Yesterday, we had to say goodbye to a young friend, Gleska. At just three and a half years old, this one kind of blindsided us.
Gleska, which means "spotted" in Lakota and is pronounced "Gleshka", came in to GSH two years ago as a gangly yearling along with his friends Ina, Mato, Tahni, and our resident mini, Chikala ("Cola"). They came from the Lower Brule reservation near Chamberlain, and their intake was an extremely moving experience for us. You can read about it here: An Impactful Trip to the Lower Brule
From the start, Gleska was never quite right. He suffered from carpal valgus, or knock-knees, and was early identified as likely to be a Sanctuary horse, though officially we would have accepted a Pasture Pals placement for him. His future was always guarded, with the hopes that he'd grow strong enough to possibly be able to do light rides. He grew taller and taller, but remained at all times a lanky, lean horse. His weight would fluctuate and we always assumed that was just part of his youth and that one day, hopefully, he'd stop growing taller and start filling out, as horses so often do. Now, these things we've always struggled with make a little more sense.
Gleska had a great summer. He was in good weight - not great, but good for him - and had turned a corner at being friendly. He was very slow to learn to trust, and had a special few people that he liked, but for the most part he ignored most people or actively avoided them. Early in the gentling process GSH Tiffany found herself reminding him regularly that "we are friends, right?" and was one of the few who could nearly always catch and halter him with minimal fuss. Gleska would run and play, and really just seemed to have an amazing summer.
As fall turned colder, we noticed his weight started to drop a bit. We had integrated the herds for winter, and he was one that needed to be pulled out of the big herd and put in a smaller pen as he was picked on and losing weight. At that time, it wasn't a scary loss of weight, but enough that he needed some extra feed. He was put in the blind pen where he quickly was accepted. He seemed to stabilize, though not gain weight. The other couple of horses that needed to be moved quickly gained any lost weight back, but again, Gleska has always been a hard keeper, and didn't show us signs of anything else being wrong, so we just kept adding calories to his diet.
Over the Christmas weekend Gleska seemed subdued, but was doing ok. Tuesday morning, he was tucked in the shelter at feeding and didn't want to come out, but with a full round bale we didn't think much of it. However, Wednesday morning during feed it became apparent he had lost a massive amount of weight in just a few days. We immediately brought him in to the barn, blanketed him, and looked for anything - injury, illness, whatever - that could have caused this. He was drinking, passing urine and poo, no temperature, no signs of illness, no injuries ... and eating, though slowly. Tuesday night was the same. We took video of his chewing and all signs were leaning towards a tooth problem - at 3.5 there are molars that erupt, front teeth that erupt and baby teeth that fall out - so many things that can go wrong in the mouth.
Thursday he had perked up and was eating much better, still drinking, pooing, was well hydrated, no temperature, no signs whatsoever of infection. However, deep down in our gut we knew something wasn't right, so consulted with our vet. We all agreed that he should come in Friday morning to check his teeth, run some bloodwork, and see if we could figure out what was going on. Rapid weight loss like that just doesn't happen unless there's something going on, but the absence of any symptoms of infection left all of us confused and concerned. Through it all, Gleska ate, drank, and acted like a normal horse. At this point, the only signs he was giving us was that anything wasn't right was that he was very calm and easy to handle for anyone handling him. Remember, Gleska was an introvert, and only liked a few people. GSH Nina wasn't one of his favorites, and yet he was cuddling her!
Yesterday morning we arrived to take him to the vet, to find him down in his stall and unable to get up. He nickered as we entered the barn, which was heartbreaking. Nina and Tiffany were unable to get him up on their own, and put out the call for help. Our vets are 45 minutes away, so we called several local vets to see if anyone was available. No one was. Nina and Tiffany were able to get him sternal and propped up, and rolled him over to the other side, to help mitigate any damage from being down. Andrea, Candy, and Mady all responded to the call and came out during the bitter cold to help Gleska. Multiple calls to vets, multiple attempts, and finally Dr. Brooke from Twin Lakes Vet Clinic was able to get away and come out. Our vet at Dakota Large was willing to come out, but the distance would only have added much needed time to any decisions. While waiting for Brooke to come out to start the bloodwork, try a steroid to help him get up, and/or make a final decision, we let Gleska rest, and by then I think we had all realized this was a battle we weren't going to win. We all just sat with him, as he was exhausted and had given up, and loved him and shared stories. And tried hard not to cry.
