When Your Horse Gets Sick

By February 2, 2018 Horses

We watched lightning in the distance, three flashes down low on the horizon on a dark night, the lights of towns hunkered underneath. Down low darkness over us. We were walking Tessie, who pulled on her lead rope to walk outside, around and around her paddock, around frozen ice and jagged footprints. She’d drop her head and walk. And I’d feel her confidence, walking, as we waited for the vet. We’ve had a lot of colic weather—quick, dramatic changes in temperature. The mares got through the first few extreme temperature changes but not so much this last week. We had rain and fog, for a day that was abnormally like spring. It was so wet, I noticed the horses didn’t drink, something that I’ve noticed  on wet days and not worried about. The next day the temperature plunged.

Tessie is so stoic, so subtle it’s hard to tell if she is colicking. Sometimes she doesn’t eat her hay bag in order to talk me into giving her loose hay. But on this low, dark night, she wasn’t interested in loose hay. She was cocking her hind leg, shifting weight, five minutes later she’d shift her weight back. She lay down in her stall, like she was ready to sleep. But she never lies down in the evening. She spoke with her body. I don’t feel good. I took her temperature. Normal. I called the vet, who asked if she was rolling while Bruce was walking her. Just then Tessie slowly buckled her legs to lay down. “Bruce get her up.” He pulled on her lead rope and she stood back up and walked.

“I’d better come. Better now than at 2 a.m,” Dr. Sink said. I hired her a year ago because I wanted her to help me with my fat horses. She tested the mares for insulin resistance and was surprised it was Morgen who has it. Dr. Sink is a petite woman, who speaks with confidence and hope, even when she offers bad news. She is tactful with the horses and with me. 

I could just as easily have gone back inside to read, figuring she was being picky, and Dr. Sink could just as easily have told me to dose her with Banamine, a painkiller that often eases colic, and watch her. When Tessie is rolling, even though it doesn’t look like thrashing, it’s serious.

When Dr. Sink arrived she listened to Tessie’s belly. She had good gut sounds on the left but not so much on the right. Dr. Sink stuck her arm, covered by a plastic glove and smeared in KY up Tessie’s backside. Tessie is so tame that she just stood. Doc pulled out poop that was a little dry and felt all the way in. She said, “There should be a cavity here, but I am feeling her spleen. Do you want to take her somewhere?”

Talk about being hit by a brick. Tears welled up but I wrangled them back. When it’s a big grief or a potential big grief I shut down my emotions. “I won’t do surgery,” I said.

“There’s no guarantee she’d come out of it,” Dr. Sink said, “I understand.” Bruce asked if he needed to get the trailer out. “You do.” Later he ticked through the steps–get the car out so he could get the truck out, get the tractor out so he could get the trailer out. Hook them up. All at 11 at night, on a very dark night. At least the roads were dry. I figured Kendall Road in Elgin is the closest clinic, about a forty minutes away.

Dr. Sink called and explained what she was feeling with Tessie’s innards. Then she gave the phone to me. The person I talked to asked if she were insured, if colic surgery was an option. I said no. She said that it would be $3,500 to put her on the table. $5,000 to 6,000 grand to do the surgery and up to ten grand if it gets complicated. She said she needed to know up front because the treatment options are different. I’ve heard it’s best to decide ahead of time whether or not to do a colic surgery, and I have thought about this and don’t want to put my horses through this. I have had friends who have opted for it, and their horses have lived long lives, but there are no guarantees it will be successful. I have gone all out treating dogs for various ailments. We spent a lot of money and sometimes added to the animal’s suffering and sometimes ended up with a dead animal. I was relieved that these vets didn’t add to my guilt about this decision.

Getting out of horses has been in the back of my mind because of the expense, and the work. (It’s been a long winter.) It takes a lot of effort to load the mares to trailer to Everbold. Right now it’s cold. Even the warmer days this winter are cold, or damp or windy. I am aware that life can change in an instant. That today Bruce or I might be healthy. Tomorrow the diagnosis. I am aware that I am in my sixties, now older than my mother was when she died. How would I find a home for a mare who has had colic surgery? Yes she is irreplaceable and a dear member of our family. She walked through multiple trail rides when I was rattled, when other horses were rattled, and she stayed steady and quiet. She comes from pasture when I call. She has taught me how to bust through fear and how to breathe. But maybe if this is her time, it’s her time. I was startled and ashamed at how hard minded this felt, at how ready I was to let Tessie go. Maybe I’ve let so many animals go, it’s rubbed my desire to go all out to help an animal hard and smooth like a well-worn path.

