Cold Snap and a Sick Horse
By midday, he appeared a bit better. His temperature had dropped, and he seemed less distressed, but he hadn’t yet made any manure. He plodded beside me uncomplainingly, head down, eyes heavy from the medicine. We wore a circular path about 50 yards in diameter into the snow of the pasture. With each step I silently chanted: Come on, get better, come on, get better, come on, get better.
The bitter air burned my nose and lungs, forcing me to inhale through the fabric of my scarf. Our breath plumed and lingered in the still air around us. The only sound was Nibbs’s heavy breathing and the snow squeaking under our steps in the dry cold. Gregg and I took turns, saying little, but glancing meaningfully at each other.
By 3:30, Gregg had already made a few calls. The nearest veterinarian with a large-animal surgical facility was out of town and unavailable. The next nearest place was Manchester, about a two-hour drive south on icy roads. Our horse trailer was blocked by a snow bank and didn’t have snow tires.
Gregg tried to cheer me. “Sometimes the motion of a trailer ride gets things going again,” he reassured me, “and when you drop the tailgate at the other end, there’s manure.” He didn’t muster much enthusiasm, though. We knew we had to make a decision before Kelsey got home from school. If we chose surgery, we’d have to truck Nibbs immediately. He might not survive, and if he did, his chances of recolicking were great. Even with a professional-courtesy discount, colic surgery would run into thousands of dollars, payable regardless of the outcome. If we chose to forgo the surgery, he would likely die slowly, or Gregg would have to shoot him.
We looked up to see Kelsey stepping off the school bus. “I’ll go dig out the horse trailer,” Gregg said. He had to jump-start the tractor, because the diesel fuel turns viscous at subzero temperatures. It took about 20 minutes to work the trailer free, and another 20 minutes to hook it up to the truck.
Our fingers refused to cooperate, and the plug for the trailer lights shattered in the cold. Dusk was already deepening, but we’d have to make do without the trailer lights.
Kelsey had taken over walking Nibbs around the snow-packed circuit, changing direction every so often and encouraging him to stay on his feet. She had draped her arm around his neck and was whispering to him as they circled slowly.
It was fully dark by the time we led Nibbs through the barn to the waiting trailer. The other four horses stretched their heads over their stall doors to sniff curiously as he went by. He stopped momentarily in front of Jazz’s stall. The two geldings were fast friends and pasture buddies. They held their heads close, quietly exchanging exhalations. I wondered whether they knew that this might be their last meeting. Even Jane, who ordinarily pinned her ears and grimaced menacingly at Nibbs, nickered as he went by.
The ride to Manchester was long and silent. Kelsey kept glancing back to make sure that Nibbs was still standing. I thought of them cantering in our pasture the previous summer, both brown manes blown back. Gregg was likely thinking about how powerless he was to make everything better.
Nibbs’s head hung even lower when we backed him out of the trailer in Manchester. He hadn’t made any manure. Steam rose from under his blanket and crystallized in the freezing night air. Our only comfort was the glow of light from inside the animal hospital, where we hoped he could get some relief.
The veterinarian on call, a tall, efficient woman, consulted with Gregg and checked Nibbs’s vital signs. He was staggering now, barely able to stand. She listened through her stethoscope for gut noises. “We should tap it,” she said.
Gregg nodded. I held Nibbs’s head and stroked him while they shaved a small patch and scrubbed it with disinfectant. They tapped his side with a large syringe and drew out serum, tinged ominously with blood and fecal matter. No one said anything. No one had to. Surgery wasn’t a viable option once the intestine had ruptured.
Gregg put his arm gently around Kelsey’s shoulders and drew her aside, talking softly to her. I stroked poor old Nibbs’s head and told him what a good horse he was and that I loved him.
Gregg led Nibbs away through the clinic while I took Kelsey back to the truck. I rolled his leg wraps and tucked them behind the seat. Kelsey cried silently. Gregg came back a few minutes later, looking suddenly much older.
The temperature that night dropped to a record -38°. The old farmhouse furnace churned and struggled to keep the house at 62°. The next morning, despite how we felt, the chores had to be done. I dreaded going into the barn, but knew I had to.