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Still Standing

Today is election day. The pandemic rages on. My garden tells me it is the end of the season. The squash, the tomatoes and the cucumbers are wilting. The beets are thriving, the onions are hanging in there, the spinach has reseeded itself and grown again. About half of the chickens are laying, the others have not started yet. Hundreds of thousands of people have died from this disease. I don’t trust my country to make a change in leadership. I can’t do anything about that. Life on the ranch goes on.

Andi is a plain bay mare. She is 33 and a half years old now. She has bandages on her front legs. These are the first bandages she has ever worn. She responded as one might expect, lifting each foot nervously, looking at the bandages and snorting in alarm.

I had to put these bandages on her because she has the equine equivalent of bed sores. These are sores from scraping the front of her fetlocks against the ground as she struggles to rise after lying down. She has been struggling a great deal lately, so I confined her to a corral roughly 40′ square. If she were any other horse on the ranch, I would be able to give her the anti-inflammatories she needs without confining her in a small space. But even after being with us for 14 years, she still won’t let you catch her in a large space.

Andi came to us when we took in six horses from a large rescue effort by our horse club. She was pregnant and had a nursing colt at side. She lost the pregnancy but the colt has grown up and thrived. The year after she came to us, we bred her to our stallion and she produced a spectacular and very friendly filly that we named Susannah. Suzy is the one who died in March.

Andi has outlived several companions, many younger than she is. For many years now, we kept Andi apart from the larger herd because her teeth are so bad that she needs mash two or three times a day. She plays at eating hay and grass but can’t get any nutrition from those. She has outlived two of the three mares who were rescued with her. She has outlived two other mares who joined her in the “mash unit.” Then, when we had no more toothless mares, she lived with health-challenged geldings. She has outlived two of those. The last passed a month ago and she showed significant signs of mourning.

Andi’s problems got worse lately. As mentioned, I had to put bandages on her. She has such difficulty getting up that, even with stronger medication, she still falls several times before getting to her feet. In the process, she can migrate away from the soft shavings she starts out on and end up on hard or rocky ground. That makes rising even more difficult and falling more painful. Eight days ago, after five hours of trying to get her up, after rolling her over to see if she would have better luck on the other side, I called the vet to have her euthanized.

That may seem heartless. Our ranch helper said he could put in some posts to make a pulley to help her get up. He was very sad that I was prepared to kill the horse instead of giving her more help. A language barrier prevented me from explaining it to him in full.

We have had several horses who had trouble getting to their feet. One horse gave up lying down at all and would lean against the fence to rest. That was a horrible way to live. Another horse would wait calmly until a much younger and stronger me came to roll her over with a rope. We had another who figured it out himself, and for years he would roll over before even trying to get up. He did great. But most of the time, horses will panic if they can’t get to their feet. They feel vulnerable and trapped and the last thing in the world they want to do is roll over and put their bellies in the air, even for a moment. For a horse, not being able to rise is a very tough way to live.

All of those other horses trusted me and other people completely. Their baseline stress level was very low, but even with them, if they happened to lie down early in the night, they could be stuck for many hours before anyone came to help them. Being stuck on the ground can cause a host of secondary problems, from colic to pneumonia.

Andi still doesn’t trust people much at all. While she is “trapped” on the ground, she is afraid. When I come to “help,” she reacts as if I am attacking her. When she does get up, my impulse is to stroke her neck and hug her in relief. Again, she moves away, treating me like a predator. For her, not being able to rise is worse than for most. If she can’t do it herself, her quality of life is abysmal.

When the vet arrived, he checked her vital signs, listening to her heart and gut sounds before ever asking her to rise. She lay there with her eyes wide while he moved around and over her. I wondered if she had made a connection between vets and the deaths of her many companions. When the vet asked her to get up, she did. She lurched and staggered and finally stood. She walked quickly around the corral, pausing to snort and paw the ground, and toss her head at us.

Maybe she succeeded because she was on her good side after being rolled over, and someone new was asking. Maybe that gave her one last jolt of adrenaline. Maybe I no longer have the power to scare her into rising. I take a little comfort in that. Maybe she is finally starting to fear me less.

The pawing is a sign of discomfort, probably muscle cramps from being down and straining to rise. It passed as she walked around and loosened herself up. Though I know why she paws the ground after rising, I can’t escape the fact that it looks like defiance. Her tail lifted, her neck arched, she looks for all the world like she is ready to fight.

I asked “what now?”

Looking at the mare as she snorted and marched around, pawing and stomping, the vet said “when she looks like that, it is hard to…” I nodded before he finished. It is hard to put a horse down when they look so bright and alive. He sighed and decided to try one more thing: dexamethasone. He explained that I could use that when she was having a hard time and other meds are not enough. You don’t want to rely on steroids for an extended period, as they can damage major organs. But when a horse is 33 and the alternative is euthanasia, choices are limited.

Three days ago, she was down again and would not rise. This time, she was next to the fence and that was making things more difficult. When she tried to stretch out her front legs, one landed just under the fence rail. When she tried to roll onto her side, her head did the same. For two hours, I waited to see if she would get up. The colt in the corral next to her reached through the fence and started licking her back, much like a mare would do with a foal. When he started licking the top of her head, she waved him away but still didn’t get up.

Sleep deprived as I was, it took me a long time to realize that while I could not move the horse, I could move the pipe panel fence. I unlatched the panel and swung it out of the way, giving her more room. The colt came into her space and cleaned up Andi’s leftover food. After a while, I took him away in case he tried to play with her. A few hours later, Andi did rise again.

Yesterday, I gave her a small dose of dex in the evening. She was hardly eating. I made up two buckets of mash, one with her usual pellets and one with a new mix of sweet feed and alfalfa pellets. This morning, the new mash was gone. I made up another batch of what she had eaten with warm water. She showed interest in that. As far as I could tell, she did not lie down last night. She ate about half of the warm mash before stopping. That is the most she has eaten in one go in several days.

The vet has been back a few times this last week, for another horse with a mystery fever (possibly a coronavirus) and another with colic. Every time he came, Andi was up and about and looking bright. I wonder if I’m losing my mind, if being too close to the subject, and punchy from lack of sleep, my judgment is unreliable.

I know her days are numbered but every time I see her on her feet, her eyes bright and her ears alert, I can’t help feeling a little bit of hope. I doubt that she will recover enough to leave hospital corral, but today she’s still standing.

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