I don’t know how many times May colicked. She came to us when she was about eleven years old and she made it to thirty three years old. Or maybe thirty six. After a certain point I stop keeping track. I don’t think it was thirty six because that is an age I pay attention to. I really don’t know how many times she colicked. At least ten, maybe twenty times.
May had colic surgery when she was 18… or 21. It was not a grave operation, as colic surgeries go. A bad obstruction was removed. You never know how severe it really is until they get in there. The surgery itself is pretty stressful for a horse, especially for their respiratory system. This is why Arabian horses, in general, do better than any other identifiable breed group. Probably ponies do okay too. The problem is the strain being upside down puts on the lungs. The bigger the horse, the more weight pressing down on the lungs. Since Arabians tend to be smaller and also have a much bigger lung capacity than other breed groups, they have better success rates as abdominal surgery patients. Of course there are exceptions, but an off-the-cuff assessment will give an Arab horse better odds of survival than most.
May survived just fine. But she kept colicking. The colics usually passed with a simple treatment from the vet, sometimes it took a couple. At least twice we gave the vets authorization to put her down, after they asked for it. Twice she miraculously improved before they got around to it. She was our little Lazarus horse.
She was not generally weak or sickly otherwise. She did have some unique episodes. She was the only horse we ever had to treat for lice. Oddly, when we finally did have to put her down it was not for a colic. Her arthritis had gotten so bad that she had trouble getting up and down, and finally could not get up. It was a lousy way to go, but it was sort of consistent with her unique way of doing things: never what you expected.
As I said, she colicked numerous times. Waiting for the vet was an education for me. Initially, the rule is to get a horse up off the ground, especially if they are rolling. This is still what I will do with a younger horse who has not colicked before. It isn’t too hard with a horse that is used to being handled. If you slap them on the rump and yell at them some, make loud noises, they will almost always get up if they possibly can, no matter how lousy they feel. This not only helps keep them from getting worse through inactivity, but it also is a diagnostic tool. If they cannot or will not get up you know they are in grave trouble.
Not with May. One day I found her rolling and sweating on the hillside and I went up to get her. She got up but half way down the hill she went down again. I could not get her up, not by pulling on the lead rope or by slapping her on the rump or by yelling at her. Apparently my neighbors heard me. One came to help. He stood off a little ways and said “she looks bad, I don’t think she can get up.” I agreed, but asked him to help me anyway. As soon as he approached, she jumped up and walked down the hill with me.
She did not know him. I guess she didn’t know what he might do. Me, on the other hand… well, I was just me. I wasn’t going to eat her or injure her. She knew that. I had no way to tap into her adrenal system, I could not give her the boost she needed to push through the pain.
She also became very familiar with the vet’s truck. She might have been down for an hour or more, inert, appearing quite dead. But as the vet truck drove up she would pop to her feet and brighten. I suppose that even a horse can put two and two together to get “drugs make me feel good!”
Gradually I stopped yelling at her or slapping her to make her get up. As she approached her late 20s I realized that one of these days she would suffer a terminal colic (or so I thought.). It dawned on me that maybe having someone yell at you was not a nice way to die. You can’t really tell when they are “ready” to go, especially if it is a horse like May. She had nearly died so many times, and kept coming back.
I don’t want to make it sound like she spent years in agony. She didn’t. She would go months, sometimes even a year without any colic symptoms at all. Mostly one treatment would get her over it. Then she would spend some time on light meals and be back to pasture within a week or so.
The last few years I reached an almost zen-level of understanding about her condition. I did not know when she would die. I did not know what the outcome of a particular bout would be. I had to be prepared for the worst, but I could not let that influence how I handled her. I could not panic or start mourning. I would rub her belly and talk kindly to her, encourage her to get up if I thought she might like to. Others could still get her up when I could not.
I noticed that as I talked to her and rubbed her belly she would calm down a little, some of the “symptoms” seemed to abate. Probably those “symptoms” were anxiety about being yelled at and slapped on the rump so much in the earlier colicks. Probably she was just relieved that I was going to let her lie there if she wanted. I even let her roll a little. You aren’t supposed to do that because presumably this can result in a torsion. I won’t tell anyone to let a colicky horse roll. But I let her do it. It didn’t seem fair to interfere with her anymore, not as she got older.
It was my birthday a couple of years ago, and I had been treating her for one of her peculiar mystery ailments. The vets speculated that it was some kidney or liver infection. We decided to try antibiotics, since that is non-invasive and relatively cheap. She was improving. She had lost a good deal of weight before she turned the corner, had spent a lot of time running a fever. But she turned that corner and was eating again. I went to town for a birthday dinner with family and when I came back she was down. She was rolling and sweating and clearly in distress. I gave her the last of the pain meds I had and waited.
