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Sand colic
27/08

I first worked as a vet in practice in Western Australia, around the area of Bunbury. It was sandy, sandy, sandy country. My dog at the time (Tally, a crazy and wonderful staffy) excavated huge holes in the sand of our back yard. And the horses all around the district ate a considerable amount of sand with their food. One of the first things my boss actually took me out and taught me (and in fact one of the only things!) – was how to tell if a horse needed to be ‘cleaned out’ because it had too much sand in it’s guts. A horse can store an astonishing amount of sand in it’s large intestine, which tends to lead to a belly ache, or ‘sand colic’.

“So what you do is get some shit from the horse, and put it in a bucket,” he told me, as I watched avidly. “Then you need a hose.”

The owner of said horse that wasn’t doing quite as well as it should be doing, according to the owner, anyway, organised a hose, as we stood about in our overalls. I was trying to look important, as being a new vet, and ‘not the boss’, was feeling a bit like the tits on a bull. Not immediately obviously, or perhaps at all, of any use. So I looked at the horse, and thought that it didn’t seem to look unwell. Certainly the physical examination had been unremarkable.

The hose arrived, and with one hand well begloved, the boss filled up the bucket, and macerated the horse shit, then hosed and macerated until all the  vegetable matter was gone. He then poured off the water, to show us all with a professorial swirl, a certain amount of sand left behind.

“She’s got sand!” he declaimed. “That’s her trouble, for sure, we’ll have to give her a drench, and clean it all out.”

The owner of said horse looked relieved, and we went off to the back of my truck to get the nasogastric tube, and mix up the drench. I measured the right amount of an acrid, poisonous smelling, bright yellow powder into a litre or so of water in a clean bucket, and mixed it in well. It was reluctant to have anything to do with the theory of actually dissolving in the water, but my boss exhorted me to keep stirring. Looking back, I think it was almost the most excited about anything I ever saw him. Then I gathered the bucket, nasogastric tube, and a funnel, and we all went back over to the horse.

When you want to drench a horse, you have a special tube which you insert into the horses nose. Carefully, from the side, hoping that the horse won’t resent this, and try to kill you with a front foot. In actual practice, most horses are surprisingly amenable to this. After you gently slide it into the back of the throat, you have to jiggle it gently until the horse swallows, so the tube goes down the oesophagus. If it goes down the other pipe, the trachea, and you don’t notice, you kill the horse dead in about 10 seconds when you pour the drench in. So I was a bit nervous – I’d done this heaps of times, but the boss was looking rather closely over my shoulder while I sucked on the tube, once I thought it was down the right tube. If it is in the oesophagus, it makes a vacuum, if in the windpipe, it doesn’t. Also, if you blow gently in, you can see the bubble of air inflate the oesophagus a bit. I did all that, and then gently pushed the tube right in, so the end was actually in the horse’s stomach.

Then, I held up the end of the tube, inserted the funnel, and started to slowly pour this vile concoction into the horse, while my boss explained the aftercare.

“You’ll have to put vaseline all around her bum, and right down where the shit will run. This drench will make her scour like anything, and it will scald her red raw if you don’t do this, and hose her back end of 4 times a day as well, more often if you can. She’ll scour for about 24 hours, and her scouring will clear all that sand out, so she won’t have a gripey bellyache all the time.” The owner lapped it up.

And so did I. At first. Later the other young vet who worked in the practice warned me not to breathe the yellow powder in – “It’s as carcinogenic as anything, that crap is, should be illegal to even buy it, so I don’t know how the old bugger gets hold of it! By god it cleans the poor bastards out though… Sometimes I don’t know if the cure is worse than the problem with that one. I’ve seen a horse with a red raw arse, when the owner didn’t do what I told them to. Practically burnt the skin right off the poor thing.”

So it wasn’t what you might call ‘best practice’ – though it had impressive results, and the owners, as a result, thought it worked wonders. The funny thing is, in the year and a half I worked there, and the many, many horses who’s shit I carefully washed, I never found one that didn’t have sand in their poo. Not one!

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