Equine Enigma

“Bam, bam, bam,” I heard the familiar sound of my horse, Dakota’s hooves smacking on the stall door.  Nothing unusual.  He knows I’m up in the studio and doesn’t care that it’s 11:30 p.m. There’s a chance I will answer his clamor for another serving of grain! “Bam, bam….bam, bam,”  another round, then another.  I couldn’t resist the urge to go down and see what was happening, fully expecting to see the stall door open just a crack, with him on the other side, attempting to work it open.  He knows hay is within his reach on the other side.

            I reluctantly got up from my chair, headed down the stairs to my tack room, grabbed my jacket, and opened the door to the stable. I immediately saw Contessa, my second horse, just outside in the dry lot, looking into the stall door.  She was pacing and blowing through her nose.  “What’s the matter, Tessa?” I asked, “Where’s Dakota?  He was nowhere to be seen.  I hesitantly approached the stall, afraid to look.  My heart leapt seeing him down on the floor. “Colic” my immediate thought…the only reason I’ve ever found either of my horses lying prone on their side like this in the stall. He looked unconscious in those first few moments. I cautiously walked in and squatted down by his head.  He was actually awake, looked up at me with a wild eye, and then, I saw his chest heaving.  I realized, he was stuck and couldn’t get up. His legs were pulled up unnaturally tight to his body, like a horse fetal position, and against the wall.  His hooves were turned awkwardly.  He had no points of leverage. I could see marks on the wall from his thrashing.  Some blood. I put my hand on his face and cried, “Honey, honeeeey, what happened?”   He was relatively still and I was clueless about how to get him safely up. “How could I not know about this?”  I thought with regret.  I kept my hand his cheek, stroking his face, for a few minutes until I reassured myself that he was no longer in a panic and that I could leave him.  I dashed upstairs for my phone, running options through my mind on who to call besides the vet, that could help and was close by.  I fumbled, shaking, looking for the veterinary emergency number I have written, available for my care-giver, but then, remembered that Harold, my equine vet, happens to live in a nearby town and that I have his personal cell number. I had a surge of hope as I pressed the ‘call’ button.  To my utter shock and relief, he answered!   I explained the situation and he said, “I’ll make my way towards you.”  His words left me feeling uneasy.  “Make his way?!  I’m sure he meant, On my way, be right there!” I reassured myself.  By now, I was back at Dakota’s side.

            I kept talking and trying to listen for what he needed.  Hoping I could tune into a new channel of communication. “Ohhh, sweetie, it’s gonna be ok. There you go. Just be still. I’m not going anywhere,” I continued my seeming one-way dialog.  He was in distress, but wasn’t struggling.  A couple of times he lifted his head, looked at his back legs, and heaved a big sigh. I sighed, too.  I petted and crooned.  “It’s ok, it’s ok, Harold is coming to help us.”  He seemed to understand.  I couldn’t help but think about the odds that I had even been out in the barn this particular evening.  He could have laid here on the floor for hours.  Another big exhale, a mixture of distress and surrender.  At one point, I backed away quickly as he made another attempt with his front hooves.  He managed to push his upper body just a few feet, enabling him to straighten his front legs.  This, too, looked unnatural.  I had no idea if I could keep him calm until the vet arrived.  All I could picture was broken legs. 

            It seemed as if the sun should be coming up when the doctor finally drove up the driveway.  Later, I realized it had been a mere 30 minutes.  His headlights coming up over the hill made my heart sing, and also caught Dakota’s attention.  He lifted his head as the light flickered through the stall door.  “He’s here, Dakota, he’s here…hang on,” I said. Harold’s face appeared around the corner.  I said, “Thank you, so much for coming.” He nodded, then asked “is he just cast?”  I looked up at him quizzically, cast?  “Stuck?” he added seeing my confusion.  “Yes, he’s stuck!”  I replied.  He asked, “Do you have a lunge line?” I shook my head, “No, only lead ropes.”  “That will work,” he said.  He turned to walk back to his truck, saying, “put your helmet on, I’ll be right back.”  The need for a helmet made me a little uneasy about what was about to happen, but I also knew, horses are not exactly dainty getting up in the best of circumstances. There was relief in being told what to do, and I ran and got my helmet.  More breath-holding minutes passed.  The doc returned wearing his helmet, with ropes and something that looked like a very wide, long leather belt. 

