The Tale of Texas: Colorado family’s horse fights rare, long battle with colitis |

The Tale of Texas: Colorado family’s horse fights rare, long battle with colitis

Story and Photos Nikki Work
Fence Post Editorial Assistant
Nathan, 11-year-old son of Justin and Dawn Smith, takes his turn sleeping next to the family’s sick horse, Texas. On nights when Texas was feeling his worst, the family would stay with him in the barn overnight.

BENNETT, COLO. — It was April 23, and 9-year-old Lexis was up at 4:30 a.m.

Her class was scheduled to go to a Colorado Rockies baseball game that day — her first ever — and excitement had driven her from bed early to do her morning chores.

She and her mother, Dawn, went outside to feed their family’s horses, but the sight awaiting them pushed away any thoughts of fly balls and home runs.

Texas, the Smith family’s 8-year-old paint, was sitting with his back legs curled up on the fence. When the family got him down and haltered, he began having severe diarrhea and bleeding.

“My entire life of raising livestock, I’ve never seen anything like it. He would just scream in pain,” Dawn said. “We loaded him up and took him to the Strasburg Vet Clinic, and they pulled their vet out of surgery to come out. That’s where his story started.”

Texas was diagnosed with colitis, an infection of the bowels and intestines. Prior to this, he had been perfectly healthy.

When Texas arrived at the clinic, his temperature had dropped to 79 degrees and he was in shock. By that evening, it had spiked to 108 degrees. The next morning, when the fever had broken, the family thought the worst was over.

Over the course of a week and a half in intensive care, Texas’ colitis developed into septicemia, a widespread infection of the blood.

“My vet was just in tears, she was bawling. She said, ‘Dawn, I don’t know how to tell you this, but your horse can’t walk,’” Dawn said. “In horses, when they get infections like that it travels to their feet, which created something called laminitis. All those toxins from his bloodstream went straight to his feet.”

After several days in the clinic, Texas’ condition had improved.

He came home to the Smith family’s land, where the entire family, parents Justin and Dawn, and children Nathan, 11, Lexis, 9, and Abby, 9, began taking care of him.

For two weeks, Texas seemed to have recovered.

Then, Dawn started noticing edema in his stomach and sheath.

Four days later, this water retention caused Texas to triple in size overnight.

“I took pictures and I took them in to the vet,” Dawn said. “She said, ‘Hurry up and get back to your house, I’ll be there in 15 minutes. Dawn, your horse is crashing.’”

This was approximately four weeks after the initial colitis diagnosis. The medicine Texas was given to help repair the damage in his intestines was killing the acids in his stomach that absorb nutrients, and he was starving to death.

“Out of nine vets in that clinic, none of them had ever seen it,” Dawn said. “Colitis in horses, depending on who you talk to, is anywhere between 90 percent to 100 percent fatal. It’s very, very difficult to beat. Most horses die within the first four to 48 hours. They die very, very quickly.

“And Texas didn’t, he fought back.”

After changes in diet and medicine, the Smiths nursed Texas back from the edge.

“It was doing great, everything was wonderful. And I come home one day, and he had abscessing in his hooves where the toxins were trying to break out of his hooves. That was our next setback,” Dawn said. “He got to a point where he was so incredibly painful that he didn’t want to stand a whole lot. He started to get bed sores. But he never lost that fight. He would get up when we asked him to, even though it hurt, and he would eat. We’d come around the corner of the barn, and he would talk to us. He was so eager to see us every day.”

The family dedicated their time to trying to treat and keep Texas company. They would even sleep in the barn with him many nights when he was sick, just so he wouldn’t be alone.

Though the family received constant support and help from many friends, colleagues and professionals, one of their biggest adversaries was uncontrollable — the weather.

“Amongst all of this, we’ve had massive flooding out here with the water and the rain and the hail,” Dawn said. “The night that we got hammered out here with rain and hail, he was actually outside of his barn, and his feet hurt so bad that he just couldn’t walk. We stood out there with this horse with a tarp over the top of him. Most horses would be frantic with a tarp flapping around them like that and he just stood there. He knew what we were trying to do.”

As the flooding on the property worsened and approached where Texas was lying, the family dug trenches to direct the water away from their immobile horse.

