On last Tuesday afternoon I arrived home around 4:20 and found Daphne running and playing energetically in the front field. She was jumping high like some kind of a bronco rodeo horse and raced me from the front gate all the way up to the barn. This is the normal “happy Daphne” dance. I searched my car and purse for castoff Sonic peppermints to reward her but found none. This would end up bothering me all week long.
She stopped running and looked happy. Ears pricked up, snorting, bright eyes, flippy. I did a quick headcount of the animals, parked my car in the garage, and went in to change clothes. The weather that day was even more characteristically Oklahoman than normal. We had heavy rain at the farm, including lots of thunder. We saw temperatures fluctuate about forty degrees, and it was very windy.
First Signs of Trouble
After about twenty minutes indoors, I went back outside in jeans, boots, and a quilted vest and distributed grain and hay to all the big animals. Upon again reaching the front field, Daphne was down. She wasn’t just wallowing in the hilly sand, which both the buffalo and horses are wont to do; she was obviously in pain. I was immediately worried. She made a sort of pleading eye contact with me and strained her neck up. I called Handsome on my cell phone, grabbed a lead rope from the barn, and jogged to clear the cattle gate and reach her. She was beneath that big, blue spruce tree the kids call the “Elevator Tree” because of its low, flexible branches that are so perfect for lowering yourself to the ground. Thankfully Chunk-hi was happily distracted by his afternoon meal and only watched us. He’s playful, not aggressive at all, but still powerful. And I couldn’t stay safe with him and focus on her needs at the same time.
At first, with only a little urging, my sweet girl was able to rouse to her feet and walk with me in large, gentle circles. We did this for about half an hour without stopping, cuddling the whole time and breathing pretty calmly, all the while trying to get help on the phone. Colic is serious, often deadly, but I had seen Daphne pull out of it once before and felt confident that with quick attention she would be okay. Handsome was meanwhile racing home from work.
Soon, though, Daphne’s strong legs collapsed beneath her and even being quite rough I was unable to pull her back to her feet. The best I could do was keep her mostly still so she wouldn’t flip. She rocked on her side a little and accepted kisses and singing, petting and touching. I tried to listen for bubbles (signs of moving digestion) in the exposed side of her round stomach but heard only her pounding heartbeat. I felt no hot spots anywhere on her beautiful fuzzy body.
Daphne’s Condition Worsens
She was calm, very calm, and while I tried to reach a vet on the phone I thought for a moment she was dying. I was grateful for the sound of her groaning only because it meant she was still fighting. The seriousness of the situation was descending on me and I suddenly had trouble breathing myself. I couldn’t believe how quickly her condition had changed. A frantic and tearful phone call to my friend Shawndra, with her equine expertise and calm sense of urgency, is exactly what I needed. She told me what to do while waiting and said she would try to help.
Sooner than must have been safe for him to drive the interstate, my husband raced up the gravel driveway, threw his car into park, and disappeared inside the house. He emerged less than a minute later in work clothes and flew over the gate. His presence in the front field drew the attention of our little buffalo, so immediately my attention was divided. Until then, Chunk-hi had only watched us.
During one of my husband’s cold but sweaty efforts to rouse Daphne, something incredible happened which I will never forget. As I stood against a young oak tree juggling phone calls with Shawndra and three vets’ offices (we were now in the slender space of time between office hours and emergency response times) Chunk-hi meandered over to our worried gathering. Constantly in my view, he lowered his behemoth head and started towards Daphne’s tail end. I feared some rough playfulness but was amazed by what he actually did.
Chunk stroked his massive bearded chin in long, slow motions against Daphne’s body. He traced every leg, sniffed her tail, kissed her neck with that long purple tongue, and paced delicately around her prone and weakening body for several minutes. Handsome and I both noticed this incredible behavior.
We witnessed what could have been the precursor to a goring, or at least a good head butt, turn into a truly affectionate and comforting gesture. From my position about four feet away I could see his big liquid black eyes watch everything we did. I could hear his amplified breath, investigating the scene, cataloging details. Daphne had always held a maternal veil over this little orphaned addition to our farm, and I have no doubt he felt her pain. In retrospect, we believe he was also saying goodbye.
