Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Day Buddy Got His Nicker Back

The Day Buddy Got His Nicker Back - June 2005
By Tom Gumbrecht

Anyone who has had a horse with a serious long-term illness knows how emotionally wrenching the roller coaster ride between improvements and setbacks can be. Buddy started off heading into the winter of 2003 a bit shy of his normal weight. We had some tests done, thinking that perhaps some worms got past the normal rotation of wormers that we use. No other symptoms were present so this was really just a precaution. The blood tests, however, painted a different picture. They showed a significant deterioration in his liver. While planning a course of action to follow, one cold day Buddy's feet appeared frozen to the paddock. He moved so painfully and slowly, and it was shocking to see this 23 year old horse (who normally acted like an 8 year old) in so much distress. Further tests showed that he had Lyme disease to such a degree that they ran the results twice because the lab had never seen them so high. Forty-five days of antibiotics, 100 pills a day, showed slight improvement, but then another worsening. He had foundered. I am told that the anti-inflammatory effects of the doxycycline can sometimes mask some of the symptoms of founder. At any rate, Buddy then was tested for Cushings and was positive. He got bar shoes. He went on Pergolide and we set out on the long road of managing that disease and the resulting founder. He had good days and bad days. He had many abscesses pass through and we spent many early mornings and late evenings soaking his achy hooves and rubbing his tired legs. We managed his medications and changed his diet. We pulled his shoes and tried a different trim. We wanted answers. We got possibilities. We wanted a definitive course of action. We got a hundred different opinions. I don't know how it is for other people, but the sequence of emotions with me went something like this:

1) My horse is not really that sick. These people don't know what they're talking about. They don't know my horse. I do. We can get through anything.
2) My horse is really sick. What on earth am I going to do? What if he dies? What will I do? What will I do with his body?
3) Can't any one agree on a course of action here? What do I know, anyway? They're the ones with the medical degrees.
4) I better learn as much as I can about this stuff.
5) Most of what I'm worried about hasn't happened yet. His life is in God's hands. His comfort is in mine. A day at a time, I think I can manage that.
6) I miss riding him. But of all the things I get from Buddy, riding is only one of them. I still get all the others. I get the rubbing of my back with his nose as I soak his tired feet. I get his puppy-like inquisitive presence following me around the stable yard as I do chores. I get his loving, liquid eyes locked to mine at dawn every morning. I get to give back to this horse who has given me so much.
7) This is not so bad. We can do this.

We took Buddy to the New Bolton Clinic of the University of Pennsylvania in October of 2004. We hoped for more definitive answers. We had an ultrasound and a needle biopsy done of his liver, which came back clean, although blood tests still showed elevated liver enzymes. Not a clean bill of health, but not devastating. The sports medicine and radiology departments then got him, and digital radiographs showed the large degree of rotation we already knew about, but categorized it as significantly more serious that had been diagnosed on the local level. Or probably, more accurately, we were just more willing to accept what we had already been told. I do not want this information but I need it. Is this life threatening? How long can he stay alive without being in terrible pain? Not years, I'm told. Months. And not many. The long trip back from the university is not a pleasant one. I came for hope and I'm going home hopeless.
In the days to follow, I do what I'm now trained to do, make him as comfortable as I can and deal with each day as it comes. Days become weeks, and weeks become months. His bad days are bad, but not as bad as they have been. His good days are better and more frequent. Spring comes, and he jumps up and kicks his hind legs in the air. I'm concerned that he's going to hurt himself. Don't worry, his now alert eye reassures me, looking down as he prances around the paddock with his mane flowing and his tail up just like he used to be. Not every day is like this. Some are better than others. This is a good day. He is not the horse he was, but I am not the man I was before this ordeal either. I have learned the power of faith, patience, and love. I wanted more answers. I got only more questions. I wanted facts. I developed faith. I wanted reassurance from the doctors. I got it from Buddy. He doesn't know he's sick, and he's not depressed about it. He gave me faith. I wanted him to keep teaching me to ride. Instead, he taught me how to be.
And today? Today was a very special day in my barn. As I prepared Buddy's breakfast just after dawn, I heard the soft wuffle that crescendoed into the beautiful sound I have waited eighteen months for. Today was the day that Buddy got his nicker back.

Update, 2007:
Buddy amazes us, and our veterinarian, constantly. We have two young horses now who are his pasturemates and he has found a new “career” as their babysitter. He chases my young paint gelding around and around and they rear at each other and throw kicks in the air. I was worried at first that he would get hurt or worn ragged. Again Buddy taught me to trust his judgement and enjoy watching him spend his twilight years just being a horse.

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