Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Day I Didn't Go to the Barn

I didn't go to the barn last Thursday.  It was the first day that I haven't gone to the barn in at least seven years (except for a couple of times when I was very sick or out of town and sent my husband in my place).  The reason I didn't go was that Nimo wasn't there.  He wasn't there because just before 4 am that morning, I had asked the staff at a nearby equine hospital to euthanize him.

I don't quite know how to write the words...I'm not sure anyone truly understands what happened, but I'll do my best to tell you the story from my perspective.

On Tuesday afternoon, I got a call from the barn owner telling me that Nimo just didn't seem himself.  He was quiet in his stall, and hadn't finished his breakfast or eaten his hay.  He was standing with one front foot a bit forward, like he was trying to stretch and he was curling his upper lip (which can be an indicator of pain).  He also hadn't pooped.  Even though he was not pacing, sweating, pawing, biting at his sides, or laying down, I immediately assumed it must be colic, and I called the vet for an emergency visit.  She made it in record time, beating me to the barn.

By the time I got there, Nimo had already been sedated.  The vet had inserted a tube through his nose to his stomach to check for gas build-up and to deliver about 10 liters of fluid.  She was concerned about colic or the possibility of toxicity from something he might have eaten.  She had detected a heart arrhythmia and elevated heart rate during her initial exam and that led her to wonder if he could have accidentally ingested something poisonous.  She didn't find anything of concern during the tubing process, though, and the heart arrhythmia resolved after he got the fluids.  But she also couldn't hear gut sounds.  A rectal exam revealed that there was normal poop ready to come out and there were no other abnormalities.  Nimo was also running a fever of about 101 degrees.  Unfortunately, because I had missed the early part of the exam, I didn't learn about that until much later.

The vet diagnosed gas colic and assured me that she was almost 100% certain that Nimo would be fine.  She gave Nimo some electrolytes, but did not administer any drugs, and she wanted him to stay in his stall overnight under observation with a report to her in the morning if he did not seem to feel better.  Because of the fever, she also wanted to pursue the possibility of an infection, so she had taken blood to send out to the lab.

I got Nimo settled in his stall and stayed with him for a bit.  Then I quickly took care of my ducks and took my daughter home.  I grabbed a quick bite to eat and stocked up on supplies in case I ended up spending the night at the barn.

I set up my little nest in Nimo's stall and spent most of the night with him.  He definitely wasn't feeling well, but as the night wore on, he seemed to have moments where he felt better.  He acted alert, moved around a little, and at one point, tried to climb on my lap!  He alternated between seeming to be uncomfortable and feeling better for hours.  I could also hear gut sounds from across the stall and there was a lot of farting.  I assumed that all that noise was the gas colic resolving and that his system had started adjusting back to normal.  I also walked him for a few minutes every hour and a half or so, and he always seemed happy to get out of the stall and he walked energetically.

One thing I didn't do was take his temperature.  The vet had sort of thrown out that I should do that as she was leaving, but because I didn't know he had a fever, I didn't understand the significance.  My thermometer was digital and apparently the battery had died.  Rather than drive home in the middle of the night to get a spare, I figured I could check it the next day.

Because Nimo definitely didn't seem to be getting worse and had moments of feeling better, I decided to head home at around 2:30 to get a shower and a couple of hours of sleep, plus check in with my husband.  I asked him to stay home from work so I didn't have to bring Gemma to the barn and I could focus on Nimo.

I got to the barn around 7:30 on Wednesday morning.  Nimo was alertly looking out over the stall door and had pooped for the first time in what was probably at least 24 hours.  The poop looked normal in quantity and quality.  I was so relieved, and Nimo was delighted when I took him out for a short walk and gave him a few bites to eat based on the vet's instructions.

I brought him back to his stall, and got a half a flake of hay for him to start munching on (the vet wanted to withhold food until Nimo had pooped).  But I was soon dismayed to see Nimo reverting back to his condition from the day before.  He didn't want to eat and he was standing quietly while placing one front foot slightly forward and curling his upper lip.  At no time did he pace, sweat, paw, bite at his sides, or lay down.  I called the vet and let her know that he was not feeling better and didn't want to eat.  She said she would be there in about 3 hours.

I stayed at the barn with Nimo and watched him.  He pooped again, and it looked possibly slightly dry, but the quantity was normal.  He also peed for the fourth time since the night before, even though he hadn't had any water.  I kept missing the actual peeing because it always seemed to happen when I was out of the stall for some reason, so I didn't know what it looked like, but the quantity seemed normal.

