That is truly the only way I can describe this feeling: this feeling of having my heart ripped out, scraped roundly against the rough edges of a wall, then thrust back into my chest.
And I can’t stop the pain.
When you love the horses you care for with everything you have, you don’t have a choice.
Saturday night, our ranch lost its oldest member of our herd. His passing was sudden and shocking and all of us who loved him – especially his mama, Amy, the incredible person who saved him from slaughter and has come to care for him every weekend of her life ever since – are reeling.
His name was Wild Bill, but he was far from wild. He was the epitome of gentle.
He was the horse I had brand new volunteers approach and walk on their first days. He was the horse I could let kids hang around without getting nervous for their safety. He was the horse who dutifully, unquestioningly, trustingly followed everyone anywhere.
He didn’t like getting his syringe of medicine every day. I used to bring a lead rope with me to gently put around his neck to encourage him to stay still.
Not that he needed much encouraging. Even though he didn’t like that medicine, by god he took it for me.
That’s just the kind of horse he was. Always trusting, always mellow. And always willing to love and validate whomever he was with.
A few days before he coliced, I’d brought him up to the breezeway to clean out his feet since his frogs are so deep and he gets stones lodged in them easily. I thought I had left my hoof pick out on one of the pillars, but when I realized I’d left it inside the tack room, I walked Bill up on the concrete and halfway into the tack room so I could reach it.
He calmly followed. He didn’t mind in the slightest.
Thinking about the night we lost him, remembering every. single. detail. is somehow very important to me. If I can just put the pieces altogether, if I can just break everything down into digestible chunks, if I can mull over all the painful details (and I do go into those in this post)… then maybe everything will all make sense. Maybe I can comprehend what happened.
Jim, our ranch’s executive director, called me just before four on Saturday afternoon – two days ago.
“I have an emergency with Bill,” he said over the phone, and as I started running to the closet for my ranch shoes he explained he’d just gotten Bill up from rolling around in his stall. He’d actually cast himself from rolling so much – and he wasn’t eating. And he was getting him 10 cc’s of banamine, a medicine that usually pulls horses out of colic symptoms within half an hour. Jim said the vet was on the way.
For those readers of mine who don’t know what colic is, the best description I can offer is that colic is a medical emergency that happens when there is some sort of blockage or obstruction in a horse’s extensive digestive tract. There are several causes, and unfortunately the fact that horses have poorly constructed digestive tracts is one of them.
Sometimes it’s gas or – as Jim puts it – “a fart stuck crosswise.” Sometimes it’s a little sand. Sometimes it’s heat. Sometimes it’s stress. Sometimes it’s a type of food.
And one of two things happen when a horse colics. Only one of two things.
Nine times out of ten, the horse can be saved, and he pulls out of it.
Or he dies.
I called Amy as I was gathering my things together and running out the door. When I got to the ranch, Bill was standing with one of our other mangers in the arena, being walked and sprayed down. (Hosing a colicing horse down is essential in that it keeps their body temperature under control, and walking encourages the twisted or otherwise blocked intestines to right themselves.)
Amy and the vet got there a few minutes later, at the very same time. The vet and her assistant immediately started examining Bill. After listening to his gut sounds (which were quiet – a bad sign), she did a rectal exam, which goes just as it sounds.
“I don’t feel an obstruction up to the colon,” she told us. Good news. She listened to his heart rate, which was normal. Also good news.
Either way, we knew we had to tube him. I’d given him two large scoops of electrolytes right before the vet arrived, and after Jim pinched Bill’s skin only to have it stay where he’d pinched it, we determined that he was dehydrated. Pumping him full of minerals and water and more electrolytes would help get things moving in his system, if there was indeed an impaction. Lack of water could do that. We figured getting fluids in him would do wonders.
The vet and her assistant got to work. Tubing a horse involves sticking a tube through his nasal passages into his stomach and pumping out anything in it before pumping in the necessary fluids. When the vet tubed Bill the first time, nothing came out. A good sign. So, she put a half gallon of fluids in his stomach.
