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True Scary Story: My horse almost died

Published: 10/27/2010
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By Maddy B. Gray

It was Halloween night five years ago.
My scariest night as a horse owner.
My horses were staying across the street because we hadn’t yet fenced off enough land to have them comfortably at home. My kind, 85-year old neighbor had invited me to keep them at her spacious barn and pasture.
It was a great arrangement. They kept her little Shetland pony company and I took care of everything.
She kept on eye on things when I wasn’t there.
Or so I thought.

The previous night, I had fed them and noticed Handsome, my thoroughbred, seemed a bit off. I climbed on him bareback and we moved around the pasture. He was willing, but not his lively self.
I fed him. He was a bit off his feed. But he ate it. I went home.
The next day was the same, but it didn’t occur to me to call a vet. He was still eating, still standing, and his behavior didn’t seem to wave a red flag. Yellow perhaps, but not red.

But on Halloween night, it got terrible real quick.
I got there after my son’s trick-or-treating and it was dark.
Handsome was stumbling around the pasture. He had busted through the small paddock area in which I kept them every night. He was acting like he didn’t even see the fencing. The area had been turned into a war zone with downed fencing and electric wire strewn across an acre.
And Handsome was frantic and struggling to get his bearings.
When I approached him, he didn’t recognize me. When I tried to put a hand on him, he reacted as if I had jolted him with a Taser. Once, when I was trying desperately to get a line on him, he jumped away from me into the fence. That startled him so he rebounded and jumped into me. I went down. He went down. Then clamored up and stumbled away.
All this in the pitch dark.
I finally was able to contain him in his stall and get a halter on him. But even then, the situation was desperate. He headpressed into the corner, using his head as a fifth leg to try to stay balanced and upright. When he swayed too much to one side, he would drag and scrape his head along the stall boards until he got to the next corner. He’d remain wedged there until he lost balance again and then he’d scrape himself to the next corner.
Horrific to watch.
I called the emergency line of a Maine vet. I had just returned to Maine that year and hadn't established myself with one yet.
She told me she couldn’t make it and mumbled some explanation. [I later learned this vet had a habit of not attending to emergencies when she didn’t feel like it. Argh!]
I finally managed to reach Dr. Charlie Brown at Annabessacook Veterinary Clinic.
I described the sudden, strange and desperate turn of events. I don’t think she believed me. But in an hour, she was at the barn.
Thank goodness.
What’s more. She got into the stall and, incredibly, managed to draw blood and medicate Handsome.
Five hours and critical blood tests later, she returned.
Charlie told me it looked like some sort of infection had mushroomed more or less overnight. (What was the source of the infection? We'll never know.)
She hooked up an IV unit from the ceiling of his stall and administered massive doses of DMSO and antibiotic.
“We’re either going to save him or kill him,” she said with a weary smile.

Long story short: We saved him.

But it was a long haul back to health. Dr. Brown set me up with IV meds for the next 10 days, so I could avoid the additional costs of either sending him to Annabessacook or having her make multiple farm calls.
If you know thoroughbreds, you also know they drop weight when they sneeze. It took months and a veritable buffet of delicacies to get back the weight Handsome lost during this crisis.


I learned some valuable lessons:

    * If you board or are away from home a lot, make sure someone is accountable for assessing your horses. My elderly neighbor told me after the fact that she saw him lying down an awful lot in the previous few days. Argh!

    * If you suspect a problem, make note of it and double-up your efforts to determine its cause and take preventative measures. Start keeping notes.

    * Make sure your vet will come when you call.

    * Think ahead for this kind of crisis. Decide how much you can afford. Share your limitations immediately with the vet before you get in over your head.

View Reader Comments:

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10/28/2010 Melanie
I think, over the years, one of my ongoing challenges with my own horses is to find the balance between being sufficiently cautious without becoming overly reactive when analyzing a horses condition and deciding if I should call the vet. You do the best you can, and hopefully you have a vet resource when you need it. Because I have made it a standard to not 'cry wolf', the vets who provide services at my barn know if I say it's an emergency, it IS an emergency.
11/1/2010 Cheryl
Just curious, did you take his temperature or monitor his respirations or capillary refill time the day or two before? I wonder if there might have been some other tell-tale sign earlier. I also notice before my kids get a fever or a bad cold their behavior changes 3 or 4 days before the onset of the symptoms. I can predict when they are going to get sick at least 90% of the time.

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