On a cold winter’s night in the Pacific Northwest, with rain banging on the roof and wind whistling through the stalls, I came into the barn to give the horses their evening feed. I found Gem laying in her stall, breathing in short, shallow breaths, with her eyes half closed, trying to kick at her stomach with her back feet.
Gem was my carriage horse, a Morgan mare, 29 years old at the time, pictured above. She had over two decades of experience competing in Combined Driving Events at the Advanced level. She was my driving teacher. She was fast, fancy and smart. She also did not suffer fools gladly. I learned most of what I know about driving a carriage from Gem.
She was colicing. For a horse, colic is life threatening. Their digestive system basically ties up, resulting in intense abdominal pain. Untreated, colic will kill a horse. Even treated, colic can kill a horse. Horses are big creatures, weighing half a ton, but they are actually quite fragile in so many ways.
I tugged, pulled and cajoled, and Gem finally stumbled to her feet, her head hanging to the floor. And that’s where we began. I spent the night in and out of the barn, into the early morning hours, alternatively trying to keep the old girl upright, syringing a quart of Milk of Magnesia down her throat with a turkey baster, mixing up some phenylbute medication, and walking her up and down the driveway 15 minutes of each hour to try to loosen up her guts so they’d start to work. Here in the Pacific Northwest, winter nights are pitch black, cold, and wet. Pure misery.
Once a horse goes down, chances of it getting up are decreased by frequency and duration. Three times while we were walking Gem simply lunged forward in the driveway onto her chest and sprawled over. It was very difficult to get her up. Each time she fell could have been the last. But I persisted, and she got up for me. She didn’t want to – she did it for me because she knew I was trying to help her.
Long story short, my old mare got through it. My grandfather’s farm remedy, Milk of Magnesia, around for over 100 years, worked through her guts and she started to relax and stand without trying to drop to her knees. I’d taken up all the hay from the stall, but now she was starting to sniff the chaff on the floor as if she was a bit hungry. I gave her a bucket of warm water – but no hay – closed the stall doors, knocked on wood and went in to sleep.
I didn’t know what I’d find the next morning, and I expected the worst. But when I opened the barn door, there she was, alert and looking for breakfast. We started off slow with a little beet pulp mash and by noon some hay. By mid-afternoon, she was fine, like the night before never happened. But it left me to wonder how many of these episodes she could get through at her age. This was the second time. It turned out there would be two more, and then her time came. She passed at 31 years after a long and eventful life. She was one of a kind. I still miss her.
Footnote (pun intended): While I was walking her up and down the driveway that night, she tripped and stepped on my little toe, breaking it. That toe is still crooked. Note to self – put on the steel-toed boots before going out to the barn.