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.


A Visit to the Vet (by Schwartz)

Typist is busy with packing this week, so I thought I’d tell you about my day. Me? I’m Schwartz. I am the cat. I learned to type using Twitter, where I have more followers than my owner. I call her Typist because in the beginning, she did all my typing.
Typist gets these ideas that I should have vaccine boosters even though I’m an indoors-only cat and only sometimes on rare occasions shoot through people’s legs to escape to the outdoors to eat grass, be creepy, and hide under the porch. Ok, once, recently, I did get a tick. Typist had to pull it out, and everything about it was really itchy from my perspective. But this shot thing was her idea, and once she gets one of these ideas I just get to go along with it like I don’t think it’s the worst thing ever, which I do.
People should keep more empty boxes around for me.

So Typist bought me a new crate for riding in the car, and started putting my food bowl next to it, and then just inside, moving it a little bit more every day until boring boring boring I had to go all the way in the crate just to eat my kibble. I was more interested in the box the crate came in than the crate itself. Typist thinks that the food-dish-moving-plan is a good system for getting me used to the thing. Sigh. Really all it meant was when I stuck my head in the crate this morning thinking I was getting breakfast, I got rudely shoved and then locked inside which was a bad mean trick and not as good as breakfast for sure.
I peed and pooped and barfed a little in the car on the incredibly long seven minute drive to the vet, but then I got bored with doing dramatic yowls about halfway there. I restarted the dramatic yowls in the waiting room just to scare the dogs generally and get the visit over with as quickly as I could.
There was a big bully dog all covered in hives having the jolliest time dragging his woman all over the room. He stuck his big stupid face right up to the bars of my crate and I hissed at him. He doesn’t even know about the big bulging belly on his woman, and won’t he be a sorry bully dog when that horrible human baby comes in a few months. No more sleeping on the sofa for Mr. Hives then! Ha, ha, ha.
There was a long-haired dachshund as well, and I get along fine with dachshunds, especially my home-dog Reggie, but this owner person wouldn’t let him off her lap what with the bully dog and the woman stumbling along behind him.

Typist tried to amuse me during the long wait by turning my crate so I could see this poor little runt of a kitten, living out his pitiful life in the adoption cage at the vet. Out here in rural Dutchess County, the local vets do a lot of the work that animal shelters do in more densely populated areas. They keep the unwanted dogs and cats right there in the lobby, where the suckers who already own pets will see them and take another one home, with any luck.

Typist wanted me to like the kitten as much as she liked the kitten, and made a huge boring fuss about the fact that he looked like a tiny version of me. Boring! 



The kitten climbed the bars and then jumped down and Typist said she wanted to name him “Gorilla.” 



Another silly woman came up and talked to Typist about the kitten and this woman asked at the front desk if she could take the kitten home. The kitten was already spoken for, so both Typist and that other woman had to be satisfied with the pictures Typist took.  The woman even asked Typist to send her the pictures. What is it with y’all and your pictures of cats? Haven’t you seen the Internet? Plenty of pictures of me there already.


When it was finally my turn to see the vet and get my shot, I didn’t want to come out of the crate. They charge Typist $2.50 “hazardous waste disposal” fees for cleaning the poop I do in the crate. The vet always comments about how big and strong I am. It’s like they’ve never seen a cat before, really.

Shots make me very tired.

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I went about my busy day, only to find myself stopping by a second time to see him.  This time he was sound asleep and not nearly as outgoing as before.  I asked a salesperson what it would take to adopt a cat.  Not being the sort of person who gets a cat on impulse, never mind from a big-box pet supplies store, I called my vet.   Surely they could talk me out of it.  This veterinary practice has cared for seven of my pets, and seen me through four cremations.  I asked the receptionist if I were interested in adopting a kitten who would the reputable shelters in the area be. The receptionist said he liked Purrfect Pals because they are a no-kill shelter, so a permanent home for a cat makes room for another.  On my third trip to the big-box pet supplies store that day, I picked up the cat that we would name Schwartz.