I sometimes think of selling the mares, but how can you sell members of your family? Morgen has lived here since she was a yearling. Tessie has been here for ten years. And working with them forces me out of my chair and head and back into my body and the world again. I’m one of those people who would be happy reading and writing all day, but research has shown this is as unhealthy as smoking. But if this was her time, well, then okay.

We pulled into the clinic and took Tessie to her stall. She had not pooped in the trailer. (Often taking a horse for a trailer ride will induce them to poop, though Tessie will rarely poop there, but this was a long, twisty ride.)

Dr. Easm looked as young as a college student, with long brown hair, but she got to work, getting Tessie’s vitals. She took a two inch wide plastic tube and pushed it through Tessie’s nose. Tessie sat back and backed into the back of the stall. Then she pumped water into it to create a siphon to see how much was in Tessie’s stomach. Foam and a tiny hay flakes came out.

“Tessie this will hurt but we’re trying to help,” I said. I have learned that things go better when I explain them to her.

Then they pumped water and oil into her stomach. Dr. Easm said that water is better for breaking up impactions than oil, but they were using oil as a marker to make sure everything comes through. She said Tessie behaved fairly well, for not being sedated. We can’t sedate her because that causes her to colic as well.

Then she shaved patches from Tessie’s lush coat for an ultrasound, but she didn’t get much of a read when she pressed it against her because she is so fat. She was looking to see if Tessie’s intestine hooked over the ligament between her kidney and spleen. 

 Dr. Easm was kind to my apologies about Tessie’s weigh, saying they are a difficult breed to keep at a proper weight. She offered to do blood work to see if anything changed from this fall because I am startled at how much weight she gained in such a short time. 

When she tried palpating Tessie (sticking her hand up her back side to feel her organs) Tessie kicked out. I’ve never seen her kick that hard. It looked like both pain and anger to me. She felt dry manure up there, but couldn’t go farther.

Dr. Easm explained the next thing to try was giving her a shot that would shrink her spleen and allow the intestine to flip off the ligament between the spleen and colon. This is something they try before surgery. Then they trot the horse for ten minutes

So Tessie trotted up and back on mats along an aisle, her big belly rocking back and forth. She seemed happy to move. Both Dr. Easm and her assistant took turns trotting her. They said Tessie was the second horse that day that they did this with. I was glad that I didn’t have to move that fast.

It was 2:30 and Doc said we could leave. Bruce unhitched the trailer and we drove home, the sky still dark, still low, close to the horizon.

Tessie improved over the next two days. Dr. Easm said that she had water backed up behind the impaction and it busted loose in watery diarrhea. Bruce and I were greatly relieved that she began passing manure and was mildly interested in food. But her liver enzymes were high because of bile being backed up due to the impaction.

Tessie did not nicker when I walked up. I was in such a daze and so relieved she’d survived the colic, that it took a few days to  realize how serious the liver problem was. Dr. Easm says research shows that this commonly happens after a displacement, so they put her on SMZ and Metronizodal to take care of the infection. I later read that Metronizodal can change the ph of the gut when the liver is enflamed and it is supposed to stop diarrhea. When I got a copy of her labs I gasped. Her AST, GGT, Amylase were high. (AST and GGT check for liver damage. Her Lipase was off the scale, and the high Amylase indicate her pancreas is also angry.) Her glucose was high. Her sorbitol dehydrogenase was high, which also shows her liver was angry. She was also anemic. A friend has said that livers process “shit” and that they can regenerate quickly. She has insisted there is hope. 

Dosing her with antibiotics has been dreadful. I tried hammering all 28 pills under wax paper and fragments flew all over the kitchen. There were no dosing syringes at Farm and Fleet so I picked up syringes made for needles and cut off the ends. My syringe jammed and broke loose spraying antibiotic all over our front window.

Even though she was bright, Tessie didn’t eat the first day she was home. Her not eating or drinking  terrified me, that she’d colic again, so Dr. Easm suggested I wash her mouth out with water after the antibiotic.  

