Long Dark Night of the Soul: Colic

Andante’s nickering. I’ve pulled the hay out of his run and swept the mats. He has a baritone voice, a make-out music, bad boy nicker. He drops a hip, under his breath, “Hay, b-baby.” No, he can’t have any for a while. I’d rather have a knife to my neck than see a horse with no hay in front of him, but in this case, I don’t feel a drop of guilt. Until he gives me something, he’ll have to wait. Grumbling for dinner is a happy chat compared to his moaning four hours ago.

I noticed him out of the corner of my eye this morning lying down in an odd place. A couple of hours later, I saw him yawning but he ate well all day. Nothing seemed wrong, but still, not quite right. The day before I’d taken a second lingering look at another gelding. Might be getting paranoid. Spring weather is a barometric free-for-all in Colorado. Blue sky but then minutes later, purple clouds, blustering wind, and lightning. Short sleeves one moment and hail the next. Add a twelve-hundred-pound horse with a delicate digestive system and anything could happen.

Andante is a Belgian-TB cross who hooked his owner when he was not quite a yearling. I guess you could say he was imported, arriving in a semi load of snotty “byproducts” from a PMU farm in Canada. They have boarded at my farm for almost twelve years now. No, he isn’t my horse. I just act like he is.

I do the afternoon chores, load up hay bags, soak alfalfa pellets. The mare gets her mush first, with her donkey and goat. Then the geldings tumble through the gate. Today, only two came in. I look and Andante is laying down. So unusual. After I coax him a moment, he gets up and walks just ahead of me into his run. I watch him take some hay, but the first glance out my window a few moments later and he’s down flat.

Each horse shows pain differently. Andante is the quiet type. He bends his hocks, folds his body, and sinks down with a thud. His head drops to the ground and his mouth opens just enough to see his bottom teeth. His flank is tight, and he moans. Fair enough, good boy. I call his owner and then the vet. Then a second vet, lucky that time. Meanwhile, Leslie called her mother to come watch her kids and she heads out. Now I wait. Andante is clear. He hurts. He knows I know.

Andante got up and down four more times, pawing in between but not thrashing on the ground. Just lying flat, much too still. He sometimes kicked hard at his belly. Good boy, I remind him. When Leslie arrived, he lifted his head bright with recognition, and then rested it down again. The kind of acknowledgment that sticks in your throat. I give her the timeline as she watches him, taking it all in.

Then she asks the question. It’s as much to herself as me. “Is he a surgery candidate?” We should all have an answer to that question ready before we need it. Details will vary, but with colic, a plan matters. Colic. The word chokes me silent. In hindsight, it might be called mild but, in the beginning, none of them are. This is serious. His health is good, he’s in wonderful condition. He’s bracing his torso, showing us every spasm of pain. We humans remain stoic. We put him above our fear and dread. It’s the one thing in our control. Staying calm lets him know he’s safe. Whichever way this goes, that’s our priority.

The vet arrives, and this part hasn’t really changed over the years I’ve known horses. Banamine for the pain, a rectal exam, a tube up his nose, and a bucket of “bathwater-warm” water. Andante is 17.2 hands. He doesn’t like strangers with needles. He also understands we’re trying to help. It isn’t an easy process and it takes the three of us asking small things. Then we wait again. Nobody makes that dramatic statement from every horse movie we’ve ever seen, “It’s up to him now,” but I tell Leslie that I don’t think today is the day. As he gets a bit more conscious, his flank stays soft. This part can be nerve-wracking. Will he need more meds? Will it resolve or get worse? And then, trumpets from heaven, a tiny fart. A few moments later, an honest fart. The vet suggests a brief trot. Andante and Leslie, both a little lighter on their feet, head to the arena, and he is happy to move. It is too soon to call the event over, so the vet leaves me armed with emergency meds for the night, just in case, and drives away.

His herd mates in the next pen yawn and lick. They’ve been watching and breathing with Andante. Releasing and blowing, there are no secrets in a herd. None of this has escaped the mare, two pens away and concerned every moment. Leslie stays to carry out the vet orders that she trot him five minutes an hour, for two more hours. It’s blog night, I come in to start writing. At ten p.m., I back out to check. Leslie was invisible tucked in the shadow of hay bales, her voice so tiny I can’t place her. We wonder about horses for the millionth time. There was an almost-full moon in the prairie sky, they call this month the Strawberry Moon and it’s a particularly sweet light. It was safe enough now to exhale our poison thoughts. It isn’t the first time she and I have stood this way, a line of defense for this good horse. As we have in the past, the day will come that we stand for him again, and we both feel dark nostalgia and tainted premonition. He has confirmed our greatest fear. He is mortal.

