at a time. I'm off to take him for his walk now.

mugwump said...

It is a tough call to decide on surgery. I am so glad it has worked for Henry.
A client of mine had the opposite situation put on her, an unethical vet pushing surgery....she got a second opinion at the major veterinary hospital in our area.They told her the mare wasn't a good surgery candidate. It was heartbreaking.
The first vet was one she didn't have a working relationship with. Her regular vet was out of town and she went to the one closest to her house.
I now keep a list of second choice vets, reccomended by my primary vet on hand.
Happy slogging through the mud Laura. Could you send us a little of your rain please?

Anonymous said...

I agree, Janet--I was lucky to get good veterinary help. If I had waited, as it was my inclination to do, Henry might not have been a good candidate for surgery, either. I learned this much--if you think you would do the surgery if needed, its best to go for it earlier, rather than later. But in my case I think that the stone had shifted and was blocking Henry's gut enough to make him uncomfortable, but he wasn't entirely blocked. He always had gut noises, and he stayed real stable. These horses that have a twist or are completely blocked go downhill in a hurry and then they're very hard to save, even if you would go to surgery. I was really lucky. In the future, if one colic treatment doesn't bring a horse out of it, I'm going straight to the equine center and getting the X-ray. It would have saved me at least one sleepless night (my husband, too).

Also, another thing I learned. I always thought of the surgery as being really hard on a horse, too. But this did not turn out to be the case. I went to see Henry less than 24 hours after the surgery and he was bright-eyed, showing no pain, eager to go for a walk and eat grass. He was on a little banamine and that's it. I couldn't believe it. If I had been through what he went through I would have been in bed for a month. They only kept him on painkillers for a few days. Since we've had him home he gets none. And he shows no sign of pain. Its amazing. But I learned that this quite major surgery doesn't bother a horse as much as you might think.

Fantastyk Voyager said...

Wow, I'm so glad Henry pulled through! I haven't had to deal with too many colics, (knock on wood) but I did have to nurse a horse for 10 days with an esophogeal injury. When it was getting close to the time to make THE decision, she tripped up and fell, while being led, and broke her own neck. It was horrible, but in the long run, it was a fast and painless way to go.
I cried for months afterwards at the injustice of it all. I still own the horse who kicked her.

HorseOfCourse said...

I had a wonderful phone two days ago. It was from one of my best friends. She had her horse colic operated last summer, and it has been a long and tough road to get him back in shape.
She had just had her dressage lesson, and Movie was completely back to his old self. Strong, working well and even throwing in some bucks, just to show off.
It was a marvellous feeling, and she wanted to share the joy.
We shed some tears of happiness, both of us.
Good luck with Henry!

Anonymous said...

Horse of Course, I'm wondering what sort of road we'll face in getting Henry back to work (if we get there). They tell me that some horses are back to completely normal use (including competing at jumping and roping) in three months--but I have a hard time picturing that. Henry's job involves being able to pack my little boy up some big hills, and carry him at the lope for some good long sessions--but nothing more strenuous than that. I guess we'll just see what the future holds. So far my son is getting along well riding my little trail horse, Sunny, so at least I have a backup.

Anonymous said...

Fantastyk Voyager--I'm paranoid about horses getting hurt by being kicked by other horses. I think that's a vastly under-rated problem. My vet once told me that by far the majority of the broken legs he'd dealt with were caused by horses being kicked by their pasture mates--not by accidents while the horse was being ridden. I used to keep my horses turned out together in big corrals, but I don't do it any more. I'll still turn them out together in my sixty acre pasture, but when they're in the corrals, each horse gets his own pen. And I know what you mean--the horse that fatally injures another horse never meant to do it--you can't blame them. It must have been a very tough thing for you to go through.

Jami Davenport said...

Oh, Laura,

I'm pulling for Henry. That is something I worry about quite a bit. We had some issues at the barn where I board with a new barn worker not understanding why horses need water. My mare ended up with mild colic, and I was PISSED. Everything is fine now.

It sounds like he's on the mend. I hope you keep us updated.

ezra_pandora said...

