Probably the worst words a horse owner can hear are: "Your horse is colicing."
Wikipedia defines colic in horses as "abdominal pain, but it is a clinical sign rather than a diagnosis. The term colic can encompass all forms of gastrointestinal conditions which cause pain as well as other causes of abdominal pain not involving the gastrointestinal tract. There are a variety of
different causes of colic, some of which can prove fatal without surgical intervention. Colic surgery is usually an expensive procedure as it is major abdominal surgery, often with intensive aftercare. Among domesticated horses, colic is a major cause of premature death."
Fortunately, horse owners have it within their power to reduce the frequency and to a certain extent, the nature of colic. As a horse is by nature a free ranging animal, horses in the wild do not have to deal with the complications captive horses encounter, such as intestinal parasite control due to
the horses grazing on land contaminated with their manure, long periods of idleness while standing in stalls, concentrated feedings, etc.
To address these issues, good horse owners ensure that their horses have adequate pasture space, practice proper pasture management, practice preventive de-worming, ensure hay and feed are of the best quality, and that horses always have a ready supply of good clean water. While these steps will
reduce the frequency of colic, it will not eliminate it completely. And like the rolling of a roulette wheel, sometime your horse's number comes up. Such was the case for Riker yesterday morning.
Riker was a remarkably talented and strikingy handsome horse in his day. But his various equestrian careers - from racing, jumpers, fox hunting, and finally, to three-day eventing - took their toll on him. At the age of
15, he was finally rewarded retirement for his faithful service. And while I would occasionally drag him in and put a student on him, the better part of the last seven years has been spent in peaceful bliss, grazing in the field, watching the next generation of event horses earn their reward of retirement.
A worry wart, Riker liked his routine. Mornings always started with a feeding. As the oldest horse, he always got put out first. As long as weather was nice, he and his herd of three other geldings enjoyed the run of the farm. At sunset, he was always first to be taken in, and the first to be fed. Any
deviation from this routine was sure to bring out his long dormant weaving habit. Fortunately my wife Audrey is as wedded to her routines as Riker, so life for Riker was about as good as it gets.
I, too, had become accustomed to my wife's routine. In the morning she would gently touch me to let me know she was headed out to the barn. It was my signal that I had a half hour while she fed and turned out the horses before I was expected to appear for stall cleaning duties. While the horses ate,
she would always return to the house and make herself a cup of tea, then return to the barn. Yesterday morning, she deviated from her routine.
Semiconscious, I heard the back door open quickly and her hurried footsteps start up the stairs vice into the kitchen as she normally did. Her words, "Michael - Riker is colicing," brought me to my feet.
I can't remember dressing, and was out of the house before my wife had made it back to the barn.
Over the years we've been fortunate. In the 30 plus years we've owned horses, we could count the number of colics we've had on two hands, and all but one had been resolved with simple hand walking. But it's the one that required surgery that ran through my mind as I rushed to the barn.
"How's he doing?" I asked my wife as I turned the corner.
"OK right now. I gave him 10cc IV of Banamine before I came in to get you, and it seems to be taking effect. He's got gut sounds, but not much."
"Great." I thought. It was at a time like this that having a wife who is an Equine Veterinary Nurse came in handy - to say the least. It went without saying - she was clearly in charge.
I looked at Riker. Since this was clearly outside of his routine, I expected him to be in full weaving mode, but he was not. Instead, he stood quietly on the cross ties with a worried look on his face. As I watched, he turned to look at his side and then at me - as if asking, "What's going on?"
"Do you want to call the vet?" I asked, deferring to my wife's judgment.
"No, not yet. Let's see how he responds to Banamine and some hand walking."
With lead shank in hand, Riker and I headed out to the arena. It was only then that I realized that the weather had turned remarkably colder during the night and with 20-mile per hour gusts of wind, the 25-degree temperature outside was going to feel rather cold. "Why do horses always choose to colic
on the worst days of winter?" I found myself muttering to myself. "Why couldn't you wait till spring?" I asked Riker.
He didn't need to answer, I knew the answer. Chagrined, I knew that it had been within my powers to prevent the events that would take place that day.
The day before had been cold, windy, and wet. Unwilling to brave the elements, the horses had instead chosen to spend the day huddling in the run-in shed. When I brought them in, I noticed an obviously famished Riker wolfing down his grain. That evening, when I did the last barn checks, I noticed he
had eaten all his hay, but hadn't touched his water. It didn't register. Instead I threw him an extra flake of hay and went to bed.
