Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor 1932 - 2011

How she captured what it is to love a horse in National Velvet. I'll never forget watching it, sitting on a braided rug in a small room at some friend of my mother's, staring up at a little television set, thrilled beyond measure. She became one of the first icons of my childhood, and I followed her from then on. Years later, A Place in the Sun defined for me what love could be, might be, tragedy and all. What a marvel she was.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Saxony's Winter Overhaul

I got Saxony in late September and then spent much of October and November getting a sense of her and giving her a sense of me. We had no more than a dozen rides before the odd, erratic winter that was to come began to blow our way. Having no indoor arena, I put away the saddle and bridle and embarked on a program of priming Saxony for springtime through steady contact and care. My vet came and met her, we X-rayed her all the way around and started her on Cosequin ASU, I settled on a farrier who understood Saxony's feet and trimmed her beautifully, and I soon eased into a groove to carry us through the winter that enabled me to feel as though I actually did have this sweet new mare and I really was involved with her.

Saxony still had her wolf teeth, and we'd planned to remove them in early spring, when she'd be due for a float. I scheduled an appointment for March 7th. As luck would have it, she popped an eye infection the week before. A specialist came out to see her and diagnosed a blockage of the left nasolacrimal duct. Saxony's natural tears could not drain to the nostril and out, so the duct would have to be flushed. It would be done by my regular vet when she came to take care of Saxony's teeth. It all turned out well, but what a rough afternoon it was for my girl.

Dr. B began with the flushing, after the sedation had taken hold. A huge syringe was filled with warm saline which was then forced through the needle-thin tip into the tiny opening of the nasolacrimal duct set high in Saxony's nostril. The sensation irritated her, so she struggled against it, sneezing and snorting. The right duct flushed easily; within seconds saline bubbled up into the corner of her eye, welling over, running down her face. The left duct, blocked, was a bear; it was very trying for Saxony. Again and again the saline blew back, dripping out of the nostril. Dr. B went through an entire bottle of saline, though none of her patience, and my blood ran cold when she eventually began to ruminate out loud about "surgical alternatives." There came a moment of professional curiosity, however, when she seemed to think back to the textbooks, searching for an explanation for the stubbornness of that duct. And there was an explanation, an unusual one. It turned out that Saxony had two duct openings in her left nostril. One was a sort of "twin," long enough to accommodate most of the syringe tip, but closed at the other end. Of course, that's the one Dr. B had been trying to force the saline through. Once she switched to the other tiny portal, it was just a matter of time and pressure. When the saline finally exploded up into Saxony's left eye, we all shared a moment of silly celebration.

Except poor Sax. The flushing had taken so long, Dr. B had to give her more sedation for the dental work. Her wolf teeth came out easily, with one loose and wobbly all ready and the other needing just a quick prod. There were many hooks on her molars and evidence of the injuries they'd caused to her cheeks. And somewhere during the dental work we discovered a cut on Saxony's upper lip that presented itself by snagging on the dental brace. It was a bloodless tear a couple of days old, one of those mystery injuries of no known origin. Suddenly squeamy, I had to turn away when Dr. B snipped away the jag of flesh.

I stayed with Saxony in her stall until the sedation wore off. I just kept near and looked at her, peaceful and close. I was thinking about what I'd been doing with her through the winter, taking care of her, readying her for what is to come, which is us building our partnership. I felt I'd used the winter well, like cleaning out the attic or emptying the basement. With all that work out of the way, there's a lot of clean new new space for us.

After most of the sedation had worn off, I gave Saxony a flake of hay and groomed her while she ate. I swooped my shedding block over her hindquarters, back and belly, tracing her curves and feeling as though she were a piece of fine woodcraft undergoing painstaking restoration. That's an awkward metaphor, but I was thinking of discovering what lies beneath her winter coat, the rich swirls of color and shading I'd begun to find, like the beauty of old wood grain rediscovered. And all the while I worked, all the while I stayed there with her, I felt how much I've loved caring for her, seeing to her. Maybe that's what I love most of all.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Crazy Pinto Filly Wrecks, Part III - Chapter 2

Continuing, here in Chapter 2, my previous post, Crazy Pinto Filly Wrecks, Part III - Chapter 1.

