I stood in front of his stall and was overcome with dread. I didn’t want to go through this. I couldn’t stand to feel anymore, so I became uncomfortably numb.
A half hour before, I had finally made my way down to the barn to begin work. I was looking forward to getting on my horses. On the way, I paused to talk to Betsy. As we stood there chatting, three horses cantered into view inside their field. I thought, “What is Fellow doing?” as he dropped to the ground rather quickly. It was normal for two of them lie down every morning around that time; usually Betsy’s horse stood guard. But it was unusual for any horse to go down like that. I told Betsy I was going to watch him for just a couple more minutes, and I meant exactly two. Fellow got up again and then went down. With that I was on my way to the field to get him. He kept trying to go down as I led him to the barn. Whatever this was, it was happening fast. My heart was sinking as a special kind of grief only horsemen understand overtook me.
I asked someone to go get Aaron. He was the only person I wanted to help me. In addition to being a really good horseman, he and Fellow have a very special bond. I administered Banamine as Aaron held Fellow, doing his best to keep him upright. I also gave Fellow Gastrogard and Probios, which is standard practice with colics at my farm. Fellow is a drama queen. With a simple gas colic he will scare the daylights out of you. I hoped as hard as I could that in half an hour his pain would subside from the effects of the Banamine. I knew if it didn’t, we were dealing with something more serious. My gut was screaming something more was going on but I had to give the treatment time to work. The thirty minutes dragged by as we watched Fellow lie down, struggle to find a comfortable position, and get up, over and over. He was groaning. I knew this wasn’t going the way it should.
I had called my vet, Dr. Morgan Dove, once I had given the Banamine, to give him a heads-up that something bad was brewing. There was really nothing for him to do at that point because we needed to wait and see how Fellow would respond to the drug. The effectiveness of Banamine is a strong indicator of what you are dealing with when you have a horse suffering from colic. If the horse’s pain is not controlled by the Banamine, you are likely dealing with something more serious than an upset stomach. On the other hand, Fellow being an extremely sensitive horse meant that his tendency to work himself up emotionally could cloud assessment. I called Morgan again to tell him the Banamine was not working as we had hoped. He thought about it and advised me to give Fellow a touch of Dormosedan to try to get him through it. I thought this was brilliant. It would address Fellow’s anxiety, giving him the chance to calm down and allow the Banamine to work. It would take very little time, which was at a premium. Horses feel the effects of Dormosedan very quickly, but ten minutes later, the Dormosedan had little to no effect on Fellow. It was clear we were dealing with something horrible. Not that any colic isn’t horrible enough. I called Morgan for the third time in an hour and said, “We have to –“ he finished my sentence, “take him somewhere.”
It was Sunday. I called Wolf Creek Equine Hospital and listened through a message instructing me to call the answering service in the event of an emergency. Then I had to wait for the on-call vet to return my call. It seemed like hours but it wasn’t. She agreed Fellow needed to come to the clinic. Aaron asked, “How are we going to get him on the trailer?” I told him how Scotty and Willie had both walked on the trailer when asked and that Fellow would do the same because trusts us. Both Scotty and Willie died from colic. Sure enough, Fellow walked out of his stall and right onto the trailer. It was about an hour and a half after I had brought him in from the field. This was not a good ride for either of us but, fortunately, it was a short trip of about thirty minutes.
Katie, my weekend help, followed behind in her car. I don’t like it when people are around me during times like this. These types of situations are deeply personal to me. But I was glad she was there. Once we arrived, the on-call vet, Dr. Hartson, examined Fellow. By this time, Fellow’s face was banged up from thrashing around when he would go down. She asked me if Fellow was a candidate for surgery. I stared through her. My experience has been that colic surgery usually ends badly. While I have heard of good outcomes, it seems that for every one of them there are ten awful outcomes. I did not want to put Fellow through hell if this was to be his end, but I finally replied that if my vet thought it was a good option, then yes, he is a candidate. She said she had to ask in order to alert the surgeon that he was needed. By this time, Fellow was lying down in what I can only describe as a fetal position with his fore legs and neck curled toward his abdomen. I knew he was dying.
Everything I encountered while at Wolf Creek was designed to expedite action on behalf of the horse. They didn’t waste one moment. I’ve worked with horses throughout my entire adult life so I’ve worked with countless vets and surgeons. I know how things should go. The surgeon, Dr. Caniglia, arrived quickly and immediately took control of everything. Other staff arrived and it seemed that no matter how fast they moved, it wasn’t fast enough for him. This gave me comfort because someone other than me was now in control. This was clearly his territory, not mine. He thoroughly examined Fellow and then looked to me and said, “We are not going to manage this with medication. We need to either euthanize or perform surgery. What do you want to do?” It was a simple enough question. Earlier, I had called Morgan to ask his counsel and he thought I should give Fellow this chance.
About three hours after I brought him in from the field, Fellow was led into surgery. I believed this would be the last time I would see him, but I felt I had placed him in the right hands. I turned to Katie and said, “We have to leave now. It’s in their hands and they don’t need to deal with us.”
It had started to snow before I left the hospital. By the time I was close to home, the roads were covered and I had to have full concentration on driving. This was a blessing because I couldn’t think about what had just happened or what was probably going to happen. I had to think only about driving.
