On Christmas Eve 1995 I wasn’t thinking about cookies or presents, and my only prayer at midnight Mass was “Please let my horse live.” Over and over. Shortly before we left for church, I had given the okay to the equine surgery resident at UC Davis to take my mare to take my mare in for colic surgery. I was a senior veterinary student; I knew the risks associated with pursuing and declining surgery. But, that night, I was just another scared owner saying, “Please let my horse live.”

The GI tract of the horse, housed in that huge abdomen, sometimes seems like a giant black box where any number of things can go suddenly and mysteriously wrong. Many of those things get lumped under the label of colic, but not all of them are equal as far as outcome and expense go. The ability to peek inside that black box and to sort out the risks of each specific disease and the rewards or risks of treatment helps owners and veterinarians to make intelligent decisions regarding care.

This afternoon’s session on critical care of conditions of the gastrointestinal tract helped shed some light into that box, beginning, appropriately enough with a presentation on transabdominal ultrasound to evaluate colic cases. I wish that I had known the information presented by Dr. Michelle Henry Barton 10 years ago. Abdominal ultrasound in the horse has always felt a bit like a specialist’s game to me, but Dr. Barton presented videos in information in a way that made me say, “Hey, I see those distended loops and hairpin turns! I could do that!” She gave concrete examples of four key factors that can help distinguish between surgical and nonsurgical lesions of the small intestine: motility, distension, wall thickness, and intestinal contents. I will also now never forget that the mucosa of a horse with enteritis can look like a lasagna noodle on ultrasound. I also won’t look at my next plate of lasagna i