I do night check at my stable roughly 365 days per year. (Especially if the year happens to be 2020, and there’s nothing else to occupy my time because of COVID-19.)
Without fail, when I shut off the lights I give the horses a stern warning. “Don’t die!” I tell them. Honestly, there is nothing more unpleasant than starting my day with a horse attempting death. My assumption is that I can avoid telling them other obvious things like, “Don’t get cast,” “Don’t let each other out,” (double locks on doors!) and, “Don’t be stupid,” because the command to avoid death is tops on the list and is rather all-encompassing.
When I dispatched my daily warning the evening of Sept. 20, all was calm, and all was right. I felt completely confident that the horses would listen to my wise words.
So imagine my horror when I opened the barn door the next morning to see not nine, but eight heads sticking out of their stalls. And only eight voices shouting for breakfast.
Who was missing? Dubai. The piggiest of the piggy, noisiest of the noisy, and typically the happiest to see me in the morning.
Investigation took place. Thankfully, he was nowhere near dead, but he was sickly standing in his corner looking tragic. My inner panic button always raises the alarm if I see that a horse has come poorly through the night and is drenched in sweat, with a torn-up stall. I was thankful this was not the case. However, when I took his temperature it read 103.6. While it was not the highest temperature I have ever read, I knew it was time to take action. In short order Banamine was given, ice boots were on, and a call was placed to my veterinarian. I felt reasonably confident that the illness was tick-related, and in a few short minutes we would have answers, antibiotics, and I could get on with my Monday.
NOPE. NO. This Monday was not going anywhere. Nowhere good, anyway.
First, this particular Monday dealt me a nasty blow when I got a call back from my vet’s office. My vet was not in. She was very much out of town, probably imagining that she would have a pleasant break from the daily catastrophes that horses spring on us. (Imagine!)
Thankfully, by 7 a.m. Dubai’’s temperature had come down to normal, so when I received this call, I took it in stride. I didn’t see any reason to panic over what was most likely anaplasmosis, and I concluded I would call around to the other vet’s offices and have one of them come out.
Well, being that this was the MOST Monday of all Mondays, Plan B went about as well as one would expect. Poorly. EVERY vet in the ENTIRE state was out on an emergency or already hours and hours away from me. Evidently, this was the best day of the year to be a sick horse.
I have made a long story short here, but by the time 8:45 rolled around I had been on the phone for hours. No vet to be found. I had a huge day of lessons to teach. I had two teenage working students looking to me for guidance and wisdom (or something). To this point, I had a horse who was pretty stable, so I was not completely horrified, but I was trending in that direction. And, at 9 a.m. when I took Dubai’s temp again (three hours post full bodyweight dose of Banamine) and it was 103.9, the horror became pretty real. The poor pony was not hanging on to good health at all, and soon he was shivering and lying down (waiting for death to come, was my assumption). Horror.
Hence, I called Linda, who is my mother. Some of you already know Linda and have seen her in action. She is a nurse by day and the answerer of my equine medical questions the rest of the time. She also knows that panic is not my middle name, so when I called her and said, “It is possible that I might freak out a little,” she took notice. She suggested that I call the clinic and see what they said and go from there. Perhaps this Monday was trending in the right direction after all. (Side note: Because I am a person who plans well in advance for disasters, my feelings were more emotion-based than reality-driven. I actually know quite well what to do in an emergency situation.)
I got off the phone with my wise parent. Looked at the horse. Disliked what I saw. (Monday was veering off course yet again.) Then I called the New England Equine Surgical and Medical Center in Dover, New Hampshire, and told them we were coming straight away. While this was going on I was also juggling a three-ring-circus of canceling lessons and asking my dad Lee if he would hook up the trailer. (My parents are always making cameos here because my stable is adjacent to their home.) I asked my teenage working students to do about 1.2 million tasks, and like little dynamos, they had everything taken care of before I knew it. (Shout out here to Tiggy and Aria!)
Dubai climbed right on the trailer even though he had not seen the thing in months due to our 2020 season of COVID and staying HOME. (This is why I always, always make sure that each horse in my stable will load reliably. This story may have had a very different ending if it had taken me hours of struggle to coax him to load.)
Just like that, off we went. Not too shockingly, I discovered that Lee was in the driver’s seat. He assumed (correctly) that I would appreciate the help. My parents are pretty much the best, by the way. The annoying thing about living in east briar bumble Maine is that it takes two whole hours to get anywhere (including, but not limited to the animal hospital). This gave us plenty of time to discuss all possible scenarios—literally everything from being sent home while the vets laughed at my concern over the fever, to horrible ominous and unlikely rare illnesses. We also realized that it was lunchtime, and neither of us had thought to bring food. For the Bradley family, this is a pretty significant problem. We had to resort to eating a small packet of slightly stale crackers, ones that may have lived in the truck since the actual beginning of time. It felt very meager, and it was yet another blow dealt to us by this rather miserable Monday.
Finally (still very hungry) we arrived, and the excellent veterinary staff at NEE whisked the pony to a stall of isolation, a place reserved for critters with sketchy fevers. I was not sure they would let me come along (because COVID), but we all masked up and got down to business.
Blood was drawn, vitals were taken, and possibilities were discussed. They suggested an abdominal ultrasound to rule out a variety of things that I had not considered. They wanted to check his organs, his bowels and for fluid in the abdomen. We knew that the bloodwork was going to be very telling as well, and the great thing about being at a clinic is tests come back with blinding speed.
