I sat staring at the clouds and was hoping and praying the rain would come during the awards ceremony at the Coates Creek endurance ride July 31st. I wasn't looking forward to being called up in front of the many other riders that competed that day to accept my 6th place ribbon. My emotions were hard to contain and just thinking about the events of the day brought tears to my eyes. I had just completed the 50 mile ride with my horse Magic and when we crossed the finish line and vetted our completion I couldn't help but say a little prayer, do a "high five" in the air and give both my wife Lesley and my horse Magic a big hug of joy and thanks. After all, who would have imagined that he would be completing a grueling 50 mile ride in the heat of August; up some of the most impressive hills Ontario can throw at any endurance rider. All this! Twelve weeks after undergoing near death colic surgery!
When I got him back to the trailer and settled, I sat down and drifted back to that cold day in April when Lesley and I were faced with some very traumatic decisions to make. The day started off terribly as we drove through a blinding snowstorm on our way to compete at the Aprilfest 50 in the Dufferin forest. A few times we were questioning our sanity as to why any human would go to such length to ride 50 miles in this typical Ontario spring weather. The slush on the roads was so bad that it almost pulled you off into the ditch! Arriving at the ride site we were surprised to see so many courageous people preparing themselves and their horses for the ride.
My riding partner Alison Martin and her horse CH Sheylan were ready for pre-vetting so the four of us proceeded to the P&R area. The weather had changed and it actually became tolerable. We vetted through and everything was perfect...straight A's and Mag seemed excited to get going.
As we warmed up prior to the start I couldn't help but notice that Magic was feeling quite full of himself. He felt strong, fit and eager. Our plan for this day was to get through the first few miles without incident and then settle into a nice steady pace that would see us finish in and around six hours. My goal for the season was to prepare Magic for the Old Dominion 100 in Virginia.
The trails were in good shape considering the weather and it didn't take long for the horses to calm down and focus on the trail. The first few miles went by without incident and we settled into a good steady pace. Neither Ali nor I had any great expectation and both would be very happy to just complete the 50 miles. The horses seemed to be quite happy with the pace so we continued through the first loop.
Coming into the vet check, he pulsed down very quickly and vetted through straight A's and it wasn't long before we got back into the routine after the long winter. Alison and Sheylan vetted through and we were into our hold.
Heading back out onto the second of (4) four loops; both horses were running in great shape. We took advantage of the water stops and we timed ourselves at a minimum of six minutes and we made sure the heart rates were below 60 before heading down the trail. The horses didn't really seem that interested in the water and I think that was due to the cold temperature. Most of the time they would stick their heads up to the trough and take a bit of a sip. This was not unusual for Magic as he normally doesn't drink a lot in the first miles of the competition. Coming into the 2nd vet check, everything was great, even the weather was becoming a little nicer; I think I saw a bit of sun trying to break through. As in the first vet check, he pulsed down quickly and Art King vetted us through and again all A's. Ali and Shey came in behind me and vetted through with no problems; both horses looked great.
Back on trail for the third loop we picked up the pace a bit and the horses were fine with this adjustment in speed. I felt that he was being his typical self when he started his old habit of dropping his head down to ground level almost like a hound on a rabbit trail. He had started this early last year and we couldn't figure out what it was, he seemed to be spooking at the ground as we trotted down trail. I didn't pay a lot of attention to this because it was something he had done many times before; uncomfortable to post to but not a problem to worry about. We now know that this was a sign of something that was brewing inside his small intestine.
We came into the third vet check and again everything was fine; both horses vetted A's and they were eating and drinking normally. We headed out on the final loop and decided to maintain the pace from the third loop. The horses still felt great and he was still finding the stamina to spook at logs, down trees, water puddles, you know all those spooky horse monsters. He started dropping his head even more and it was becoming difficult to deal with. I kept checking everything to try and figure out what it was he was doing. Ali rode behind to see if she could identify any problems; but none were visible. Whatever it was it didn't affect his heart rates or attitude. There were no changes from the first loop other than the horses were more settled. The last five miles of the loop we could feel the horses tiring a bit so we slowed the pace and just enjoyed the moment.
