Cold Snap and a Sick Horse
In winter, I’m grateful for small things: a steaming mug of coffee; warm, dry socks; a plowed path to the manure pile. Here in north-central Vermont, it seems too much to ask that the water not freeze in the horses’ buckets in the barn by morning, or that the truck turn over without complaint on the first try.
Last week we had a cold snap. A friend driving by on Stagecoach Road stopped in to say that as he was passing our place, his car’s outside thermometer registered lower than it ever had: -36° Fahrenheit. Our house and the adjacent veterinary clinic lie in a low valley flanked by two rivers, with mountain ranges east and west. On clear winter nights, the cold settles deeply around us.
These cold snaps don’t usually last long, but four or five days of temperatures well below zero strain both mechanical and organic things. Bolts refuse to turn, keys break, pipes burst, conversations are truncated. My husband, Gregg, and I arise to set about our daily chores with resignation and little discussion. Everything is an effort.
Even the barn chores take longer. Manure freezes hard onto stall floors, and we have to whack it with a shovel to pry it loose. We keep a pickax next to the shavings pile to break the frozen sawdust into manageable chunks. We keep a hair dryer in the barn on a hook above the hose bib so that we can defrost the valve enough to fill buckets. Our fingers go numb and refuse to work properly, and we know how much they’ll hurt when they thaw.
A few years ago, after turning out the horses on just such a morning, Gregg looked out the kitchen window and noticed Nibbs swinging his head repeatedly to look at his flank. Then Nibbs dropped to his knees and began to roll.
“Damn,” Gregg said.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Gregg had moved to the door and was struggling into his one-piece insulated barn suit. “I think Nibbs is colicking,” he said. He tugged his woolen hat low to cover his ears, picked up his veterinary kit, and went outside.
Colic, Gregg has told me often, is the equivalent of a human stomachache, except that horses can’t vomit — and for that reason, colic can be life-threatening. In Gregg’s estimation, horses have two significant design flaws: delicate legs and a detached colon (part of the large intestine). The majority of the organ isn’t anchored to anything internally, so its loops slide about as the horse moves. Sometimes the loops will twist, causing a pinch or a blockage, and perhaps even cutting off the blood supply.
Many colics can be treated by administering oil and medications designed to ease discomfort and relax the intestine. But sometimes colic requires surgery. The trick is to know which kind you’re dealing with. Until you determine that, you must keep the animal up and walking to encourage peristalsis, the internal movement of digestion. A horse in pain will desperately want to lie down, roll, and bite or look at its sides. If a colicking horse makes manure, it’s a hopeful sign — things are moving north to south again.
I struggled hurriedly into my own one-piece barn suit and followed Gregg outside. Despite the frigid temperature, Nibbs looked sweaty, with moisture freezing on his heavy coat. I blanketed him and walked him in circles while Gregg drew up a syringe of Banamine, a pain reliever and muscle relaxant.
We worked on him late into the morning, taking turns walking him, thawing our fingers, and praying for him to feel better. Gregg passed a lubricated tube up Nibbs’s nose and into his stomach to pump in warm water and mineral oil. He inserted an intravenous shunt. Every 20 minutes or so, he checked Nibbs’s heart rate and respiration and took his temperature, trying to determine whether or not his colic was surgical.
Performing colic surgery, especially when you’re several hundred miles from a veterinary school or specialist equine facility, is a high-risk endeavor. Horses don’t recover from anesthesia easily. They flail violently and can break their legs or otherwise injure themselves. Add to that the risk of infection from abdominal surgery, and the possibility that the intestine has already ruptured, and the prognosis is guarded.
Nibbs was 18 years old, bordering on geriatric status. He was also our teenaged daughter’s beloved first horse.
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