It was 1994 and my brother’s show mare, about 17 years old, had never been bred and had been identified as having some version of “undersized” or “shriveled” ovaries. I don’t understand that diagnosis, never have, not even when I heard it in Crimes of the Heart. It seems absurd. Aren’t they supposed to be wrinkled? And how BIG do they have to be to produce a teensy little egg anyway? At the time I had lost track of the mare’s age, but even if she had been “only” 14 as I thought, that was pretty late for a first breeding.
I don’t know why we decided that was the time to put her in with the stallion. Maybe it was because my brother had officially retired from showing horses, maybe the stallion was just lonely. It was December. A mare that comes into heat in December is obviously mis-firing in some way, or so many breeding books will tell you. We didn’t care, we turned her in with him. She kicked him savagely for a few days, he mostly stayed away from her. We left them together for a few weeks. In late January, the stallion fractured a femur. We don’t know how he did this, the ex-show mare was not with him at the time. Rather, her docile and aged and extremely barren mother was. We had to put the stallion down.
On a rainy night in November, the ex-show mare who was too old to breed gave birth to a small chestnut colt. He had to be lifted out of a deep puddle of water to be moved into a stall. He was as last-minute as a baby could be before artificial insemination and frozen semen were in common use. He was unremarkable, sort of cute, marked like a lot of horses we have, and destined for geldinghood. He was not particularly sweet, completely unfriendly, even wild. At three days old, he tried to jump through a fence, to get away from the scary humans. He got lodged between the pipe panels and had to be wrestled free by three people. His mother was a complete pet. There was no excuse for this lunacy.
By three he was still running away from people and kicking us when we tried to handle his feet. We had to sedate him. Oddly, after being sedated once, and having his feet handled while he came out of the sedation, he stopped kicking. I made a note. I now call this “sedation training.” I have used it once since. Learning not to kick people was the first smart thing he did.
We gelded him late, intentionally. He was so flighty, the only hope that he would develop some backbone was to let him be a stallion for a little while. By five years old, he had turned into something of a handful, very assertive with other horses and wanting to get to the mares. He was much friendlier now, but still flighty. We gelded him.
We sent him away for training at age 6. He was small, and I like to wait with the smaller ones because it just seems unfair to put weight on them until they have grown as much as they possibly can, when it isn’t going to be much. So he was started. He did very well, until he got tangled in a rope and got a rope burn on a hind fetlock. Inattention allowed this to grow into a significant infection. For many reasons, we did not know about any of this. We were preoccupied with health concerns in the family so we did not go out of our way to check in on him. When the trainer called to say he wanted to send the horse to a vet clinic for treatment and care, we said fine, sounds like a good plan. Two months later the vet clinic called to say they wanted to move the horse to a surgical facility in Santa Ynez. We paid attention to that. We said we would come pick him up that same day.
To clarify, without completely diverting blame from myself: the trainer’s facility was a 5 hour drive from our home. The vet clinic was even further away. So not noticing what was going on can sort of be forgiven if you accept that for years we’d had every reason to trust the trainer with the care of our horses.
I left at about 1pm, crawled through traffic for eight hours, and was reprimanded by the vet when I arrived for being “late.” I certainly was. When I saw the gelding, my feelings were such that I have to applaud my self-control for not striking the vet. The horse was emaciated, standing in a shelter out back with gravel for bedding, and a bucket with about ten pounds of untouched grain in it. Needless to say, if one of my horses doesn’t eat grain, he is very very sick. If any horse were to eat that quantity of grain it would probably make them sick. I had so very many reasons to hit that man, I think it might have even held up in court. But I didn’t.
The gelding could hardly walk to the trailer. His tail was cranked up tight over his rump, as if he was trying to use it to lift the weight off of his hind feet. Apparently, while failing to treat the infected fetlock, the vet had also allowed the other hind foot to go lame.
The vet assured me that the infection was some resistant strain of bacteria, completely untreatable. He could not account for the lameness in the other foot. He did mention that the horse had been off his feed. I can’t remember how I responded to that statement, I was blind with rage. The horse was cadaverous. Maybe the vet was really a cow vet and didn’t know anything about horses. But that didn’t stop him from taking money to keep the horse and trying to kill him for 2 months. I had no suitable words. The vet made the single good decision to give the horse a shot of banamine for the trip home. I almost stopped him, so suspicious I was of his competence and even motives.
