That May morning on the farm was typical. Impatient horses and cattle were calling for breakfast. The rooster crowed from the coop while his hens clucked and fussed as they waited to be let out. As I sleepily walked to the barn with John, I noticed Phoenix and Donkey peering at me from their stall and Maggie the pony watching me carefully from hers. Andy whinnied loudly as he paced. Where was Allie? She usually joined in the chorus. As I approached her stall, I saw her down in her paddock. I entered, talking to her. "Get up, Allie. Are you alright? Just having a little roll before breakfast?" She rose, grunted and laid back down. There was ice cold fear in my gut as I grabbed her halter. I haltered her and got her up. She was restless and her eyes dull were from pain. I brought her out of the stall and into the cross ties (which have safety snaps in case she went down again). Then, I ran inside for the phone and called the vet. Meanwhile, my mind raced trying to recall all the events of the past 24 hours in regards to Allie. Nothing stood out as a warning or possible cause of her colic. The vet was on his way but I had no banamine to give her in the meantime (at his request). I waited and watched her as I fed the others. When she felt a wave of pain, I went to her side and tried to keep her from rolling. "Get up, Allie!" I told her as she tried to go down. "Be brave", I pleaded. And she was. Despite her pain, she got back up, even when she hurt so much that she sat like a dog.
The vet did a great job quieting her with painkillers, examining her, and tubing her with oil. He asked me to walk her over to the grass to see if she would eat. She bit off a blade or two here and there, but was still restless. He suggested I turn her out and watch her. She seemed to be doing better through the day and I brought her in for another dose of banamine at the recommended time, but her pain broke through so the vet came back out late that afternoon. He told us that she would need to go to the university if her pain did not lessen soon. I hitched up the trailer and checked her again. She was still painful. We left at around 7:30 pm for Gainesville. During our drive, our vet spoke with the vet school.
Allie has only been back with us for a year and a half. She had sinus surgery for unusual cysts in her sinus cavities, just this past December, at the university. She earned many admirers because of her sweet temperament and cooperative attitude during her stay there. I couldn't believe this was happening now. She was 14 years old and I had finally found the time to start riding her again. I had plans for the summer and plans for the fall that revolved around riding her on local trails.
As I unloaded her, I was impressed at the crew of professionals that took over her care and immediately started working on her. Her eyes livened up a little, once they started her IV and controlled her pain. I stroked her head and spoke quietly to her during a brief lull in the activity. Once they told me the plan and sedated her for further examination, I realized there was nothing I could do for her tonight. The vet school crew had a long night ahead trying to save her life and I wanted to stay out of their way. Our son was sleeping in my arms and I needed to get him home. They said that if all went well, they would call me in the morning with an update. If I got a call before then, it would be because they had bad news. I signed a form allowing her to be put to sleep if the vet recommended it. They said they would call me first. I left praying I wouldn't hear anything until the morning.
They called at 3:30 am. She was put down due to sand impacting her gut and uncontrollable pain.
The next day, I picked up the trailer and spoke with the vets. They said there wasn't anything I could have done differently to prevent sand from collecting in her gut. Sometimes it happens despite good care. The necropsy results showed an inoperable section of heavy, cement-like sand in her colon. Rupture was inevitable and she was not a surgical candidate. Nothing I did, as far as management seemed to be the cause. They told me not to blame myself but I still changed some practices at the barn to, hopefully, prevent any future cases of sand colic.
Sand colic is most common in Florida, Texas, and California, but it can happen any place that has sandy soil. Sand is not tame, like mud, it will blow into every nook and cranny in a horse's stall. Sand colic is caused by a horse ingesting sand, along with their feed, hay, or grass. A little here and there adds up and can collect in their bowels. Psyllium can help push it through, but it is far from a perfect cure. The key is preventing sand from entering their gut in the first place. Hay feeders are a good practice, as are buckets for feed with swept mats beneath to catch falling grain. Another place horses can pick up sand is from salt blocks that sink into the sandy soil. Prior to losing Allie, my practices were good, but not perfect. I had removed her hay feeder from her stall when her sinus trouble started to allow for drainage. Her bedding was shavings on top of rubber mats, and that is what she ate off of, but the sand always seems to work it's way in. She had salt blocks that she knocked on her stall floor,often. I cleaned them returned them to the holders. I fed an abundance of grass hay and used psyllium as a preventative. Nothing stood out as a warning of things to come. Allie did tend to eat every wisp of hay between meals, but I didn't allow the horses to overgraze the pastures (the closer to the earth that they bite, the more sand they can ingest). I had used round bales for the first time this winter, but many people use round bales without any ill effects. I had never lost a horse to illness or disease before, only to very old age. Now, I did some serious second-guessing. Sometimes, it's the best way we can learn from tragedy.
Now, I follow the latest recommendations regarding psyllium. Instead of bedding their stalls with shavings, which allows sand to blow in and deposit beneath the shavings, I sweep their stall mats clean twice a day before feeding them in their stalls. They sleep in their paddocks anyway, so no sense in using shavings unless the weather is cold and/or wet enough to drive them in. In that case, I can strip the stalls regularly to prevent sand from building up. Salt blocks in the pasture, for both horses and cattle, will be in containers high enough off the ground that they won't sink or need sand dumped out regularly. The common plastic salt block holders are not high enough to keep sand out. Salt block holders in the stalls will be checked more regularly and the salt blocks will be changed out if the salt becomes small enough to slip out even once. The vet school told me not to blame myself, but I had to make some changes, if just to give myself more peace of mind.
Allie was a tough loss for me, for my family, and for the other horses. She was beautiful and elegant, yet tame enough to be a loving pet. I miss her sweet face, her nickers, and the way she enjoyed being groomed. She always had abundant energy and grace when ridden. Sensitive and light, spirited but gentle; she gave everything. I will miss her.