In hindsight, it occurred to me that I had historically always chosen to give the horses bran mashes on wintery wet and cold days. Knowing only too well that they probably had not taken in much water and the bran mash would keep them from getting constipated, I should have given it to them. But I had
been distracted that evening and broke my own routine. I mentally kicked myself over and over.
For the next two hours I walked Riker around and around the arena looking for signs of improvement, but saw none. At nine, chilled to the bone, I brought him back into the barn where my wife and I regrouped.
Once again on the cross ties, we watched Riker turn to look at his flank. First right, then left, then right again. With no end in sight, it was time to call in the vet.
As any horse owner can tell, the longest 30 minutes in your life is the time between when you call the vet and when the vet actually shows up. Minutes just crawl by, especially when you know it's not your regular vet coming, but the newest addition to the practice whom you've yet to meet! With another
jacket on, I resumed hand walking, all the while keeping a weary eye on the road for the vet.
Just as my watch passed the 30 minute mark, the vet pulled into the driveway, and even though this wasn't "my" vet, her very presence lifted my spirits, not to mention my hopes.
I'll be the first to admit, I was a little taken aback by her age … she was rather young, but at my age, so is just about everyone. Her face looked familiar but I couldn't place it.
"He's not a surgical candidate," were the first words out of my mouth. Not a "hello," not a "thanks for coming." Some might think that was abrupt, but not this vet. I had established the boundaries for her, and taken some difficult decisions and conversation off the table for her. Now she could
concentrate on what she could do.
Had I all the money in the world and had Riker a record of being a good patient, I would have considered surgery. But I didn't, and of all the horses, he was the worst patient. While he would have survived a surgery, the three months of stall conferment would have killed him. Riker had lived a good
life, but at 22 he was nearing the end of his natural life. If he had to go, it was best he went quickly.
As the vet began her examination, I asked where she went to school. My spirits soared when she answered, "Virginia Tech." Having dealt with the staff at Virginia Tech for almost 20 years, I had the utmost confidence in any vet from that school.
"Did you study under Dr. White?" I asked.
"Yes I did. He was awesome." She replied.
"Well I hope you remembered what he taught you, because I'm going to report personally on your performance to him."
My challenge brought a big smile to her face. "In that case, let's see what we can do for this big guy."
Between my nurse wife and the vet, Riker was as good as being at Virginia Tech. Add in the fact that the vet was a event rider, who completely understood how treasure any horse was could calm title of being a three-day horse, as Riker could, he was in the best of hands any horse could hope for.
After completing the rectal exam, and comparing notes with my wife, the conclusion was made that Riker had a 'soft' impaction, but given time, and lots of hand walking, he would eventually pass it and be ok. "However, it's going to be a very long 24 hours for you guys," she informed us.
The vet and my wife discussed the pros and cons of 'tubing' the horse, i.e., forcing mineral oil and water into his stomach to help break up the impaction and get it moving. Eager to get my horse well, I wanted to do everything we could right then and there.
"The only downside to tubing him," I was told, "is that if it is a twist, or a hard impaction, tubing him could make things much, much, worse as it will just put more content into an already stressed stomach. It's best to let nature and a lot of hand walking take its own course first. If that doesn't
work, then you always have tubing. But if you tube him now, and it doesn't work, then you'll probably have to put him down." My wife nodded in agreement.
While I didn't like the message, I appreciated the logic. And After providing a detailed list of things to look for, which were news to me, but old hat for my wife, Riker was once again in our care. And once again, I bundled up to face the elements and begin what would be nearly seven hours of
non-stop hand walking.
To pass the time as I walked, I talked to Riker. In recounting my first meeting with him, I told him how I had just lost another horse due to injury and he had come up for sale. His jumping style was such that his rider kept falling off him.
"He's in the second stall," I was told. As I peaked in, all I could see was this dark horse weaving madly.
"You know Riker, I almost didn't buy you. But you had such a good jump that you were too hard to pass up. I'm glad I didn't."
Over the next few hours I recounted all our adventures, including the time he had escaped death once before when I accidentally electrocuted him.
While I know he didn't understand a word I said, I do know that he appreciated the tone of the words, just as he did when coming into a big fence that backed him off. For Riker, kind words of encouragement always worked the trick.
