By Susan Friedland-Smith
When I was a little girl, I kept asking God for a horse. It took many years before that prayer was answered, but at the age of 15 I finally was granted my request when I got my first horse, a chestnut Quarter Horse gelding named Daytona. Flash forward decades and I was praying for a horse again. A different prayer. Instead of, “God, help me to get a horse,” it was “God, please heal my horse.”
Part One: Under the Weather
It started again in December. Knight was fine in the morning — I even rode him, but he clearly wasn’t fine later in the afternoon. I got a text that he had colic symptoms — again. He’d had a mild bout on Thanksgiving Day. It went away with a little help from Banamine®. Our vet came out to discover Knight’s temperature was normal, he had glorious bowel movements, but he kept trying to lie down. She checked for sand in Knight’s manure and said there was a little but not much. She mentioned he might have ulcers, a stone or something else going on in his gut. She treated him and he perked right back up and seemed normal again. Until the next day.
I saw him at 6:00 that morning when I placed a sign on his stall that read, “Please feed only 1/2 of his hay today per vet’s orders.” While I was at work, another alarming text appeared on my phone. Knight was trying to lie down again. He had seemed happy and normal just a few hours earlier.
My vet came back to see Knight and I arranged to leave work early, but by the time I was on my way to the barn, we had made the decision to send him to the equine hospital. I drove the 25 miles hoping for the best and fearing the worst.
At the clinic, Knight was scoped. We discovered he had ulcers (boo!), no stones (yay!), but his intestine had flipped around. I was charging my cell phone in the ER lobby when the doctor came out to tell me how the exam went. He laid out my charger cord in a large U shape and then turned it and said this was what happened to Knight’s intestine. He didn’t want to proceed with surgery at that point. His hope was that the IV and 20 gallons of fluids would do the trick. The vet said about 80 percent of the time, with this treatment the intestine goes back to the normal position.
Best case scenario, Knight would be in the hospital for three days (no surgery, fluids, work). Worst case would be colic surgery and a 10-day stay. The vet shared a vivid illustration: when your kitchen sink gets clogged, it slows down but still works — just not like it’s supposed to — until you use Drano. So the IV was like the Drano for Knight’s intestines.
The vet said Knight would tell him if he needed surgery. He said Knight knew what was wrong, but since he can’t talk, we had to do the figuring out. So that night, I slept with my ringer on waiting for a call asking for consent for surgery.
Part Two: Disaster Averted
Knight had a port in his neck that was used for the horsey IV. When I arrived at the hospital to visit, he was happily eating very tiny bits of alfalfa. I didn’t get a call in the middle of the night, and the vet and receptionist had said, “No news is good news.” When I had a break at work the next morning, I called the hospital, but the vet was examining Knight right then. They told me he’d call me back as soon as he was done.
Of course the phone rang in the middle of my class. I prepped my students ahead of time that I had to take a phone call about my horse and it was serious. He was sick and might need surgery. As we waited and the students worked in groups, there was a constant chirping of adolescent voices. My phone rang and the class silenced. I stepped out of the room and the class was still quiet (which is never the case when a teacher steps out). Kids do get it.
The vet said the fluids were working, but not as well as he’d hoped so he wanted to continue with the IVs and then start feeding him slowly to see how the food would affect his gut. “I’ll call you later this afternoon,” he said.
I didn’t get a call, which made me optimistic. When I got to the clinic after work, I noticed Knight’s stomach was less bloated. The main vet wasn’t there but an intern and another vet agreed he was doing better. They were gradually allowing him to eat more and giving him hay that wasn’t cut up into tiny fluffs. I was relieved that Knight seemed happy and eating and he even graced us with a large mound of manure while we chatted.
Part Three: Colic Again?
I was so happy to bring Knight home from the equine hospital — but a very odd thing happened right away. He had an almost immediate colicky relapse as soon as he was placed back in his “stall sweet stall.”
I was working, and received a worried text from my trainer that Knight seemed sick again. He had started lying down in his pipe corral stall (with a gorgeous mountain view) and was sweating. How could this happen again?! He had a clean bill of health when he was released from the hospital about an hour before. My trainer called the clinic to alert them. They said he didn’t try to lie down the whole time he was in the hospital’s indoor box stall.
During his hospital stay, we discovered Knight not only had ulcers, but severe ones. I was told the severity is measured on basically a mild, moderate and severe scale and his were not just severe, but on a scale of 1 to 5 within the severe ranking, Knight was a 4. That’s right, he has almost the most intense ulcers possible for a horse. I saw the picture of his insides; myriad red spots dotted his white stomach. I felt horrible.
What the Stress?
“What could my horse possibly be stressed out about? He has a big open stall with a nice mountain view and he can touch noses with his buddy over the rail. I ride him over very small jumps. He doesn’t spook at anything. He’s not a nervous horse,” I said.
Part Four: Mystery of the Stall
The vet replied, “Maybe he doesn’t like the mountain view.” He then went on to talk about how we think so differently from horses. He gave an example of a horse that had bad ulcers, and how he and the owner would clear it up and then six months later they’d pop up again. Turns out the owner had a small runway on the property somewhat close to the horse’s stall. Once the owner figured out that the noise and commotion of the runway was bothering the horse, the stall/barn was moved to another part of the property. Long story short, the horse has not had ulcer problems since then.
My trainer placed Knight in a closed-in box stall and he perked right back up and the colic symptoms went away.
Since these odd episodes, Knight has been munching away on his alfalfa in an actual barn with an actual box stall with a gorgeous chestnut mare next door to him. No more mountain view. No more luxurious 24 x 24-foot space to roam. But a pretty neighbor and probably a lot more peace and quiet.
And the timing couldn’t be better. It’s just started to rain here in Orange County. Maybe El Nino is on its way after all. I’m thrilled to have my pony back and even more thrilled that it seems we’ve figured out what was making him not feel good. Something about that big stall. It’s still a mystery.
About the writer: Susan Friedland-Smith, a middle school history teacher who has been horse-crazy since girlhood, lives in North Tustin, California, with her budding equestrian husband, golden retriever and Doberman. Knight, the ex-racehorse, has recently joined the family and is the main character of Susan’s blog Saddle Seeks Horse, which chronicles her amateur adventures of balancing a green rider hubby and green horse. Follow her blog at susanfriedlandsmith.com for all things OTTB or see what’s up on Twitter and Instagram @susanwordlover.