Life and Death After Colic Surgery: Bob’s Story
As many of you may know, I lost my gelding, Bob, this past week. It has been a difficult time for me, but also a time of reflection–about Bob’s life, the impact he had on me, and about the number one medical killer of horses–colic. In hopes that it could help someone else, I’d like to share Bob’s story.
Almost exactly six years ago, after a long search for just the ‘right’ horse, I found a six-year-old Quarter Horse gelding named Chigger who seemed to fit the bill. He was hairy and a little on the thin side, but he was very docile and sweet. Just the attitude I’d been searching for. His registered name was JKR Bob Hicks, so I soon decided to call him ‘Bob’, as I thought ‘Chigger’ just wasn’t befitting of my gentle giant.
I had been mildly concerned over a cough Bob had when I rode him for the first time. “Probably just a cold,” the former owners informed me. But I brought him home and proceeded to ride him nearly every day. He seemed like the answer to my prayers after my heartbreak over a devastating lameness in my long-time partner, Hershey.
It happened exactly one week after Bob came to live with me. I was asleep on that blustery January night when I was suddenly awakened by a loud banging noise from outside. I immediately knew one of the horses must be in trouble. I pulled on a coat and ran out to see what was wrong.
As I approached the small lean-to shed, I saw Bob frantically pawing at the inside wall. My heart dropped as I knew it must be colic. I called my vet.
The news was not good. My vet did what he could to make Bob comfortable, but told me that I would likely need to make a decision soon. Either elect to have colic surgery or put him to sleep.
My whole world seemed to turn upside down in those early morning hours. I desperately wanted to save this horse that I was just beginning to fall in love with, but colic surgery? It seemed so risky. My husband didn’t think surgery was good idea, but told me the decision was mine to make.
By seven a.m., my mother and I were driving to the veterinary hospital where Bob would have surgery. The attending veterinarians thoroughly assessed him and agreed that surgery was indeed his only hope for survival. I signed the papers for the go-ahead.
I was a nervous wreck waiting for the call from the vet. But several hours later, the phone rang, and I received the news I’d been hoping to hear–Bob had made it through the surgery. He’d had an impaction in the large intestine which they were successfully able to remove. I was overcome with relief, but still cautious. I knew there were many complications that could arise after colic surgery.
I waited with baited breath for the vet to call each day and tell me how Bob was doing. He was cautiously optimistic, and I began to feel better each day. A week later, when I was able to pick him up, I was given a little different news by another veterinarian. She told me that Bob had what are known as adhesions (fibrous bands of tissue that develop as a result of intestinal inflammation), and that this could pose a problem.
I brought him home and tended to him day and night. He seemed to make a smooth recovery and my fears soon began to melt away.
Several months later, I was able to begin riding Bob lightly again. My joy soon became overshadowed by the discovery that Bob’s personality had seemingly changed though. Instead of being the laid back, dependable horse that he’d been when I first bought him, he seemed nervous and spooky, and sometimes a little sullen. I was hopeful that with enough riding, he’d be back to normal though.
Over the months, Bob did calm down, but he never completely returned to being the horse he’d been that first week I’d brought him home. I began to wonder if he’d only been that calm simply because he hadn’t felt good. I’ll never know the answer for sure.
The following winter, I remember being worried that Bob would colic again. After all, horses are more prone to colic in the winter–and he was at higher risk since he’d had surgery. I knew that I could not afford surgery again (financially or emotionally). Bob made it through with no problems though. I began to believe that we were in the clear.
Physically, Bob began to blossom. He gained weight–too much weight–and I had to restrict his grazing. After I put him on a balanced, forage-based diet, his red coat brightened and his hooves looked great. I received compliments on him wherever I went.
Fast forward to this winter.
Bob seemed happier than ever living with his ‘herd’– Hershey, and my two mares, Lee Lee and Kady. I had turned the previously separated genders out all together a few months ago. I decided to switch the herd over to my ‘winter’ pasture a few weeks ago, and was gradually giving them some turnout time in a larger pasture which still had a small amount of green grass.
Last Tuesday, Bob did not seem interested in coming up to the barn to eat his breakfast. I immediately knew that something was wrong. I put a halter on him and led him to his stall to make some assessments. I heard minimal gut sounds so I began using the acupressure points for colic. The gut sounds became normal and he began eating his hay. I decided to give him banamine as well and watch him closely.
He appeared to be better until the next morning. This time, he was laying down and showed no interest in coming to the barn for breakfast again. Like the previous day, I brought him up, did acupressure, and he began munching on his hay again. I decided to take him into my vet though. Something just didn’t feel right. (by the way, he was passing what seemed to be normal manure all this time.) I wondered if the small amount of grass in the new pasture was causing gas colic.
My vet gave him oil and banamine, but noticed that he had a slight temperature. (I hadn’t thought to check this.) He told me it was likely a virus which was coinciding with a case of mild colic. I took Bob home and turned him out, where he seemed to be his perky self once again.
I took my daughter to pre-school and ran errands for several hours, but when I returned home Bob was laying down by the lean-to shed. The very one he’d been pawing at that fateful day six years ago. I knew this was not a good sign.
I got him up and called my vet once again. He agreed to come out to palpate Bob for an impaction. It quickly became apparent that Bob was in considerable pain and his condition had become quite severe–I could not keep him up. So I let him lay down and I sat with him. Every so often he would lay flat and groan, but then he would sit back up.
I sat with him for nearly forty-five minutes while waiting for my vet, stroking his head and telling him that I loved him. I realized that Bob’s time had very likely come. Even though I was terribly sad, I was able to maintain a sense of peace and calm.
The news was what I’d expected–the prognosis was not good. The peritoneal fluid (which is obtained by inserting a needle into the underside of the abdomen) was too yellow–indicating infection in the intestines. My vet said adhesions were likely to blame. Having already decided that surgery was not an option again, I made the only call that I could–to have Bob put to sleep.
I hugged him goodbye one last time. Fortunately, my husband was there to stay with Bob until the final moment. I could not do it.
After any loss, most of us ask why? Death often seems to make no sense. But as I asked myself why this beautiful gelding had been taken so soon and why I’ve had to deal with so much heartache with my horses in the last several years, the answer soon became apparent to me.
Bob, like Hershey, was my teacher. Had Bob not been through colic surgery, I would not have become so educated on this dreaded condition. And although the idea of starting this blog had already been on my mind, Bob gave me the inspiration for my very first post–on pigeon fever (which the pictures disappeared from, unfortunately.)
I’ve decided to look at it this way. Had Bob been ended up in almost anyone else’s pasture six years ago, he would have died after that initial bout with impaction colic. Most people probably could not or would not spend that amount of money on a horse that they’d only had for a week. I was able to give Bob six more happy years. And although he didn’t work out to be the barrel horse that I’d hoped he’d be, he taught me many, many things in those six short years. For that, I will be eternally grateful.
Rest in peace, JKR Bob Hicks, aka ‘Bob’
“Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” ~Alfred Lord Tennyson
(I wanted to add that many horses do fare well after colic surgery. My best friend’s mare had surgery when she was fourteen and lived to be twenty-six. She never experienced colic again after the surgery .)