Around 1:00 in the afternoon, weary from walking, I pulled a page out of the old horseman's manual and hooked up the trailer. Fable has it that one can sometimes get a colicky horse to sop colicing by putting them on a trailer. Anyone who's ever put a horse on a trailer knows the first thing they do
when they get on is "poop," and usually Riker was no exception to the rule. Even just the sound of the trailer being hooked up is often enough to give him diarrhea. But not today.
While the hour of driving did not resolve Riker's colic, it did allow me to bring my body temperature back to near normal, and once again resume hand walking. But I no sooner had begun to hand walk than it became apparent things were beginning to go downhill.
Whereas in morning and early afternoon Riker would walk by quietly, he now increasingly was jerking the lead shank out of my hands and every few minutes would try to lie down. So with nothing to lose, we gave him another dose of Banamine and resumed the hand walking.
Around 2:00, my wife relieved me. The Banamine had kicked in and Riker was clearly more comfortable.
"I was going to pull his mane this weekend," she said, "but if he's going to go to his maker today, I want him turned out properly. If we're lucky he might just think I'm getting him ready to go to event. That should turn his nerves and bowels into overdrive!" And with that, she took over the watch
and I took a break.
What she said to him while she pulled his mane I'll never know. But as she was always the comfort giver, I'm sure it was soothing words of encouragement.
At 3:30, I returned to the barn. While Riker's appearance was far improved, his demeanor said differently.
"He stood pretty well for me while I pulled his mane - none of his usual head tossing or moving around. But the Banamine appears to be wearing off, and I'm not crazy about that. While he's not blowing through all the pain killers we give him like Worf did [the one horse that required colic surgery]
they are not lasting as long as I would like." As she spoke, I watched as Riker once again resumed looking at his sides.
"No poop huh?" I asked as I looked for tale tell signs of fresh manure on the floor.
"No" My wife replied dejectedly. Time to resume hand walking.
But before long he was once again jerking the lead shank out of my hands and trying to lie down. The Banamine was no longer working. It was time to get the vet out again and try option two.
Things were beginning to look pretty grim, and I thought nothing of it when he again pulled me to a halt. But much to my amazement, instead of trying to lie down and roll, he stretched out and had a good long pee. It may not sound like much to the uninitiated horse person, but it was a good sign, even
if only a small one.
At 5:30, I was greeted by the site of my regular vet pulling into the driveway. Familiar with Riker, he bypassed all the preliminaries and went right to work. He quickly confirmed his associate's analysis but recommended that, given Riker had showed no signs of improvement, it was time to help get
things going. With the touch that comes from years of experience, he had the stomach tube down Riker before I knew it and after verifying there was no reflux, began to pump mineral oil and water into his stomach.
"There, that should help get things moving. You'll need to keep a close eye on him for the next twelve hours. If he starts to act like he's in a lot of pain, that's an indication he might have a twist, which means we'll have to put him down. But I think he's going to be ok. Just keep hand walking. If
he starts to get uncomfortable, here are two syringes, one with Xylazine [for pain], and one with Xylazine and Torbegesic [another pain killer]. But if at all possible, don't use the one with Torbegesic as it will reduce gut mobility - use it as a last resort to keep him as comfortable as you can if we should need to put him
"Keep hand walking him?" I thought. "Ugh." By this time, I needed a pain killer for my own pain.
With the muscle relaxers finally kicking in, Riker took a deep breath and began to fall asleep. With a one hour window before the muscle relaxers wore off, I put Riker in his stall where he promptly laid down and fell asleep. My wife once again resumed watch and I headed inside for a bit to eat and
the bottle of Advil.
At 7:00, I stepped outside the house into the dark and was nearly knocked over by the wind. The cold stung like needles. It was going to be a long night I thought. I headed toward the barn to relieve my wife, hoping against hope that Riker would be better. But my illusion was dashed to the winds when
I turned the corner of the barn and saw her struggling to get him back up.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"He's rolling again. We need to get him out of this stall and walking again."
With every imaginable part of my body covered up, I opened the barn door and headed back out to the arena. But it took less than ten minutes to convince myself that was a foolhardy venture. Retreating to the protected run-in shed, I began to walk Riker in tight 30-foot ovals. It wasn't the arena, but
he was moving and I was protected.
Every five minutes I would stop to see if the walking was having any effect. Sometimes Riker could stand for ten minutes without looking at his sides, other times he would paw immediately upon stopping. So we kept walking. And with each step, my hopes for puling Riker through grew more and more
At 8:00, weary with cold and seeing no improvement, I called my wife. While we never actually said it, our eyes said it all, "Maybe it's time."
