In high school biology I couldn’t bring myself to stab my own finger for a sample to test my blood type. Just. Couldn’t. Do it.
Instead I ripped a hangnail open to learn that I was “0” positive. I also couldn’t assist by jabbing any of the other squeamish students. At the time I had aspirations of becoming a veterinarian, but I was developing doubts about my nerve. Fast-forward to running a farm sanctuary where the most bizarre things happen because animals are so darned unpredictable. Anything is possible, from sickness to injuries, and someone has to do the caretaking no matter how distasteful it is. Candy, one of the two shaggy black Suffolk Punch crosses that arrived on the trailer from Alberta, was the horse who taught me there was nothing I wouldn’t do for love, no matter how incredibly gross.
Candy was a big girl with a deeply swayed back from having multiple babies in the PMU trade. PMU, or Pregnant Mare Urine, is big business in the pharmaceutical industry. The drugs Premarin and Prempro, amongst others beginning with “prem,” are hormone replacement therapies generally used by women during menopause. The urine from pregnant mares, which is very rich in estrogen, is collected and turned into drugs. And women actually take them, these pills made from horse pee.
The process of collecting it is cruel. It takes place in Canadian provinces on huge ranches where mares, often hundreds to a farm, are bred every spring. Those who are pregnant are brought into gigantic barns at the end of August and tied in stanchions where they spend at least seven months standing. And standing. And standing. Those who don’t conceive are shipped to auction, which generally means they are purchased in bulk by killer buyers and sold to slaughter for meat. The “lucky” rest of the mares are hooked up to an apparatus that collects their urine, which then flows through tubes into plastic containers in the aisles behind them. It’s not comfortable, it’ s desperately bad for horses to stand still for months at a time, and anyone else who kept a horse tied up in a stall for most of a year would be arrested for animal cruelty. Because it’s cruel.
Early spring the mares are turned out in pastures where they deliver their babies and are immediately bred again on their “foal heat” a few weeks later. Some of the fillies are kept as replacement mares when older ones who can’t breed are disposed of, while the colts are sent to auction, which usually means slaughter unless there’s intervention. We have intervened literally hundreds of times, placing foals in safe homes. In fact, we still have a lot of PMUs on the farm.
From what we could tell, Candy was in her 20s and had given birth to at least a dozen babies. Her fertility is what kept her alive all those years, and her swayed back was evidence of the damage caused by standing still for months on end, heavily pregnant. Her will to live, however, was magnificent to behold. I will never forget the moment she arrived and charged out of the trailer to take a lap around her new paddock before attacking a pile of hay. Her energy was breathtaking and I remember gasping when I first saw her. It wasn’t her appearance, but her energy that seized me and I knew she was a special soul.
Candy quickly settled down to enjoying every single moment of her life, untethered by pregnancy or urine collecting devices. All the simple horse pleasures, from standing in the rain to rolling in the dust, became an art form for her. She soaked up her freedom with every breath. She, Cinnamon and Lucille, the chestnut mare, were a tightly bonded group (the other black mare, Mallory, was adopted out soon after her arrival.) Eventually the trio moved in with our huge, grey Percheron, Fritz, and the four became a close family, all sharing one big outdoor shed; they’d had enough of being inside during their PMU years.
Time rolled past, and the little herd lolled about, eating hay, grazing, sunbathing and, well, that’s about it. We didn’t ask much of them as they’d done enough in their lives. They all had special diets because their teeth were so worn with age, and twice a day we delivered big buckets of thoroughly soaked grain mash to them; dry food was a dangerous choking hazard.
Nowadays we do almost all of the feeding on the farm because we learned the hard way that few other people care about the details the way we do. At the time, late October of 2014, we had a high school girl helping us out, and one day we got a call from her saying she thought Candy was colicking. I raced next door to the barn where the poor horse was gasping, head stretched to the ground. I felt her neck, which had a protrusion running the length of it . . . dry grain, packed into her esophagus. Candy was choking.
“Did you soak her grain?” I asked.
“Yes,” the girl replied.
“For how long?”
She didn’t answer, just looked at her feet. OMG. I called our veterinarian, Stacey Golub, and told her I needed her ASAP. Then I began to massage Candy’s neck, trying to get the food to pass, but it was packed solid. Meanwhile, I noticed that Lucille had her nose stretched to the ground. She was also choking on dry food. I was now trapped in a brutal nightmare. I called David to come help and had him work on Lucille while I worked on Candy, and eventually Lucille was able to swallow. Candy, however, got no relief.
When Stacey arrived she got right to work. Clearing a choke is messy business and it doesn’t always work. The horse gets a tube inserted into their esophagus and warm fluid is pumped in soften the grain, then pumped out again. A little at a time, from the top of the neck down, the grain is removed. The danger, of course, is aspiration into the lungs, and while we were working on Candy I just knew she was going to get aspiration pneumonia. It took a long time to remove more than a quart of grain, but finally, Candy was comfortable. Stacey gave her antibiotics to try to avoid pneumonia and then was on her way, covered in grain slime. Stacey often leaves covered in some grossness or another.
I wish I could say that our afternoon helper had learned her lesson, but after Candy’s brush with death she still rushed through feeding several more times and choked some of my older horses. At least those were milder so I could help them on my own. It’s been years since I’ve seen that girl, aside from once at the gas station where she couldn’t bring herself to make eye contact. And that’s fine . . . I’m not over it even now, and it’s been 6 years as I write this.
