Brentina's Colic Surgery: 'Routine' but Necessary, Surgeon Says

As colic surgeries go, the procedure that U.S. Olympic dressage competitor Brentina underwent Feb. 10 was "pretty routine," according to her surgeon, Nicole Johnson, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, of Humphrey, Giacopuzzi & Associates Equine Hospital in Somis, Calif.

"She's been doing really, really well," Johnson said of the 18-year-old Hanoverian mare in a Feb. 18 phone interview. Brentina continues to receive a small meal of soaked pellets every four hours--"and I think she's got an alarm clock," Johnson quipped of the mare, whose appetite is as big as her talent in the international dressage arena.

Brentina has been tolerating her confinement extremely well, said Johnson. "Show horses--any horse that's accustomed to being in a box stall--usually do OK," she said.

When Brentina's abdominal discomfort couldn't be resolved at her winter home in California, her owners, Peggy and Parry Thomas of Idaho; and her longtime rider and trainer, fellow Idahoan Debbie McDonald, had the mare shipped to Humphrey, Giacopuzzi. There Johnson examined Brentina and "could feel the fecalith in the rectal exam." A fecalith is a hardened ball of fecal matter that can become lodged in the horse's intestine--in Brentina's case, in her small colon. If it cannot be shifted, then it must be removed surgically.

Brentina after surgery

Brentina is recovering from surgery to remove a fecalith from her small colon.

"I had to cut it out, just like I would a stone," Johnson said.

The procedure itself might have been routine, but surgical intervention was critical in Brentina's case: pre-op tests indicated possible bleeding into the small colon, and "I was afraid we were going to lose her," Johnson said. Happily, the damage she feared did not materialize when she got Brentina on the operating table.

According to Johnson, veterinary surgeons encounter fecaliths fairly frequently, although they are most common in Miniature Horses and ponies because minis are sometimes fed diets more appropriate for horses, and because there are unique challenges associated with maintaining their teeth Johnson said. Insufficient dental care can impede equines' ability to chew their food, and the result can be that the digestive system has to pass matter that's been improperly masticated. (Brentina's teeth had been floated recently, however, Johnson noted.) Poor-quality hay can also lead to the formation of fecaliths.

Although horses typically go home about 10 days after colic surgery if there are no complications, Brentina might remain at the clinic a few extra days because McDonald and the Thomases are traveling, and they want to be with the mare when she comes home, Johnson said. If all continues to go well, then look for news of Brentina's discharge sometime next week.

Next up for Brentina: rehab. "I typically tell people: For three months, don't ride," Johnson said of the usual post-colic-surgery recuperation process. That's because "the body wall doesn't heal for two solid months." For a month or two, it's stall rest and hand-walking only. Month three, many horses get the green light for turnout, possibly abetted by a long-term tranquilizer so they don't injure the incision site with too-exuberant hijinks.

Brentina was scheduled for a retirement ceremony, including a final dressage performance, at the 2009 FEI World Cup Dressage Final in Las Vegas on April 17. The performance definitely won't happen, said Johnson; but "I see no reason why she won't be able to walk into the ring and have the saddle taken off."

About the Author

Jennifer O. Bryant

Jennifer O. Bryant is editor-at-large of the U.S. Dressage Federation's magazine, USDF Connection. An independent writer and editor, Bryant contributes to many equestrian publications, has edited numerous books, and authored Olympic Equestrian. More information about Jennifer can be found on her site,

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