When Dr. Brooke arrived, she did a physical exam, and again, found nothing. He was, at this point, still well hydrated, lungs clear, no temperature, just nothing to give us any indication of why what was happening was happening. With her tenacity, we gave it two more tries. She gave him dex, and we fought and fought and he finally tried again and he got up! But he couldn't stay up. So we let him rest, then told him he had one more try and he had to fight, he had to get up ... and he went up. When he stood his back foot that I was on was strong and solid and then I knew he was going to stay up. With five people, one on each leg and one leading, I ran ahead and cleared the aisle, opened doors and the trailer, and Dr. Brooke said "let's go, get him walking, and once he's walking we don't stop until he's on the trailer." And he did. The first thing he did when on the trailer was urinate and poo.
We called Dakota Large to let them know we were on the way and off we went. To our joy and surprise, he remained standing the entire trip. We did the first exam on the trailer until they could rule out neurological issues and prepare an isolation stall if needed, but that was quickly ruled out. He wasn't neurological. He was just weak.
Bloodwork from Dr. Brooke had arrived by then, showing pretty much nothing. Everything was in the normal range, with a few things on the high side of normal, but still normal. Dakota Large ran it again just to be safe and do a few more tests. Again, the bloodwork came back normal. But a horse doesn't crash like this without something being wrong. At that point the cancer, as rare as it is, started to be talked about.
We brought him in and ultra sounded his abdomen. Gleska, our spirited, distrustful little boy, stood so quietly that at no time did our vets need to sedate him. He was such a good boy. Ultrasound found a couple of dark spots that were concerning, and then, just as we were giving up on finding anything, our vets said the word we have grown to hate.... "That's interesting." Fluid had shown up. Gleska had a bunch of fluid built up in his body cavity, and everywhere. With the lack of any signs of an immune response to indicate infection, cancer yet again became a high probability.
They performed a belly tap and ran tests on the fluids. And we waited, slightly hopeful that maybe we had found something to treat, but also more aware that we likely weren't going to win this. And then the results: his body was full of an infection, and his body also wasn't even recognizing it. His immune system was completely destroyed and even if the infection was secondary, the underlying cause seemed to be cancer, or at the very least a disease that had completely suppressed his immune system.
And now, it was up to us to weigh everything and decide what to do, while standing next to our friend, our lovely, tall, black and white spotted boy, who was obviously miserable and weak. To realize that even if we tried to treat the infection, any cut, cold, or infection of any kind would put him through this process in the future. To look at a weekend of -28 degrees ahead of us and the absolute struggle and watching him give up that we'd done that morning, knowing if he simply laid down to rest he would go through all that again if he was lucky, or worse, could die alone and cold in between night checks, and to ask ourselves what was best for Gleska.
To look back at his life and look at his body and know that his body showed us, through the carpal valgus and other signs, that he had poor nutrition as a foal. To look at his knee and know that the arthritis hurt him in the cold and at three years old, it was only going to get worse as he kept growing. To look at the pattern of weight loss and struggle and now know that he was probably dealing with a slowly progressing cancer destroying his immune system. To see him standing in front of us, skin and bones, and obviously miserable, and know that we could be facing that again and again. To know that his long term prognosis even without the loss of his immune system was to remain with us, until some day the pain of his knee made us face this same decision, and agonize over it just as much.
To do all this with hearts breaking, tears freezing to our cheeks, and selfishly not wanting to have to say the words, to make the choice, not understanding how yet again we were dealing with something so rare, so rapid, so horrible. To have to suck it up and remain strong for Gleska, to push aside our pain and think of his, and to have to make the choice that no one should have to make.
So we made our choice, and we said goodbye to our big boy. We sent him to our herd in the greener pastures, where Pirate will take him into the herd.
There's a story that passes around about rescue horses that go to the rainbow bridge but aren't allowed to cross and aren't restored to health because they had no owner and died in the care of a rescue, until a rescuer arrives to do a final act of rescue. We're not fans of that story, but to be safe, Tiffany quietly whispered to him many times that he was her boy, that they were friends, best friends, and she claimed him, just as she does to every one of the horses in the rescue that we lose, so he was "owned" as he crossed the bridge. We prefer to think of him healthy, with solid knees, playing with our other babies we've lost or hanging quietly with Pirate, just enjoying the sun and the green grass.
While I hate to ask, Gleska's visit probably added several hundred dollars to a vet bill that is already large due to a rough year of situations like this. We'd appreciate any help towards Gleska's final costs, or our vet bill in general. You can call Dakota Large directly at 605.338.5558 and pay on the bill, or donation options are available here:http://gentlespirithorses.org/support/donate