"I really hate to give him the Xylazine, but I don't see any other option," she said. "If we give it to him, and it doesn't work, that's it." I agreed.
I crossed my fingers and hoped that for Riker, the third time would be the charm. But as the minutes ticked by, the expected response to the drug was not forthcoming. While Riker's gut sounds had improved over the past two hours, his colic was still violently painful.
At 8:15 my wife once again called the vet. After bringing him up to date, he offered a more hopefully possibility.
"I think what we're dealing with here is that the impaction is finally beginning to move and that's what causing the pain." All we had to do was keep him up and going till the impaction had broken down enough so it no longer caused pain. If you can get him to 10:00, then give him 12cc of Banamine, and
that should hold him till morning, and then we can re-evaluate him then."
It was now a race against time, and 10:00 seemed an eternity away. All three of us were clearly exhausted. Riker was struggling to keep on his feet, as was I. My wife kept offering to take over the walking, but I refused. Riker was my horse. When I first got him I made a promise to him that I would go
the extra mile for him if he would go the extra mile for me. He had kept his side of the deal, now it was time for me to keep mine. I returned to the run-in shed and resumed walking while my wife returned to the house to rest and get ready for what was going to be a very long night."
"Call me when you think he can't make it any more and I'll come out and give him the Banamine." She said, and we parted ways.
I've often heard it said that horses have a sixth sense. Riker must have sensed the sadness that clearly permeated our conversation. He was very quiet. He kept his head next to my shoulder as we walked in circles as if to let me know he appreciated all we had done for him.
At 9:00, with the winds now howling, even the run-in shed no longer offered any protection. Knowing it was the last straw, I retreated into the barn, turned the arena lights out for the last time, and set up camp in the wash stall.
"Come on Riker, help us out here." I said dejectedly to him as sat down exhausted. "We've lost too many pets over the last few years and really don't need to lose anymore. You were supposed to die a peaceful death at a ripe old age on nice sunny spring day, not die of colic on miserable cold winter
night. Help us out here will you? Don't die tonight. Don't die this way. Fight it."
I sat silently as Riker jerked his head left and right, looking in desperation for the source of the pain. Each time he turned, a gurgling sound from his gut followed. At first I didn't notice it, but eventually I began to detect a pattern. I stood up. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the extent of
Riker's turning to look at his side was diminishing, while at the same time, the time period between his turns and the gurgling was increasing, while the length of each gurgle increased.
I held my breath. By now friends were calling to see how Riker was. I turned off my cell phone. I didn't want to miss a gurgle lest I miss a change in gurgling pattern. I dared to hope.
9:30 turned into 10:00. If Riker needed the Banamine he could have it. But no call to my wife was made. The gurgle pattern was becoming more pronounced. By 10:15, Riker had ceased looking at his side and was standing quietly as the rumbling in his gut rose to a crescendo. At 10:30 on the dot, his gut
let out a gurgle that would have been audible across a noisy grade-school cafeteria, and when it was done, Riker hunched his back, relaxed, and looking directly at me, let out a deep long sigh as if to say 'thank God!'
For thirty minutes I held my breath. Riker had ceased turning to look at his sides, and his guts now sounded like a boiler that had just been fired up. With his eyes now closed, the only thing that was keeping him standing was the cross ties.
A 10:30, I woke Riker and moved him back into his stall. After taking his first drink of the day, he scarfed down some hay, and then lay down to sleep.
As he slept, I set up watch outside his stall. My belief that he had turned the corner had given me renewed energy. Eleven soon became midnight, and with Riker now up and munching happily on his hay, I headed back into the house.
"Is he ready for the Banamine?" my wife asked groggily.
"I don't think he'll need it." I said with a smile.
As I recounted the events of the past two hours, she smiled broadly. "Thank God. I wasn't ready to lose him."
After divvying up the night watch schedule, she resumed her restless sleep on the couch.
My 1:00 check found Riker standing quietly. However, the gurgling from his gut was keeping all his buddies awake.
My wife's 2:00 check found the same. Confident in his improving condition, she let me sleep through my 3:00 check. I faintly remember hearing her return from the 4:00 check, hoping against hope that I would not hear her steps on the stair. I didn't.
At 7:00 the next morning, 24 hours after the colic had begun, my wife entered the barn to a weaving Riker. His routine had clearly been upset and he wanted out.
He got his wish, as had we.
other horse related stories by Michael Hillman
other stories by Michael Hillman