Isla's Colic Surgery Story

The dreaded C-Word.

One of the most feared illnesses in the horse world, and for good reason... It's horrible.

I have definitely had my fair share of colic scares and also colic tragedies in my time in the horse world, as I'm sure most people have.

But as it was colic awareness week last week (5th - 11th November 2020) I though it would make sense to share my experience with my horse Isla, to hopefully show people that it needn't always be doom and gloom...

However, I'm afraid this blog isn't exactly going to be as light-hearted as usual so I completely understand if its not for you!

I will say though,

If you have any concerns, or questions about colic, the signs, treatment etc, obviously feel free to message me, but I'm no vet so I would definitely recommend speaking to your vet or alternatively, the BHS website has an useful article here.

The main topic of this blog today is colic surgery which is obviously one of the worst case scenarios for a horse with colic.

It's important to add at this point, that not even 10% of all colic cases require surgery, most can be solved medically. Surgery is really the last option to try and save the horses life, and due to the number of possible complications both during and after the operation, is very much a last resort.

Yet 3 years ago this was the situation that we were facing.

I had always said, that I would never put a horse through the surgery should it get to that stage, primarily because of all the horror stories I had heard about the operation and the prospects of survival. But honestly, until you are in that situation, I don't think you could ever guess what you would do.

horse colic
Isla, 3 years on from colic surgery

Starting at the beginning

Isla was always a very highly strung youngster, before weaning she was constantly giving her poor mum Elsa grief, to the point where I've never seen a broodmare look so relieved to finally see her foal be weaned!

And Isla continued to terrorise her little field companions.

Which is why, at 8 months old, it seemed really odd one afternoon that she was lying down in the field, especially while we were bringing horses in from the field (she thought annoying the older horses over the fence while they were being led and couldn't retaliate, was great fun!)

We bought her in for a couple of hours just to keep an eye on her as she was unusually quiet, however wasn't showing any signs of distress.

When she started rolling in the stable and got cast, we immediately called the vet.

The vet examined her and gave her Flunixin (anti-inflammatory / pain relief) and Buscopan (anti-spasmodic) and advised to monitor and report on her progress by 5pm or before if we were worried.

She started to roll again before 5 so we called the vet back out and started to walk her around which seemed to help as by the time the vet came she was bright, walking briskly and back to her usual highly strung self! He performed a rectal exam and she had more muscle-relaxants, and again we were back to monitoring her.

At this point, my fears were becoming a reality.

It seemed that, the second the pain killers and anti-spasmodic drugs started to ware off, she would start colicing again.

And true enough, a couple of hours later, she was in a bad way again. To be honest, and this sounds awful, I thought at this point that she had given up. She was led flat out, sweating, and not even responding to a simple eye reflex test.

The colic seemed to come and go in waves so as she started to look as though she was coming back round, we attempted to walk her round the indoor ménage, but another wave of colic came and the poor thing collapsed against the railings of the school.

Needless to say, I was hysterical at this point! (I've just started tearing up now writing this which is crazy 3 years down the line!)

But it was honestly, one of the most horrible experiences, I think made so much worse because she was so young, it was awful to see her so distressed.

The time it took for the vet to get there this 3rd time seemed like forever, I was screaming to my Mum who was on the lookout for the vets car lights in the darkness, trying to find out where they were as Isla tried to go down again.

On the 3rd exam, she was given more drugs, an ultrasound, a Peritoneal Tap and a few other tests, and was tubed.

4th exam.

Yep 4th.

She had become uncomfortable again, was kicking her belly, and this time her gut sounds had reduced. Not good news. Although she was not colicy during the exam, we knew from past experience that meant absolutely nothing at all. The vet scanned her abdomen and found something unusual, and thought it could either be a thickening of the intestine wall, or an intussusception (her bowel had started to turn inside itself, this form of colic is more common in younger horses however usually 2-3 years.) Either way, she needed to be admitted to the vets.

And we got asked the dreaded question.

Would we be willing for them to operate should she need it?

By this point, over the course of the evening, we had discussed in length the pros and cons of operating should it come to it, with the vet.

She had her age in her favour, as she had still so much growing to do that her gut had a good chance of recovery. However the surgery was incredibly intrusive and prone to complications, and the recovery in ICU post surgery is critical as the intussusception can reoccur.

None of that really mattered at this stage anyway, my Mum and I were far too hysterical to not at least try to save her, If she had even a 10% chance of survival, we were doing the operation, and worrying about finances etc after.

No, she wasn't insured... FML.

Regardless, off she went to the vets for closer monitoring.

She continued to deteriorate through the night, despite being on fluids and enough drugs to fill a small pharmacy.

So the decision was made in the early hours of the following morning, to operate.

Their suspicion on an intussusception (the bowel thing) was proven correct, she has a distended small colon and a torsion in the large colon.

Here's an explanation I found on what that actually means -

"Torsion — or twisting — of the large colon is one of the most painful and serious forms of colic in horses. It accounts for more than 15% of colic surgeries and even when there is prompt surgical intervention to untwist the colon, it can still be fatal. Distended means enlarged possibly by poo in the bowel that could not move past the blockage."

Anyway, the vet corrected the intussusception and the stressful wait for her to come round began.

colic surgery in a horse
The little runt, allowed out in the field again after colic surgery

The road to recovery

She was very shaky and quiet for several days at the vets as she was closely monitored and kept on fluids, but slowly started to show signs of improvement.

A week later she came home, and was on box rest for a month before the vet came back out to re-examine her, he was pleased to see her scar was healing well and her muscles on her stomach seemed to be healing nicely so she was allowed out for an hour a day on a postage stamp...

Fast forward to today, actually I'm not going to finish that sentence, but you know... here we are!

Not that, that was plain sailing as 4 months post surgery she had her neck dislocation thing.... but that's a story for another time!

Anyway, the purpose of the story is this.

If it wasn't for the fantastic, relentless work of my vets, my little brat of a horse wouldn't be here!

I was very lucky.

But equally, spotting the early signs of colic and reacting, can actually be the difference between life and death!

I'm not even being dramatic here!

I don't think you can over-react when it comes to colic, and if she was to show any signs again, I would be on the phone to the vets straight away.

In my opinion, 100% tainted from that experience, I would rather be safe then sorry.

I don't mean to scare anyone with this, quite the opposite, I want to prove that a horse can have the worst case scenario of colic and go on to be a normal horse again!

Sorry for a bit of a deep one today!

Back to the normal light-hearted stuff next week I promise!!

Hi, thanks for stopping by!

I'm Kat, I'm a show jumper from the south coast of the UK. Having ridden professionally for several years before taking a long break, I am now just getting back into the swing of things with my lovely homebred 4-year-old mare Isla....

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