We all go to lunge, she gives him line as he trots around her. Happy to move, he tosses in a canter, flipping his mane for good measure. The ordinary magic of a horse in the moonlight and my ribs had to give way again for a small internal explosion; for this gallant horse who has grown past all expectation and the woman who has matched his stride. Bringing him back to his run, he nickered again, that totally irresistible voice that we will resist. He pushes at his gate. Rather than tease him, Leslie and I go our separate ways. I check him at midnight, and again at three a.m. He was laying on his elbow, ears up, resting. The Banamine would be nearly gone. Good signs but I assume nothing. Up at dawn, his pen vacuumed of all stray leaves of hay… and gift of horse gods, one small but glorious pile of manure. I doled out three insignificant handfuls of hay. He muttered at the stingy serving, not grateful in the least.

Andante is soaking in the morning sun, while we flounder between knowing the past and the future, profoundly blessed for this day, this horse, and all horses, at once dynamically powerful and ridiculously fragile.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward

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41 thoughts on “Long Dark Night of the Soul: Colic”

  1. Been going through the same thing myself. Had a freak storm last Saturday afternoon and evening and by Sunday morning Tango was barely able to move on his front feet. My tough boy who has never had a problem, suddenly is very vulnerable. Out comes the Banamine and all the other tools we keep “just in case.” Call to the vet, yep I am doing everything right. My mare Phoenix right by my side, letting me know I’ve got this…”you’ve help me get through rough times. You can get Tango through this.” Trimmer out Wednesday, so considerate with Tang working back and forth on each foot, careful not to cause pain. Now it’s Friday and each day he is a little better but I won’t breath a sigh of relief until he’s got his swagger back. I have learned over the years to remain as calm as possible for their sake, breath, and don’t take my horses for granted. Thank you for your blog and thank you for letting me share.

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  2. Brings back several scary episodes with Chico & the last (by that I mean he didnt have any more) one was a doozie – vet & I did have that question & answer – no to surgery. Luckily, bless his brave stoic heart, he did come thru it – and so happy to get his hay finally. He did well for several years after that – sort of maybe leaning towards Cushings – had to clip him spring & summer, and he took meds, couldnt chew up his hay anymore – cuds! So I soaked hay cubes for him (AND gave him a flake of hay because he really loved his hay – he could still chomp on it & spit it out. He was 28.
    Yes that sure does bring it back – the banamine, tubing & waiting for poop!
    We had quite a few older horses at the barn so did see usually mild colic with some of them – spring or fall.

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  3. Oh my god, what an emotional roller coaster. My nose was burning way before “Is he a candidate“ … even knowing full well the question was coming. I think we relive all our horses’ entire histories each time … while also PRE-living their futures. You so capture the community of such an emergency, I especially was caught up by the image of his herd mates licking and chewing, yawning and blowing. What comfort. Thank you.

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  4. A parallel event that occurred with my Fell Pony this weekend. The sight of that first poop was accompanied by my first exhale. Guarded, it was, as hours passed, overjoyed at each pile that emerged. The bad outcome of a previous colic with a mare haunted me but realizing there are good outcomes to be realized, should give us all hope. Glad he recovered.

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  5. Good morning!

    Interesting timing on this one! My horse colicked last night, too. I let her have a bit too much grazing for her dinner. Thankfully, She gave us two little piles while we were keeping her from lying down, so I knew it was just gas. I had one more dose of Banamine and that did the trick to relieve her discomfort (no vets where I live), but I share the sinking feeling when a horse comics. I also did some acupressure along her spine which resulted in some release of gas and a good lick and chew. She is fine and back to normal this morning, but she won’t get to graze as long today.

    You know, horses have to adjust to changes in diet, and my vet once told me that about three or four weeks into the change is a critical adjustment period for their gut. I will be sure to remember that next spring as we are about four weeks into being able to graze.

    Glad Andante recovered.

    You all take care!

    Jeannetta

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  6. A little to close to home, this one. I held my breath. Cheers to Andante, a competent vet, you, Leslie and your herd for getting this good boy through.

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  7. “I thought he was a goner when I left last night. But he’s a tough old bird, isn’t he,” my vet said. I can’t remember the first time it was that Cappy had colicked. But in the 20 years he was with us, it became an increasingly “regular” event as the years went by. Most of the time it was, in hindsight, a mild event. My mediation efforts would succeed sometimes and I would feel foolish when the vet would arrive to find an asymptomatic patient. But I was always encouraged not to hesitate to call.
    In the last year,at 28, he was having episodes spaced months apart. That he would rebound so strongly initially, I was glad not to have made “the call.” But it was not to be that last time. I was resolved to it.
    I echo the sentiments of Sherry. I am truly happy that it turned out well for Leslie and Andante. Thank you, Anna.