Crossing the finish line I gave him his customary pat on the shoulder and whispered to him "good job"! As we walked over to the vetting area, we offered both horses water. He started to drink and he really tanked-up, I didn't think he would stop. After finishing their drink, we proceeded to the P&R area. He pulsed in at 52 and I was quite pleased and felt we did a great job. Art was finished with the horses ahead of us, so I walked over to him for my final vetting. Art vetted him through and found no problems, everything was fine. He trotted out good, his CRI was good 12/12, gut sounds were pluses in all four quadrants. I was very pleased, Magic finished the ride all A's!
I took him to the trailer, and got him un-tacked and settled. At this point there was nothing out of the ordinary; everything was fine. I was almost soaked to the skin so I went in the trailer to have a hot shower and change into some dry cloths. While in the trailer I could hear a horse pawing at the ground. I looked out and saw it was Magic and he had quite the hole started. My first thought was that he wanted to roll so I called out to Steve to get one of the girls to walk and graze him while I finished changing. At this point approximately an hour and a half had gone by since we completed the ride. I went out of the trailer and the girls told me that he wanted to roll and that he was pawing at the ground. Knowing him and how he loves to roll, I chuckled at the young girls holding him and explained - that's just Magic. Lesley has this uncanny ability of picking up on horse's issues and feelings. She immediately went over to him and looked him over - I could tell by the look on her face that something was terribly wrong. He had signs of a serious colic starting!
I had butterflies in my stomach as I walked him around the field while Lesley ran to get Stan and Art. Every time I stopped walking, he would paw the ground and start getting ready to lie down. In my mind I knew something terrible was wrong and I felt almost helpless. It seemed like eternity for Lesley to return with Stan and Art but it was a relief to see them walking towards me. I felt reassured by their presence and my mind started to think clearer as they examined him. The colic signs started to subside a bit and after they checked him it was confirmed that he had either a mild colic starting or some gas and now we were looking for an explanations as to why this might happen. Both Stan and Art felt that it could have been caused for a number of reason's but we felt one of the main reasons could have been the tanking up of cold water at the final vet check.
Luckily, fellow rider Laura Hayes from New York had some banamine in her trailer of which we gave him about three cc's and then continued the walking around the field. He did settle a bit so it was decided to load and head home.
We arrived home at about 9:00 pm and when we took him off the trailer I checked to see if he had past any manure but he hadn't. I took him into his small turn-out yard and as soon as I took off his halter he dropped to the ground, lay on his back and raised his legs in the air and started moaning. I was absolutely horrified when this happened and I knew we were in serious trouble. Lesley went in the house to call the vet and they decided that we would give him another three cc's of banamine and see if he would settle. We brought him into his stall in the barn, gave the banamine and this time it didn't settle him at all. I started walking him around outside and every time we stopped walking he would paw the ground and attempt to lie down.
At 11:30 pm another call was made to our vet and the need became an emergency! Our vet arrived at 12:00 am and upon tubing Mag, the nightmare got worse. When the tube was inserted completely it filled with reflux, we rushed to get an empty pail and the vet put the end of the tube in the pail and to our shock, it completely filled it. The vet had this look on his face and when I looked up at Lesley and she looked back, we knew that he was near death.
Lesley and I needed to make some quick decisions. The vet asked if surgery was an option; without it Magic would have to be put down. It was now 1:30 am when we loaded him and headed for the London Equine Hospital. By now both Lesley and I were running purely on adrenaline. LEH is about a 90 minute drive and I shouldn't admit to this but we pulled into the parking lot in 50 minutes. Thinking back I don't recall stopping at a stop sign or light the entire trip.
