Monday, March 15, 2010

Last Hoof Prints

Colic. Five of the worst letters put together in the total language. It has no boundaries and is a cruel and savage illness.

Saturday began with my trip to the barn to feed and things were going normally until I got to Atlas, my young rising star gelding, favorite personality, and bright spot in the pasture and in my life. When I presented him with his feed bucket he sniffed and turned away instead of his usual attack of the grain. This was totally against his norm so I tried a different feed to see if maybe I had gotten a bad batch or it smelled funny to him or something. Still no interest. Called my vet and gave the boy some Banamine, a pain med, to help him with what was appearing to be a bit of apparent tummy trouble. By noon he was better and at 3pm he was back ill and worse. Vet came out and gave more pain meds and sent some oil down the system to try to loosen things up. Then the waiting game began.

For non horse folks reading this, colic is a condition in horses where they get food backed up in their guts for whatever the various reasons and if this blockage is not loosened with oil and pain meds, then surgery is the next and only recourse. In a colic situation time is of the essence and things can get very fatal, very fast. Horses have incredibly delicate digestive systems and the phrase "eat like a horse" is terribly misleading to the unfamiliar. They evolved to be grazers, constantly getting small amounts of grass and occasional whole oats and such. One little glitch in how they process the modern day of feeding a domestic horse, and their not being able to throw up or if they get a compaction, they die.

By midnight the oil had seemed to have worked its magic and things were working right along. Atlas perked up and the outlook was certainly looking brighter. By morning tho things were not good. Atlas was back in pain and lethargic and depressed. Another vet exam determined that we needed to take him to Birmingham to a clinic with surgical facility. so Mark and I loaded Atlas in the trailer and took off for Birmingham.

There, further blood work, exam, and ultrasound still showed no obvious reason for the boy to be still feeling this much pain. His calcium and protein levels were suspiciously low and nothing seemed to fit a pattern of explanation. After a period of re hydration therapy, surgery was the remaining option.

Mark and I had traveled back home before the surgery and waited to hear the outcome. The attending surgeon finally called and told me that there was no one thing that they could find to remove and fix but that the large colon showed considerable damage and that was not something they could remove or fix. Some displacement, either in the colic or the cause of the impaction, and had caused a blockage of blood flow to the area. The large colon was now basically one big ulcer leaking toxins into the poor fellow's system. After a sleepless night for the vet and the horse in horrible and uncontrollable pain with an untreatable condition, the decision had to be made for the humane treatment of an untreatable situation and Atlas was euthanized.

Now I sit here and weep, and remember my boy...we had just begun really working together as a team, the early breaking and introduction to being ridden had been finished. On Friday, my final ride on him was amazing. We did collected trot, extended trot, and I mean BIG super fancy trot. His leg yields became shoulder in and that turned into half passes. There was nothing that I asked him that he couldn't do. After each movement that was better than the last I would stop and he would turn his head for the rewarding scratch that always came when he was a good fellow. And he was a very good fellow and got lots of rewards.

Atlas was an amazing horse to be with on the ground or aboard. He was bright, energetic, well behaved, and 100% tuned into the partnership with such sensitivity and willingness. That, and he was the most athletic horse I have had the privilege to have seen, much less own and get to ride, or just watch moving with such freedom and natural balance. Unlike most young fairly inexperienced and unbalanced horses, on Friday he showed what an amazing athlete he truly was by doing both true lead canter work and counter canter. This would be like asking an infant to be able to do a Baryshnikov ballet move with grace and ease.

On Friday, after we had finished our unbelievable session I walked him down to the pond dam where the grass is green and lush. On the way there, right by the corner of the house, my silly dog Memphis came running up behind up and ran thru a dried up plant. When she hit it and broke the branches off it sounded like a bag of firecrackers going off. Atlas startled and began to leave, but in one blip he stopped and stood like a saint. I was so proud of him and the passage he had made and had grown up so well and had become such a wonderful partner. It was without doubt the most happy moment, of all of my time spent raising and training the young horses in my life.

Then Saturday happened. What I will never forget as long as I live is the way that horse needed me to be with him in his pain, standing, head lowered with his nose gently resting on my left hand, soft breathing and smelling his mom, my right on his neck. When I had to leave for a while, my daughter Emily and her husband Trey stood watch and held his head for me and took care of him many long tedious hours.

We all tried, and the vets tried their best to comfort and save this boy, but it was not meant to be. What a waste of an incredible and special animal and spirit to lose, but what a gift and a joy to have had the chance to be around this horse. This is what I will remember about him, and Atlas will remain in my heart forever.


  1. Words cannot express the hurt and sympathy I feel for you. Your blog brought me to tears. I am so, so sorry for your loss. There is no understanding of why this had to happen. I know you wll cherish those awesome moments you shared. What an amazing bond you and Atlas shared. As a fellow horseperson, I, too, know the feeling of that special's a feeling that in indescribable, but so incredibly special. Cling to that - and know that you had that precious time together, although so fleeting. I am praying for you, friend.

  2. I can honestly say that the hours tending to Atlas were not tedious. It was a delight to be around him. He was a sweet, friendly boy who wanted company and comfort when his tummy didn't feel good, and it breaks my heart that he's gone. I know you love each of your babies, but he really was a special horse.
    We spent Sunday morning on the pond bank with Atlas, enjoying the sunshine and walking around as he tried to get comfortable. Trey commented on what a handsome mover he was.
    I'll miss the sweetie after just that little bit of time with him.

  3. this morning for a brief moment i had forgotten about this..and then it hit.again. hard. thank you for words that do help bear the load

  4. I work with Anne in LA and ride dressage. She sent me a video link to Atlas a few weeks ago just for interest. What a mover he was!

    I am so very sorry, so sad to see such a magnificant animal gain his angel wings too soon. I've been through this myself and know only too well how heartbroken you all must be. Thinking of you...