Despite the course of antibiotics, Candy eventually developed pneumonia, but not until almost Christmas. I saw her standing outside her shed during a snowstorm and when I went to check on her I found her with a runny nose and very lethargic. I brought her into the barn and took her temp . . . high fever . . . As much as Candy hated being confined and away from her beloved herd, I put her on stall rest and antibiotics. Old horses don’t do well with pneumonia, or chokes. She’d survived one and I wasn’t going to lose her to the other.
A week went by while we watched Candy closely, and then, the strangest thing happened. Her low-hanging belly dropped even lower. Like, WTH lower . . . with a dozen exclamation points. I called the vet and tried to explain it to her, and she said it sounded like edema, but I wasn’t convinced. I had never seen anything like it and I had a bad feeling.
Late that evening I got a call from the people who lived in the apartment over the barn. They said they had smelled something strange wafting through the ceiling and when they went downstairs to check they’d found Candy had sprung a leak.
A leak. Her belly was leaking a foul-smelling liquid onto the floor.
I raced next door to the horse barn (you may notice I do a lot of that.) I smelled Candy before I saw her. In fact, I heard her, too. It was not so much a drip, drip as it was like a faucet that had burst open. Candy was gushing a noxious yellow-brown liquid puss from a hole in her side and there was a growing puddle beneath her.
I called Doc Stacy.
“Help! Candy is leaking!”
I explained what was happening.
Stacey replied that sometimes when horses have that kind of pneumonia they develop abscesses on their lungs. Candy’s had gallons of fluid. Literally GALLONS!
I could tell from the doctor’s voice that this was a VERY BAD THING but there was nothing to be done that night, so we put extra wood shavings beneath her to soak it up and crossed our fingers.
Everyone else left and Candy and I had a chat. She said she didn’t plan on leaving but if she did, she had no regrets. She’d had the happiest eight years a horse could ever ask for. Oddly enough, although I was standing next to a pony who was pouring puss from her lungs via her belly, I also felt she wasn’t going to die. I kissed her on her soft black nose and left for the night. The vet would arrive in the morning and we would make decisions then.
Stacey arrived early, and Candy was still dripping. The opening in her side was about two thirds of the way down, and after poking around, Stacey decided the only way to get the rest to drain would be to cut a hole through the skin at the very bottom of her belly so the fluid below the original opening could get out.
Oh boy. So far it had been one delightful moment after another.
I can’t adequately describe what came out of that lower opening, but I will try. Huge clots that looked like dead baby squirrels blew out with the gush of fluid. Stacey and I jumped away, but the backsplash got us.
“So,” I asked. “Was it always your dream to be a vet?”
“Oh yes,” Stacey replied.
“I’m kinda glad I changed direction,” I said, “but it doesn’t seem to have saved me.”
Candy stood patiently. Seriously. She didn’t move a muscle through the entire procedure, just stood like the angel that she was.
“You know she shouldn’t be alive,” Stacey said.
I shrugged. I had run out of words.
I have assisted at barn surgeries, passed out shots both IV and IM, I’ve held a gushing blood vessel closed with a hemostat while waiting for an iron to heat up to cauterize it closed . . . but my job for the next few weeks would top all of the above. Each day, at least twice, I had to run water from a hose into the upper opening of Candy’s belly and let it run through and out the lower opening. I had to do it until it ran clear. And so, I did.
Twice a day, minimum, I stood Candy on the driveway and poked a hose into the top opening and watched as puss and piles of clots that resembled fetal opossums poured out onto the pavement. And sweet Candy just stood there. Thank heavens. I couldn’t imagine if I had to wrestle her to get it done.
Between hosings I let her roam loose around the farm, and she’d wander over near her paddock to visit with her herd. When I called her, she came back to the barn and we did it all over again. It was weeks before the water ran consistently clear, but I kept at it at least once a day until the openings began to heal over.
So . . . go ahead. Give me a sharp object now and watch me stab my finger. Piece of cake.
And Candy? She was fine. As far as she was concerned getting flushed out with a hose twice a day beat the crap out of being tied up in a barn for most of every year, standing and standing . . . waiting to have a baby that would be snatched away from her long before they were ready to part, only to do it all over again. And again.
Candy was with us for two more years. On the night she crossed the Rainbow Bridge, as a very old mare, it was a brilliant full moon. David and I had gone and signed up for a big package of dance lessons at Arthur Murray in Hamden, something I’d always wanted to do, when we got a panicked call to come home. Candy was down.
I called the vet from the car and we were home in 15 minutes. By then, Candy and Lucille were paddocked with another old man, Josh, who had decidedly less energy than Fritz (these girls were ancient, after all!) and sweet old Cinnamon had died a few years earlier of cancer. We all hovered over Candy and gave her banamine and sedatives to hold her until the vet arrived but this time it was clear she had used up her all her Lazarus cards. It was August 18, 2016 and this is what I posted on Facebook late that evening:
This full moon has brought us sorrow. Tonight we lost our beautiful old mare, Candy. She survived the PMU industry. She survived the loss of her beloved babies. She survived a near fatal choke, pneumonia and deadly abscesses in her lungs. She was the most survivingest horse I ever met. But whatever the moon brought with it tonight, it was more than her enormous will could withstand. We are devastated. Everyone was with her, including her best friend and soul mate, Lucille. And that PITA Josh, whom she loved anyways. My wish is that the time she knew here on Locket’s Meadow somehow made up for all the hell she knew in her previous life. Who knows . . . even 50 years with us may not have touched it. I hope she left believing not all people are wicked, and that there are many of us who will go to any lengths for those who cannot speak for themselves. I asked her to put in a good word for us when she gets to Heaven . . . All horses go to Heaven, you know . . .
David and I never returned to take our dance lessons. Somehow, after that, they felt jinxed.