Sudden Colic Syndrome - Goodbye Darling Little Dixie
| by Dr. Robert L. Leonard, DVM
Dr. Leonard has been out of town for several weeks, but I think I have an idea of what his "Equine Notes" topic would be this week.
Teresa Ledbetter has been responding to the practise's calls in his absence, and she sent me a message a couple of weeks ago. The "Missouri Horse Country" had experienced the first real cold snap of the winter, and Teresa wrote that she was kept hopping the entire weekend, responding to one emergency colic call after another. She referred the callers to other veterinarians in their area. Of course, it always happens on a weekend . . . The single greatest danger to otherwise healthy horses is colic. And the time when the colic risk is greatest is when the weather is cold.
Her letter set me to thinking, "You know, Dr. Leonard has probably written a hundred 'Equine Notes' columns about colic, and this must be the reason." It must be because every winter, when the first cold snap hits, he is run ragged responding to one colic call after another. And it's all because horses don't like to drink cold water, or because they can't get to water at all because it's frozen. Well, all that thinking made me remember when we lost a filly to colic on the Lazy R Ranch. I remembered Dad telling me the story about the time that LRR Dixie had suddenly come down with colic, relating the story as an insight into what kind of Veterinarian that Dr. Leonard is.
You see, Dad had raised horses since the 1930's. His father was a "half-breed," half Indian and half deep-roots Indiana Hoosier pioneer. He had learned early - and passed on to me - his father's special respect and love for horses, and wore his native ancestry with pride. I probably don't know much about horses, probably less than any of you, but I have heard a little about "imprinting" a foal at birth. Well, Gramps did something like that with me when I was about two and a half years old. I can still clearly remember the experience, my very earliest memory in life.
"Gramps" and I were facing each other in the paddock, I was standing and he was kneeling beside a mare, her right flank at my left shoulder. She had very recently foaled, and Gramps was holding an old single-eared tin cup from the windmill well, the old-fashioned kind with blue enamel and white flecks. As I looked up at bottom of the mare's belly, Gramps reached out and drew some of her milk, and made me drink it. I will never forget the savor or the smell: it tasted as sweet as pancake syrup with an aromatic after-taste of dried hay. And I developed a bond with horses, Gramps had "imprinted" me. I think it may have been some old Native-American custom, or maybe that was just my boyhood imagination run wild (but I still fancy the notion).
When I moved to Missouri a couple of years ago, Dad told me that "his HorseDoc" was the best equine veterinarian there ever was, and this type of praise did not come lightly from RD Rector. RD had routinely criticized another veterinarian, often saying that the horses being treat had more sense than the vet doing the treating (primarily a bovine vet, he had broken the neck of a colt during a difficult birth). And to make his point about Dr. Leonard, he told me a story about a filly Dr. Leonard had treated, Lazy R Ranch Dixie. Like memories that never die of syrupy sweet mare's milk with an aromatic hint of dried alfalfa, Dad's narration of this bittersweet tale just keeps haunting me . . .
I thought I would share it with you, for the benefit of those of you on the Horsedoc subscription list who may not have had the opportunity to personally know Dr. Leonard, and what type of Horsedoc he is . . .
I asked my stepmother, Audrey Rector, to retell the story of Lazy R Ranch's Dixie. It was a painful memory for her, perhaps I asked too much, but it seemed important to me to share this with you. Please bear in mind that Miss Audrey is not a professional writer, but she entertained my wishes anyway.
Farewell little Dixie . . .
by Audrey Rector
Dixie was born April 30, 1997. She was our tenth and final foal for the year, out of our ten bred mares. You might say that it is great to have all live foals, and every mare delivering full-term. Well, yes, but we had only two fillies that spring, which was a little disappointing.
As a young foal Dixie was very shy, she would run like a frightened bunny if anyone came near her. All the other babies would fight for some hands-on attention. I could sense even at that newborn age that Dixie was going to be a challenge.
Dixie had her first bout of colic at about 12 months of age. I brought her into the barn and gave her a small amount of Bute. Being a person that dearly loves my horses, I was up and out at the barn many times during the night to check on her. Fortunately she showed no more signs of colic all night. The next morning I fed her in her stall, gave her fresh water and decided it was time for Dixie to learn that humans were not threats, but friends.