It's amazing to me how fast we were going down that track. I can feel it all these years later, feel how I was falling with each stride, that my body could not keep up with her motion. From my standing position, I would fall toward the saddle again and again, little half-second drops during which my feet would loosen in the stirrups and I would dangle, midair, above the surging filly.

She ran full out with her head frozen against the sky, hiding somewhere within her body, out of her mind.

I can't recall how much distance remained between us and that sway- backed cable when I realized that the crazy pinto filly wouldn't see it. She was looking skyward, I was looking down the line. A still picture flashed in my mind as if from the future, the aftermath of what lay ahead. We would hit that wire, flip high, then scrape some number of feet into an oncoming car, if not land on top of one. A dead or dying horse, other innocent victims, broken limbs, me in terrible trouble with my parents, to be unforgiven forever by the trusting farm boy who owned the filly.

It's not quite fear that I felt in that moment, but more the rush of adrenaline that enables people to lift cars off of someone pinned underneath. It was like the accident had already happened and I was desperate to prevent further damage. The crazy pinto filly was not my partner, though, could not be. I had to figure it out by myself.

There's a strange roominess in seconds when you can't believe what's happening. In that space of shock I was casting about for ideas, but I wasn't a trained rider. Tools I might use today were unknown to me then. Out of that odd, panic calm, it came to me that I would have to bring the filly down, get her off her feet and down to the ground. I would have to throw me and take her with.

To the left of the track, I could see the back of the old roadhouse, with space behind for a few cars to park. At the edge of the parking lot stood a low cinderblock storage shed, closer to the tracks. To the right of the track was a deep shoulder that dropped off sharp into a thick woods. I knew we couldn't make that drop-off and land intact. I looked back to the left.

This is true: I think there was a second I thought to cry or scream out for help (to nothing, no one), but the sight of a car passing around the curve and away set me straight. I had to figure it out by myself.

I could say we were 50 yards away, or 50 feet away, but I can't see it like that. All I know is that suddenly the moment opened. Standing in the stirrups, I took up more rein. My hands were right there at the bit, and I had to bend my torso to avoid the filly's head. I bent to the left, I yanked the left rein to the side, and then I threw my weight to the left, heavy, heavy, into the left stirrup. Under me, I felt the filly lose her balance. It seemed like she was going down, but somehow she launched into a high, awkward jump, her half-falling momentum carrying us off the track and into space. We crashed into the back of that storage shed, or I did after she lurched, fighting to regain her feet, and swerved off the right edge of the shed. I, hanging to the left, met the cinderblock wall head on.  ...remember landing on my back and watching her left hind hoof roll off my reinless right hand.

The filly wound up standing near the back of the tavern, under a sagging porch overhang, wild-eyed and blowing, but standing. I want to say her bridle was gone, but it couldn't have been. 

Ego. I remember hearing the sound of voices. They might have been coming from inside the bar or around the front. The thought of certain embarrassment compelled me to my feet. I was unsteady in getting to the filly, but I tried to hurry.

I don't think about how we got home, but obviously we did. I'm sure I didn't get on her, though. The barn was just across the woods, up the street from that bar, so I must have led her back.

This wreck changed things for me and the crazy pinto filly. It's really dumb to say this, but that's when I think I first knew she was unhappy. Not to have said it in words like that back then, but also trying not to say it with words that come out of all I've learned about horses since then. I had a sense of the filly after this wreck that showed me, finally, that she was not something that existed just for me.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Crazy Pinto Filly Wrecks, Part III - Chapter 1

This series includes Crazy Pinto Filly Wrecks Part I and Part II, but I first wrote about her in Why Do I Ride?