Dr. Sink suggested a bran mash made to the consistency of a milk shake to get something moving through her, to entice her to drink. I poured Bruce’s wheat bran for baking into Tessie’s bucket and wet it. At the store the next day we noticed all the wheat bran was sold out and I wondered if other horse owners made midnight runs to buy it. Bruce and I headed to town where I bought a mortar and pestle from Bed, Bath and Beyond and a paste tube of electrolytes at Farm and Fleet. I threw the electrolytes away. Having the right tools has made the whole endeavor easier. A friend suggested I make a paste with applesauce and use an old wormer tube. It was such a relief talking to her because she’s been through similar things with her horses. And like me wants to do more than just ride her horse. I ordered Milk Thistle and a dosage syringe from Smart Pak to support her liver and was very grateful the package arrived from the east coast within 48 hours with their standard free shipping. 

But Tessie is still not right. Fjords are not picky eaters and she’s not real eager to eat. I hold my breath every time I walk to the barn in the morning, and heave a sigh of relief as loud as the sliding door opening, when I see her standing in her stall waiting, and when I see she’s eaten most of her hay and drunk half her bucket. Hope is slowly pushing its way back into my heart. 






  • Gloria says:

    She’s brave and beautiful. I am so upset she was so sick I’m nearly in tears. You did it again, Katie Andradki, took me right into the moment.

    • katiewilda says:

      Thank you so much for your empathy. She is doing much better now. Yesterday she was bucking and playing. And she ate her hay last night.

  • elaine says:

    Big prayers of healing for Tessie!!

  • she’s such a cutie!!

  • I’m so sorry about Tessie, Katie. I hope she continues to improve. I hope YOU are doing okay with all of this worry and concern. I’m glad you processed this by writing about it. God bless!

    • katiewilda says:

      Thanks so much. She’s eating her hay much better. I think the ulcer meds have helped a lot. I’m doing all right. The first few days she was home, I was very uneasy because she wasn’t eating and that is so bad for horses. Now my big challenge is to work in a half hour walk for each of them during the day, when I can’t ride. (I don’t want to ride here at home because the ground is hard etc.) I may train her to drive this spring as that is fabulous exercise…

  • Lynn D. Morrissey says:

    Katie this was such a nail-biter to read…. and I so feel your angst. You love Tessie as your beloved family member and friend (who loves you unconditionally as not even friends do sometimes…pets are so amazing), and you want want is best for her and for her not to be in pain. It sounded awful, and I have never heard of colic used in that way. Chevy had intussusception as a puppy… and it was delicate surgery w/o which he would have died… but he was young. Yes, it was expensive, but not nearly the cost of what it would take for Tessie’s surgery, and your odds don’t sound nearly as good. A puppy bounces back. But now, he is going on 15 in July, and we almost had to put him down. We actually had the appointment. Surgery alone would have killed him. We prayed. He rallied. God heard and was merciful. He has heard your prayers and given you more time. I’m so glad for you. This speaks so powerfully of the Lord’s tender mercies. I think you did the right thing… all you could do under the circumstances, and the Good Lord caused her to rally. I’m so happy for you. Enjoy these times. Love you!!!

    • katiewilda says:

      I am so glad to hear that Chevy is still with you. Fifteen is an amazing age for a dog. That is so true about the Lord hearing my prayers and letting Tessie rally and come back. I have to work to get her weight off, which will be a challenge too…I am looking forward to trail riding season…Love you back.

  • Wilma Christine Guzman says:

    Sorry to hear of your beloved horse’s health struggles. She has been a steady and faithful companion to you. In a lot of ways this is like the “practice runs” we ourselves have with close calls in life – the cancer diagnosis or surgeries of family members, the car that swerved head-on into my lane a while back (I managed to avoid). We realize that each day we are able to greet a sunrise and sunset is a gift.
    I’ve recently cut up my Dad’s last year horse calendar, pasted it on 2 strips of bristol board beside his bed in the nursing home – as he also loves the company of horses.

    • katiewilda says:

      Thanks so much. What you say is so well said and kind. I kept thinking about how hard it was to deal with her antibiotics before I got the proper tools and how would I ever handle Bruce being ill. You are so right that each day we have our health is a wonderful gift. I’m so glad you managed to avoid the car that swerved into your lane head on. What a wonderful thing to give your father. I also wonder if he would enjoy a Breyer horse by his side. They make some beautiful ones these days. Many hugs to you as you visit and tend your father.