Of all the posts I expected to be starting today, this was not one of them. I was going to write about August Goals. I was going to write about my lesson with Tarrin. And I was going to write about my first off-property trail ride with Frank, and how much fun it was, and how much I was looking forward to hitting All The Trails with him this fall.
But I'm writing about none of those things, because Frank is dead.
There is no way to be less blunt about it. He's dead and I'm still reeling a little bit. I did not expect this. I could not have guessed this would happen. I never would have thought he would be the next to go. Sure, he was an old man, but he was the healthiest of the oldies. I thought we might lose Pmare this year due to how poor she's handling the heat. But I thought Frank would live forever.
It started yesterday morning. The night before, Frank had eaten his mush, was snacking on hay at night check, and had his usual cookie instead of a carrot, because he was deathly afraid of carrots for reasons only known to himself. In the mornings, he always got another bowl of mush, so he was usually waiting at the gate for me. Yesterday morning, he was not.
I called to him. I could see where he was, on the far side of the pasture on top of the hill, standing with a leg cocked. It looked like he was still asleep. I was up early because I had a lesson with Tarrin that I was locally trailering out for, so after waiting for a few minutes, I went up to see what he was doing. He wasn't doing anything really, just standing with a leg resting. He looked at me like nothing was wrong. "Well, okay then," I told him, and tossed out their morning flakes of alfalfa. Once in awhile he was a little slow to come down the hill, so at the time it wasn't altogether alarming. I headed out to my lesson, figuring he wasn't acting outright abnormal, and I was only going to be gone for a short while anyway.
I had a great lesson with Tarrin, which I'll write about later. But when I came back, to my surprise Frank was still on the hill, only he had moved into the shady bushes and was hiding. Now I was more concerned. Definitely not normal for him to be hiding.
I put on his halter and walked him down the hill, and gave him a heavy dose of Banamine. He still wasn't acting colicky, just... wasn't really himself. No classic signs of colic, no pawing, no kicking, no rolling. Just not eating. I put him in the small pen to monitor him and see if he was pooping.
One thing about mules and donkeys though is that they are incredibly stoic. They do NOT want you to know they are sick. By the time they start to show any signs of anything being wrong, they are usually already in dire straits. So I was concerned, even without the theatrics normally involved in a colic.
He laid down to rest in the grass for a bit, and I got a very sweet picture of him with all his very concerned nursemaids hanging around on the other side of the fence. Dylan has always been surprisingly fond of him, though I'm not sure why. He doesn't really talk to any of the mules like he does the horses, so perhaps they smell strange to him.
I monitored him for a few hours, waiting for something to change to tell me one way or another where we were headed. Nothing. No signs of anything. He just stood there in the corner with a foot cocked, while we waited to see if there was poop (there was none). His vitals, however, started to make a downturn in the afternoon. His heart rate went up to 56, his resp went up to 36. Both of those are pretty high for a very slow moving old mule. He had almost no gut sounds. I had a terrible feeling that this wasn't going to end well but up until that point was not sure what to do. That changed in one moment when he suddenly dropped his head, and reflux and green sludge poured out of his nose. Any horse would have been on the ground thrashing well before that point, but not Frank. I pulled out my phone, called the vet, hooked up the trailer, and off we went.
At the vet, he had a bit of his old mule stubbornness when he refused to walk into the barn, then refused to walk into the stocks, then tried to actively coon jump out of the stocks. I have no doubt he would have made it if we hadn't blocked him. We drugged him, then drugged him again when he refused to get sleepy. Even then, the barn hand had to actively hang onto him while twitching him - he thrashed and put up a big fight about a nasogastric tube. He was NOT having it.