The third epic wreck with the crazy pinto filly I think really was epic. It may have been the one responsible for, finally, the late dawning of reason in my 14-year-old mind. Maybe. I see now how, in its essence, it contained the raw ingredients that formed the fear cookies I'd find myself munching decades later. Those cookies. They taste uncommonly delicious when it's time for another round of whining, indulgent self-bashing, but in every other way they are terrible and offer no nutritional value whatsoever.

Our ride began as an afternoon meander under cloudy skies on one of those autumn days that calls ahead to the coming winter. The filly and I went out in tack, me slipping around in a cheap cardboard-leather English saddle that was still slick and stiff from too little use. There was a guy I had a crush on, and I hoped to intrigue him by riding imperiously (though nonchalantly) past the place where he hung out juking cars with his friends. They'd all gaze in awe as we cantered by, the crazy pinto filly and me, but him, he would fall in love. So it goes, anyway.

I had to ride a couple of miles along an abandoned railroad track to reach the tired, faintly hostile country tavern beside which the guys labored to transform junkers on blocks into late-night blacktop cruisers. To reach the tracks, I rode east from the barn and then turned south, crossing through a fall-thinning woods. Nuts cracked down from the shedding hickory trees, grenading off branches. The crazy pinto filly quickly wound up into her mindless seesaw jig.

As a kid, I always felt older in the fall, melodramatic and full of self-seriousness. Though it was harder to sit the filly's jig in a saddle, I managed to drift along, daydreaming myself to be a lot of things I wasn't. A person this older guy, who knew zip about my crush on him, would find irresistible, for example.

Just as I was settling the details of my fantasy, the filly bolted. There, at the edge of the woods, turning onto the old rail line, she lost her mind. Loco. I had scant seconds to jerk back to awareness and regain my seat. That the crazy pinto filly was a bolter wasn't news to me. We'd had those rides before. In her worst moments, she flung her head skyward and rocketed forward, blind for all practical purposes. One time in the summer I'd run her right into a lake to save us.

So we were off. We had a long way down the tracks. I remember estimating it and double-checking it from my poor man's two-point position. I was just standing in the stirrups. The filly was going really fast, a full-bore gallop, when she flipped her head straight up. I saw a rolling eye. The drum of her hoof beats seemed deafening. In that convergence of sight and sound, I realized she was out of control.

(The things we learn later. I'd not had riding lessons. Whatever I thought I knew about riding came from reading the novels of Walter Farley and Marguerite Henry. My bible was My Friend Flicka, in which I saw myself and the filly. Sometimes I was the boy, Ken, and sometimes I was Flicka, the terrified filly he adored.)

We flew down the track, me balanced rigid between the stirrups and the reins. I remember the searing wind and the filly's forelock twisting like a dervish in the air, right before my eyes, her head torqued so high. Thud-thud, thud-thud; the ground was just peeling away beneath us. I was hauling on her mouth, leaning back hard, but the crazy pinto filly was lost in her fear and so much stronger than me.

The thing is, there was a cable hanging where the tracks had once met the road, one of those long, low-slung wires displaying a rusted No-Trespassing sign. At some instant, I remembered it was there. 

Up next: Chapter 2

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Taking Care of Them

Why does it feel so good to take care of animals?

Saxony's oogy, goopy eyes turned out to a fairly minor thing. The very German vet who examined her yesterday taught me quite a bit about the anatomy of the horse's eye in general and then took me step by step through Saxony's exam. I like veterinarians who offer a running commentary as though you are keenly interested, because I always am. I sometimes feel like a pest when I am badgering vets to explain everything to me, and this vet just spooled out the story without prompting. I felt like a first-year resident going on rounds.

