Monday, November 30, 2009

The Vulnerability of Her

As they say, that Monday night, just last week, seems an eternity ago.

My vet came to the barn the next day. I walked Scout in from her paddock. Dr. B palpated the leg. We moved to the indoor arena. Scout trotted willingly next to me, once out, then back. No more was necessary. Four X-rays. Between each one, Scout called to the horses, all of them outside, quiet in their paddocks. She has a deafening scream, the kind that moves her whole body. She means it when she speaks.

But even then, I had a sick feeling. It wasn't a matter of what if an injury, only a matter of what kind of injury. You begin to prepare, even though you don't know for what. I felt I was beginning to ready myself, but maybe I was only bracing myself. Maybe I was only kidding myself.

It was 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday when Dr. B called and told me that Scout had multiple fractures of her splint bone. By then, I had convinced myself that it was going to be nothing more than a bad bone bruise.

I managed to listen and scratch some notes on the back of a phone bill, but I was shocked. There would be a surgical consult, but Scout was to be put in a standing wrap and confined to stall rest, 24-7, immediately. "Mm-hmm, mm-hmm," I said, but -- 24-7 confinement? No way. Scout grew up living outdoors, no matter wind, rain, heat, ice. I had to train her to understand that coming into a well-bedded box stall every night was a wonderful thing. That took some time, and she accepted it only when she realized that all the other horses came in at night too.

On Wednesday night, E, my trainer, taught me how to do a standing wrap. I took a picture of the first wrap I did by myself, last Friday night. I need a little more practice, but Scout is making it easy. She stands still, and occasionally arches her neck around to watch me fumbling at her feet.

Thanksgiving happened in a kind of suspended reality, and then came Friday night and the results of the surgical consult.

There are multiple fractures of the upper half of the splint bone and a clean break in the lower half. Most of the bone must be removed. An ultrasound could determine whether the suspensory ligament ( a principal component of that architecture of the leg that so amazes me) has been damaged, but surgery will also reveal that.

"When I look at the X-rays, I think your mare has an incredible tolerance for pain," said Dr. B, remarking on how difficult it had been to elicit any signs of discomfort in Scout.

"Pardon my language, Doc," I said. "Scout is one tough bitch." And she is. She's always been an easy keeper and a quick healer. It's not her physical recovery that I worry about, but her mental ability to withstand the constraints of the recovery process.

Tomorrow night, E and I will trailer her to the clinic. She'll have surgery on Wednesday morning. We'll bring her home Thursday afternoon. Every step of the process is new to Scout and new to me. I want to manage my anxiety and anger -- and yes, there is anger -- by throwing myself into learning as much as I can about everything that will happen, as it happens, over the next few days.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Vulnerability of Them

I was ready to ride Scout tonight, for the first time since September something. Yesterday, while I was watching football, I did a complete tear-down and deep clean of her bridle. She looks beautiful in her black tack.

I put her in a cavesson and walked her to the indoor arena for a couple of minutes on the longe to watch her move. There were cavelletti laid out, barrels here and there, and lots of orange traffic cones. I gave her a couple of seconds for meet-and-greets with these foreign objects, then picked our circle and moved her out. Nope. That kick she took just below her left rear hock a couple of weeks ago has done its harm. She showed me a short, protected stride, and reluctance at the trot. Time for a vet call.

The architecture of the horse leg has always amazed me, amazed and frightened me. So much carried on so little. Last February, a boarder's new horse (of only four months) turned to launch himself into a gallop with the rest of the small herd. They had startled at a group of hikers emerging from the treeline. One of the hikers thought he had stepped on a fallen branch, cracking it and sending the horses running. But what he really heard was Lug's leg snapping as he twisted into his gallop. It was that simple, that quick. An ordinary winter day that ended with the death of a horse.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Silly Little Joys

So the other night I'm at the barn to do the PM clean and feed and after everything is done and the horses are munching their hay, I bring my boy out of his stall for a quick grooming. Remember to get your hands on him every time you are here, I remind myself. Young horses forget us when left to simple days of eating, sleeping, eating, and eating some more. Shedding block in one hand, brush in the other, I'm pulling out dead coat and smoothing new coat on his rump when suddenly I catch him turning his head to look for me. There's a beautiful bend in his neck and just there, at the crest of the curve, gleams a silvery shine. A silvery shine. Health.

That's one. Then today I took a friend to meet him. We walked to the fence. I called out and he came trotting over, covered in mud, happy for the attention, kid-like. Nose through the rails, then head high over the fence, lipping at our hands, eyes bright under those ridiculous white lashes. I felt myself smiling at him so broadly. Smile.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Don't you hate it when something as mundane and useless as the stomach flu keeps you from seeing your horses?

My alpha mare doesn't mind. She's still settling in at the pony club barn. Naturally, she picked a fight with her new paddock buddy 10 days ago and caught a kick on the left hock. Same old same old. But I am looking forward to getting back on her. It's been more than a month since I've ridden. When you love to ride, your body almost tells you when it's been too long. There's a kind of shadowy ache, like the horse is a phantom limb.

I was telling a friend last night how traveling back and forth between these two horses seems to lend me confidence with both. I forget the familiarity I have with her, but it comes back to me when I'm handling him. His youth casts her maturity in a calming light. She and I have our habits.

I take both of them out of their stalls, clip them in cross ties, and groom, talking, talking the whole time. Scout loves that drill, settles into it and sighs. Dar, on the other hand, is still a little unfamiliar with such direct attention. The first weeks, he kept his head high. Little by little, though, look. The draw bridge is lowering. It's true, you can begin to win a horse through simple touch.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Truth is Hard

A couple of years ago, I became involved with a story unfolding on a horse forum. I never forgot it, and I remembered it the night I began this journal.

