Sunday, December 23, 2012

Hard Days

                                                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


Martine said...

It is so, so difficult to play God and know what is best for our beloved animals. I hope Gunner starts to make bigger strides in his improvement so that you can be certain you are on the right path.

Laura Crum said...

Thank you, Martine. I wrote the post yesterday, and this morning when I went down to feed, Gunner was eating...and had eaten a significant amount of what I fed him last night. So I am encouraged. But its raining, and yeah, things could be better.

Gayle Carline said...

As much as we like to be in control, it's a difficult thing when we're in charge of our animals' lives. You're so in tune with your horses, I'm sure you'll know when Gunner tells you it's time. I'm sure he knows that you are trying to make him comfortable.

If it's any consolation, my little mare (16-year old QH) is in a pipe stall that has a roof over half of it. She also chooses to stand in the unroofed side in the rain. Drives me crazy, but what to do, except order her an all-weather blanket?

Laura Crum said...

Gayle--Gunner is standing the rain as I type (with a good blanket on). I just took him for a very wet walk and grazing session. He doesn't seem to mind the rain. But I sure wish the sun would shine.

Anonymous said...

I expect his not eating is just feeling sore and achey. Glad from your update that he's eating better now. Getting cast is very stressful, and if he's got some physical injuries that can take some time to heal from. Sounds like your day by day approach with a horse his age is a good one. My old gelding Noble, who was euthanized at 30, was declining a bit in his last years, but still very active in the pasture and eating well. Then he took a sudden turn for the worst and wouldn't eat and almost wouldn't drink. We think he had some sort of abdominal cancer, and his kidneys were failing, so we didn't wait for things to get worse. But if things are improving, your guy should have some good days left yet.

Laura Crum said...

Kate--So far Gunner is a little better every day. I cut back his pain meds today at the vet's suggestion, as he just doesn't seem that painful any more. But watching him stand in the rain is driving me crazy. Thanks for your comment and good wishes to you and your three horses.

Boss Mare Eventing said...

Such a hard time at that day they are down the next they are great. Gunner is lucky to have you.

Dom said...

I think you have a good head on your shoulders and will know when it's time to let go, when he doesn't want to keep going. I love that your horses live to be old and happy. It's a good reflection on you.

CG said...

I'm sending my biggest healing wishes to Gunner. Being from the rain state I can't help you with the rain thing though, it rains all the time here! Some of my horses don't even seem to notice whereas others will run for the shed at the first drop.

I don't know if you read this blog but I find her current post very poignent (sp?) this time of year,

Unknown said...

We are in this space with our german shepherd. But today she was rolling in the grass, looking like a puppy. She's still experiencing joy, and that's got to be enough.

For now. Sending you some sun for Gunner...

Stilllearning said...

Laura, You & Gunner have my sympathy. I had to make this decision for my pony this week, after a long time of "not quite yet". I was worried that I would wait too long for my own sake, so consulted with my vet and husband often--but then I knew when it was time. Trust that Gunner will let you know.

Here's hoping he'll recover quickly!

jenj said...

I'm sorry to hear that Gunner got stuck, but I'm also glad to hear that he's improving day by day. And like you, I HATE seeing them out in the rain when there is a nice barn to go in, yet somehow they prefer to stand in the rain? We'll never understand them! As long as he's got a dry blanket and isn't cold and keeps improving, it sounds like he's more than willing to keep going. It's just taking him a little longer to bounce back than it once would have!

Laura Crum said...

Thanks, Bebe, Dom, and CG. I will read the post, CG. I don't think I know that blog.

Breathe and Stilllearning, I know that we are all in this together. Every one of us who loves our animals goes through this struggle from time to time. My best wishes to your dog, Breathe, and my thoughts go out to you, Stilllearning. I have so been in those two places.

Gunner looks OK this morning. He came up to eat when I went down to feed and is not noticeably lame or sore. And there is sunshine! One day at a time.

Thank you all for the good wishes.

Laura Crum said...

jenj--We had a brutal storm yesterday. I went through three blankets and had to lock Gunner up in a stall for awhile to keep him from shivering. He did not care for that. But he has a dry blanket and seems reasonably content this morning out in his big corral.

Alison said...

Rain and horses. And then mud and horses. It is the worst time for horses -- cold and rainy. I think someone should do a study on why horses like to stand in the rain.

Pray for sun, Laura! Gunner is in my thoughts.

Laura Crum said...

Thank you, Alison. Its raining again...

OneHindResting said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
OneHindResting said...

I hate to see my horse standing in the rain. I sometimes wonder whether the waterproof blanket is mainly to make me feel better though? I'm still going to make sure my horse is warm and dry of course, but there is a certain joy in standing in the rain. Put on a good waterproof coat and stand in the rain (without worrying about the time or getting cold and wet), and see what I mean! :) There's something kinda magical about water falling from the sky and keeping the grass green and growing (can you tell it's been dry here?). As long as you're not cold, it's even kinda nice to watch the water running down the coat! Or maybe I'm strange :P (I do hate being cold and wet though... ergh!)
What I mean to say is, whilst I stress about my pony in the rain, as long as it makes him happy, that'll bring a smile to my face... even if it's a lot of work keeping him warm and dry!! Horses! :)
Hoping you also get to enjoy some basking in the sunshine soon too, and that Gunner is feeling happy today!
(apology for the delete^ - clicked too soon)

Val said...

I know that Gunner is a older fellow and that he has had a good life, but I cannot help wanting him to pull through and continue his retirement. All the things your describe sound like a horse that wants to (and will) recover. If it is any consolation, I think this may be harder on you than him right now, especially because he is improving.

Hang in there and Happy Holidays!

Laura Crum said...

OneHindResting-Yes, I do know what you mean. I only get concerned when my horses start shivering. Unfortunately, Gunner was always one who got shivery really quickly...but he also liked to stand in the rain. Go figure. Usually a blanket does the trick, but we have had such heavy storms that the "weatherproof" blankets eventually get soaked through. Last night I put two blankets on him--the outside one waterproof-and that seemed to do the trick. Thanks for your comment!

Val--Thank you. Gunner does seem to be doing OK. I worry, but then, isn't that a horse owner's job description?