Throughout this whole process, I continued to think that Dubai’s illness was likely to be tick-related and that I was going to be sent home with a prescription to prevent future overreacting (for me—this actually sounds useful!).
But his bloodwork results came back with some alarming results. His white blood cell count was low. VERY low. “What on earth could that mean?” I asked, baffled, as it was the opposite of what I expected.
“It means he has an infection,” explained the excellent Dr. Katy Raynor, “and all the white blood cells have gone somewhere very specific to fight it.”
The ultrasound showed us some nice healthy organs AND a bunch of unexpected abdominal fluid. Gross. I was low-key excited to watch my first (and hopefully last) abdominal tap (HUGE NEEDLE EEEEKK!)
In just a couple more minutes we discovered the problem. “Idiopathic peritonitis,” Dr. Raynor proclaimed.
“What?” was my educated reply.
And then, because I am the authority on useless information, I remembered this is what Harry Houdini died from. (Want me on your trivia team? I’m in. Oh, and I found no comfort in this fact.)
Dr. Raynor gave me a quick education. “Idiopathic peritonitis” is the name for what happens when a horse has infected fluid in the lining of its abdominal cavity. This can happen in a post-surgical situation, if a horse has sustained a puncture injury, or if a horse has ruptured its intestine due to a foreign object being ingested. Often, peritonitis is easily misdiagnosed as a tick-borne illness because of the symptom of sudden onset fever. More chronic peritonitis usually is accompanied by colic symptoms.
Dubai had no sign of a foreign body in his abdomen. He had no injury or puncture, no sign of colic, no sign of anything, except for being feverish and sad and with a white blood cell count in his excess abdominal fluid so high that the machine at the clinic could not even read it. (Winning! At being sick.) And this is where the word “idiopathic” comes in. This simply happened for no reason, other than to mess up my Monday. It is also a bad thing, and I was vigorously congratulated for my self-proclaimed overreaction. (It was referred to as an “appropriate reaction.” GO ME!)
I have to give my poor pony a huge thumbs up for excellent behavior while being poked, prodded and ab tapped. He took it all in stride and was an excellent patient, bless him.
I was pretty worried that my horse might die. Dr. Raynor assured me that he wouldn’t, but then she backpedaled somewhat and said things that all vets say like, “It could get worse before it gets better. We may need to do exploratory surgery if he doesn’t respond. The next 48 hours are critical.”
However, I knew Dubai was in the best of hands, and I only felt small and polite panic stabs as I watched him being led away to the ICU barn. With Dr. Raynor promising daily morning updates, and with me shouting helpful things like, “Don’t hold back! Do what you need to do! Use the expensive drugs because he is my ONLY HORSE!” Lee and I handed over all our credit cards and combined life savings before driving away. (Kidding! The pony has major medical/surgical insurance.) Oh, and we finally had a moment to pick up something to eat, ending our suffering and starvation peril.
And thus, the hardest part began. The waiting.
I’m fairly good at tucking my worry into the back of my mind, once I have done everything I can. Regardless, each day while I waited to hear from his team of vets, I did experience some feelings of low-level (profound) concern. But I was lucky! The luckiest. Each day the report was that things could not be better and that he was responding so well to the treatment. I could not have been more thankful.
I was able to sneak off to see him halfway through his stay, and he was pretty happy to see me. (I brought snacks!) I was thrilled at how healthy and happy he looked, and so pleased that NEE allowed me in the ICU during a quiet hour.
Throughout Dubai’s hospitalization, nothing was discovered to indicate any particular reason for his issue, so the diagnosis remained the same. The vets thought his recovery went so well because the condition was not chronic, he’s young, it was caught swiftly, and his vets really walloped it with the high-test treatment. I also think that luck, as silly as it is, plays a small role in these situations, and mine was good.
While I was very happy to have his health moving in the right direction, there is no denying that it is most worrying having your horse in the hospital. Much to my relief, Dubai came home after six days, feeling super hungry, frisky, and ready to get turned out to buck and roll in the mud. Typical.
I then proceeded to spend the next two weeks taking his temperature constantly, per order of his discharge instructions, and feeling delighted that everything remained perfect. Also, he was back to light work in a matter of days and felt like he had never taken a day off.
There are a lot of things I am thankful for after having this situation occur. I’m thankful for my instincts and experience that prevented me from taking a wait-and-see approach. I’m thankful for the amazing vets who cared for him, giving me daily reports and making sure he was pumped full of the biggest antibiotics. (I’m also very thankful for my own vet who, despite being on vacation, texted me about 100 times to check in!) I am definitely thankful for all Dubai’s friends who sent him good thoughts, which surely helped. And let’s be real, I’m thankful that I toss around the extra cash for great insurance for my horses. When I called to file my claim, the agent knew who I was from reading my blogs here, which made me feel famous! And I’m thankful for a good outcome. Good care or not, fast thinking or not, horses do not always make it out alive. This time, luck was with us, and I am so very glad it was.
I’m Sara Bradley, a full-time dressage trainer (and full-time horse babysitter/doer of night check/woman of wise words) from the lovely state of Maine. Most of my time is spent educating young horses and children at my facility, Waterford Equestrian Center. (And yes, I do like to instruct mature horses and humans as well.)
When I’m not busy juggling the day-to-day activities at my stable, I enjoy activities like trail running over actual mountains and running marathons. (Life in the slow lane is not my style!) I look forward to competing my young horse, Dubai’s Dream, during the 2021 season, and you can follow this journey on Instagram @dubais_dream.