Wild Bill was the first horse I’d seen tubed who didn’t need to be sedated. That’s how incredible he was. We used a twitch on his lip (painless for the horse) to release endorphins and calm him, which made the process easier.
Tubing a horse is terrible to watch. But I’ve seen several of our horses’ lives saved this way, and I know it is often necessary to pull a horse out of colic. We watched anxiously.
After the vet had pumped in the fluids, we put Bill in the front half of Rain’s stall, who has the “penthouse suite” of stalls up in the barn and could afford to give half of it to Bill so we could monitor him over night.
But when we put Bill in the stall, he started stretching – as though he were trying to do the downward dog yoga position – and shifting around uncomfortably. And he was the type of horse who usually stood still as a rock in his stall.
Amy and Jim and I watched him shifting around and turning his head to look at his belly and attempt to turn around and roll….then we called the vet and her assistant over just before they were about to leave. “His whole demeanor has changed,” Amy said as she watched him. “He’s not acting normally.”
The vet watched him with us. We were puzzled. Bill continued to shift around uneasily.
“The best guess I can give based off his actions is that he’s too full,” she said, frowning. “When we tubed him that first time nothing came out. And the capacity of a horse’s stomach is about one gallon, and I put half a gallon of fluids in him. But there could very well be some food in there.”
“Can you take it out?” Jim asked. The vet nodded.
“Absolutely. I’d like to keep an eye on him to see if this isn’t just the fluids hitting him all at once. There’s a chance that this will ease up in ten or fifteen minutes.”
She took his heart rate again. It had gone up. We watched him for a little while longer then – when Bill didn’t seem any more comfortable – she had me put the halter back on to check out his heart rate again.
It had skyrocketed.
We took him out again. We put the twitch on to release those endorphins again. The vet put the tube down his nose again.
And this time so much partially digested food came up.
So much food. Easily his entire lunch. And all the minerals and water and electrolytes the vets had pumped in him an hour before. Everything.
It had all been in his system. It’d all been stuck somewhere the tube couldn’t reach. And – based off the rectal exam that showed no sign of impaction up to the colon – the vet’s and our very best guess was that the impaction was in the small intestine. Virtually unreachable.
Dusk was settling in as the vet and her assistant tubed him, bringing up more food, steadily becoming covered in more blood (poor Bill’s nose was bleeding from the tube).
The whole time, Bill stood quietly. Bravely. He fell once. He wanted to go down and went down in a fraction of an instant. Amy gasped and ran toward him, but he rightened himself at once and got to his feet almost before the vet had time to move her equipment.
He didn’t like what was happening But the whole time, he trusted us.
Tubing a horse without sedation is nearly impossible. Even sedation sometimes doesn’t work.
Not with Bill.
He knew we were doing everything in our power to save him.
The sun had completely gone down and was taking with it the last rays of light when they stopped, Bill’s stomach completely empty. Still no signs of progress, even with the banamine and even the buscopan the vet had given him. Still a terribly increased heart rate – a sign of stress.
We discussed bagging him – the very last resort. Bagging is giving a horse fluids via an IV. I’ve never seen this done, but I’ve heard about it. The process is apparently incredibly intense. But it would give him a shot at survival.
Or so we thought. Bill wanted to walk around, and the vet’s assistant walked him up and down the little lane that leads to the front gate while Jim, Amy, and I silently stood with the vet.
“We could bag him,” the vet said at last, gently. “But given his age…given the fact that the obstruction is in the small intestine…and seeing all that food come back up…” She paused, then finished, “Based on all of the facts we’ve gathered, all the things that we’ve already done… I don’t think the prognosis is good.”
I knew that. Jim knew that. Amy knew that. We’d known from the start. When I got to the ranch I’d seen Bill, looked into his eyes, felt his demeanor, I knew.
They always tell you when they’re ready. Always.
Numb, I heard myself say we could turn him out into the arena and let him walk around a bit while we talked. Our vet nodded. “It’s a tough choice,” she said quietly. “There’s no right answer.”
