Two days ago Zephyr’s owner, Nancy Morgan, called me in the morning to ask my advice about something that was happening with her other horse, Tempo. After returning from a light trail ride, the 7 year old Foxtrotter began to show signs of being in distress. He was pawing at the ground, rolling, and making odd sounds. She asked me if I thought he might be colicing. Now Colic in its most basic definition mean pain in the abdomen and is a clinical sign rather than a diagnosis. So I said “Yes, that is colic, but that could mean a lot of things.” She asked me what I would do if the horse were mine and I told her call her vet and put him on notice that there might be a real problem and then watch the horse to see if things got better, worse or just held the same. I advised to not let the horse lay down and roll. Just laying down, if the horse is quiet about it, is not a problem in my experience, but often when they roll and thrash around they make things worse. I suggested she keep him up and walking if possible. (I have since been informed by a vet friend that this is not a great idea for many, hard to explain reasons. She said a more simple rule of thumb is that if you think you need to walk your horse, call the vet, if you haven’t already and get them on their way.)
I did not hear back from Nancy , so when I was finished with the day’s training and riding, my wife and I drove over to check on things. When we arrived we found Nancy, Tempo and a local vet all standing together in the yard of her property. She had called the vet out because Tempo appeared to be real pain and she wanted to get him some relief. By the time we made it out there though, Tempo seemed fine. He was bright eyed and alert and though we could see he had been sweating a lot earlier, all signs were that he was okay. We took our leave as the vet was packing up and told Nancy we would see her out at our horses mid day next to ride with us.
10:30am the next morning we get a call asking if I could bring my truck and trailer over to pick up Tempo and haul him up to the Vet school in Corvallis. It seams he started having problems again in the morning and by the time the Vet arrived he as down again thrashing madly on the ground. The description of this sounded to me more like a seizure, but I am not a Vet. However, the one who was a Vet felt that this was serious enough that the trip to Corvallis might be in order This is the only place available around here to get surgery for obstruction colic on a horse. By around here I of course mean a 4hr haul away.
I have hauled a few horses up for people over the years and I knew it was going to be costly, but Nancy said she had insurance for colic. Normally the decision whether or not to make the trip in order to be able to try the surgery solution, if required, is made really hard by the fact that one very easily pays more for the treatment than the horse cost. Add to that the fact that the success of such surgery is far from assured. Weigh all this against the love the owner has for the animal and the desire to do everything they can to help. I have seen friends agonize over not being able to afford it and being forced to put a beloved animal down when it became apparent that standard treatments where not working, so when Nancy said she had insurance I was pleased to hear it and happy to spend a day out of my life to help a hurting animal.
So I hook up the trailer and head over, and again when I arrive Tempo is up and looking around and quite calm. But when I get close I see his has been drenched with sweat again, one side of his head is covered with mud and his has several small bloody wounds from where he was thrashing on the ground. The vet gives him another small dose of pain meds just to be sure, then we load him up. He walking right in to the trailer and looks around brightly as if to say “Cool, where are we going.”
For the next 4 hours Nancy and I talk about many thing, including the options she is facing when he gets to the hospital. I can see she is truly torn by her desire to help her equine friend and her knowledge that money is tight, but she is determined to do what she can. The more she talks about the symptoms the more it sounds to me less like him laying down and rolling from the pain and more him collapsing and thrashing uncontrollably.
So we get there finally, after stopping once on the way to check on him only to find him standing happily and looking for us to take him out of the trailer. We unload and the vet starts her exam, assisted by some of the students from the Vet school there. His weight 1175lb, temp is fine, heart rate a little high, but that is not unusual for a horse just coming out of a trailer in a strange place where people start pocking and prodding him. The exam continues and they cover all the bases; rectal, gastronasul, abdominal tap, ultrasound, the works. End result, they can find nothing wrong. The vet informs us that it is not uncommon for them to find nothing in colic cases. She says some horses are just really wimpy when it comes to pain and any sort of tummy ache can appear to be killing them. Nancy, who had seen Tempo’s reactions, looks unconvinced. I am little surprised that our suggestion that it looked much like a seizure seems to be dismissed out of hand, but again, I am not a vet.
At this point in the process I head out to the truck to make a couple phone calls while Nancy waits for the surgeon to talk to her. After a while she come out and tells me that Tempo is going to be staying a few days for observation, but she looks really shaken so I press her for what else might be wrong. Turns out her insurance only covers Colic surgery and only up to 60% of the value of the horse, so the whole thing was going to come out of her pocket after all. We are talking upwards of $4,000. Keep in mind she bought the animal for $3,500.
Being the trooper she is, Nancy recovers quickly maintaining the position that she was not going to regret things and even if after a few days they never find any reason for his pain, at least then he can come home and with any luck, the problem will never return and she will have many great years with him.
All this got me thinking about how I would handle this situation if it had been Orion and I came up with four possible outcomes to consider.
1: I take extreme measures, spend several thousand dollars only to have the treatment fail in the face of serious colic event and I lose him anyway.
2: I take extreme measures, spend several thousand dollars, the horse recovers and I bring him home only to wonder if it might not happen again.
3: I treat the colic, do everything I can by way of standard treatment and end up being forced to put the animal down when it becomes clear that it is not gong to recover.
4: I do everything I can by way of standard treatment and he recovers, then I wonder about the future.
I am not going to make any sort of recommendation as to which is the best way to go or even which way I would choose myself. You might have other alternatives I have not considered. What I am recommending is that everyone think about this and discuss the options while their horses are happy and healthy. Making the choice when your horse is laying on the ground in extreme pain will be a whole lot harder.
It is my firm hope none of us are ever faced with this situation, but experience tells us some will.