You can lead a horse to hay, but you can’t make them eat

Published 8:00 am Friday, May 6, 2022

You can lead a horse to hay…or carrots…or oats, but you can’t make them eat.


As my retired gentleman, Forrest, stood dejectedly near the pasture gate at dinner time it was evident that he wasn’t behaving in his usual fiery and impatient manner. Indeed, he wasn’t even chasing his buddy, 20 year old Tino, away from the feed tubs. In an act that was worthy of phoning Ripley’s ‘Believe it or Not,’  Forrest was allowing Tino to be eating from both tubs and that, for a horse owner, is worthy of enough red flags to knit a quilt. 

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Colic in a horse is never a welcome sight and worse yet, as I approached my boy I could see he was standing rather tucked up and trembling. Upon further inspection I found an enormous area of swelling that had spread from the end of his rib cage  toward his flank and down to his abdomen that was the size of a boxing glove. Forrest wouldn’t let me touch it and at first glance, I thought it perhaps from a snake bite, but when the vet arrived, it was assumed that this hematoma-in-training was the result of some sort of trauma—slipping while galloping and falling hard, side-swiping a tree, etc. In fact, it’s exactly the sort of injury one would expect to see if a horse barged through an opening as a gate was closing. An ultrasound showed an awful lot of edema, no surprise, but thankfully, no rib fracture. Whatever caused it, Forrest was in a lot of pain, and also, according to the vet, ‘a little shock-y’ which had brought upon a stress-induced colic. 


So much for a night’s sleep.


After being administered anti-inflammatory, steroid and an opioid, it was important that he continued to receive fluids to, ahem, clear himself out to prevent impaction. Horses’ digestive tracts, unlike most animals (and us), are a one-way street. And if the way to that street is blocked, they can twist an intestine, which is dire. And so my job during the night was to be on poop patrol, as well as try to coax him to take a bit of ‘soup’ (a handful of grain and salt mixed within a feed tub of warm water) to keep the fluids coming. But while the anti-inflammatory helped with his pain, he simply refused to eat, and, really, if you’ve ever taken a direct hit to your rib cage, the last thing you desire is food.


That didn’t mean I wasn’t going to try…


“Come on, Forrest,” I coaxed, around midnight, observing his unsoiled bedding. “Here’s some shredded carrot for your soup.” 




By 2 a.m I administered more anti-inflammatory and offered him a bit of soaked alfalfa and still he declined. By 3, I syringed a salty paste into his mouth to oblige him to drink. That worked and he drank a quarter of a bucketful. Yet as my phone illuminated at 4 o’clock there was still no poop and so I led Forrest slowly out of his stall and into the field to see if the dew drenched grass (which works as a laxative—just so you know in case you need extra fiber) could tempt him. It did.


There are moments in life that are so perfect in their silence that holiness encircles. Leaning against my horse’s shoulder, the grass soaking my tennis shoes, I glanced up at the scarce slice of a waning, spring moon and then out across the field where the pale body of Tino, walking steadily towards his friend, was emerging from the dark like a specter. Roses tumbled over the fence, lit only by the fireflies flitting overhead and tangled in distant woodland. Our tableau was then disturbed by the most wondrous sound: Forrest raised his tail and…


It would be another full 24 hours before he was out of the woods and relatively comfortable. Yet standing in the dark, in that perfect peace, both horses grazing side by side, I could feel all was well. We were, after all, in church.