“He’ll tell us,” Jim said in reply, and the vet’s assistant walked him to the arena and took his halter off.
It was completely dusk. Bill patiently, steadily walked along as he always did, headed towards our new garden, walking with the same mellow demeanor he always had. I’ll never forget the image of our buffalo, so calm and collected even after everything, walking along with so much tranquility.
Then, he gracefully sank down and lay there quietly in the sand. The tears came then. He told us.
I had moved Sunny – our baby – over into the half of Rain’s stall we were going to use for Bill, since bagging Bill would have meant using the rope we had hanging from the rafters in Sunny’s stall. As Amy went into the arena to spent time with her boy, I went to move Sunny back to her stall, the stall we weren’t going to be needing anymore.
Sunny is going to officially be a yearling in May and she has an incredible amount of energy. She is always moving; sniffing inquisitively, nibbling curiously, and running around like crazy.
After I took her home, as the vet and her assistant waited patiently by their van, I buried my face in Sunny’s mane and cried.
And Sunny stood completely, utterly, totally still. She rested her sweet little nose on my hip and just stood, letting me lean on her, letting me come to terms with the fact that we would soon be releasing Bill to the Great Herd and that tomorrow when the sun rose and I came to work, he would not be there.
And fifteen minutes later, as I walked him to his final resting spot – the clearing just ahead of the front gate where our volunteers park – I came to terms with the feeling of utter helplessness. The feeling when the universe takes control out of my tightly grasped hands and forces me to trust blindly. The feeling that despite all the systems I create and policies I write and rules I live by, there are some things I can never control.
Knowing the routine helps. Knowing what happens before it actually happens helps. I knew what was going to happen when I saw the vet and her assistant walking up the lane with the two pink syringes, Jim beside them.
I leaned against Bill’s head. He blinked, almost sleepily.
“All those times I gave you your medicine,” I choked out, “I – I could have stopped…”
I couldn’t finish. I’m not sure what I wanted to say.
Maybe that I could have stopped and given him an extra pat now and then.
I could have stopped and thrown my arms around his neck and held him tightly every chance I got.
I could have stopped being in such a hurry to finish my tasks, to move on to the next horse’s needs.
I could have stopped and asked him questions.
I could have.
I could have.
But I didn’t.
The vet and her assistant and Jim joined us. The vet asked if I could get Bill a little bit off the incline.
I led Bill forward. And he – ever gentle, ever trusting, ever loving – humbly did as I asked for the last time.
Our ranch – a sanctuary for horses – gives the best lives imaginable to horses with nowhere else to go. We make them a promise when they walk through our gates.
We promise to give them health and happiness every single day. And when neither of those things are possible any longer, we promise to send them to the Great Herd with all the dignity, respect, and love in the world. We promise to be there with them right till the very end.
Because in caring for these incredible animals, those horses that have been abused or neglected or injured or otherwise abandoned or unwanted, they become something beyond family. They become extensions of ourselves.
Giving them health and happiness – that is our greatest joy and out highest honor.
The hardest, most shattering thing I have ever done and will ever do in all my life is help Jim and all the others at the ranch fulfill that second part of the promise.
One last kiss, one last hug, and the injections were given. Jim put his hand on Bill’s sweet face and told him – over and over, as he does to each and every horse leaving this Earth – “I love you, Bill. I love you, Bill. I love you, Bill.”
Bill went down. I went down with him.
Jim stroked his nose and murmured, “I love you, Bill,” again and again and I laid my face on Bill’s and stayed there long after the vet told us he was gone. And long after the last rays of light had faded and the vet and her assistant had left, I lay there.
Wild Bill. Our sweet buffalo.
My last words to you were that I would see you in the morning. For with every dawn that breaks, the Great Herd is there, pulling the sun across the sky.
I knew you’d be running with every other family member we’ve released to the Herd over the years. And you didn’t let me down. You never have.
Sweet baby boy, thank you for showing me patience and showing me that true strength lies in the gentlest of hearts. The pain of losing you is not as strong as the love we all will forever have for you.