Thank you to Barnmice member and vet Dr. Geoff Tucker for sharing this story.

Guard dogs in the back of a car

A horse with a belly ache is a nightmare for every horse owner so when Charlie called me on a late summer afternoon, I sensed concern in his voice. “Doc, my mare’s been down a lot today and she’s not looking good. Can you come check her out?”

Charlie was a young man who lived alone high on a hill about 30 minutes away. I didn’t get to see him or his horse often as he lived simply on his meager wages. He loved his only horse and I knew she must be very sick for him to be spending money on a visit from me. I prepared myself for the worst.

I drove up the steep rise out of town in silence with my mood dulled as I reviewed the possibilities of this call. Sometimes I just knew when thing weren't going to end well. Most horse owners in my practice believed in preventive care and would include the routine visit of a veterinarian in the overall care of their horse. While many owners were moving towards self reliance performing routine care themselves, Charlie was in the group of horse owners that did not read horse magazines or buy vaccines from catalogs. Charlie's belief was that horses need to make it on their own and did the minimum for prevention. Anything beyond feeding and hoof care was not necessary. I had only seen him twice for an eye injury and a cut. I'm sure that if he had more money, he would do more for this mare.

As I drove in his long dirt drive I could see the mare in the paddock with Charlie standing by the fence. My heart sank as I could see from a distance that this mare was suffering and dying. Her head was low and her knees and hocks were buckling between standing and laying down. The hair coat did not shine in the beautiful cloudless sky of the summer afternoon. Patches of sweat were covered in brown dirt from pain reducing rolling she had performed during the day. The aura of death surrounded her and I could plainly see it through my windshield.

Guard dog on the streets of Middleburg, VA

"OK Charlie, hold onto her while I do my exam." Charlie slipped on the halter and lead silently as I placed my stethoscope on her chest just behind her left elbow. A heart rate above 60 is indicative of a surgical colic and hers was in the 90's. I moved to her head. Lifting the lip exposed white, dry gums. I pressed my thumb blanching out any blood from the gums then released to see how fast the blood would re-enter the area. Instant is the normal response. The mare refilled in several seconds. Another sign this was surgical.

I slipped on the plastic sleeve that would cover my left hand and arm then lubricated it well. By this time, the medicines I had given her when I arrived should have been easing her pain but in this case, they were not. That alone was her third indicator that she was surgical. I inserted my arm into her anus and drove it deep into her abdomen. Normally a skilled veterinarian requires a bit of time to identify the pelvic flexure and other identifiable intestinal structures. In this mare's case, the abnormally distended loops of small bowel jumped into my range of feel like placing your hand inside a bag of air distended wet sausages.

I removed my arm and stripped off my sleeve. My eyes met Charlie's as he waited for my answer. "If a horse with colic meets just one indicator for surgery I recommend sending the horse to the hospital. You mare has four indicators." I continued but knew Charlie couldn't afford the cost of surgery on his horse. "Charlie, the cost will be between $3000 and $4000 and the prognosis isn't good for the survival of your horse."

Guard dogs in South Florida - Who needs a gun?

Charlie's eyes brightened as he stood up straight. He said, "I know all about the cost of rearranging the guts, Doc." He then pulled his shirt up over his head revealing a scar from his pant waist to his chest. He declared while pointing to the scar, "This is a $15,000 colic surgery right here!"

I performed the euthanasia and ended the mare's pain. As I cleaned up my equipment I thought whether the outcome would have been different had he had the money to call me earlier and send the mare to surgery. Charlie came to me with a handful of cash to pay his bill. He said finally, "I loved that mare. Guess it just wasn't in the cards for her to live long."

"It's OK Charlie. You loved her and that's all that matters."

Sometimes life isn't fair and we don't like the cards we are dealt, both for the horse and the owner. As I drove away and saw Charlie kneeling over his former friend, I realized that what isn't fair is when we forget to say "I love you" before we die.

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