Cold Snap and a Sick Horse
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.
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.