Nothing makes my heart drop into my stomach faster than a text from the barn owner with the words “Can you get here now?” Last week, I almost lost my horse. Or, at least, it felt that way.
She colicked extremely badly in what was initially a very scary situation. LB makes colic almost a hobby of hers. No matter how I change my management, supplements, grain, hay, offer friends, exercise, relaxation, or rest, she has colicked roughly three to four times per year since I first adopted her in 2019. Unfortunately, we’re experts on the subject of colic emergencies.
Usually, she colics only mildly, with most cases resolving with 10cc of Banamine and some hand walking. By the next morning, she’s fine. This time was different. Her symptoms did not resolve with Banamine and instead, she got worse.
The vet was called pretty much immediately. We walked LB in the dark in the outdoor arena, where she dragged her feet and hung her head low to the ground. Her belly was visibly distended and, although her heart rate was low, she was breathing as though she had just had an intense workout. We later found out that the amount of pressure in her abdomen from a severe gas colic was putting pressure on her heart and forcing it to slow.
We tried every trick in the book, but nothing was working. Referral to the local equine hospital and possible surgery was discussed, leaving me with a decision to make. Put her on IV fluids at the barn, or send her to the hospital? In this heart-wrenching, time-sensitive, and highly stressful situation, I was grateful to already have the answers to several important questions.
Are You Willing to Put Your Horse Through Surgery?
This is a common question among equestrians and it’s essential that you have an answer before you actually need one. When you’re in an emergency, your horse is in grave danger, and your vet turns to you and asks, “Are you willing to bring her to a hospital for surgery?” You will want to throw caution to the wind and say, “Yes, do anything you have to do to save her.”
But the reality is that surgery is not the right decision for many horses. Obviously, the cost is formidable and can range well over $10,000 dollars. But after you manage to sell your first-born son, your right kidney, and remortgage your house to afford it, you’re faced with the stark reality of recovery. Often recovery includes stall rest, the possibility of repeated colics, complications, refeeding protocol, and more. Your horse will most likely be at a higher risk of colic for the rest of their life. While recovery differs with every surgery, one thing remains constant: it will be stressful for you and your horse.
Many equestrians fail to consider that the entire process will be aggravating (to put it nicely) for your horse. You cannot explain to them why they are cooped up in a 12×12 stall. All they know is that their belly hurts, they’re hungry, they’re stressed, and they’re disoriented. To me, after having had a horse on extensive (months) stall rest in the past, it’s not something I’m ever willing to put a horse through again. My personal limit for stall rest time is measured in weeks, not months.
When it comes to choosing to put a horse through surgery, my personal answer is no. I’m not prepared for the costs, recovery time, and mental wear and tear it will place on my horse. But there is no wrong or right answer. Other owners who do not have a sometimes-psychotic, young thoroughbred may find that it’s worth it.
How Much Are You Willing to Spend?
Admittedly, I could have been better prepared for this one. When the vet first suggested referral to a nearby equine hospital and what it would cost, I didn’t have a good answer. I had to call my husband to discuss credit card limits, the future of our finances, and where we were going to draw the line for spending in one night.
After having her scoped and treated for ulcers in the late winter, paying for her to get her knee stitched and treated in the spring, and now this, our emergency fund was very very low.
Before you wind up in a crisis situation (and that’s when, not if), aim to have several thousand dollars saved in an emergency fund. Barring that, know your credit card limits and what exactly you’re willing to put on those credit cards and pay off. Does your vet offer Scratch Pay or payment plans?
Now, when your vet turns to you and says that what was a regular old Tuesday night could turn into a bill of well over four figures, it helps to have a response of “I can spend X amount of dollars. Do whatever you can, within that limit.”
How Much Work Can You Reasonably Put In?
I stayed up pretty much the entire night with LB. My amazing barn owner offered me several different beds, but I opted to stay in a reclining chair in the barn aisle under a horse cooler so I could be closer to LB. She needed fluids every four hours and I checked on her constantly for signs that she was still improving.
On Wednesday, she needed to be very slowly fed small amounts every two to three hours. The amazing staff at the barn let me work from their office and stay at the barn all day so I could take care of her and keep my costs down.
I can’t imagine what I would have done if I didn’t work for myself. I’m not sure that I would have been able to work from the barn office, and after a big vet bill, who can afford to take a day off? Or what if I had kids and couldn’t sleep at the barn all night?
Knowing how much time and effort you can reasonably put into your horse’s care will have a massive impact on your decision. I would have been forced to either put her down or accommodate hospital expenses, if I hadn’t been able to stay up all night and work at the barn the next day. The hospital would have done all of this extra work for me– and at a hefty price.
Where is the Line?
Where is your personal line between life and death? At what point do you throw in the towel, and call it quits? When is humane euthanasia more fair to the horse, and to yourself, then continuing to shell out thousands of dollars for a horse who only continues to decline?
This is an extremely personal decision and one that I am still grappling with.
Sure, many of LB’s colics so far have been mild and resolved without calling the vet. But at what point do I have to consider my personal finances, my mental health, and my horse’s quality of life? I also feel responsible to my husband to stop draining our family finances.
Considering this line feels selfish. Can you really euthanize your best friend because you can’t handle the stress of repeated colics and injuries every other month (literally)? At what point do you begin to wonder if, with this many issues, there’s a deeper internal problem lurking beneath the surface?
Still, this is a problem that it helps to contemplate well before the time comes to make this decision. I’ve even considered taking all emotion out of it and putting a price limit on what I’ll spend on LB’s medical bills over a specific period of time before I consider euthanasia.
Other times I think about the fact that even though she gets sick so often, she is truly a warrior who never gives up. During her most recent colic, we all knew she would make it when she became angry– something I jokingly call raging dragon mode. With her dainty muzzle, big jaw, and pointed ears pinned flat against her head, it’s not difficult to imagine her breathing fire as she screams at the stall door, tosses her head, and glares at all of us as if to say, “How dare you hook me up to IV fluids? Can’t you see that I am fine?!”
When she acts like this, I have to sit back and admire her courage and desire to conquer whatever the world throws at her. I like to think that I’ll keep fighting, as long as she wants to keep fighting.
Luckily, she has recovered well after the equine emergency last week, so for now, I don’t have to worry about coming to a decision immediately. But this line is something that is sure to fill my thoughts for the next few weeks.