Travels With Kathi #26 – Requiem for an Old Horse

Oldest Patient

I had only met this quarter horse gelding during appointments for routine work.  Even then, our history was only a few years old.  He had always been true to his position in nature as a “hunted” or prey animal.  As soon as he saw me pull up in a vet truck, he would  cautiously walk to the other end of his pen, while keeping an eye on me all the time.  He would present his usual moment of be-hard-to-catch to make sure I was intent on capturing him.  He would then give up and stand like a rock for haltering, as he probably had done thousands of times over his life as a stock and trail horse.   How long had his life been?   The owner thought he was forty years old.  

Wow!  Forty years old.  This gelding may be the oldest horse patient I had attended in the forty years of my veterinarian career.  My first year as a licensed veterinarian was 1979.   Could this horse have been born during the first year I had started practicing veterinary medicine?  It immediately became apparent this gelding and I at least had chronological connections.  Could we share other commonalities, more  than being old?

Today’s appointment had been made because our old friend was not eating his food.  I had vaccinated him a few days earlier, so my first thought was he was sore where the shots had been given.  Soreness was a frequent occurrence following vaccinations and usually went away with a little pain control and a little time.  His physical exam was uneventful.  His  temperature was slightly elevated and his heart rate was moderately elevated.  The temperature was also a frequent sequela of vaccinations.  The high heart rate could have several origins.  This old horse had evidence of chronic arthritis in his knee.  Chronic pain frequently caused a slightly high heart rate.  Or he could be suffering from what is known in the human healthcare business as “white coat disease” caused by the presence of a doctor.  In the veterinary world, the phenomena might be more accurately called the “tan coverall disease”.  Our plan was to give pain meds and check him in the morning.

No Change

A call to the stable the next morning disclosed no change in the old horse’s condition.  He still was not interested in his feed, but otherwise seemed no worse.  I scheduled a return visit to the stables and set about to find all I could about the horse’s history.  The gelding had lived at this stable for several years.  He was owned by a couple who had retired and recently been quite busy with personal health problems.  This horse had belonged to the wife’s father who had trail ridden him for many years.  As the father became older and could not fully care for himself, the couple moved her father to their home into an apartment attached to the horse barn.  And you guessed it; this gelding moved into the barn, only separated from the father by a wall.  The father received great comfort and pleasure as he spent the remaining days of his life caring for this horse.  When the father passed on, the couple rewarded this great old gelding by committing themselves to care for the father’s horse for the rest the horse’s life.

About ten years ago the gelding had severely injured the knee that was now firm and enlarged.  The pain was great and the progress to recovery was slow and disheartening.   The owners decided to take the pain away for their old friend, who was now thirty, by ending his struggle.  An appointment was made to humanely allow this old gelding to go be with their father.  On the scheduled day, as luck would have it, the veterinarian was detained by an emergency and unable to come.  The next day, the veterinarian arrived to find the gelding somewhat better.  He decided to try one more treatment, and the pain decreased and the horse improved until the horse was the pasture-sound animal I saw today.  And as the owners had to make life changes, the old warrior was moved to this stable where he was given any type of food he would eat, and was groomed and walked every day.  For such a great horse with this real-life pedigree,  I felt I must solve the problem, I must get it right. 

As I arrived for the appointment, I was met by the owner, the husband.  I had run bloodwork on my previous visit.   There was no clear-cut indication as to what was the primary problem.  But, I had a feeling it was bad.  The man in front of me re-iterated what this gelding had been in his and his wife’s life.  He told me they knew a day would come when this gelding would not escape life’s ultimate outcome.  I told him what I had told many clients standing in front of old horses:  “With our old horses we know someday will be the last day; we just hope it won’t be today.”   What I feared for his horse was, relatively, he looked good.  If we were nearing the end, I hoped this horse would not be forced to suffer a long, slow declining course because I could not be sure the problem was not treatable.  A trip to the clinic for more diagnostics might answer that question.  Thankfully, the husband agreed to take him to the clinic. The diagnostics revealed a problem that had little hope for recovery.  The decision was made.  The day had come.  On a nice warm summer day with a blue sky, green grass, and horses all around, the soul  of a great old gelding left this earth.

Forty Years

What must this animal have gone through in forty years:  Forty winters, many blizzards or bomb cyclones; thousands of lightning bolts and rain downpours; coyotes, bears, mountain lions close by; veterinarians giving shots, castrations.  What would it be like to stand out in sub-zero weather with cold feet, waiting for a ray of warm sunshine to strike your body only if you are standing in a special spot in your pen.   What would it be like to be hungry because your owner was out partying and forgot to feed you?  

Over the years, I have heard many clients describe their horse’s thought as if the horse was a human.  I have always attempted to understand a horse, or any animal for that matter, as the animal sees or reacts to their environment.  When I think of this gelding, I must think of his behavior from a “in-the-moment” point of view, without regret or worrying what they don’t or do have.   I must consider the predator-prey relationship where behavior is primarily directed toward survival.  There must be many things an old man can learn from an old horse, lessons of nature in its purest form.

This gelding would watch my approach to determine if I meant him harm, if I was a predator.  As I get older, the numbers of predators increases.  Keep an eye on the unknown. The old gelding would place himself close to the younger horses. The greying of his eyes and slower reaction time required him to rely on younger horses.  I have had to do the same thing.

The old gelding accepted the injury to his knee and the ultimate disease that led to his death without complaint.  I had to do the same with two knee replacements.  I hope to have the grace he had to face my final days.

The old gelding placed himself to catch the morning sunshine, to stand in the sun’s rays.  I hope I too will always look to stand in the sunshine to overcome a chilly night. Forty years is a long time for a gelding to live.  Forty years is a long time for a veterinarian to make farm calls.  Hopefully, I have paid attention to my lessons.

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