It wasn't stress that put 12-year-old international three-day-event horse RG Renegade ("Reggie") under the knife for colic surgery on November 11, 2001. It was a strangulating lipoma: a benign fatty tumor wrapped around a portion of the Selle Francais/Thoroughbred gelding's small intestine.
According to owner Colleen Hofstetter of Mars, Pennsylvania, Reggie couldn't have been in a better place at the time. "He had a break in his schedule after the Burghley CCI in England, so on his return to the States, he went directly to USET veterinarian Dr. Brendan Furlong's clinic in Oldwick, New Jersey, for a routine checkup. He had a sarcoid on his foot; that was one of the things I wanted examined. I now joke that the sarcoid--which has always bothered me, but not him--probably saved his life."
Shortly after 2 p.m. on the 11th, Colleen got a call. A vet tech had gone into the clinic for afternoon check and found Reggie thrashing and pawing so violently that the barn aisle was as full of bedding as a stall. "By 6 p.m., Dr. Furlong called to say they were taking Reggie into surgery. They called again at midnight to say they'd removed the tumor and about 10 feet of intestine, and the prognosis looked good. But the next morning Reggie was still experiencing intense pain and producing no gut sounds" (they're an indication of normal gut motility), "so they took him back into surgery to see if they'd somehow missed some damaged bowel. That's when I got in my car and drove six hours to New Jersey."
After back-to-back major surgeries, Reggie "was so exhausted he lay on the floor for four hours without moving, which paralyzed a nerve on one side of his face. The paralysis resolved itself over the course of about three months, but it added to the intensity of his recovery. He was pretty pathetic to look at. And when he finally started eating and drinking, he dribbled food and water from that side of his mouth." His first "solid meal", a handful of warm bran mash. Over the next month, Colleen prepared for bringing Reggie home, learning to use a stethoscope to check his heart rate and respirations and to listen for gut noises in the four quadrants of his abdomen. On December 10, Reggie was released to go home and continue to heal.
The plan was to limit him to stall rest and 20-minute turnouts in a very small enclosed area, "but Reggie is a real horse," says Colleen. "He requires herd mates and extended turnout. As soon as he figured out where he was, he insisted--by running up and down the paddock and jumping out of stalls--on having a normal life."
Concedes Dr. Stacey Kent (the vet from Dr. Furlong's staff who attended Reggie), "If your horse is going bananas on stall rest, it's really not rest. You have to work with him until you find a balance where he's peaceful and content." One month later, Reggie got a clean bill of health. Colleen enlisted a friend's help to drive the horse 20 hours (with frequent stops, including an overnight at a "horse hostel" in North Carolina) to Ocala, Florida, and the farm of his regular rider, Darren Chiacchia. The purpose wasn't to start Reggie back on an eventing career--everyone was just hoping he'd survive--but to continue his recovery in a warm environment.
To strengthen Reggie's abdominal wall, his vet had prescribed a walking regimen, starting with 15-minute daily sessions on the hot-walker and working up to an hour a day over a month. Afternoon hacks were then added; within 60 days, Reggie was walking a total of two hours a day. After a month of this schedule with no complications, he went back into work with Darren.
In April 2002, six months after his surgery, Reggie finished fifteenth at Rolex Kentucky. In September, he finished thirty-fifth at the World Equestrian Games in Jerez, Spain.
Though Reggie is unlikely to colic again, Colleen is taking no chances. "I used to monitor colic by the 'visibly thrashing about' method," she says. "Now I have my stethoscope and thermometer on me at all times."
For a detailed overview of colic's causes and what's entailed in a surgical colic, see "When Colic Means Surgery" in the August 2003 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.