The London Equine Hospital staff are quite amazing people. When we pulled into the parking lot to the entrance behind the building, they were waiting with the doors open. I got Magic off the trailer and lead him into the clinic. He was immediately swarmed by the staff and in no time he had needles, bags and monitors hanging from every conceivable location in his stall. Once all the preliminary stuff was completed, he was given another 6 cc's of Banamine and the tube was again inserted into his belly. This time I expected reflux but was not prepared to watch as bucket after bucket was filled to the top. A total of six gallons was drained from his belly and I think even the vet and his assistants were amazed at the amount. An internal examination was next but there were no conclusive findings. One thing that puzzled the attending vet Dr. Kretzshmar was that Magic's pulse rate was very low. His heart rate was never above 50 and even at the worst of his illness it was at 46. Dr. Kretzschmar indicated that this was very unusual as most horses with the same condition are at about 115 - 120 BPM.
As I mentioned earlier the hospital staff are just the best. Everything they did to him they explained in detail why it was being done. When Dr. Kretzshmar had made his diagnosis he approached Lesley and I and his compassion was truly sincere. We were again faced with an agonizing decision. Dr. Kretzshmar explained in great detail the issues that he felt Magic had going on inside him. I don't think I heard a word he said and as he spoke our eyes welled up in tears - my horse was dieing and there was very little to be done to save the horse and companion that brought so much joy and fun into my life. I gasped as he explained that even with surgery, he at best had only a 10% chance of surviving and if he did survive he would be a pasture patient for the balance of his life. The three choices were given, and again he made sure we had everything we needed to make the right decision including the costs involved. He explained a full colic surgery; what it was; what could be the cause of the colic and the cost of that surgery. We asked that with the full colic surgery if they opened him up and things were bad, that he be put down on the table. He explained another option and that was to basically do exploratory surgery (autopsy on a live horse) and the costs involved. The final choice I did not want to hear - terminate Magic's life! I fell to pieces! Dr. Kretzshmar left Lesley and me to discuss the options. Our decision was to go ahead with the exploratory surgery with instructions to terminate his life if there were serious complications.
A funny thing happened when we went back into the clinic. Just when we thought the world was falling in around us, a light shines. He seemed to settle and he hadn't produced any reflux in almost an hour. I actually got a bit of a chuckle out of the staff when I joked that Magic understood what we were talking about earlier. Between Lesley, I and Dr. Kretzshmar, we decided to post pone the surgery and give him some time to see if this little light was actually a sign of recovery. Lesley and I were exhausted on our feet so we decided to head home to try and get some rest!
Sleep did not come, we were both now up over 32 hours. We were exhausted but our eyes would not close. My mind was so full of guilt and I kept trying to figure out what went wrong. I played the days events over and over again in my mind and questioned whether or not I over rode him at the ride. What did I do to cause him so much hurt?
Lesley and I were on pins and needles as we awaited word from the clinic. Every time the phone rang, we would jump. Finally at 9:00 am Dr. Desjardins called and he delivered some very bad news, Magic was no better and when the banamine wore off he would get very uncomfortable. They had him prepared for the exploratory surgery and they were just getting ready to take him into the OR. We decided that we would go ahead with the exploratory surgery but we confirmed with him that if there were any complications they would put him down on the table; he agreed.
I hung up the phone and started to bring Lesley up to speed on the conversation. In my mind I kept thinking; how can I put my companion through the suffering he must be going through? The words came out of my mouth but I did not hear them. I said to Lesley, we should just put him out of his pain and suffering. We knew from the vet that the likely hood that he would recover were slim to none. We both were very quiet for a moment, Lesley didn't have to say a word, and I knew her answer. I picked up the phone and dialed the number to the hospital. My eyes were wet and I must have dialed the wrong number, I wiped them and then tried again. This time I got the hospital and when I asked for Dr. Cote, the receptionist explained that she was in surgery. I told her who I was and why I was calling. She asked me to hold and when she came back to the line she put me through to Dr Desjardins. Before I could say a word to explain our wishes, he told me to hang on for 10 minutes as they had just opened him up.
In exactly 10 minute the call came, I noted a tone of excitement in Dr. Desjardins voice. He explained to me that they found the problem; fixed it; and in less than ten minutes, he was back in recovery and standing! The words were overwhelming and they echoed through my head! Whether it was the lack of sleep, the bad news, the roller coaster ride, I will never know but I could not hold back the excitement that built up inside me. I dropped the phone and fell to my knees; Magic was going to be okay! Or was he?