But by a little after 9:30, it became clear that his condition was worsening.  He still wasn't demonstrating the typical colic signs, but I could tell he was in more pain.  He was shuffling his front legs forward more frequently and hanging his head.  I decided to call the vet to see if she could come earlier.  She could.  She was there in about 40 minutes.

She took his temperature, and we were shocked to discover that it was over 103 degrees.  His heart rate had jumped to 84 (his resting rate is between 32 and 36).  His bloodwork had also come back showing an infection was present.

At that time, the vet changed her diagnosis to a viral infection.  She was very concerned, and I notified the barn manager.  Quarantine procedures were immediately discussed and implemented as the vet pulled samples for testing.  Nimo was unfortunately not a textbook case for any particular virus.  His symptoms were a fever, anorexia (not wanted to eat), muscle tremors in his shoulders (aka fasciculation), a high heart rate, and indications that he was in pain (the slightly stretched position and lip curling).  Based on his vaccination history (as well as the efficacy of those vaccines) and the prevalence of certain viruses in the area, she decided to test for Equine Coronavirus, Potomac Horse Fever, and Equine Herpesvirus.  She also pulled a nasal swab that could be used to test for strangles in the event that there were negative results for the other tests, because he had prior exposure to infected horses many years ago and strangles can sometimes come on spontaneously if a horse is a carrier.  (The tests are pretty expensive, so she was trying to limit the damage to my bank account, but also be responsible and reasonably try to identify what the virus could be so that the barn could set a quarantine time period and know what to look for.)

She also set up a neck catheter to administer another 10 liters of fluids and she gave Nimo what was a drug cocktail almost guaranteed to raise the dead.  I honestly can't even remember all the drugs.  Banamine was one (and one that I thought should have been administered sooner, but the vet didn't want to mask symptoms before coming to a more conclusive diagnosis, despite her assurance to me the day before that it was gas colic).  He also got drugs with anti-inflammatory properties, pain killers, and antibiotics.

The vet continued to monitor him while the fluids were dispensed.  His fever had not budged after half an hour despite receiving medication that should have acted quickly.  So she gave him something else.  Finally, his fever started coming down to 102 degrees.

She left me thinking Nimo was stable and that I could attend to a few things like taking care of my ducks and getting some food.  But she would be back that evening for another round of fluids and a check of vital signs.

We met back at the barn at about 6 pm.  It was clear that Nimo was worse.  The vet took his vital signs.  His temperature had reached 104 degrees, and his heart rate was 112.  She hooked up another round of fluids and we discussed options.  I had two.  I could put him down right then or I could haul him to the nearest equine hospital.

The vet suspected one of two things was going on.  Either the infection was from a ruptured stomach or he had a virus that was killing him quickly.  If he had a ruptured stomach, there were no options other than euthanasia.  If he had a virus, his only chance of survival was 24/7 care by skilled staff.  But she didn't have the diagnostic equipment to check for a stomach rupture.  The only way to know was to take him to the hospital.

By then, I knew in my heart that Nimo would not make it.  I can't say why I was so sure except that the virus scenario had never made sense to me.  The only place that we'd traveled to for months was a little farm about half an hour a way for a lesson every three weeks.  At that farm, we were self-contained because of the precautions for human corona virus, but that resulted in pretty good precautions against equine viruses too.  

But the ruptured stomach scenario didn't make sense either.  It would have meant that his stomach had probably been ruptured from the beginning of the whole ordeal, and he had never shown any of the more volatile and sometimes violent reactions that a horse with that situation would have shown.  He had been completely easy to care for.  He never resisted or had any reaction other than complete cooperation with every procedure.  Even when the vet had the worst time getting the catheter needle in his neck, he remained calm and patient.  His eyes were bright and he was very alert to things going on around the barn.

I knew the best solution financially would be to put him down at the farm.  I could be with him during the procedure and I knew the barn owner would ensure he was buried in a beautiful field.  But I also knew that a contagious virus was still a real possibility, and I felt that a trip to the equine hospital could yield useful information for treating any other horses that became infected, and it was his only chance at survival.

