Out of the Woods

One of the horses, a gelding, settled in to the new barn right away, making himself popular with the staff for his calm demeanor and habit of grazing quietly in turnout. The other, a mare, has seemed tense and worried, though still willing enough to get out every day. It was a relief when finally she dropped her head and relaxed for the first time on a trail ride in the woods last Friday.
At 18, the mare Nacari is no longer sound for much more than trail rides. A suspensory ligament tear almost a decade ago never healed properly, or was reinjured.  Back in Seattle my trainer encouraged me to retire her in 2009, and though I had my misgivings, I complied, and sent her to a facility in Sacramento. The reports were never encouraging; she lived alone in a 20 by 20 pipe stall and they hadn’t been able to find her a friend to live with. In the summer of 2011, we were leaving the west coast and I wouldn’t leave Nacari in California. We shipped her east to join our other horse at the new barn in New York.
She arrived with a long mane, strong bare feet, with a wild defiance in her eye and none of the ground manners she had known when she left. We started her on some light work on the walker, to see if she was sound, and she was. Over the next four years we found that real ring work was always too much for her, but she had a great attitude about riding outside, especially with another horse. She was a serviceably sound horse for that job.
It brought me tremendous joy to be able to spend many good days with this horse whose show career had ended much too soon. On reflection, retiring her at a barn far away and not seeing her for a whole year, she must have felt abandoned. I saw her look of recognition when she greeted my youngest son in New York. She groomed his hair in just the way she always had when she towered over him because he was four and so was she; we are her people as much as she is our horse. Retirement far away was truly a mistake. My mistake.
She had but two days of ill health over our four years at the last barn in New York; one when she got anaplasmosis from a tick bite. An alert staff member  noticed that she was especially quiet in turnout and thought to take her temperature: it was dangerously high. The other was on a December day two years ago. I finished riding her and she seemed agitated and unsettled. When I put her in her stall she turned and looked at her belly. She pooped, and curled her lip, and tensed her belly muscles, looking for just like anyone with bad stomach cramps. We called the vet.
Colic is unarguably the leading medical cause of death in horses. It refers to a range of gut-related conditions, and can be caused by horses not drinking enough water, or consuming sand, or bad hay, or weather, or change of feed, or you know, Tuesday. Some barns keep a supply of banamine and administer it when a horse looks seriously colicky, right around the some moment that they send someone to call the vet.
In this case, Nacari pooped and pooped until it was liquid diarrhea, and the vet pronounced it colitis and not colic. She responded to meds, recovered, and we pretty much forgot about it.
But when you change barns, you watch, because changes in weather or feed can upset a horse, and anything that upsets a horse can make it colic.
Saturday we were on our way to the new barn when I got the call from the manager, saying that Nacari was looking colicky, they’d given her banamine, and they had called the vet. It speaks highly of staff that they took the time to call me even though they already knew I was on my way over, and only minutes away; many barns would have waited for an owner to arrive.


The horse was visibly distressed. Her groom F. was walking her outside on the grass. Nacari was curling her lip and pausing to kick at her stomach; sometimes the cramps in her belly were so strong her hind legs would buckle under her. The vet was an hour away.


I stood with the barn manager and told her that though I love this horse and I have owned her fifteen years, she is not a candidate for an expensive belly surgery. This is my decision. I have other horses. I have a great emotional attachment to the horse, but the recovery from a big colic operation requires many months of careful rehab, and it seems unfair to ask it of a horse that’s not in great shape to begin with. Perhaps another owner would make a different decision. Perhaps even my husband, who has authorized, watched, and paid for a belly surgery on a mare of a similar age. I told this to the barn manager because in a crisis, a real crisis, where the vet has come and I have to choose between putting my horse on a trailer to go to the hospital or putting that animal to sleep, I might need some help sticking to the right decision.
The vet on call was on her way. She suggested another, stronger drug than banamine, but only if the horse seemed not to be responding. She was not responding. The other drug was tried. F. continued to walk her, back and forth on the grass. The mare flung herself onto the grass a couple of times.
F. brought the horse inside in anticipation of the vet coming. We took the hay out of her stall. The vet on the phone said that if she’d lie quietly and not thrash that it would be okay to let Nacari lie down in her stall. They let her lay down in her stall. She looked exhausted. Were the drugs starting to work, I wondered. Was the light in her eye returning, and the panic leaving?


