Sunday, July 8, 2012

Sometimes It Takes a Village

Living in a rural community like Ledyard may not seem exciting to some, but it isn’t devoid of adventure. We have chickens on our 3-plus acres and our neighbors, Walter and Roberta, have horses (and a lot more land). On a recent Sunday morning, Walter came to ask for our assistance; they had a horse down and needed help trying to get her back on her feet.

Roberta has a 3-stall barn which stables her two horses and another belonging to her friend Linda. Roberta found the horse down at 7 am when she normally feeds. It was Linda’s mare, Eve, who couldn’t get up. I grew up around horses, but the ones I had were young. Eve is 22-years-old and arthritic. Eve knows her limitations and consequently never sleeps lying down. When I walked in the barn and saw Eve lying flat out in her stall, my heart sank. There was blood high on the wall where Eve had hit her head when she fell. Periodically Eve would raise her head and thrash her front legs in an attempt to rise, but her hind legs never budged. The limbs were stuck in place, unable to bend as needed so the mare could get them underneath her body for support. Not sure how long Eve had been like this, we theorized that the right hind leg she lay on was probably numb from her weight. She needed to stand.

The vet arrived and gave her a shot to help with inflammation, pain, etc. He said if we could turn her over to her other side and massage the feeling back in Eve’s right hind leg, she had a good chance of getting herself up. Wide, flat straps were slid under Eve’s body on either end by Laura and Matt, Linda’s daughter and son-in-law. We tried to turn her with her legs facing the larger end of the stall. However, handling and maneuvering a 1000-pound animal with thrashing hooves in an enclosed space is dangerous. Linda had already been kicked by a flailing hoof before we got there.

Fortunately, the stalls were designed with removable partitions. By this time a few extra people had arrived and in short order two walls were taken out to give us more room. It took a couple of hours to widen the stall, the vet to visit and the horse pulled around to ensure that we had room to flip her over safely. We finally had the room to turn Eve over by wrapping lounge lines around her legs and pulling. Eve’s hind legs were massaged and moved for her to restore circulation, but didn’t work. Eve struggled to rise and gave a valiant effort to stay up, but then she fell back down on her bad side again, cutting her other eye and banging her head in the fall. All we could do was stand back and watch as getting in close was too dangerous. I was relieved Eve had been fitted with a horse helmet intended for protection while trailering.

For the short time we had the mare on her left side, the forcefulness of her initial fall was apparent in the swollen and bloody eye and the large scrapes on her right front leg. Antibiotic ointment was put in her damaged eye and we tried to keep a clean towel under whichever eye was ground-side.

After Eve’s major attempt to get on her feet failed, she seemed to give up. She was tired. Her tongue hung out of her partially opened mouth. Eve would take water from a turkey baster, but did little from that point on to help herself. Meanwhile, Laura didn’t give up trying to find someone in the horse community who had a horse sling. She figured that if we could support Eve from the barn beams in a sling, her legs could gain the strength to move and hold her again. Laura called everyone. My step-daughter, Erin, who works as an EMT for Ledyard Ambulance heard of Eve’s plight and asked for assistance from the Ledyard Fire Department. Next thing we knew, there were 30 people in the barn with the firefighters and police. Apparently, the fire department has been called on before to help farmers with their cows that get in similar predicaments. Labeling this mission as “Air Bag Training”, the firefighters tried to get Eve in more of sitting position by inserting air bags under her back to raise it.

In the end, this failed also. The firefighters left and the vet returned after visiting other patients to give Eve another shot. He offered little hope. I asked him how long we should give Eve. “Until dark,” he replied. It had already been about four hours. I tried to offer support to Eve’s owner Linda and got Eve’s history.

Eve was an accomplished dressage horse who was being retired from the show circuit when Linda bought her 12 years ago. Linda herself was retired and wanted a pleasure horse to ride occasionally. Even with Eve’s arthritis, she enjoyed getting out and being ridden. After a few hours of the torture of maneuvering Eve, her struggles, and the hopeless look on her face, Linda started talking about euthanasia. The rest of us had already concluded that it looked like the only humane outcome. More than once, I felt like I could break down and cry at the helplessness of the situation.