            I watched as he placed a rope underneath from behind, positioned under Dakota’s legs and coming up from around his shoulder and backside, offering two ropes to hopefully provide enough leverage to assist him in rolling toward us.  As he worked, I shared my feeling of good fortune that he had answered his phone. “I’m actually on call tonight,” he surprisingly said. “Another miracle,” I thought to myself, “What are the odds?”   We pulled on the rope, but after a few tries, and various placement strategies, it was obvious we couldn’t do it.  “We need more man power,” Harold said.   I hadn’t called my husband up at the house, given the hour and the fact that he’s not a horse person, but now, I did.  “The vet is here, Dakota is laying in his stall, stuck against the wall, could you come down to the barn?” I spewed the shocking facts.   “What? The vet is here? Oh no, is he ok?  Poor baby. How long? What happened? I’ll be right there!” he reconciled all his own questions in one moment.

            I continued to pet and talk to Dakota, I began to wonder about the bonds that exist beyond understanding or ego.  The unseen wisdom.  Here we were, together, surrender the only option for the moment.  He patiently waited.

            My husband arrived and we tried once again to roll him.  No go. The doc’s next maneuver was to try pulling his back end away from the wall, hoping to provide adequate space get up.  This time the large, rigid, belt-looking strap was slid underneath his tender lower belly.  A wider, soft, web of woven rope, which looked like an extra-long string girth, was attached to the belt. Then, he pulled the belt back out, drawing the woven section underneath, to the front. Ropes were attached. “One, two, three, pull,” the doctor instructed.  With each pull, Dakota cried out.  My husband and I looked at each other with a wince and despair.  It took three.  As space was provided, his legs straightened out. He laid there, head down, quiet, not moving.  We all began encouraging him to get up.  Harold pulled on his halter with the lead rope attached.  “Come on, big guy, time to get up,” he said.  Dakota was not responding.  He slapped him with the rope on the rump a few times.  Still nothing.  “Could his legs be injured?” I asked.  “I don’t think so,” he answered, but knelt down and manipulated both back legs…fetlocks, hocks and hooves.  No apparent issues. I thought to myself,  he’s afraid to move.  So, then, another few slaps of the rope.  We were now watching from the ally of the barn. Words unnecessary. Feeling the helplessness. Finally, the ‘smack of inspiration’.  He scrambled to his feet.  Did a full body shake.  Harold said, “Let’s give him a flake.”  I threw one in and he immediately started chomping, as if nothing had happened.  “No colic,” the vet said, eliminating it as another element.  He went to his truck.  We stood there, still shaky.   Upon return, he proceeded to check Dakota’s heart-rate and then injected him with an anti-inflammatory, just in case of swelling.  He then looked towards us as he collected his equipment and supplies, and said, “that should do it, have a good rest of your night,” turning to walk toward his truck. Relatively matter-of-fact, drama over, crisis averted.  The calm of a confident, competent Veterinarian, but I was barely breathing! 

            As I stood in recovery mode, I noticed Contessa was nowhere to be seen.  I walked around the barn, calling her name into the dark, suddenly feeling concern.  There she was, standing, gazing the direction of the truck, it’s lights now on.  I got her attention and she snorted.  I said, “he’s ok, come on, you’ll see.”   I turned, and she gaited around me and the corner of the barn to the stall door and whinnied at the sight of her best friend.  In a nano-second, she joined him in his snack.

            It was a stunning display. I was reminded of horses’ ‘express mode’ of communication. Their stellar instinct to be in the moment.  I wondered about their innate animal wisdom. Their connection.  Without debate, without doubt or wondering, they trust their instincts. I felt awe, curious and a little envy.