I called my husband to explain the financial implications of taking him to the hospital.  (I used to have Nimo insured for both major medical and mortality, but once I had decided that I would never do colic surgery - Nimo is not the kind of horse that would tolerate the lengthy recovery period well and I can't think of a single case of a successful surgery that I know of - and that I couldn't stand the thought of an insurance company dictating my options in the event of an emergency, I dropped the insurance.)  And my husband, who has never made any secret of being completely baffled about why a person would spend so much money on an animal or hobby, said, "It doesn't matter how much it costs.  I know how important he is to you, so do whatever you need to do."  He also said he would come out to the barn to go with me, so I wouldn't be alone.

I told the vet that my decision was to take Nimo to the hospital.  I could tell she was relieved.  I think she really believed that he would have a chance at living.  She called the hospital to explain the situation and I answered some questions as well.  Then I hooked up the trailer and backed it up to the barn, so Nimo wouldn't have to walk far.  With his condition, I couldn't even imagine how he was still standing.

Loading him was difficult.  He absolutely fussed at getting on the trailer.  It could have been because it was in a different place than usual, but it may also have been his way of trying to communicate that he thought I must be stupid if I thought I was going to haul him for a ride (which is the only reason he has ever gotten on a trailer).  There is a scene in one of the Batman movies (the one when Harvey Dent kidnaps the kids of the police chief - or maybe he is a detective - I don't know the movies that well, but this scene has always horrified me).  In the scene, Harvey Dent tells the police chief to lie to his kids and tell them that they will be OK even though everyone knows he intends to shoot them.  I felt very much like I was in the same situation when I loaded Nimo on that trailer when he didn't want to go.  I told him everything was going to be fine, and he was going to a place where they were going to help him feel better.  Even though I knew it wasn't true.

My husband arrived just as I got Nimo loaded, and we all set off to the hospital.  It was an hour's drive, and it was so awful.  Gemma had come too because there was no place to leave her, and because I wanted her to have the opportunity to say goodbye.  She asked some questions about Nimo, and I felt like I was lying to her too, as I tried to be positive.

We finally made it to the hospital and it was dark by then.  Because of the possibility of infectious disease, I would no longer be able to be with Nimo once I dropped him off.  He would be in the isolation unit.

I parked and as we waited for the staff to don their PPE, Gemma and I said our goodbyes to Nimo.  I unloaded him and had him ready to hand off to the doctor in charge of his care.  Of course, he looked perky and not near death at all, so everyone was so positive and assured me that would take good care of him.  My last view of him was through the windows of his isolation stall as I drove away.  I could see him making the face that he makes when he meets someone and tries to con food out of them.

I drove the trailer back to the barn and then followed my husband home.  I waited for the call from the hospital to let me know what their assessment was.  It was about 11 pm when the vet called.  She was so sorry to tell me that an abdominal ultrasound had revealed a large amount of fluid in Nimo's abdominal cavity.  A ruptured stomach was the most likely cause.  There was regrettably only one option in the case of a ruptured stomach - euthanasia.

The one issue was that when they took a sample of the fluid, they couldn't find any feed material in it.  Even though Nimo had eaten very little for at least a couple of days, there should still have been feed material in the fluid.  So if there wasn't feed material in the fluid, that meant that there could be a cause other than a ruptured stomach for the leaking fluid.  If the leak was caused by something else, there was a small possibility that it could be repaired.

I could tell that Nimo had made good progress in his attempts to endear himself to the staff.  The vet made a point of telling me how amazingly cooperative Nimo had been.  How comfortable he seemed to be given everything that was going wrong inside his body.  She assured me that they would never let him be in pain.  But she was really bothered by the lack of feed material in the sample.  She said that while "it's not wrong" to euthanize him at this point, she felt comfortable giving him a bit more time to see if they could do another ultrasound in a few hours and take another sample, just to see if they could get more information.  (I have now learned that when vets say, "It's not wrong if you want to euthanize at this point," what they really mean is that they don't want you to do it, even though they know that not doing it means they are going to be charging you tons more money and probably prolonging the suffering of your animal so they can try to get more information that doesn't matter in the end.)

I agreed to give Nimo a few more hours of life because a small part of me was desperately clinging to this hope that maybe he would be OK.  At a little after 3:30 am, my phone rang.  It was a new vet.  A senior specialist had been called in because Nimo's symptoms and diagnostic results just were not making sense.  He was clearly not demonstrating the kind of extreme pain response that would be expected for a ruptured stomach.  But there was a whole lot of fluid in his abdominal cavity and it was looking worse.  They could find no abnormality in the scan of his internal organs.  No foreign body, no signs of an abscess or a tumor.  And still no feed material in the fluid sample.

