A Dreadful Night: When Colic Strikes
There’s nothing like colic to strike dread in a horseman’s heart.
You’ve been there. You’ve seen the listless eye, the puzzled face, the drawn loin, the kick and roll, the up and down, the stretching, the flehmen and staring at his sides. You’ve felt Dread clutch your lungs in icy tentacles.
Occasionally, you can guess the cause, but usually, you’re baffled. No feed changes. Plenty of turnout. No unusual stress. Half his water gone. He was fine this morning, but you’re in for a night of it now.
You put the horse in a clean area and run for your vet kit. Deep breaths, calming tone. Heart rate. Gut sounds. Temperature. Hydration. Dial the vet.
Have you guessed yet what I did last night?
Pulling into the driveway after work, I did my usual visual sweep of the herd. Aaruba was standing by the gate with his hind legs stretched behind him ever so slightly. Hmm.
I ate a banana and changed clothes, then headed outside. Aaruba looked a bit heat-drugged and annoyed by flies, a little hunched through his back. I smeared petroleum jelly on his belly whorl where the flies like to pester him. He wandered away to roll. On the way, he pooped a nice, normal pile. Hmm.
I caught Acey and tied her in the round corral. While I groomed her, Aaruba rolled, rested briefly, and got up again. He seemed to be looking for another place to lie down. On the way, he passed another manure pile, loose this time. Hmm, indeed.
I put Acey away and haltered Aaruba, who met me at the gate looking pitiful. We paused by a patch of green grass on the way to the round corral. He wasn’t interested. Enter Dread.
Aaruba’s heart rate was normal at 36 (whew!). Gut sounds were present but low, especially on the lower left (uh-oh). Hydration normal (yay!). Aspect lethargic (crap). Temperature normal at 99 degrees (okay, good). He wanted to lie down (double crap).
I walked him for 10 minutes and was rewarded with another small, loose pile of manure. Fine, but not necessarily significant considering the amount of manure a horse can harbor behind an impaction or twist.
A repeat vitals check yielded identical results. Time for a dose of oral Banamine — enough to ease mild pain, as pain itself can transform an otherwise simple colic into a killer — but not enough to mask significant symptoms of oncoming endotoxic shock.
When I released him in the round corral to see what he’d do, he went down in the sandiest section of the round corral, looking miserable. He wrung his tail a bit, stretched his neck, and studied his left side.
As I reviewed the colic chapter in my favorite quick veterinary reference, Emergency! by Karen Hayes, I tried not to let mind fill with images from last fall, when I nearly lost Aaruba to a large bowel impaction of unknown cause. He spent several days–and several thousand dollars–in the hospital being pumped full of IV liquids and refluxing a bucketful every couple hours. His survival was nothing short of miraculous…and unlikely to happen twice.
Travis arrived home. We discussed the situation, and I spoke with the night vet at our equine hospital. Aaruba’s pain was subtle to mild, his heart rate and hydration good, so we agreed on a “wait and see” approach.
I walked him for 10 to 15 minutes every hour, sometimes up and down a gentle slope, throughout the night. I kept careful notes on heart and respiration rates, gut sounds, pain symptoms, manure passed (1 pile around 2:30 a.m., half loose, half normal), salted Equine Senior mash intake (none), water intake (none), and other observations.
At 3:55 a.m., I woke the night vet to discuss the fact that although Aaruba’s heart rate remained normal, his mild pain symptoms had returned in the wake of the Banamine. Worse, skin pinches and gum examinations showed that he was clearly dehydrated. Bring him in? Wait until morning? We decided, tentatively, to wait.
At 5:00, he was still resting sternal, looking sleepy but not painful. Getting him to his feet took more urging than before, and he was shivering in the 50 degree dawn. After a few minutes of walking, his guts remained very quiet. I checked his heart rate. 60 beats per minute. Red alert!
Travis hooked up the trailer while I scrambled into some jeans and went to halter Aaruba for loading. Dreading the result, I checked his heart rate again. 48. Hmm.
I waited a couple minutes and checked again. 42. Again. 36. My stomach began to unclench. Could it be that he’d just been sleeping soundly, and his heart raced when I roused him at a strange hour? I’ve had that happen, myself…
As the sun rose, Aaruba’s lethargy seemed to lift. I led him out to the green grass by the garden, still soaked from its pre-dawn sprinkling. Finally (oh, joy!) he wanted to eat. After five minutes of grazing, I returned him to the round corral, where he lipped up a bit of his salty mash. Then he wandered around the corral, bright-eyed and relaxed, searching for stray bits of hay. And I went inside for some coffee.
I’ve been working from home today to keep an eye on him lest he relapse, but it’s almost 6:00 p.m. and so far, so good. He’s eager to graze when I let him do so for a few minutes every hour. He’s happily consuming beet pulp and Senior mashes, and he looks like his usual self again. Just now, as I watched him through the window, he got up from a nap.
Isn’t it funny how you can tell–even from a distance, even seeing just part of the horse–the difference between a peaceful snooze in the sun and a problematic recline? How amazing that you can know your horse so well that you can tell at a glance when something isn’t right. Amazing, and wonderful…
…and terrible. Because we all know the worst could happen despite our care and caution. We could lose that precious friend who only yesterday carried us over the hill or ’round the rail, who finally loaded in the trailer or took the right lead, who met us at the gate though we didn’t bring carrots, who just hours ago rested his muzzle in our palms, trusting us to help.
Now, go outside and give your horse a hug.