A woman hesitantly brought up the subject of fear on a thread in the forum. She said her husband had given her a horse for her birthday and she was so happy, but it had been years since she'd ridden. She said she was anxious and nervous. She couched it in terms of being intimidated by the instructor who was giving her riding lessons. Little by little, she revealed more. People posted comments on the thread, offering thoughtful suggestions to this woman. Maybe she was encouraged to say more, not by the advice, but by the interest people showed, the claims of a common experience. Maybe she just needed to scream. But over the course of a few weeks, something happened. Her fear increased, or she began to tell the truth about it; I'm still not sure which. It got to the point that she began to miss lessons. She would log on to the forum, and post a guilty message. She said she knew she had cancelled a lesson because she was afraid. She described sitting in her car, shaking, as she tried to talk herself into going to the barn. Responses would pour in, mostly kind. Try a new instructor. Just groom your horse. Don't be so hard on yourself. Every now and then, someone would try tough love. The woman would disappear for a few days after that kind of post. Subplots unfolded in the thread, people comparing notes on bad falls, hot horses, bolters, buckers, biters, getting back on, how you always have to get back on.

There was a tone of growing desperation that somehow bled through this woman's posts -- desperation, shame, sorrow and resignation. Other people on the forum began to sense it, too. A chorus of cheerleaders sprang up, saying, "Don't give up, don't give up, we know you can do it." Their pleas of support created another sense of pressure in this woman, though they meant only the best. I could feel it building in her. One night, she came on and said, "I just can't do it. I am too afraid. I gave my horse away today. But thank you all for your kind words. I'm very sorry." Then she disappeared from the forum. It was heartbreaking.

I still think about her. Not that I think I'm like her; I don't. But I know how hard it is to tell the truth about fear. Fear is a stain, a force and a deceiver. It is the best conversationalist in the world, and seems to know your every thought.

I don't know who I'm writing to. Maybe her.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Peeling Like an Onion

Not even a week in his new home, and I think of the nameless one as an onion. You know, the kind you keep in the pantry, rolling around in a red net bag. That paper thin, outer skin cracks and loosens. Under it is another very thin, clear skin that will slough off with time, and under that, a layer of green flesh you might remove before chopping the onion into a salad or slow-cooking soup. He's shed the outermost skin now, left it behind in bits and pieces in his paddock. The second deworming seems to have cleaned him out; a bright energy is plain in his face. Suddenly he's anxious to be with the other horses, any one of them. He presses himself, head high, against the top rail of the fence. Old Molly, still girlish in her Thoroughbred, high-metabolism figure, wants nothing to do with him. JR, over 25 years old, has seen it all and could care less. Little 22-year-old Gambler, bombproof super Arab, noses up to the rail for a look, then turns back to browsing his hay. Sam, the Appendix quarter horse, is new to the barn too; he doesn't have time to make friends yet.

That leaves Keely. This Sunday, we'll turn them out together. My youngster will more than meet his match with her. A bright bay, Keely is big for an Arab. She's a bitch who will assign him his rank in the herd. And honestly, I'm pulling for a low rank. I don't need another alpha boss who can't handle being separated from the herd they run. But it's not that simple, either. The horses are paired by diet. My boy needs to gain weight -- I can still skip my knuckles over his ribs. Keely is fat. She doesn't need the same ten-dollar, all-you-can-eat buffet that he needs. But one smackdown from her is all it should take to teach him the farm's code of conduct. I'll take my camera.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


It was a beautiful day to trailer him 30 miles to his winter home. My reject jouster is used to being hauled in a slant livestock trailer, so a simple two-horse looks strange to him. But all it took was several tries, front hooves stepping up the ramp, then stepping back down.

He's barely vocal. He didn't call out. He never looked back at the spartan paddock pockmarked with deep, dry mudholes.

HG and I followed behind the trailer, and as we drove, I realized that I've decided to keep this horse. I could have given him back, because that's the arrangement that was made. I had nine months to decide, enough time to discover what in him isn't right for me, enough time to become intimidated by him. But the moment you start making choices for a horse -- what food, what vet, what stable -- you own him. When I backed him out of the trailer at the best horse bed & breakfast in the state, I felt...such a smile.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Two horses, one wallet

On Tuesday morning I moved my mare to a US Pony Club facility. Though she's for sale, right now she's the only horse I have to ride. We both need to get back in shape. I've more or less learned to ride her through my apprehension, but getting back on her is always tough when a couple of months have passed.

We loaded her in the trailer, easy as pie like always, and I followed behind. It was short drive, but Scout called and screamed throughout, boss mare taken from her herd. She has her own paddock for now, with neighbors on either side. Poor Scout, none of them were interested in her. She couldn't believe that, and played her Arab card to produce a floating prance and high, arched neck. Ho hum, they snuffled.

This fancy place has heated floors, a huge indoor arena, a year-round shower stall with a grooming stall beside it. With heat lamps hanging from the ceiling. A washing machine and dryer for blankets. Vending machines. Five hundred bucks a month. It will take some time to get used to it, I think.

I took friends to see my grey boy that afternoon, on the way to the airport. He knows my Pathfinder now, and walks to the gate to meet me. There is a whip laying on the ground there. That's how this place handles horses crowding to come in for the night. Yep, time to go. The plans are set, and he'll move into Scout's old stall tomorrow. A quiet winter of grooming, groundwork, handwalking and good food awaits him. He needs to put on weight more than anything else. That's good. He can put on weight, while Scout and I lose some.

I blew out my back later that night, though, and I haven't seen either of my horses for three days. That hurts.