We lost a horse to colic too, he was only about 4. It was horrible making the decision, but we too asked the vet honestly what we should do and he told us there was only a very slim chance our guy would even make the trip down there and he was in so much pain as it was, we couldn't think of even making him take a 3 hour ride. It was a twisted gut.

I know you said that the stuff that came out wasn't from your place, but did they suggest anything like sand clear for Henry? just to try to help make sure it doesn't build up again?

I wish you all the best of luck in his recovery and hope it goes without a hitch :)

Maryannwrites said...

Glad to read that all went well with Henry. I'm sure you and your son are very relieved. :-)

I have been so lucky not to have had a problem with colic with my horse.

Anonymous said...

Ezra--I did ask them about the sand clear, but they said it probably wasn't needed. That black sand they took out of Henry probably came from the ranch where he lived from when he was six until when he was fifteen. It was a river bottom piece of land, and this sand looks like that ground. My land has no sand that is remotely like that. I still can't get over the fact that the poor horse was packing all this stuff around for the last five years.

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness. Good luck and good wishes to you and Henry.

joycemocha said...

This book by Lucinda Dyer has a LOT of good colic surgery recovery accounts in it. I'd recommend it.

Monica said...


I'm glad Henry is doing well at this poiint in his recovery. Any time a horse makes it home from colic surgery is a good sign. I'm glad you caught it early.

I lost my QH mare after colic surgery in 2002. She was in foal to a Congress WP Champion. I got home and found Penny down in the field, covered with mud from rolling. At the time I worked for a mixed animal practice and a friend from work came out with more banamine, ace, rompun... while I waited for a bigger trailer. Nothing touched the mares pain. She would be fine, eating one minute then violently trying to throw herself down to roll the next.

Our clinic wasn't equipped at the time to do a major surgery, so I hauled the mare from Bowing Green to one of the big equine hospitals in Lexington KY. The trip with a trailer normally takes about three hours, I think we made it in two.

The mare was uup and down in the trailer the entire trip. When we got there, she was cut up, had an eye swollen shut, just pretty banged up.

She ended up on the surgery table about 30 minutes after we got her off the trailer. The suregery went well, she had a nephro-splenic twist. Apparently there is a small area between the kidney and the spleen where unlucky parts of intestine can squeeze through and become stuck.

After the surgery, the mare was recovering and rolled over to get to her feet. Apparantly during the trailer ride she had caused a small fracture in her femur that fractured completely when she tried to stand. I had to euthanized her immediately.

There are so many variables with colic surgery. I wouldn't hesitate to go to surgery with a horse again, if the expense could be handled. The hospital my mare was at is an excellent facility, these things just happen sometimes.

I am very glad that your horse is doing well. Hopefully he is out of the woods at this point.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to all for the good wishes. Henry went in for his second recheck today at three weeks out. I had hoped they would remove his belly band and pronounce him healing normally (they removed his staples last week). But no, there was still some drainage from the incision. An ultrasound determined that the draining was from infection in the skin, the abdominal wall seemed to be healed, no hernias, no drainage from the interior. So, hopefully, this is not a big deal. But Henry has a new bandage, is now on antibiotics and has another recheck appointment in a week. One day at a time.... He does feel great, is bright eyed, has a great appetite and seems quite normal in every way, so that is good. Thanks again for the good wishes.

Joy said...

Wow, that Henry is a keeper for sure. I too am amazed that he had all that stuff in there and just kept right on working for so long. I'm so glad he's doing well.

It's such a hard decision, surgery. My first horse coliced and she twisted a gut. There was no way I could have had surgery on her. She survived and I know it was nothing short of a miracle. I have never seen an animal in so much pain. I was ready for her to get the pink juice (it's not blue out here). But she made it somehow.

I am lifting a beer, literally, to Henry right now. Sending him healing thoughts and prayers.

Jami Davenport said...

Monica, My heart goes out to you. I am so sorry about your misfortune. Do you have another horse now?

Monica said...


I still have horses. I have the mares first foal by the same stallion. She is 7 this year, and is sort of a miracle herself-- she had botulism as a foal, a month before the mare died.

In total, 3 horses, a pony, and a mini donkey. All spoiled, seldom ridden. Hoping to get some more riding time this year. Never did use the breeding-- had a live foal guarantee, but things just never worked out to rebreed.