I will usually call the vet before it gets too late if I can, out of courtesy. But it was already after 10 pm so I saw little reason to jump the gun. At around 2 am I called. The vet on call came out, evaluated her without being able to get her to her feet and recommended putting her down. I agreed that this was the obvious thing to do.
Of course by the time the vet arrived, she was no longer rolling or sweating and seemed much calmer. Still we could not get her to her feet and by now she had been down for at least four hours. The vet got his kit ready.
As he wiped her neck down so he could find the vein, she started to struggle. She tried to get up. She couldn’t, but she pulled away from him and obviously wanted nothing to do with that needle. I tried to be strong but I caved. “Wait,” I said to him. He paused without looking at me. I had dragged him out there at 2 am and now I was clearly cracking up. He didn’t say that, but it was true.
“She seems a lot quieter now, I just don’t want to do this now. ..” I said. I may have made some other excuses but I was exhausted and a little punchy so I asked for more drugs, as many as I could give her and said I would probably have my vet put her down in the morning. I apologized and the vet left. He is not our regular vet but he has treated our horses often enough to know we are sometimes a little goofy. Who isn’t, I wonder.
I found a saddle blanket and folded it up like a pillow for her head, and put a horse blanket over her body, leaving her legs free in case she did try to get up again. I did not expect her to do so. It was about 5 am then. I left my mother a message asking her to check in on the mare in the morning and to call our vets to have them come put her down, because I was going to get some sleep.
At around 9 am I got a phone call from my mother asking where the mare was. I explained she should be lying where I left her. Mom said she was not there. There were some blankets lying on the ground but she did not see the mare.
Bleary-eyed, I made my way outside, a little charged up by adrenaline, trying to imagine where the mare might have gone to in a delirium of agony. Tales of horses getting tangled in fences or falling off cliffs and breaking their necks ran through my mind.
She had gone to get a drink of water. Looking at her ragged old frame standing there by the water trough, water dripping from her chin, I took it very personally. She had decided not to die on my birthday. You could tell she was near the end but she’d given me that, intentionally or not. Zen-like understanding only goes so far. You just can’t not feel a little extra bad when a horse dies on your birthday after you spent the evening out celebrating.
It would not have been wrong to put her down that night. There was just something amiss. She had never shown a fear of needles, she did not care in the least about being poked, and usually shots made her feel better. Not that needle. She probably sensed this needle was different, our energy was not the same as a healing energy. So she fought it, as I fought it. She gave me the out that I was silently asking for with every cell in my body.
She continued to improve and gained a good deal of weight over the next month. Then, I found her down and she really couldn’t get up. She tried repeatedly but her hind legs were not strong enough to lift her weight off the ground.
The young vet who came that day did not pressure me. She explained that this was the stage where some people started helping the horse get up by lifting them with a tractor. Some people will do this several times. I wouldn’t do that, no one in our family would do that. She was not in agony. We could have gotten her up, but once a horse realizes they cannot get up they will avoid lying down. This means they cannot rest properly, and will stay on their feet until they have to go down from exhaustion. That might be bearable if you know they can recover from what ails them, but old legs don’t get younger.
Ironically, the weight that indicated better health was now a hindrance. She was not obese or anything. Her hocks were just too far gone. I reassured her one last time and told her it was okay, I would not make her get up.
There is the old trope about not beating a dead horse. Of course if you want to, you can kick a dead horse all you want, it will harm nothing but your foot. Not so when the horse is only almost dead. Pushing someone to rise when they look down and defeated is an easy impulse to give in to. If the wounded can be made to appear normal, the caregiver feels a little better. Sometimes patients can be tricked into thinking they are better, and this can be all they need to start recovering. The adrenal system has its uses.
May taught me that this is not always the best approach. Maybe it is never the right thing to do. Sometimes what we need is time to find our way. Sometimes we need permission to stay down, instead of added pressure to get up before we feel strong enough. The mother figure of lore still has her place: watching over her charge, giving reassurance and comfort as if she has all the time in the world and nothing else to do.
Portia’s line, “the quality of mercy is not strained” is one I thought I had always misread. But Shakespeare knew his wordsmithing and it turns out a lot of people read it the way I do: the quality of mercy cannot be strained, it is infinite. You don’t have to ration it, you won’t run out.
Another saying advises us to live each day as if it could be our last. None of us has all the time in the world, but neither do we have any good reason to hurry. We all end up in the same place, we don’t know where it is or when we will get there. There is certainly no reason to panic or yell about it. For all you know you have arrived and these are someone’s last moments.
I will not claim to abide by this rule in general. I am as prone to panic as anyone I know. But in May’s presence I was able to tap in to that reverence and serenity that may some day serve me again. Perhaps that is what I was waiting for that night when I balked in the face of the inevitable and asked the vet to stop. I needed just a little more time to get the lesson down pat, to understand it in the light of one more day.