It was 8:30 p.m. when Dr. Caniglia called me. The feeling of dread washed over me as I answered my phone. I fully expected the call to begin with the words “I’m sorry….” but instead he said Fellow had made it through the surgery. The cause of the colic had been revealed as an epiploic foramen entrapment but all I heard was Fellow was alive. Epiploic foramen entrapment is the displacement of a segment or in Fellow’s case the entire 70 feet of small intestine through a small hole that separates the omental bursa from the peritoneal cavity. You should look this up, it’s amazing. Dr. Caniglia went on to outline all of the things that would probably go wrong and end Fellow’s life within the next few days but he ended by saying we wouldn’t even be having this conversation if we hadn’t gotten the horse to help as quickly as we did. I googled epiploic entrapment and found the prognosis for survival to be extremely poor.
In the following days, I didn’t allow myself to feel any optimism. I wanted to know how Fellow was doing but I didn’t want to call, because I feared the worst. I wanted Dr. Caniglia to call me with an update but at the same time I dreaded his call. I didn’t expect Fellow to live. Dr. Caniglia called me mid-day on Monday. Fellow was still holding his own. I could tell he was choosing his words carefully so as not to convey any optimism except for the fact that nothing bad had happened yet. He said the next 72 hours were critical. Later in the day, I went to visit Fellow. He had an IV from a bag hanging from the ceiling of his stall. Fellow just stood there. There was no light in him, not the usual beaming expression on his face, but my black unicorn stood before me and that was something to hang onto. The days crept by. I continued to dread the calls or texts from Dr. Caniglia but Fellow continued to improve until I had to begin thinking he just might make it through this after all.
One week after I had rushed Fellow to Wolf Creek Hospital for surgery, I was headed there to pick him up and bring him home. I don’t have the words to express how I felt. We still had rehabilitation ahead of us but Fellow seemed to be thriving.
I have learned a lot from this, and I want to share it because it could help others who find themselves in my and Fellow’s position and maybe save some lives.
This was a house of cards. If only one card went out of place, we would have lost Fellow. If we had not seen he was in trouble and taken immediate action, he would have died. It was pure luck I came down to the barn when I did and stopped to talk to Betsy in a place where I could see Fellow. A few minutes later and I may not have known Fellow was in peril until it was too late. We were also lucky that Fellow was in a place I could see him from outside the barn when he went down. Knowing Fellow, I think maybe he was looking for us to help him.
However, it wasn’t just luck that saved Fellow and that’s the part I want to share. I always have Banamine on hand and know how to give IV injections. It was not luck that I have a vet who answers my phone calls and texts without fail, who listens and believes me when I tell him something, trusting me not to exaggerate. It was not luck that I obediently did as he advised without question, which I could only do because I completely trust his judgment. Then there is Wolf Creek Equine Hospital. It was good fortune to have a surgical clinic less than 30 minutes from me with an excellent surgeon on staff. A longer trip would have meant certain euthanasia upon diagnosis because pieces of Fellow’s small intestine would have died by the time we got to the hospital. I had not previously thought of Wolf Creek as a surgical hospital, but that is what it is. It was my vet, Morgan, who advised me to take Fellow there. In my experience, New Bolton and the Dupont Scott Equine Medical Center are the most commonly thought of surgical hospitals in this area. Both are wonderful veterinary hospitals but neither could have helped Fellow in time. It’s important to be aware of all the resources available in your area. It really is the responsibility of the horse owner to be aware of them, not the vet. I am lucky that my vet was willing to make a local referral.
I’ve learned something about colic surgery, too. If you can give the horse the chance, it’s worth it. However, it is expensive. In most cases, I don’t think the vets really know what they are dealing with until they get in there. In that way it’s a bit of a crap shoot, but going forward, if the horse seems a good candidate, I feel I’ve got to give them the chance. If the problem is something that can be fixed, as in Fellow’s case, then you get a happy, healthy horse.
Do yourself and your horse a favor and have an emergency plan. There are situations where immediate decisions must be made, so try to consider them ahead of time. Examine how you feel about basic options before you are forced to address them under stress. You can talk with your vet about these kinds of scenarios ahead of time. Know whether you can or will consider surgery for colic and other emergency issues such as broken limbs.
My Basic Colic Plan
Horse presents with colic symptoms. I administer an IV injection of Banamine. I call my vet to alert him to the situation. I observe the horse for 30 minutes. If I see improvement, I watch the horse for longer. If no improvement is seen or if the situation worsens, I call my vet again. At this point it is time to take the horse to a veterinary clinic; I consider this to be a serious situation. Normally they check to see if there has been a rupture which requires euthanasia. If the horse is a good candidate for surgery in the vet’s opinion, I proceed. If they feel euthanasia is the best option, I grant permission. Note: This is a general plan. A different approach may be necessary depending on the horse and the colic symptoms.
- Have a vet you have a good relationship with. One who listens to you and who you trust. If you find yourself questioning their judgment, get a different vet.
- Know about any and all veterinary resources in your area. If you will be traveling with your horse, know what vet clinics and resources are near the location your horse will be stabled. Do this when planning the trip. Don’t wait until an emergency occurs because you’re not going to have the time to investigate your options.
- Know how to give IV injections and have the basics like IV Banamine, IV phenylbutazone and IV tranquilizer on hand. Be sure to have Gastrogard and Probios on hand for colics too. Ask your vet whether you should have anything else on hand.
- Know how to take your horse’s heart rate, respiration, and temperature.
- Have a way to transport your horse immediately in an emergency. If you have your own rig, make it your practice to fill your tank on the return from trips. If you don’t, find someone nearby who you can count on to ship your horse in an emergency situation—more than one person if possible because minutes count!
Having a plan in place just may just save your Unicorn.
Further reading: Horse Colic Surgery: Making Hard Decisions – The Horse