By: K.M. Thornton
Last Friday my eight-year-old unicorn left for the winter on a Brookledge truck from a stable just seven minutes from my home in Boise, Idaho to a show barn more than 14 hours away in Scottsdale, Arizona. This move was one of the most difficult decisions that I have had to make as an amateur rider. For the first time in years, I feel that I am experiencing exponential growth in my riding skills: I now own a nice show hunter, my personal schedule and logistics finally allow for daily riding, and I have solid local coaching that focuses on fundamentals. Why, then, would I make such a drastic decision to send my only horse, Sazerac, to a location that is essentially two flights away?
The answer: a preventative measure against colic.
“The word colic is a vague term that indicates clinical signs of pain in the abdominal cavity. It is not a specific disease but rather a combination of signs that signal the presence of abdominal pain in horses. These signs can range from mild to severe and can rapidly become a life-threatening situation. (1) “
On January 15, 2016, I was away at HITS Thermal for business when I received a call at approximately 7 pm from our barn manager/owner that Sazerac was showing signs of colic that included not eating his dinner, pawing, and trying to lay down. He had demonstrated the similar behaviors one-week prior, but this episode was more dramatic and upon physical examination by our primary vet, it was recommended that we move him to the region’s large animal veterinary hospital for fluids and additional testing. By 9 am the next morning he was in surgery.
As hypothesized by the veterinarians’ pre-operative examinations and diagnostics, the surgical results indicated that colic surgery was the correct decision. Upon incision, it was determined that he had:
I believe the communication and diagnosis by our primary veterinarian and his communication with his peers at the large animal hospital saved not only Sazerac’s life, but also his career as a show hunter. Damage within his system was limited because of their proactive practices in diagnosis. Each surgical case is unique due to both cause and the extent of the internal damage. I feel very fortunate that we had an excellent veterinarian staff that patiently explained all options, were accurate in pre-op analysis, and made quick decisions to give him the best care possible.
I would not wish the emotional or physical pain of colic surgery on any horseman or equine, but it is important that I note the positives of my personal experience.
BONDING: I have never bonded with a horse quite like I have with Sazerac. This was due to the sudden panic of thinking he might not be in my life, the daily post-op follow up care, and the hands-on rehabilitation process.
COMMUNITY: I had multiple unsolicited messages from owners with competitive horses that shared their colic surgery success stories. These equestrians became important resources for advice regarding stall rest, rehabilitation, feeding and most importantly, hope.
SUPPORT: I was out of town the night of the colic and enroute from California to Boise the day of the surgery. I am still amazed at the friends that stepped in, no questions asked, and helped out. This includes, but is not limited to, hauling him late at night to the veterinarian hospital and staying with him until he was stabilized and visiting post op to and send me photos with updates of his progress.
FUNDAMENTALS: Rehabilitating under saddle from colic surgery requires A LOT of flat work. As Sazerac become more fit, we were able to concentrate on higher-level skills that later benefitted our jumping. Realizing the benefits of a very broke horse on the flat was a big reminder to me that this is a step in training that we must methodically develop.
MY ADVICE FOR ALL HORSEOWNERS
My past interactions veterinarians almost always has stemmed with lameness issues. Colic surgery was something I never thought I would experience, but it was a true wake up call to increase my basic stable and health care knowledge.
Sazerac is ten and half months post surgery and he appears to be fully back to normal and in great health. We are not completely sure what caused his colic, but there was a much higher incidence of cases throughout the Boise valley when he fell ill. The cases were hypothesized to be related to a change in weather that included freezing temperatures and a fog inversion, thus horses were not inclined to drink water during turnout.
Additionally, Sazerac is a cribber and I did not have him fitted correctly to a collar that would prevent this behavior. I had given him the month of January off, but due to the frozen ground he was not eating forage during his daily turnout and was instead using this time and extra energy to ‘suck wind’ out of boredom. I am not a vet, nor can I dispense veterinarian advice, but given the sequence of events and our protocol since, there seems to be a correlation between cribbing, continuous forage consumption and boredom.
These are the factors that guided us to the difficult decision to move him to a warm client for the winter with a trainer that I trust implicitly. I know from experience that without an indoor arena, it would have been impossible to keep him active every day as necissated in the post-operative protocol that was developed specifically for him. Although I miss Sazerac, I am excited that he is in a top show barn on the West Coast and he is already benefitting from having a steady program of daily work to keep him active and his level of training progressing. I am also looking forward to challenging myself to learn other skills that will raise my level of acumen within equestrian sport. Not to mention, I now have an excuse to escape the cold Idaho winters to ride and show in the Southwest.
For Sazerac and I, colic surgery was not been the end of a career, but rather the catalyst to help me become a better horseman and develop a close bond with a special, once in a lifetime horse.