People die. Cats die. Tiny mice die. Dogs die. Hamsters die. Giant whales die. Horses also die.
When you get a horse, you don’t think of it ever being sick or injured or dying. You imagine the happy times you’ll spend together. The riding in the sun, the ribbons in the show ring, the quiet moments brushing in the crossties or grazing on a grassy hill. You don’t imagine the clammy hours you’ll spend holding your horse for the vet while she puts in an IV. You fail to picture the thousand-plus vet bills for sutures when they get kicked by a pasture pal. You pretend you won’t ever have to tell a vet, “This horse is not a candidate for surgery.”
When you get a horse you don’t think about it ever being lame or sick or having to decide about its quality of life issues.
People don’t talk about their horses being lame or sick. Especially do not talk about their horses’ injuries on social media, where it’s all birthdays, graduations, new babies, and political outrage filling your timeline. Horses go lame and they do get sick. Maybe it’s superstition, or decorum. Few talk about it.
Certainly, the health records of performance horses are a closely guarded secret, because if an animal is ever for sale, it will be presented to the world as never having had an off day. Nacari is no longer a performance horse. She was bred to be a performance horse, sold to us at a premium price, and we put what we felt was all the best training into her that money could buy.
Many performance horses trickle down through a series of owners, as their physical capabilities diminish they are sold for less money to less and less experienced riders, ending their days teaching beginners to walk and trot, going around in a big oval in a lesson program. Older horses are great to learn on. We are stuck holding the bag with Nacari, being her first and last owners.
By the time the vet arrived, Nacari was finally showing some relief from the drugs. Her vitals were good, and the vet put on a long glove, lubed up, and performed a rectal exam; she didn’t find anything. 
The facilities manager was called in to put some hardware in the ceiling, and he brought a ladder and a drill, and drilled the pilot hole and put a screw eye in the ceiling. Nacari looked slightly alarmed but did nothing more than raise her head. Next they put a long tube up her nose and down into her gut and pumped about a liter of mineral oil in. “This’ll be through in about 18-20 hours,” said the vet, interrupted by the horse’s coughing and farting. When the oil was in, she pulled out the long tube as quickly as she could. The barn manager went to get a clipboard to write down the vet’s instructions.
The vet prepared to put an IV catheter in Nacari’s neck while I held her. First she shaved a square patch where the big jugular vein runs under the skin. Then she injected two spots with a topical antiseptic, one the square patch for the catheter and another anchor point a few inches away. She made two braids in the horse’s mane securing it with adhesive tape.

The vet injected the long IV needle and secured the catheter in several places with a needle and strong black thread. Then, her phone rang. The vet was on call until Tuesday. The first call was from the office. There were people buying a horse in Kentucky with an urgent question for her. She said she’d call back when she could. She hung up, started the next stitch. The phone rang again. It was someone else from the office, with the same message. She said that she would call back when she was finished. She tied off the stitch.
Her phone rang two more times, regarding the same emergency, 900 miles away. I’m not sure what sort of veterinary emergency requires a person to call a vet who is already handling another emergency in another state. I wondered aloud, and with a full coating of sarcasm, if they have veterinarians in Kentucky. The vet seemed to appreciate my query.


The catheter was attached to a pair of bags of fluid hanging from the ceiling, one with calcium and one without. I stood holding my horse long past the time when I was free to let her go. Someone had to tell me I could leave her. She wandered to the corner where her hay had been before, and ate whatever scraps she could find. I hung up her halter and lead rope. She gave me an angry look.


The vet cleaned up. The barn manager took notes on flushing the catheter and swapping one of the empty bags of fluid for the third full one. We took turns holding that bag; at 12 pounds it felt like a baby, just a few weeks old. Or a floppy cat maybe. The mare would get half sized portions of food, twice as often for the next 24 hours.
She looked like she was feeling better already.


I checked on her the next day. The catheter was out. She’d spent the morning eating grass, safely rolling in mud, tossing her head and enjoying the drop in temperature. Her groom was cleaning her legs in the wash stall. I had to cajole her into an ears-forward photo, playing peek-a-boo until I got the one I wanted. But I can see she is feeling better, and she can see that so am I.


2 thoughts on “Out of the Woods”

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