When I arrived at our vet’s clinic that night, or the next morning at 3 am, the vet assistant who met me did not complain about the hour. We bedded a stall and put the gelding in it. He went down. We didn’t make him get up. Barely able to get in the trailer, he had just finished a long trailer ride. There was no reason in the world to expect him to get up any time soon.
The next morning, our vet explained that there was no point sending him to Davis for acute treatment. They would recommend euthanasia. He did not, not yet. He knew us well and thought it was worth a try to help us save the horse.
His findings were as follows: inflamed but not infected hind fetlock wound, founder in the other hind foot, and severe stomach ulcers, probably caused by prolonged stress, poor diet, and too many weeks on low doses of pain meds.
Ulcer meds had him eating within days. Higher doses of less irritating pain meds had him on his feet for much of the day, though he still spent many hours lying in his pile of shavings, something he probably had not seen in months. His attitude improved steadily. He had not been sullen or obnoxious at any point, but he became interested now, wanted attention, watched what was going on in the clinic.
The wound did require treatment for many weeks, and the founder was severe. We brought him home and kept him in a stall adjoining his pasture and his brothers. He cowered in the back of the stall for days, staying as far from his brothers as he could with his tail clamped between his legs. He was in no mood to play with those ruffians.
It took him about three months to recover to the point that he could start going out in a paddock, and within the year he was back out with his brothers. We assumed he was done at seven years old.
When he was about ten I wondered if he had ever really been trained. We had a bronc rider try him out. He was perfect, no trouble at all. The bronc rider described his trot as having “one square wheel.” The tendons above the injured fetlock were scarred and pulled his heel up too high so he seemed to have one short hind leg. Great, I thought: he’s broke but lame.
When he was 12 we found ourselves short one bomb-proof trail horse. We had agreed to loan one to a friend and bomb-proof horses are not easy to come by. I wondered. His gait was “off” but he didn’t seem to be in pain. We tried him out. He was perfect, not a wrong step out on the trail in familiar or unfamiliar territory. His trot still had a flat tire but he had a great walk, fast and smooth.
We sent him off on the ride that required the bomb-proof horse. The ride was attended by over 200 riders, wagon teams of mules and draft horses, and was rife with the sort of behavior you expect from a large stag outing. Apparently the little gelding was the first horse my father had ever taken on that ride that had no problem with the wagons or the draft teams. In fact, when he first saw the giant horses hitched to their wagon, he pulled at the reins to go see them. He sniffed noses with them, walked back to the wagon, and stuck his head inside to see what was in there. He was amazing, fearless and steady as a rock.
Dad rode him on that ride the next year as well. His size suited Dad to a tee- it is a lot easier to get on and off of a pony-sized horse than a big manly mount. It was a match made in heaven.
Not long after the second ride, we found the gelding out in the pasture, lame again. Very, very lame. He did not want to walk. It reminded me of his father. I was sick. I led him by inches to a stall and called the vet. Once in the stall, the gelding started to pace slowly. I thought this might be a good sign, that he was willing to walk.
The first vet to examine him, the one on call, said he had injured his hock, to let him rest with some pain meds. We did so. When our regular vet re-checked him, he said it looked more like a fractured pelvis but he could not be sure. He said the fact that he was willing to stand and walk was a good sign, to let him rest some more, and keep him in a very small paddock. He could not be sure of the extent of the damage because the horse was too fat. After that examination the gelding declined. He did not want to walk at all, and started pulling his tail up again, telling me he was in a lot of pain.
We waited. After a few more days we had him checked again, this time by our vet’s partner, a young woman. She said certainly it was a fractured pelvis, though her optimistic tone was confusing. She then explained that lots of horses recover from fractured pelvises, if the broken bone doesn’t sever an artery and kill them fast. Some even return to work, if the fracture is not too severe. From his behavior, it did not seem very severe to her. We would have to wait for the swelling to go down so they could do an ultra-sound. Her optimism was irresistible. We had to try.