Despite their constant love and efforts to treat and protect their beloved horse, after the development of the abscesses, Texas wasn’t getting better.

“We didn’t really see a whole lot of change in him the last couple of weeks here. I came home Tuesday this last week, and I noticed he was starting with diarrhea again, and there was blood in there,” Dawn said. “We came to the conclusion that it was time. Where do we cross that line of being selfish to continue to ask him to go through more? He would have kept going, he would have kept fighting had we have asked him to, because that’s what he was about was pleasing us. But God knows we couldn’t do it anymore. We put him down Tuesday evening. He’s buried up there in the brown patch on the pasture, now. Resting easy.”

Texas had been one of the family’s show horses. Justin would ride him in roping competitions and Lexis used him for showing.

He was, though, as Dawn calls it, “Dad’s boy.”

“There was nothing that Justin couldn’t do on that horse. Never had any limits,” Dawn said.

His bond with Justin was very strong, and when Texas passed the week of Father’s Day, the Smiths put together a different kind of gift for Justin. They presented him with a shadowbox, complete with Texas’ tail, a piece of his mane, a photo and a copy of the poem “The Rainbow Bridge.”

Dawn said that one of the most remarkable qualities about Texas was how he could adapt from giving his all to an experienced rider to gentleness and caution with a young, new rider.

“My favorite memory was when me and him were riding, I could kind of feel a bond,” Lexis said.

Both Lexis and Nathan are in their first year of 4-H, and Texas’ story is one their mother said will certainly be one for their record books. While dealing with the pain of their horse’s death, Dawn said she hopes they take these lessons and use them in their future experiences with animals.

“I hope it makes them stronger,” Dawn said. “I hope they understand that sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose, and sometimes it doesn’t matter how far you go, or how much you do, or how much money you spend, that you’re going to save some, and others, it’s just not in God’s plan.”

She said her favorite memories of Texas are “his gentleness, his passion and honestly, just how courageous he was.”

At the age of two, Texas was in a trailer accident where he was lucky to have survived, and escaped only with scratches. Despite his lasting fear of trailers, Dawn said that no matter what, he would do as they asked him and never gave the family trouble when loading.

“That horse gave us his soul from the day that we picked him up,” Dawn said.

The Smith family has between 30-35 other animals on their property, including eight other horses. Dawn said their devastating loss has reminded her just how special each one of them is.

“I swore after putting Texas down last week, that I will never take another minute for granted with any of them, because no matter how much I do, no matter how much preventative care I do with any of them, you never know if the next day is going to be their last,” Dawn said. “If we can make today great for them and make them happy today, then I can say that I’ve given them a good life.”

Most of the animals on their farm are rescue animals, brought into their home after situations running the gamut from malnourishment to complete abandonment.

“They might be rescue animals, but God, they give us everything they have,” Dawn said. “I’m a big one that I believe in second chances. To see these animals come in when they’re sick, or they’re underweight, or scared or whatever and just to see them flourish and to see them happy and figuring out how to be a dog, or a horse, or a goat, or whatever and play again is just — there’s no better feeling in the world than that.”

Despite the family’s relief that Texas is no longer suffering, the pain of losing him still cuts deeply.

“For a long time, I had a lot of blame on myself, because I kept thinking, what did I do wrong that made him sick, or what didn’t I do that allowed him to get sick. I really kind of kicked myself for quite a while,” Dawn said. “I couldn’t heal him. There was nothing I could do to help him. That’s probably the biggest burden, I think, that I wear.”

Nathan, too, said that their inability to save Texas has made a large impact on him.

“The hardest part I think about trying to heal him is we did everything we could, yet we couldn’t do enough to help him,” Nathan said.

Now, the family is trying to move forward, while dealing with both the emotional and financial costs of losing Texas.

Dawn said that over the course of two and a half months, they spent approximately $6,000 on care and veterinary visits. On top of that, she said she has no idea what to expect for the costs of repairing the damage left by the floods.

“It’s been a pretty tough journey. I don’t regret it. When you have animals like that, to us, they’re not just animals. They’re our babies,” Dawn said. “He was our one in a million. They have that saying that once in a lifetime you will find that horse that will change your life forever.

For me, Texas was that horse.” ❖