In the last three years, I have responded to a pretty significant number of horse colic emergencies with my wife the equine veterinarian, Dr. Lacher. Most of them are mild gas colics or impactions, and with some good drugs and a few gallons of water, they are all set. Some of them are more serious, and require either immediate colic surgery, or euthanasia. Those are pretty tough, and I’ve helped send some to the referral hospital, and I’ve helped send some to heaven.
This week it was our turn to have the emergency. Ernie, who is our off-the-track Thoroughbred (and my main competition for Erica’s heart), decided Tuesday evening that he was going to be the center of attention. Outwardly, he presented the typical colic symptoms; laying down, rolling, looking at his side, getting up, laying right back down, and being generally uncomfortable. Soon after starting this, he began throwing himself on the ground, which meant he was really hurting.
Erica sedated him, and then palpated him to see what was going on. (In case you don’t know, that involves a glove that goes up to her shoulder, and a lot of lube. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.) She can usually tell what’s wrong by feeling an impaction, or distension, or a major gas build-up somewhere that’s not getting past a certain point. She also checks to see if the horse is dehydrated, or doesn’t have any gut sounds, along with their heart rate, lactate (which is very similar to a blood sugar test), and temperature.
Ernie had a low lactate and heart rate, both of which are good. His temperature was 102, which is high, but not terrible. His organs all seemed to be where they are supposed to be, although the walls of his small intestine were thicker than they should have been. This meant that whatever was causing him so much pain was deeper inside than she could reach with her arm or the ultrasound. She gave him a shot to ease his pain, but it didn’t last very long, and soon he was throwing himself on the ground again.
This is a point where horse owners have to make a really tough decision. They can send the horse to a referral hospital for surgery, which will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $6,000 – $10,000, or else the horse has to be euthanized, because they don’t recover on their own from situations like this. We elected to go for colic surgery.
It turned out that Ernie had entrapped his small intestine. There is a spot near the liver and the spine that’s a sort of hole created from several organs coming together, but not quite touching. For whatever reason, a bit of Ernie’s small intestine poked through this hole, which caused his abdomen to contract, which caused more of his intestine to be forced through the hole, which caused the abdomen to contract… you see the cycle. The surgeons had to enter into his abdomen through the incision they made in his stomach, point their hand towards his head, and reach their arm in all the way to the armpit to get to where this was happening. The small intestine tears easily, so they had to gently pull it out with a thumb and forefinger a tiny bit at a time. All in all, they pulled seventeen feet of intestine out of that spot. I get a finger cramp just imagining that!
Once they got it all out, they pulled the small intestine out of his body to make sure it wasn’t torn anywhere, which would kill him if left untreated. It all looked good, so they put everything back where it goes, and sewed him up. The surgery took about two hours to perform. I learned a lot about colic surgeries in that two hours, despite the fact that it was 2:00 am when everything was done and he was standing up in a recovery stall, and I was ready to fall down from exhaustion. One of the things I learned was that Ernie would have died pretty fast if we hadn’t gotten him to surgery when we did, which is terrifying, because what if it had happened in the middle of the night when we were in bed asleep, or while no one was home?
Horses, man. Never a dull moment. I won’t complain about the cost of the colic surgery, because I got to see the entire thing, and believe me when I say they earned every penny of it. I’m grateful that we were in a position to provide it for him, and let him live. I hate that so often life and death becomes a financial decision rather than a medical decision. It happens with people too, not just with animals. I don’t know what the solution is to that problem, but I think it’s something that needs to be explored. If we still traded food and goods for services, I’d be happy to give the surgery team a truckload of vegetables from the garden! Well, the only thing my garden produced this year is Japanese eggplant, but that’s another blog post.
J. Boyd Long is an author, blogger, website developer, and the CFO of Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic. In his spare time (ha!) he likes to paint, read, canoe, and hike in the wilderness. You can subscribe to this blog in the big blue block, and future blogs will be delivered to your email. Warning: Subscribing may increase your awesomeness quotient. Please feel free to comment, and share this blog on your favorite social media page! To learn more, please visit JBoydLong.com
Kindness is an attribute to be cultivated.
Thank you so much for sharing this experience especially from the viewpoint of a horse~husband!
My husband and I read this together and found this to be insightful. We have Springhill Equestrian facility as our vet of choice since moving to this area. We have found them to be as passionate and caring as we are about our horses! Bless you!