After a ten or fifteen minute vigil, Chunk-hi suddenly inhaled sharply and started bobbing and wagging his shaggy head in big, dramatic circles. Usually a sure sign of aggression in male buffalo, this had no such feeling. He flung his head around but stood perfectly still then just gazed at her. He looked at me calmly, but not blankly, and I was devastated to have no words for him. This was a buffalo sobbing and crying.
Handsome with his brute strength pulled and wrestled Daphne to her feet and convinced her to walk about twenty feet at a time, per everyone’s best advice. It became increasingly difficult though, and foreseeing a long night ahead he very wisely guided her toward the gate so we could work with her nearer the house, isolated and in some light.
Our little orphaned buff ran ahead of us to the gate, turned back, circled us, and ran the space between us and our destination a few times before Daphne could make it. Both of these animals in our care seemed to understand the plan, and thankfully they both cooperated. I quickly unlatched the gate so Handsome and Daphne could slip through, then locked it again just as Chunk gave it a gentle push. I scruffed his black-brown face a little before walking away. Gave thanks for his gentleness.
Long, Difficult Evening & Help From Dear Friends
The next few hours were spent on a series of efforts to keep Daphne moving, comfort her, prevent her wildly strong legs from kicking anyone in the head, and make excruciating decisions. We took turns leading her, walking her, propping her up, and stroking her warm muscular body. I traded texts and phone messages with vets until we found one who could visit our farm that night, and pretty quickly.
Our good friends Larry and Shawndra stopped everything in their family’s evening to drive thirty minutes to our farm. They arrived during the first truly dark hour of the evening and helped administer an IV drug (banamine) to fight inflammation and ease Daphne’s pain. This drug, coupled with drinking water and walking, was what had worked a few years ago. At this point I was concerned but still convinced that Daphne would make a good recovery, even if it wasn’t as quick and pretty as the first time. Unfortunately, after receiving the banamine, Daphne seized up. Violently. It was probably from the intense pain, and it broke my heart.
This big, life-giving mare with the black coat and leopard spots that only shine in the sun, this creature who has thrived in extreme heat and frigid ice storms, who has gifted us with two beautiful, healthy, spirited foals, was suffering more than I have ever seen an animal suffer before. Out of seemingly nowhere she was crumbling under the pain of colic, and we were rapidly running out of ways to help her.
After a little while the banamine must have relaxed her, because we were all able to safely sit on the ground. Daphne’s breathing slowed to a heavy, throaty, meditative beat. One long, deep draw of breath, another short one, and a peaceful release through her lips. Then in again- long, short, then out again… Over and over for about twenty minutes, until the vet arrived.
We also have Shawndra to thank for helping to expedite contact with the equine vet who helped us that night.
After the sun failed us, the air did too. The farm grew inky black, leaving us barely illuminated under the pool of light by the car shop, and the wet air went from cool to cold. Someone tried to soothe Daphne with a horse blanket, but it bothered her. We all stood or squatted around her, shivering and talking through the many possibilities. I remember Larry kept telling stories about otherwise healthy horses who were struck with colic and died suddenly. I felt so sorry for them but still had no grip on the possibility that it could happen to us.
The men fought to keep Daphne still, though she would sporadically pivot her body and kick against the pain. More than a few times everyone was sent flying, stumbling back into the dark. Then back again. It’s truly amazing that no one was seriously injured.
Dr. Grace Arrives
When the vet’s SUV trained its headlights on our front gate, my spirits lifted. She drove up the driveway, around the corner by the chicken coop, and straight to our sad little huddle. Shawndra and I met her at her car door. We traded names only (hers is Dr. Grace), then it was all business. She collected the important facts and absolutely understood and relayed that Daphne’s limited response to the banamine was serious. My comforted feeling didn’t last long, only because it was replaced with this urgency, this raw awareness that perhaps even the vet couldn’t help her. At least not in the way I wanted.