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  8. Whew…colic is so dreadful. I found myself holding my breath until it sounded like he was going to make it. SO relieved that this gorgeous, obviously sexy boy will live to enjoy another day. Hopefully many more gloriously perfect horsey days! You’re right Anna. Our greatest fear is the realization that they are mortal…

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  9. Leslie is truly a wonderful horse Mamma, dedicated and loyal with an amazing love for her special Andante. I remember the day Leslie was born, with the sweetest disposition that I have always admired. She is truly a very special daughter and has taught me so much about horses, and patience! And now here we have Anna, Leslies Barn Mama, her friend and confidant who loves her like her own unconditionally and with a profound dedication to all her barn friends people too! Thank you Anna for loving all of our family in that special and unique way that blesses us over and over again!

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  10. I’ve had several trips down that twisty road – with all the possible horrendous outcomes the imagination can create. It’s good to remember that most often, after the careful thinking through of the routine first steps, the kindly ministrations of our good vet, and maintaining calm control, the tense innards relax, the moment passes, and everyone can start breathing again. Good boy, Andante.

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  11. So relieved it ended well !! You write so effectively I was very tense until things turned to the positive. For me, maybe the most important part of what you wrote here , is the advice to know whether your horse is a candidate for surgery BEFORE you are in the crisis when emotions run high . Neither of mine would be. Cash due to his age, and Zen Bear due to the chronic bowel issues he has.

    Also, I read a research article that found a rather large percentage of colic surgery horses, required a 2nd surgery not long afterwards. Can one afford TWO of those $10K surgeries ? And would that even be in the best interest of the horse ? Hard decisions if it arises….

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    • I’d pay anything to have my horse back a sound 5 yr. old. It’s so much more complicated. True about your good boys, of but for the glory of watching them eat together. It’s about as much beauty as any of us are due. Thanks, Sarah.

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  12. Such a scary work, colic. Happy that e’thing turned out well. My vet has been to visit both my horses during colic episodes & I hope we don’t have more.

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  13. Having lost my “soul” horse to colic, the word still makes me sick to my stomach, even though it’s been more than 15 years.
    Not even at home, but 250 miles away, I opted for surgery, we were at a University and throughout the day it became obvious he wasn’t going to poop. The vet said the surgery went “perfectly”, it had been a physical colic, the only thing that would have fixed it was surgery. I went home, calling every day, but with not much encouragement and when I came back 5 days later I found him in so much pain, and miserable. Not the vet’s fault, no one’s fault. She opened him up again and his gut had just never started up again.
    I didn’t get on another horse for over a year and then it about broke my heart.
    I still watch, every time a horse is down and rolling, when that one didn’t eat all it’s hay, or one is late coming in for dinner, my heart pounding.
    Blessing be to you, Leslie and Andante I’m so glad he’s okay!

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    • Jane, reading this, I am aware as always how much our personal experience colors “facts”. Like your experience, I have known too many surgery stories that have gone wrong during or after. While many praise the results, I’m not sure I’d put a horse through it. It’s a personal choice, or it should be. So I always ask that horrible question… Thanks for this heartfelt comment.

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  14. Anna, I have tried to describe to friends who don’t have horses, what’s it’s like when horses just do something out of the ordinary that then causes an intolerable weight of fear to land squarely on my chest. In the future, I’ll refer them to your writing above, as you’ve captured it with flawless living detail. It happened again last night with my 20 year old Arab who has not ever been sick a day since he moved in here. From happily grazing at pasture to 103 fever, a heart rate of 60, and the sobering words from the Vet that “he’s very sick and he could easily escalate to critical”. He’s ok, he’s steadily been improving. I on the other hand feel like I’ve been run over by a semi. Their mortality is the bitter pill we must swallow in order to share their existence.

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    • Laurie, glad your horse is on the mend. I have been asking the same question most of my adult life. “What is this hold horses have on us?” Because it isn’t like anything else. If it isn’t that weight you describe, it’s the feeling that a thousand horses have galloped through…

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    • “Their mortality is the bitter pill we must swallow in order to share their existence.” Boy does that hit the nail on the head! Its a pill we knowingly swallow so that all of us who care so much for our dogs, cats AND horses in order to have the great gift of their lives with us – even on such a temporary basis. Laurie, That sentence really states it so clearly.

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  15. Thank you for sharing this. I have been through a few mild episodes with my mare. But, as you say, you don’t really know that it is mild until it’s over. Always frightening when you are in the thick of it.

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  16. I’ve lost two horses and the scars of the lessons learned will enable me to better serve the next horse who depends on me for life & death. When it comes to my animals, I will never again be talked out of following my instincts. I know them better than anyone else possibly can. Haven’t dealt with colic yet but when it comes calling at my ranch, I will be ready. And thinking of Andante.

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