Saxony's eyes are in excellent health: clear and well-shaped, no abrasions, no signs of cataracts, no conjunctivitis. The vet ran a dye test, applying the dye like eye drops, looking for  blockage of the tear ducts or nasal canals (bingo, Kate and RR). Saxony's favorite part of the exam came when she had to eat a handful of grain from a bucket set on the floor, head down so the dye could drain to her nostrils. The green dye eventually appeared in her right nostril, but it was a no-show in the left. Since she's having her wolf teeth extracted on Monday, we elected to have her regular vet flush her nasal canals then instead of sedating her twice in three days. For now, I'm applying a steroidal antibiotic twice a day. It's difficult because her silly long eye lashes get in the way when I'm trying to pull down her lower lid, but I'll figure it out.

Today, the wonderful barefoot specialist who trimmed Saxony came to trim Scout and Gambler (my friend K's horse.) Another horse-care provider happy to narrate as she worked. She offered observations about both horses' feet in a clear, concise way, all the while trimming them beautifully. Her assessment of Scout's back hooves brought a new angle (no pun intended) to how I understand her ways of moving. Little Gambler, already perfect in mind and spirit, won praise for the natural balance born into his feet. I really enjoyed watching the trims and found it hard not to imagine there was a spring in their step when I led them out of the barn.

So, why does it feel so good to take care of them? I think a big part of it, for me, lies in having to learn about them well enough to understand what they need. Responding to their needs means a lot to me. I love to be able to do that. That's the silver lining I've found in vet bills, to be able to think of them as tuition paid toward my continuing-education credits. It's a sound investment in their future and mine, isn't it?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Every Horse is Different, But Love Runs the Same

Three horses have been in my life since I found my way back to horses after life had kept me stranded elsewhere for two decades. I still have two of them, Scout and Saxony. Dar isn't with me any longer. Those three horses are/were entirely different from one another in all the usual ways: color, size, temperament, breed and age. They differ/ed in their vulnerabilities as well. Dar had a bit of a club foot on his hind left. A grey Percheron mix, he might have gone on to sprout a melanoma at some point, as greys are susceptible to that. Scout was diagnosed with arthritis in her hocks five years after I got her. In late 2009, her alpha nature led her into a confrontation with a Wobbler's mare that ended in a shattered splint bone, surgical removal of the mess, and nine weeks of stall confinement. Now, at 14, Scout struggles with her weight. She's plump and arthritic, like me.

Loving them means understanding as much as you can about them, and that includes understanding their ailments and sensitivities. No matter the particularities of each individual, I think how you love them happens the same. Not the way you love them, but how you love them. For me, the process of my love for each horse is always the same, is powered by the same engine. I might have loved one more and another less, by degrees, but how I love and have loved them is always the same. So you study whatever the matter is, pay close attention to what the vet says, sift through forums to learn about others' experience with similar problems or conditions. You get to thinking, having immersed yourself in self-education, that you know a lot. You know they are vulnerable, that's for sure, and eventually you get used to that idea, because you have to.

Every horse is different, and so will their maladies be. That's part of what makes them individuals. Now comes Saxony, and in short order I began to discover the vulnerabilities unique to her, so different from those of Scout and Dar. The first was the inherited crookedness of her front pasterns. Many hours reading about "offset" and "paddling," many more hours deciding what to pursue in hoof care for her. Along the way, smaller discoveries, like the fact that she still has her wolf teeth (at nine years) and is fussy about her mouth being touched.

(Sidebar: For some reason, I have a strong feeling that I should try her in a bitless bridle, and I don't know why. She doesn't resist the bit or evade it, but something tells me... I don't know.)

Here is the next thing I need to understand about Saxony:

What is troubling her eyes? On Sunday, I went out with K to see her. As I brought her in to the barn, we saw yellow mucous draining from both her eyes, though more prominently on the left.

I took pictures today. On Friday, the vet comes. I can't help but wonder that this gentle mare, who expresses such deep kindness with her eyes, has in those eyes some kind of nasty sensitivity.

My love runs the same; I'll learn all that I can to keep her well. But poor her. Eyes on Friday, and after that, Monday is dentist day, wolf teeth out and a float in time for spring.