The senior vet assured me that she was 95% certain that his stomach was ruptured and that a ruptured stomach could not be repaired.  But the lack of pain response and feed material in the sample was really bothering her.  She recommended that they do exploratory surgery to see if they could find another explanation.  She explained that if they found another reason for the leaking abdominal fluid, there was a small chance it could be repaired.  But she acknowledged that with Nimo's vital signs, he was an extremely poor candidate for anesthesia.  In addition, the long term outcome of such a surgery was unknown, but likely to be poor.

And at that point, I am very, very glad that I didn't have Nimo insured, because if an insurance company had told me that they would pay for what would be an incredibly, mind-bogglingly expensive surgery and recovery, I don't know what I would have done.  The idea that I would never see Nimo again.  That I couldn't be with him in his final moments due to COVID-19 restrictions on owners being present at their beloved horse's death (which is so very, very wrong - and if you don't agree, please, please keep that to yourself) was so painful, I could hardly breathe.  If someone had thrown me a lifeline, I might have taken it, even though I had vowed never to put Nimo through colic surgery.

But the fact of the matter is that for the last 9 hours, I had prolonged Nimo's life so that humans could get the answers they thought they needed.  His symptoms hadn't fit anything as neatly as the vets would have preferred, and the medical professionals working with him wanted definitive answers.  Amazingly, throughout all of the diagnostics and medications, he had remained calm and alert and engaged.  He had given the very best of himself, and I could no longer justify his suffering.

So at just before 4 am, I made the request to euthanize him.  After the phone call was disconnected, I realized my daughter had awakened and heard me.  She was confused and crying and so was I.  We spent a long time crying together.  And I kept desperately hoping that it was all a terrible mistake.  That the hospital would call back and tell me they realized that Nimo would be OK because they found new information.  But as time went on, the terrible knowledge that he was gone started to sink in.

I've had a few days to think back through what happened, and I still don't have a good answer.  It is almost unbelievable to think that his stomach was ruptured from the beginning.  That he could have gone through that process without giving away the terrible pain that must have preceded the rupture makes no sense.  It is just as unbelievable for me to think that he ingested something that might have cut open his stomach or intestines.  Some kind of abscess or tumor might make more sense because it may have happened less painfully or more gradually, but the ultrasound did not find any abnormality.  Of course, the scan cannot see everything.

All I know is that something went wrong inside of him and created a terrible reaction that was killing him.  The likelihood of repairing that something and then helping him to recover to live a comfortable life was almost zero.  I don't have any doubt that I made the right decision, although I do kind of wish I'd made it a little sooner.  I'm also relieved beyond words that it wasn't a virus.  I can't even imagine having to watch the other horses at my barn go through this horror.

But the reality is that the world is a little less beautiful now.  Nimo added value not only to my life, but to the lives of other people.  He had this way about him that was simply enchanting and even mesmerizing sometimes.

I don't even know how to go forward.  I know that part of it is the grief associated with losing a beloved partner, but how does one really go on after being part of the life of an animal with the beauty and magnificence of heaven, the personality of a Labrador Retriever, and the charisma of a rock star?

There is a Charley Mackesie drawing that I have always loved.  It shows a horse and a boy.  The boy says, "I can't see a way through."  The horse says, "Can you see the next step?"  The boy says, "Yes."  And the horse says, "Just take that."  Such inspirational words.  But right now I can't even see the next step.  It's too dark.

I was so blessed to have the privilege of such a wonderful creature in my life.  I am a better rider, a better horsewoman, and a better human being because of Nimo.  And despite all my mistakes and all the times I thought I couldn't go on, he kept believing in me.  He never lost faith that I could be better.  He never gave up on me even when I gave up on myself.  And he was there for me during the absolute darkest times in my life.  He gave so much more to me than I could ever have repaid.

But now during this dark time, all I have are the memories of him.  And there are so many.  I would never have met all the wonderful people in the endurance world without him or started blogging and been so pleasantly amazed at all the lovely people who read and commented on my posts.  And I would never have found the Science of Motion methodology which has helped me improve my riding and communication with Nimo so much (we even recently had a break through on canter!).  But the best memories are the ones of riding with my daughter.  We started leasing a pony part-time for her earlier this year, and she has been riding the pony (aptly named Mini) around the farm with me and Nimo.  I had fantasies of eventually being able to take my daughter and Mini on trail rides with us.

