An Empty Stall

Twenty-four hours ago, as my wife and I finished supper, I told her I wanted to change from my work clothes into my barn clothes and join her as she fed the horses their evening meal. We had spent a rainy but still relaxing three-day Fourth of July weekend, and by Monday night I was already missing our new barn and the horses.

Caleb and our newly adopted Arabian princess nickered as we entered with their grain mash. We watched them eat with obvious pleasure, said goodnight and returned to the house to make it an early night.

As I got in bed, my wife asked if I could hear a noise. There was a clanging and a thumping outside somewhere.

I stepped outside and immediately heard that the noise was coming from the barn. Caleb was down, thrashing around in his stall. I ran in to get my wife and we called the large-animal veterinarian and a neighbor up the road who also owns horses.

It looked like a case of colic, and we administered the Banamine after speaking to the veterinarian on his cell phone. We walked Caleb around his paddock. He went down a couple of times, but we managed to get him up each time.

By ten o’clock the vet was there and puzzled over the situation. He has been at it a few more years than the twenty-eight I have been in Family Medicine, but he is limited to the technology he can fit in his Dodge van.

We went over our options. Caleb looked like he had colic, but his pulse was slow and strong. He also had a long history of unexplained neurological and constitutional symptoms. Exploratory surgery three hundred or more miles down the road on a twenty-year-old horse isn’t undertaken lightly.

We listened to the vet as he shared his assessment. We agreed to treat Caleb’s pain and observe him for a while. The vet left, and we stayed with Caleb for several cold and windy hours in the pasture as a thunderstorm passed in the distance. Now and then he would get up and walk around, but there wasn’t much improvement in how he seemed to feel.

As the vet returned at dawn, we could see that Caleb was giving up. He lost his battle right there in his brand new pasture this morning as the first birds began to sing. I cut a few strands of hair from his mane for a keepsake, and we removed his leather halter.

It was only two weeks ago we all moved into our little red farmhouse with ten acres of land and a brand new Amish-built horse barn right outside the kitchen window. We left our house in the village partly so Caleb could be with us, instead of being boarded. We also adopted our little Arabian princess as a companion for Caleb.

After the cold, sleepless night out there in the pasture, we buried Caleb at the highest spot, overlooking our miniature farm. I stripped his stall and covered the orthopedic floor mat with new shavings.

As we stood there in his empty stall and walked through his empty paddock, we talked of what a big presence he was – a gregarious horse with a sense of humor and a taste for mischief, a thousand pound teddy bear, who loved to cuddle. It is humbling to have earned the affection of such an animal. In just a few hours we lost our biggest pet. We now have his empty stall right outside our kitchen window. We also have our new little Arabian princess, who just lost her new companion. We all feel a little lost.

6 Responses to “An Empty Stall”

  1. 1 Fordo July 8, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    I am so, so sorry to hear about the death of Caleb. It is always hard to handle the death of a much-loved pet. It sounds like he had a wonderful happy life, surrounded by the people he loved. You have my sympathy- and my tears.

  2. 2 Chris July 9, 2009 at 7:57 pm

    I’m a sometimes reader of your blog. I am so sorry for you – that’s absolutely heartbreaking.

  3. 3 Steph July 11, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    Really sad. I’m so sorry.

    I hope that by writing about the loss of Caleb, it will have helped in some way.

  4. 4 blackdogpotter July 11, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    i am a potter in NC-if you would be willing to mail me about 10 of your horses hairs i would love to make a piece of pottery that will permanently etch the hairs into the clay and leave a tracing of the carbon life from of your prescious horse-i will also write caleb’s name on the bottom for you…call me or email if you would like to–tele 3362090653

  5. 5 briarcroft September 6, 2009 at 3:12 am

    I’m also a horse owning rural physician and we lost our 26 year old Haflinger gelding Amos in a very similar way not long ago. It is still a painful memory for us, as he was our “do-it-all-gladly” horse who simply will never be replaced.

    As a doctor, watching our vet struggle to manage Amos’ colic pain with the few tools they have at their disposal on a house call, I realized how much easier I have it than my dedicated vet. My job is so much easier most of the time.

    Thanks for sharing a tough experience.

    I keep a blog too, sometimes medical, frequently farming at

    Emily Gibson

  6. 6 A. November 19, 2009 at 8:37 am

    I’m so sorry about your horse.

    I an equine veterinarian. Based on your brief description, your horse almost certainly would have required exploratory surgery, low heart rate or not. It’s not uncommon for large colon problems (even early complete volvulus) to result in a low, not high, heart rate. It’s sometimes difficult to determine the exact problem on rectal because it’s impossible to palpate the entire gut, and not all veterinarians have access to ultrasound or laboratory facilities for analysis of a quick abdominal tap that may assist in decision-making. The number one reason I refer horses, and surgeons cut colics, is unrelenting pain. As you said, sending a painful, unstable older horse on a 300-mile trailer ride is not to be undertaken lightly (I’m fortunate to practice less than an hour from a surgical facility). Furthermore, colic surgery is a major procedure with no guarantees.

    Take care, and again, my condolences.

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