Just when you see a glimmer of hope in a bad situation all hope is dashed. Magic wasn't getting better. Dr. Cote the attending vet explained to me on Tuesday morning that it sometimes takes up to 48 hours for the electrical impulses to realize that there is no restriction and to start things working again. She told us that in some cases the impulses never come back and is fatal for the horse. It had been 24 hours post surgery and he was still producing reflux. I started to get concerned when at 32 hours nothing had changed. I got on the phone to Stan Alkemade to get his opinion and he felt that we should wait the full 48 hours before getting concerned.
As time past I got that sick feeling in my gut again. How could this be happening? It was now Wednesday morning and with no word from Dr Cote I knew things were no better. On my way to my office in Niagara Falls, I called the clinic to get an update. Dr. Cote sounded grave and I found myself in the terrible situation of making choices. Although Magic was responding earlier that evening, Dr. Cote was very concerned that another two gallons of reflux was expelled and she was asking how much time and money we want to spend if he was getting no better. It hadn't been a full 48 hours so we decided to give it the day and then assess his condition. Dr. Cote was in surgeries all day so another update wouldn't come until 7:30 pm Wednesday evening.
Lesley and I had tickets to Cavalia in Toronto Wednesday evening and there were no words spoken as we drove to the Distillery District of the Toronto Harbour front. Both of us were totally exhausted and now here we were making another tough decision. We arrived in Toronto in good time so we decided to have dinner before going to the show. My cell phone rings a lot as part of my job and every time it rang we both jumped. It was now 7:00 pm and we were counting down the minutes as we sat sipping on a drink. Our food came but trying to eat was hard, we were both so bewildered! The clocks ticked by 7:30 and still no call from Dr. Cote. Finally at 7:45 my phone rang, it was the London Equine Hospital. I froze; I just couldn't take any more bad news! I handed the phone to Lesley and asked if she could please take the call. It was loud in the restaurant so Lesley stepped around the corner. Seconds turned to minutes as I waited for Lesley to return, the suspense was killing me so I got up and went around the corner just as Lesley was hanging up.
I could tell by Lesley's smile that the news was good. The vets had a meeting after Dr. Cote spoke to me in the morning. They decided as a team to withdraw the tube from him and see if he would stop producing the reflux. The electrical impulses would either start to work again or they wouldn't and it would be over. Lesley told me that Dr. Cote told her that Magic had gone a full nine hours without the tube and there had not been any more reflux. He turned the corner to making a complete recovery.
Magic has had this issue coming on for a number of years and it got progressively more severe. Dr. Cote and Dr. Kretzshmar told us that had we not competed at the Aprilfest ride, we would most likely have found him dead in his paddock and that as long as he was moving forward down trail, things would continue to work. They also explained that with the six gallons of reflux in his belly it was lucky it did not rupture. I can't believe that he was trotting down trail with all that reflux sloshing around inside him. Dr. Ketzschmar figured that the reason he was trotting with his head and neck stretched towards the ground indicated that he basically had in human terms "severe heartburn" for a long time! He apparently had a small lesion on the lining of his small intestine that at some point became infected as debris adhered to its surface. Over time the opening of his stomach gradually stretched to enormous proportion as it tried to compensate for the build up of foreign matter. In-turn this caused the small intestine to enlarge and cause the electric impulses that work the system to weaken. Slowly the impulses would weaken to a point where it just shuts down thus the backing up of the system producing reflux.
I heard a little whinny as I came back from my thoughts; it was Magic standing looking at me over his corral line. It was as if he was saying to me - snap out of it and get me some food; I just carried you over fifty miles and there you sit daydreaming! I rose out of my chair and climbed over the line and gave him a hug! Yes, Magic is back! He is truly a survivor and a tough horse with a lot of heart. I will compete with Magic in many more competitions over the next years, but none will have the memories and significance of the day Magic and I completed the Coates Creek Endurance Ride.