I sat in her stall for what seemed like hours while she was slowly-cautiously-feeding. She would take a little bite, and then suddenly turn to face me, giving me her ‘don't even dare to move’ look. I gathered a small halter, lead rope and brush and trapped her in a corner of the stall. After getting the halter on Dixie, I held her still for a few minutes. We played that eternally favorite game of horses and puppy dogs ‘tug of war’ but I finally won out. After letting her smell the brush, I started brushing her.
Wide-eyed, she continually pulled back from me as I continued to brush her. It took a good week, with lots of patient reassurance and whispering, before Dixie began to trust me. And it wasn't easy (I had a few rope burns and lots of bruises), but Dixie and I soon became the very best of buddies. While leading her, she would follow me like a puppy. Whenever I entered the barn or the paddock, she was always the first horse at my side after that. Of course, she thought she owned me instead of the other way around. As she stood by my side, staring up at me with those big velvety brown eyes, I often wondered what she was thinking. Dixie continued to be a little shy and skittish around strangers, but any time I called her name she would come running to me.
Dick and I always named our babies at birth, and constantly called them by name as we stroked and petted them. As they learned their names, they would respond when we call them. Although Dixie had been leery of humans, with the other horses she was ‘a social butterfly.’ She was accepted by all the horses; they would even allow her to share grain with them and their foals!
Feb 7, 1999
While sitting on the back deck one afternoon watching all the horses run and play, as usual Dixie was at the head of the pack. Retrieving my handy-cam, I started to record a video of them. They were such a pleasure to watch. Then, suddenly, Dixie laid down and rolled. We watched her for a couple minutes, and I knew something was wrong. I put the halter on her and we took a walk, although she wasn't too excited and still kicked her belly, wanting to roll again. Dixie was turned back into her stall. But because she didn't show any more signs of colic, I decided she was only hungry, and I gave her a little handful of grain.
Yes, I knew one doesn’t feed a horse with colic, but I simply thought she was acting up earlier. We continued with the rest of our chores, but when we were finished I went back to check on Dixie before going into the house for our evening meal. Dixie was standing in the corner of her stall, her head hung but still not showing any other signs of colic. I gave her a little Bute hoping she would be all right. I sat in the stall with her for several hours, until 10 p.m. Finally, she laid down and seemed to be asleep and resting quietly.
At two a.m. that morning Dick went out to check on the horses. He found Dixie rolling again. We gave her a shot of Banimine, hoping it would calm her until Dr. Leonard arrived. Dr. Leonard had been up all night with several other emergency calls [colic calls?]. I left an urgent message on his answering machine describing our concern for Dixie. He arrived at our place just about day break . . .
. . . By that time Dixie was in agonizing pain. Dr. Leonard worked with her for several hours, hoping she would be all right. He tried all the treatments indicated for a severe case of colic. At first she seemed to respond to the pain reliever. Luckily he had several other calls to make in our area that day, meaning that he would be somewhere nearby, and as he left he told me to call him if Dixie continued to have trouble. Sure enough, she started to suffer badly again as the shots began to wear off. I called Dr. Leonard, and I have never seen anyone reach our farm so quickly. He leaped out of his vehicle at a gallop and hit the ground running, racing into the barn where Dixie was stalled. He examined Dixie again, and knew immediately that she had a ‘twisted gut.’
It was a four hour drive to the large animal clinic at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Dr. Leonard said, "You have two choices, either take her to Columbia, or . . ."(but he couldn’t finish saying it). I already knew what the "or . . ." meant. Painfully, I told Dr. Leonard and Dick that Dixie had suffered too much already, and that I didn't think she would survive the four hour trip to the U of M-Columbia. But I also told them that I just wasn’t able to make that decision.
Dick and Dr. Leonard talked, and agreed it would be better to put her down. The poor little thing had suffered too much and it was breaking my heart. [Later, Dr. Leonard said we had made the right choice, that Dixie would never have survived the trip to Columbia.] I sat down and held her little head in my hands and told her how much I loved her and that I didn't want her to suffer any more. Yes I broke down and cried my heart out. Those big brown velvety eyes looking up at me seemed to say that she understood what I was saying. Then, with a breaking heart, I told my Little Dixie good bye.