The main motivator who really kept pushing and continued calling around was Laura. The rest of us followed Laura’s suggestions. Linda looked just as beat as Eve, her face flushed and sweaty. It was a 90-degree day and although there are industrial sized fans blowing in the barn, it was sweltering. Walter kept all the helpers who came and went well supplied with bottled water. Eve received cold sponge baths to keep her temperature down in addition to the syringe-fed water.

Then we heard that a woman who was an expert in horse rescue was on the way. The fire department had called Ledyard Animal Control who called Tanya Wescovich from Stonington Animal Control. I was skeptical. What would a horse rescue person be able to do that we hadn’t already tried? Tanya came in, a formidable, loud, take-charge person who insisted that we were going to get Eve up. Her own 27-year-old gelding had “been stuck” a few times and she’d always gotten him back up. Tanya had also received extensive training in how to safely maneuver large animals out of tight places. Tanya proclaimed that we need to get Eve’s hind legs working again with massage and movement. We’ve done that.

Tanya had two helpers with her who apparently had experience with downed horses also. She instructed Linda to yell at Eve to get up, for Laura to hit her rump with a crop and for her friend to pull Eve’s head across her body instead of straight ahead. She warned us that it would look mean, but the point was to force the animal to do what she didn’t want to do.

The yelling, the crop, the pulling…I walked out of the barn. I couldn’t watch anymore. They were just going to wear out poor Eve more and the end result was going to be the same. I almost walked down the hill to our house, but I came back. It didn’t work. I noticed that Roberta, the barn owner, had left also. When Eve was allowed to put her weary head back down, she did so gratefully. She had had it.

Tanya declared the horse needed to be moved out of the barn so that the downhill slope of the paddock could help her get her legs under her. Tanya expertly directed the pullers of body straps to safely manipulate Eve’s legs and head through the stall door. It was like moving a large table through a narrow door; first the legs, go to one side, then the other legs. Three to four people would pull on a strap around Eve’s body on command, moving her a couple of feet, then stop and allow the horse to rest. Someone else would remain with Eve’s head to keep the towel under her eye for protection from sliding on the dirt. I noticed after she was outside that Eve’s gums were white. Her expression remained listless, her hind legs stiff and motionless.

The cold wet towels were constantly rotated on Eve’s body, her head wiped down, her legs manipulated until they moved more freely. Finally, Tanya said it was time to make her stand. “What if, after all this, it doesn’t work?” I asked the guy next to me. All the yelling, pulling on Eve’s halter to make her rise…it didn’t work. Eve fell again. I looked over at Linda. She was wiped and I felt sure she would burst into tears at any moment and tell everyone to stop torturing her horse. Enough was enough.

But it wasn’t enough. Walter has a small tractor with a front-end loader attachment. He drove it into the paddock area. At Tanya’s direction, towels were placed under the web straps around Eve’s body to pad right behind her front legs and in front of her hind legs. The straps were secured to the bucket and Walter slowly raised Eve’s body for her. At one point, the horse’s weight was too much and the arms of the loader started to come down, but people rushed in for additional support and held up the tractor’s arms. Eve’s hind legs remained listless as she stood there supported by the tractor. They were pushed into position under her body and the straps were unhooked. More cheers. Eve started to sit down and I saw another failure coming, but the horse was pulled forward, her rump was slapped repeatedly, and Eve started walking!

Eve had given up like most of the rest of us, but Tanya the miracle worker knew her stuff. In the end, the community came out to help a horse; Animal Control Officers on their day off, a police officer who had a farm and cared, the fire department, neighbors, friends, children drug by their parents who worked for Ledyard Ambulance. Walter declared this event had restored his faith in humanity. Roberta said she’d follow Tanya into battle. After a long, hot 8-hour ordeal that we were sure was going to end in a dead horse instead had the patient being lead around the paddock.

I went to visit Eve a couple of days later. Linda had spent that first night after the fall in the barn with her mare. Eve is sleeping (standing up) in the larger lean-to area attached to the side of the barn for now as there is a natural fear of putting her back in the smaller confines of a stall for a while. Her legs seem to be back to normal and her eye and abrasions are healing nicely. The only negative side effect is the nerve damage Eve has to the right side of her mouth which makes it difficult for her to eat anything but mash. The vet is hopeful that the nerves will heal over time.

Eve had come so close to being euthanized that trouble eating seems minor. In the end there was a community that cared enough to band together to save the life of a horse. Sometimes it does take a village.