Dr. Grace administered a sedative to Daphne so she could safely examine her patient. Handsome and Larry did an amazing job keeping this big horse propped up, and Shawndra and I watched and held flashlights, desperate to help. Within a few minutes Dr. Grace began to relay grim news, saying that Daphne’s blockage was in the worst possible location. This, coupled with the level of her pain and shock, meant that she was an unlikely candidate for surgery. Dr. Grace efficiently but softly suggested we consider helping take Daphne out of her pain. This hit me like an anvil in the chest.
Dr. Grace spoke to us as she worked, explaining more about colic and about the cases she had seen that week. She assured us there was nothing else we could have done, that even if she herself had been there at the very first moment the outcome would be no better. She urged us to think about the life we had given Daphne and about how much we love her.
We knew that weather patterns had a lot to do with colic in horses, but we didn’t know the statistics. Apparently it’s quite common, so common that we feel fortune to have only dealt with it twice in the six years we’ve loved all of these beautiful animals. Oklahoma’s weather was highly unstable last week. Sadly, our vet call was the eighth one this smart young woman had answered over those couple of days, and she had to euthanize all of those horses. Unbelievable. Heartbreaking. It’s not contagious, like a disease, but it felt flatly epidemic. That weather, something wholly uncontrollable, could trigger something so dangerous, was mind boggling. I gave thanks over and over again that our other two horses were healthy.
Handsome held me for a few minutes and I nearly begged to try surgery anyway, wanted to do anything to save her, but it was clear I was wanting to not lose her, wanting to avoid my own pain, and in fact what she needed was to be out of pain. The mood then was tornadic. We flew through every possible emotion, and I showed very little personal restraint. Having believed all night that we would save this sweet girl, and having worked through so many changes in such a short period of time, I was completely shocked. I wanted to rewind to some other moment, before it started. Wished I was home all day, wished I was stronger or Daphne hadn’t given me a bronco rodeo show. Wished I had been praying harder lately so God would be quicker to hear this prayer. So self centered.
Saying Goodbye Suddenly
When the moment arrived, Handsome gripped me hard and folded his broad, capable shoulders and arms over me as I poured myself over Daphne. Touching her face, every detail, kissing her sandy jaw a thousand feverish times, stroking her long curved ears, combing her black mane and forelock with my fingers. Trying to clean her eyelashes. Shawndra sat next to us, also holding and sheltering and soothing like a mother of a newborn. I could feel Dr. Grace working just inches away from us, at Daphne’s thick neck, swiftly finding the right needles and veins and everything she needed to perform this awful and necessary act of mercy.
Daphne slipped away so silently. We held her elegant head and closed those glistening eyes.
In the midst of everything our incredible friend Larry had the sensitivity and boldness to do one more thing for us. As Handsome said goodbye and tended to business with Dr. Grace, Larry found a pair of scissors and quietly removed Daphne’s long, magnificent tail. In life, her tail would often tip the ground, and she loved to be brushed and braided. After a little while, he approached Handsome and me and gave it to us. I yanked an elastic out my own hair and secured this heavy treasure, and Larry told us how to preserve it for the future.
Her Last Day at the Farm
The next day we stayed home together, sleeping, crying, and processing reality. We protected Daphne’s body and blanketed her face while waiting for the burial service to arrive. Once during that day Handsome saw a large group of guineas circle her. They were chirping an alarm, so he went out to them. He lifted the blanket from her face so they could see, and they all walked in a line, one by one, past her. They did not return after that.
Daphne’s pasture mates had been watching everything, too, since the day before. Chanta especially was attentive, as they were mated to each other for sure. True love. Even Romulus, who had been Daphne’s sometime nemesis, stood quietly at the fence and watched.
We made the decision to have her professionally buried, and I am happy to give an endorsement to the folks who performed this service. They were gentle, respectful, even affectionate. If you are local to us and need contact information for either this or an excellent equine specialist, please let me know.