Dr. Leonard suggested that I go up to the house while they lead her to an outside stall. I stood at the kitchen window and watched until I couldn't see her anymore.
Doc did the procedure and little Dixie was resting peacefully when I went back to see her.
Later, Dr. Leonard said that was the most difficult part of his profession. If he has to put a horse down, and if the owner cries, he can’t help but cry with you. I will be forever grateful for all he did for our little Dixie. I know in all truth that what he told us was right.
There will forever be an empty spot in our hearts, but her memory will be in our hearts forever. That was a very sad day and we had many sad days that followed. All the other horses missed little Dixie. For days afterward they stood pining, with their heads hung and some actually had tears drip from eyes.
Dixie was like a breath of spring, a cool breeze on a hot summer day, but she was gone in a moment, like a whisper of cloud.
Good bye my little girl horse.
My Dixie Sweetheart
April30, 1997-Feb 8, 1999
Mark, I guess you know it was hard for me to do this even after all this time.
Consider me a big crybaby, it’s Okay. Love you, Audrey
Well, I also remember Dad telling me . . .
"Dr. Leonard normally hung around for a few minutes after his calls, chatted and had a cup of coffee (and Audrey's "Traditional Horsedoc Visit Chocolate Cake"), while he filled out the bill.
"This time, was different. Dr. Leonard had insisted on performing the procedure himself in private. After a few minutes he came running out of the barn while covering his face with his hand, went straight to the truck, jumped in and drove away. Not even a goodbye.
"He didn't want us to see that he had cried, too."
I used to wonder why Dr. Leonard was always writing about colic. Now I know why.
Horses are normally naturally healthy creatures, "Healthy as a Horse" we say. As long as they get enough forage and water, they will normally stay that way. But the trouble with horses is also as the saying goes, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." And, with horses, the water is essential for digestion because water is the lubricant that allows the food to pass through the digestive tract. When a horse doesn't drink enough water, the feed stops passing through the bowels, it forms an impaction, the horse rolls to relieve its abdominal distress, its intestines twist off like links on a rope of sausage, and the horse dies.
Just because the water had some ice in it, or the water was cold, or the weather was a little nippy, or because the horse didn't feel like drinking enough water that day, or maybe just because its teeth hurt: the horse dies!
Nobody really knows why - sometimes - horses don't want to drink water. Dr. Leonard has observed that it may be because - when the water is cold - it hurts their teeth. Or maybe it sends a chill through them, and they don't want to lower their body temperature, or who knows why? But as long as a horse has enough forage (roughage) in their diet, and water to lubricate their bowels, they shouldn't be getting colic, and they shouldn't be dying!
Losing a horse to sudden colic is a painful way to learn a hard lesson. Although we cannot always ensure that a horse will drink the water(". . . but you can't make it drink."), we can do our best to make it as easy and enticing for the horse to drink as we possibly can ("You can lead a horse to water . . ").
Here are three things we can do:
Make sure the water is ice-free, so the horses can get to it.
Heat the water, the heated water buckets are available for just a few dollars at the local MFA, TSC or other feed store. They are a lot cheaper than a single vet call, or the medicine, or losing a favorite horse . . .
Put some salt in the horse's feed, it will encourage the horse to drink more water, especially in the winter. You can even use the "Salt Substitute" that is phosphorous-based instead of sodium-based: just a tablespoon each feeding in their rations. As Dr. Leonard observed, it's also a cheaper source of phosphorous than feeding your horse bananas, and a whole lot easier than teaching the horse to peel the bananas with their hooves!
For being there ...
I am me.
I have a friend.
Sometimes we find
some time to spend.
We don't do much.
We sit and talk
Or, silent, share
an evening walk.
She has her life.
I have my own.
But side by side
we're still alone.
For I am me.
And she is she.
we make company.
She does not know what makes me blue
or why I act
the way I do.
She knows not why my heart exalts,
or why I cry
at pleasant thoughts.
She cannot share my lonely grief
but being there
is some relief.
She, smiling, nods and comprehends
that I am me,
and we're good friends.
~Mark A. Rector
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© 2002, by Mark Rector, for Audrey Rector at Lazy R Miniature Horses
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Last Updated: 14 March 2017