The vet pulled a ton of sludge out of his stomach. It was all just chewed up and eaten food that had nowhere to go, so it just sat there for a long time. She also got quite a lot of reflux out. She did a rectal, and found nothing to note. Everything she could reach - and he had a giant cavernous body, so it wasn't too far in - felt soft and normal. So whatever it was, it was further up. Impaction, torsion, lipoma - who knows. We'll never know. And it doesn't really matter now anyway, and didn't matter much then, because a nearly 30 year old mule isn't a surgical candidate anyway. The vet tubed him and made sure he was good and loaded with meds, then we walked him out to try and wake him up a little. The fluid he had been tubed with poured out his nose every time he stopped moving, and the vet said his esophageal sphincter was loose, most likely from the drugs. She handed me a couple of syringes, one with Banamine and one with Dorm. The plan was to take him home and see if anything worked itself out, but neither of us were too optimistic. My last words to her were, "well, I'll probably see you later."
Not quite two hours later, Frank had blown through his drugs and meds completely and was uncomfortable again. I called the on-call vet, since it was now after hours, and put her on standby. We agreed to give him the syringes as the sort of "last ditch," but I told her she would likely be hearing from me again shortly. I gave the Dorm IM in the hopes that it would last him a little longer, and the Banamine was of course IV - but it took me ages to find a vein. His blood pressure by that point was so poor that I had to stick him 5 or 6 times to even find the vein at all. I even gave him a little knot, which I've never done before. I've given a million IV shots before no problem. His skin was sweaty and warm on his body, but when I felt his ears, they were icy cold. He started refluxing out his nose again. I knew then that he was going to die.
The Banamine took immediate effect, and got him to stand still right away. I had that little window of time to prepare myself for what was coming, although it was little comfort to me. I've never been quite able to tell which is better - to plan for a euthanasia and then have some days to prepare yourself and wait, or to not know it's coming and be blindsided by it? I had to deal with both in that moment. I knew he was going to die, but I was being forced into a choice right then. There was clearly only one choice to make. There was no picking a date for the next week like the last 3 I've euthanized have been. It was now, and that was that.
The drugs didn't last long. He gave a few lurches around the pen, and I frantically called the vet, frightened that he might die of his own volition before she could get there. True to Frank form, he righted himself, parked his butt in a corner, and stabilized, reflux pouring out his nose. It was dark by that time, and the vet pulled him and strapped on her headlamp. She examined him briefly - he still had no gut sounds, his heart rate was still at about 58, and his gums, which had been slightly pale but still pinkish up until this point, were starting to take on that faint blue tinge. He was teetering on the edge of shocky. This vet, who is a fresh youngster new to the practice, was one I hadn't worked with before, and she told me that if I wanted she could tube him again and we could see about doing a few more things to help him, although you could tell what she was really thinking. My usual vets know how I feel about that, and I told her that no, to me it was very clearly time.
As I led him up to the spot where we were going to euthanize, his stomach gave a loud popping growl, and he stopped dead. I'm quite sure it had ruptured in that moment. It made it all the more clear that it was time, right then.
There was a smile to be had in his last moments though. The vet heavily sedated him, but instead of getting really sleepy, he just put his head down and started eating grass. I'm sure the pressure was off his stomach, and he felt just gorked out enough with the drugs to think he was hungry. He refused to get sleepier than that, and just kept eating. It made me feel a little better to think that after all that, at the very end, he was able to eat a few mouthfuls green grass and enjoy it.
His blood pressure was so low that the vet also had a hard time finding the vein, and it took him a minute for the euth drugs to circulate, but once they did he sank very peacefully. Just like when Gogo died, when I went to pet him for the last time, he had a strong reflex the moment I touched him. Gogo only reflexed that one time and that was it, but Frank reflexed several. Even in death, that old bastard was fighting.
Frank truly has left a Frank-sized hole in my heart. I am truly, truly heartbroken to lose him. I don't even know what else to say right now. It was so sudden. He was very old, but other than his teeth he was in wonderful health. It certainly could have been the teeth that ultimately took him down, but we will never know. They took him up today to bury him alongside Gogo and Darby.
I feel terrible. Just terrible.
I'll miss you so much, my floppy eared friend.