He seemed to improve over the next few days. Then a brush fire started on the property across the road. The fire department, the forestry department and as far as I could tell the war time remnants of the National Guard showed up to put it out. This was a good thing, except for the bombers. Our property was right in line with their bombing runs. The little horse’s pen was now sitting on a run way with fire-fighting planes coming in right over his head. Keeping him quiet was a challenge. I stayed with him and he stayed with me, his tail clamped and his neck sucked up and in, eyes rolling. I can hardly blame him, it scared me too to see the bellies of those planes coming so close over our heads, to hear the noise.
We made it through that.
A couple of weeks later he colicked. The ulcers had returned with a vengeance. We sent him to the vet clinic. He pulled through. Still, they had to find a way to keep him on his feet almost continuously for another few months. The ultra sound showed that he had a displaced fracture. The pictures said he was done. He disagreed. He continued walking as if the pictures were false, though his funny gait was now much more strange. We said keep trying.
There was nothing, nothing holding the out of place bone pieces together except for some very soft tissue, barely a shadow to ultra-sonic “eyes.” When the horse shifted weight, you could hear the bone fragments pop and change position. I called Davis for another opinion after I saw the pictures. I love my vets. I trust my vets. I still like to get as many opinions as possible. Vets don’t like to give advice without seeing a horse, certainly not if you are asking them to question another vet’s diagnosis. It’s unfair to ask them to do so. Someone talked to me anyway.
I explained the situation. He said “if he’s walking he’ll probably make it.” I asked how the bone could heal if it wasn’t held in place, pinned or something. He said that they could not pin equine pelvic fractures- materials strong enough to do that don’t exist yet, and the surgery would do more damage than the pin could do good. I asked what if no bone ever grows back between the two pieces? He said that soft tissue would grow in. Even if the two pieces were never solid again, a horse can get by with a flexible pelvis. I thought this was a horrible image but was comforted anyway.
The gelding had to be kept on his feet. This was a challenge. They kept him in cross ties with his head elevated for most of the day and only untied him so he could eat. Very quickly he learned that routine. As soon as the food was delivered and the deliverer left, he would lie down. Once he was down, no one would make him get up, because being down was not the problem: getting up was. He had no problem eating lying down. This is not a good way to digest food but he managed.
When he finally got up, they would strap him back in the cross-ties and the process would resume at the next meal. Keeping him on his feet for four to five months was never a realistic possibility. Horses must lie down for at least 20 minutes a day to rest properly. He had been on his feet continuously for several weeks before he went to the clinic, but that was the limit of his endurance.
Also, as the young woman vet said: “they figure it out.” He probably aggravated the injury during his first few attempts to lie down and get up, but the pain of doing that helped him learn very quickly how to get up without hurting himself. Still, it was best to discourage that activity as much as possible.
He was at the clinic for another four months. He never left his stall except to go to the stocks where he was treated, about 20 feet away. This level of confinement not only presents hazards for a horse’s physical health but it is almost a guarantee that they will become obnoxious and stir crazy. The best horses will at least try to frolic as soon as they leave the stall, or become sullen.
He frolicked a little, jogged and bucked on the way to the stocks. But that was it. The vet had his six year old daughter and friends going in the stall to groom him regularly, moving around at belly-height, brushing his tail, standing on mounting blocks to reach his face and mane. He was as calm as a rental pony, like a horse who was worked every day into a state of perfect relaxation. He received acupuncture treatments, electro-stimulus treatments for muscle repair, a gigantic hematoma had to be lanced and then daily flushed where he tore a muscle while “figuring it out.” Many many odd and even painful things were done to him but he tolerated it and still didn’t step on the children. He greeted everyone who came in the barn, ears up, eyes bright. He demolished any records there might have been for good-patient ranking.
This changed when he came home. He took every opportunity to jump, buck, kick, run, slide and any other violent physical activity he could think of. He was not remotely quiet in his paddock, but he was still nice to handle. After many months he returned to his band of brothers. Now and again he wants to get away from them, but mostly he prefers to be out.
Two days ago I brought him into the barn to keep the stallion company, and to get some extra groceries. The next morning he didn’t want to go out. I gave him some pain meds and put him in the paddock next to the stallion’s. Keeping the stallion company is likely the last job he will ever have. He spent the next night in the barn again. This morning I opened the gate and he went trotting out to rejoin the herd, twisting his head and bouncing along on his square wheel like that was the most normal thing in the world.