There are few words in the equine language that strike fear into the heart of a horse owner like the word colic. I’ve been around horses since I was a young girl and yet I somehow managed to escape ever having experience a bout of colic. Shortly after our first Arab arrived at our farm I learned what colic was. There’s nothing to prepare you for the fear and panic; it’s like jumping into the deep end of a pool for the first time.
As the years wore on we learned that both our Arabs were prone to colic. Like the boy who cried “Wolf!” they would exhibit an assortment of symptoms, but nothing much beyond that would ever materialize. (With hindsight I can say that’s a good thing) It was clear they were in pain, but they were both very stoic. Sometimes Tia, the mare, would camp out a bit, stand there like a rocking-horse. Other times she’d alternate between standing up and laying down. She never pawed, broke a sweat or acted any less than her calm, composed self. Finale, our gelding, was very similar. He’d stretch out, then turn to look at first one side of his tummy, then the other. Phone in hand and ready to call the vet, I’d pace from house to barn, watching them or stroking their flanks, fretting until the episode passed. It seldom took more than a few hours for their pain to dissipate and they’d be back to normal. I’d sigh a sigh of relief, but it would take hours for my jangled nerves to settle. The last few years of their life these episodes of colic became so frequent, I rarely called the vet. We’d been over the symptoms and options a thousand times already. We kept some pain medication on hand, but we rarely needed to use it.
Ultimately, we lost both horses to colic. I still try to rationalize our loss by reminding myself that they were in their late 20’s, but try as I might, I can’t forget the underlying cause of their death was colic. Tia had starting having such frequent bouts of tummy pain that with winter closing in, I decided to take the path of least resistance. On a beautiful sunny day in early January I gently let her go. Three days later we were buried under three feet of snow. The next fall Finale suffered a sudden, horrific bout of acute colic, and we had no other choice but to let him go too. It was like having lightening strike the same place twice. Finale’s death haunted me for months. I’d never witnessed such a brutal, devastating demise. We had complications getting a vet to come and my husband was ninety minutes away on a riding vacation. Finale hung on until my husband got home, but I suffered with traumatic nightmares for weeks. Finale’s frantic, final hours are forever etched in my memory.
It goes without saying that early this spring I was less than pleased to find Dharla showing some of the classic symptoms of colic. I’d gone out to the barn late that morning and was ready to tack up Rascal when I discovered Dharla in what appeared to be mild discomfort. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if something is wrong, but if you’re really in tune with your animals you get a sixth sense. I could feel Dharla’s tension. She wasn’t obvious about her pain, but there were almost imperceptible clues. She paced a bit and she looked unsettled. Normally, Dharla has a very calm, grounded demeanor. I brought Rascal inside and watched Dharla as I groomed him. She didn’t seem too “off” so I decided to do a very short ride down in the arena. Biased though it may seem, when a mare shows restlessness I tend to be less alarmed, as that can sometimes accompany her monthly estrous. And that is often the case in early spring, when a mare’s first few cycles can be the strongest.
Dharla was still pacing a little when Rascal and I left for the ring. We proceeded to do a few patterns, but my mind wasn’t in the game. I was more worried about the “what ifs” going on at the barn than I wanted to admit. I spent about thirty minutes trying to carve something useful out of our time, but I couldn’t focus. After looking at my watch for the third or forth time, we headed back to the barn. The minute we crested the hill I could see that Dharla was down. Not laying down like she might if she was taking a sun bath, but she was stretched out flat in the dirt. This didn’t bode well at all. Dharla never lays down. Ever. Well, certainly not like that. I’ve maybe caught her laying down all of three times in the four years I’ve had her, so this was definitely a red flag. I stripped the tack off Rascal, turned him loose and grabbed Dharla’s halter. I got Dharla up, slipped her halter on and started checking her vitals. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t awful either, but she clearly wasn’t OK. I started walking her around the hilly paddock and she followed willingly, yet every time we stopped she wanted to lie down.
It happened that just about then I saw a friend’s truck amble down the road that runs parallel to our farm. His window was open and he waved, to which I frantically responded by waving back and shouting “Stop! Please stop!” Kyle hit the brakes and asked if everything was OK? I quickly explained that my horse was ill and I needed to get to the phone. Problem was, I couldn’t leave her to go to the house … would he come walk her while I ran inside to call the vet? He quickly backed up the road. I tossed Kyle the lead rope and bolted for the house. It was one of those times when you wish everything would go smoothly, but it didn’t. Again, I had trouble finding a local vet who could come. The practice we normally use didn’t have a vet on call until after 6 PM and it was only 3:00. I’d never heard of this happening before, but I didn’t have time to argue or plea my case, I simply asked the receptionist if she knew of anyone else I could call. She gave me one or two names and I quickly hung up and started dialing.
I finally reached a vet who not only lived nearby, but was available to come. My luck, I just happened to catch her at a quiet time. (Later, after the crisis she told me she doesn’t always take emergency calls from new clients, but she could hear the panic in my voice and decided she needed to come.) She pulled into my farm in what felt like an eternity, but only about twenty minutes had elapsed. I can’t begin to describe the feeling of relief I had at that moment, but that was only a minor reprieve until the next round of panic hit. We still had to figure out what was going on, how serious it was and how we would proceed. Let me just say that this is not how I want to meet a new vet. I’m stressed, my horse is in pain and I was hoping my husband would soon arrive in case we had to make any difficult decisions. That fearful, un-askable question was pounding in my head: Was I going to lose my horse?
The vet was fantastic. Kind, compassionate and a great communicator, she set about doing her best to make my horse comfortable. My husband pulled in just ten minutes behind her, so he was able to give the vet a hand. Despite her pain, Dharla was ever the lady. She stood quietly while vitals were taken and a shot of pain medication was administered. In minutes Dharla’s relief was obvious, which gave the vet an opportunity to do a more thorough exam. She had little trouble locating an intestinal blockage and we immediately started discussing all our options. As colic typically goes, there were few. We would do an oil lavage and hope it would move the blockage. Either it would budge or it wouldn’t. If the blockage passed my horse still might re-block for a myriad of reasons, none of which we might ever know for sure. There’s no way of knowing the cause of colic until an autopsy is done and there’s no way to know if the cure will work. No matter what we did there was no guarantee she was going to be OK, and if so, we wouldn’t know that for awhile. Awhile being at least 24-48 hours. Waiting. It’s always the hardest part.
We did the lavage and Dharla had a good night. I made several trips out to the barn to check on her and aside from being hungry and wanting to go out, Dharla was fine. The boys both hung their heads over Dharla’s stall door, keeping her company. The vet touched base with me later that evening and again first thing in the morning. Since Dharla was doing well, we were able to start her on a small amount of hay. I monitored Dharla’s intake and output over the course of several hours and everything seemed to be doing much better. By the 48- hour mark I should have sighed a sigh of relief, but I still found myself anxious and worried. We were told we could take Dharla off stall rest by dinnertime the next day and while we knew we’d be watching her closely, she did seem fully recovered.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t. Recovered, that is. I had nightmares about losing Dharla. I had several dreams about Finale’s death again. I mourned over the loss of Tia. It seemed like this one brief episode brought back all the grief and horror from our past episodes with colic. It took a few weeks, but I eventually got over the hump. Riding Dharla again helped make her recovery seem more real, but there are times when I know I’m still looking at her with a clinical eye. Is she acting like herself? Is she eating with her normal enthusiasm? And God forbid if I ever see her laying down. I’ll probably have a full-blown panic attack!
They say you don’t appreciate something until you lose it, but I beg to differ. We came close. Too close to losing Dharla. I appreciate every single day she’s here.