None of my dreams of taking him back out on the trails or going camping or riding with my daughter will ever come true now.  And the thought of trying to follow the same path with a new horse is something my brain cannot process.  Perhaps in time, I will be able to see a path forward, but for now, all I can do is try to absorb the grief that seems to ooze out of every pore.

My journey to 100 miles with Nimo has ended now.  We never met the goal that I set 7 years ago.  We didn't even come close.  But I learned so much about myself and about Nimo that I can't regret a single minute of it.  I thank all of you who have stopped by to check on our progress throughout the years.  I have loved every comment you have made, and it truly brightened my life to know that there were others out there who were in this horse life with me.

But much like I had to say goodbye to my lovely Nimo, I am saying goodbye to this blog.  I have other posts drafted and still more ideas, but they are pointless without my partner.  I have no idea if I will return to the world of endurance in the future, but I suspect that I will not.  If I do get another horse, we will have a different path to follow.

So, goodbye, my dear readers, and goodbye, my dearest partner.  May you run free and without pain up in the stars.
This is the very last picture I took of Nimo.  I took it a month to the day before Nimo died.


  1. I am absolutely sobbing. I am so shocked to hear this and my heart breaks with you and for you.

    1. Thanks, Liz. I appreciate all the support you've given me over the years:)

  2. So, so sorry. You more than met your goals, you and Nemo were an amazing success. Peace.

  3. There are no words, just a fellow traveler in the path of sorrow. You have all my sympathy.

  4. Gail, my heart is absolutely broken for you. "I'm sorry" doesn't even come close to being adequate, and there aren't enough words to express the sense of loss, grief, and emotion.

  5. My heart is broken for you 💔 I will keep you and your family in my thoughts.

  6. I am so, so sorry for your loss. He certainly was the horse of a lifetime.

    1. Thanks, Olivia. He really was. I was very blessed to have him in my life.

  7. This was...the last thing I was expecting to read. I'm sobbing. I am devastated for you. 100 miles or not, you and Nimo were a force, an exemplary team on every level. Some of my favorite moments on the endurance trail were the ones I was able to share with you two.

    I am so, so sorry Gail.

    1. Thanks, Nicole. I will always remember our Foxcatcher rides - they were so much fun!

  8. You did the right thing. It was hard, and it was awful, and it was the right thing. Love to you and your family from everyone here.

  9. That photo. The last photo I took of my heart horse, he was standing under a rainbow. His end story is much the same as Nemo's, even with the question at the clinic, "you can euthanize now, or.." I'll miss you.

    1. Thanks, lytha. I'm so sorry you have gone through this devastating experience too.

  10. I'm so very sorry, my friend. Champ died in almost the same way - his was "probably colic?" but turned out to be a huge liver tumor that had ruptured. I was completely devastated for days and broken-hearted for years. We never forget the best geldings. Love to you and your family.

    1. Thanks, Funder. I didn't know how Champ died. I suspect I will feel the same as you did. Horses are such amazing creatures, but it makes the pain so much worse when they are gone.

  11. I am so so sorry. Horses are at the same time so strong and stoic, and so delicate. Outside of my family members, there has never been a loss I've taken so hard. I wish you the best and please know that there are many hearts reaching out to you.

    1. Thanks, Udeb. You are so right about the strange mix of strength and delicacy. Maybe that is part of what makes them special.

  12. Oh, Gail, I am so, so, so sorry. I am heartbroken for you. I'm glad Nimo had you to the very end, you did right by him even when it was hard. <3

  13. So sorry. I've had the same 4AM conversation. Eventually the grief subsides, but the memories remaining are good. All the best for the future.

  14. Oh no! My heart is breaking for your and your family! Team Nimo was loved by many and will be missed by many! I hope you find peace soon! It is so hard! Hugs to you!!!

    1. Thanks, Karen. And I love thinking of us as Team Nimo:)

  15. My eyes are leaking and I only know you and Nimo through the internet. You have so generously shared your journey with us and this is such a shocking and sad ending. Hold tight to the love that surrounds you still. In time, I hope the memories begin to bring comfort instead of tears.

    1. Thanks, Betsy. It is amazing how the internet can create a sense of community. Thanks for sharing our journey.