Saving Nova: The Therapy Horse Helping Kids Nova with his family months after spending 9 days at UW Veterinary Care recovering from a complicated colic surgery.

Saving Nova: The Therapy Horse Helping Kids


by Nik Hawkins

Some therapy animals provide comfort for strangers. But others, like Nova, a 12-year-old Morgan Arab cross, focus on their families.

Nova is one of seven hors­es that live with Clint and Tish Carlson, their five adopted chil­dren, and their two foster children, in La Valle, Wisconsin. Like several of his stablemates, Nova is a rescue horse, and it might explain why he has such a strong connection with the Carlson children. Ranging in ages from 7 to 16, they have all left behind difficult circumstances for better lives, but mental scars still linger. Nova gives them what they need to cope.

“The kids work with Nova and our other horses – brush­ing, riding, feeding,” says Clint Carlson. “It helps soothe them and gives them a sense of re­sponsibility, and it shows them compassion and love.”

Although the Carlsons are not formally trained in any form of equine-assisted therapy, Tish says she plans to pursue certification in the fu­ture, and they witness Nova’s calming influence on their children every day.

“Nova loves to work,” says Tish Carlson. “It doesn’t matter what crazy thing they ask him to do, he does it without hesitation.”

But one night in May 2015, the Carlsons found themselves in serious jeopardy of losing their treasured horse and all the good he brings to the family.

“The kids went out to feed Nova, and normally he’s in our bottom field, but he was right at the door right away,” says Clint Carlson. “He was acting strange and poking his nose at his side.”

Knowing this could be a sign of colic or abdominal pain they called Dr. Suzanne McKichan, a 2009 graduate of the UW School of Veterinary Medicine, at Dells Equine, who drove out to exam­ine Nova. McKichan determined the most likely culprit was an in­testinal blockage, but after trying several methods to get him to pass whatever was lodged in his bowels, an endoscopy showed he was still backed up. Thinking a major sur­gery might be in Nova’s future, she referred the Carlsons to UW School of Veterinary Medicine.

“He wasn’t responding to painkillers, and after a thorough abdominal examination, we found significant small intestinal disten­sion or bloating,” says Dr. Sam Morello. “We later confirmed this with ultrasound.”

The ultrasound also revealed what looked like a “bull’s eye le­sion”—two concentric circles on the interior surface of the ab­domen—suggesting that part of Nova’s small intestine was telescoping into another. This con­dition, called intussusception, can cause major blockages and intense pain. In addition, an analysis of Nova’s abdominal fluid showed elevated levels of lactate and a particular protein, both of which suggested some of the tissue in his intestine was not being prop­erly infused with blood. All signs pointed to surgery as the only so­lution, but it quickly became much more complicated than a typical colic operation.

“We found a large mass in his abdomen that turned out to be a significant portion of his small intestine, folded up like an ac­cordion,” says Morello. “It was so thickened and stuck that we couldn’t straighten it out to evalu­ate the integrity of the tissue.”

The blood flow to the involved bowel was compromised, and that portion of the intestine could not be salvaged, so Morello and large animal surgery resident Dr. Russ Freeland elected to remove it.

“We were surprised and scared at first,” says Clint Carlson. “But Nova’s young, he’s a great horse, and he does so well with the kids, so we knew it was something we had to try.”

colic surgery removal of portion of small intestine
Surgeons removed a part of Nova’s small intestine.

The procedure took several hours, during which Morello and Freedland removed nearly 28 feet of bowel. They also discovered and removed the cause of Nova’s condition. According to pathologists Dr. Jennifer Dreyfus and Dr. Renee Richmond, it was a leiomyoma, which is a fairly rare and benign tumor. The growth was attached to the jejunum, the longest and most coiled part of the equine small intestine, where it was interrupting the natural movements of the organ, causing the bowel to telescope into itself.

Given the large amount of bowel lost—the most Morello has ever had to remove—she was concerned that complications might hinder Nova’s recovery. He had mild episodes of colic in the first week, and he developed ileus, a condition where the bowel stops moving properly due to damage and inflammation. When left untreated, this may allow the intestine to stick to other internal organs. But after plenty of fluids, pain medication, and anti-inflammatories, Nova pulled through and went home a short nine days after he arrived.

“He had a great recovery, considering the severity of his condition,” says Morello. “He came into it in excellent shape, which served him well.”

Nova has been back home in La Valle ever since, and he’s eased his way back into his former role as a therapy horse. The only major difference now is his diet. Now that he has to get by with a lot less surface area for absorbing nutrients, malnutrition is a concern. So the Carlson’s supplement his diet with a high-calorie, easily digested feed, which he’s taken to well. Nova is doing so well that the oldest Carlson child is preparing to enter him in a 4-H horse show.

“I’m extremely happy with how everything turned out,” says Clint Carlson.

And so are the Carlson kids.