This is the story of our horse and the responsibility we have to our horses.
The horse in my pasture has a ‘hitch in his giddy-up’. It’s noticeable when he walks down the concrete aisle to his stall for feeding; then again, as he makes his way back out to his pasture when he is done. He isn’t young. He isn’t old. He isn’t worn down from a hard life, in fact he’s been pretty spoiled in the attentive care he’s received since he was born on a small farm in Northern Virginia, and then under our care from the age of 6 to his now ripe old age of 17. But this change in him has caused me to reflect on his impact on our family and our responsibility to him.
He really shouldn’t be alive in the first place. His dam was a very well bred racing Thoroughbred (TB) who was injured on the track and suddenly her future in racing was over. For whatever reason, her owners at the time decided the best thing to do was to have her euthanized and file the insurance claim on her. So that is what they did … sort of. Fast forward a couple years later.
We were looking for a horse for our daughter – I will call her C. We had leased with option to purchase on several horses but that was a disaster. Not in the horses we choose, but it was the owners that repeatedly did us in. Each time we would try out a horse and get it schooled to the level that my daughter was winning ribbons, the owners of the horse suddenly got cold feet. Lease #1 changed their mind and wanted to keep (the now fit, schooled and winning) horse for themselves; lease #2 decided the (now fit, schooled and winning) horse was now worth TWICE what we agreed on (yes, dummy me did not get the original price in writing); and lease #3 decided to donate the horse to the National Park Police Horse Mounted Unit in Washington D.C and we watched the horse in the inaugural parade for then President Bush. Okay, so in hindsight, the last one was pretty cool … but still rather disappointing for our daughter.
C gave me her wish list: not a chestnut, not a gelding and not a TB. Our trainer told us about a mare that she knew was for sale. She was a 4 year old green TB but had a good head on her shoulders. From the moment we saw her we thought, she’s the one. She was beautiful; a gorgeous bay with good size to her (not a fine bone TB at all) and just the kindest eyes. C got on her and as much as we wanted it to be a perfect match, it wasn’t. The mare did everything right, but you could just tell they just didn’t click. C finished up the ride and was ready to take her home, but I could see there wasn’t the light in her eyes that I had seen when she had been on other horses. She wanted so desperately to have a horse of her own, but I just wasn’t convinced this was a right match and neither was C deep down. The trainer mentioned that the mare had a brother also on the farm that was probably for sale and we could try him if we wanted. We figured what the heck, we were already out there we might as well check him out.
The ‘brother’ was a 6 year old monster of a horse. Green but still schooled, 17 hands and 1,700 pounds of plain boring chestnut. C wasn’t thrilled with the idea of a gelding, let alone a chestnut gelding, but was game to try him. From the moment she got on him I could tell this was something different. They were in perfect rhythm with each other. Neither really knew what to expect from the other but when C got down there was a sparkle in her eye. We informed the owner we were interested and wanted to know his breeding. What I can say is that his sire is Full Circle, a very accomplished TB jumper on the east coast. His dam … well, she was standing in the next paddock, but we were told, “She’s dead”. What? This was our first foray into the shady world of horses – but that is another story.
The dam was given to this barn owner behind closed doors. Her track owners gave the vet orders to have her put down and then processed the mortality insurance claim as if she really was dead. Now, in all honesty, I do not know the circumstances of her ending up living, breathing and breeding on this farm in Northern Virginia. Was it the vet that intervened to save her? Was it the previous owner? Was it some third party? Who knows? All I know is that this “dead” horse gave birth to 3 beautiful offspring on that little farm: a gorgeous bay mare, a gorgeous bay gelding (not for sale) and the big ole chestnut that my daughter was already beginning to fall in love with.
So, now we were the proud owners of our new chestnut, gelding, TB – who we will call, D. D and C had a great relationship. D tried, C tried, and they both succeeded and failed as a team. If they did not get a good ribbon at a show, C was quick to point out it didn’t matter, “… because he was still the best.” She didn’t really care for showing although it was very clear he loved it. D would enter the ring and put on his ‘look at me’ face and off they went. Good, bad, wrong lead, wrong direction, it didn’t matter – D was perfect in her eyes and he would do anything for her – jump anything for her!
After a couple years we started noticing a change. A slight limp here, a short stride there; nothing huge but not to be completely dismissed either. We had the vets look at him and they recommended some rest and easy workouts. It seemed to work. Then a couple weeks and months later we would notice it again. So we would go back to rest and easy workouts. But the odd thing is that we couldn’t seem to identify a specific thing wrong. It was like the lameness would travel. So we began to try alternative treatments: acupuncture and chiropractic work. Both seemed to improve the situation but still, no specific diagnosis. Then one of the horses in the barn was diagnosed with Lyme disease. We had already made an appointment for later that month to take him to a specialist in Fredericksburg, VA for a complete bone scan to figure out what was going on with him, but we decided to do a quick blood test to rule out Lyme. The test came back positive. We immediately began the 30 day treatment and put the bone scan on the back burner.
Several months later D was declared free from Lyme disease but the damage was done. Several disks in D’s back were destroyed and he now has at least 3 kissing back bones that cause him pain. D was also discovered to have severely torn his left hind digital flexor tendon. We are still not sure if that was the cause of the original discomfort or if he sustained it because he was compensating for a sore back by altering his gate. Either way, when the flexor tendon healed (after a year on stall rest at our ranch) it caused a buildup of scar tissue that is now a constant source of pressure and irritation in his leg.
So, now we are at a crossroads. D has lived happily as a yard ornament in our pasture for the past several years. He does not get ridden but continues to get the full range of vaccinations, vet and farrier care in addition to twice daily grain and hay 24/7. He pretty much lives his days hanging out and being the handsome funny boy that he is. He is pasture sound which basically means he is sound at the walk. At the trot he is noticeable uncomfortable although he will still occasionally trot out there on his own. He is the leader of our herd so he travels at his own pace, when and where he wants and always has first dibs at the hay. He has had a good life even with his limitations. I believe we have done right by him up to this point. However, he is beginning to show signs that his comfort level is changing.
As I watch him walk, and as he brings his left hind leg forward, it pauses ever so slightly about 5 inches above the ground and moves in a slightly circular motion before he drops it flat on the ground. The other hind leg also pauses and drops flat but doesn’t seem so disoriented. Sometimes he will step out with his hind legs and then instead of his foot hitting the ground, it comes back about an inch before it hits – often toe first or completely flat. It’s almost as if his leg isn’t quite long enough for his stride. He is much slower moving on the flat and going downhill he takes small steps and his nose will nearly touch the ground. It’s as if his back is unable to compensate for the terrain variations.
So I am now left to spend my days thinking about what is the right thing to do.
I spent a couple hours last night in the company of a man who was recently suffered a broken neck when he came off a horse. The man was still in a neck brace when he explained that he wanted people to understand it was not the horse that caused this accident, it was him. He put his own needs and desires ahead of the horse. You see, he is entering this horse in a competition in a couple weeks – training time is limited. It had rained the night before. The ground was wet and slippery and he knew it. He had already had a good session in the arena with the horse and initially thought about ending it there however, he only had a couple weeks left and there was so much HE wanted to do to show everyone what a great horse she was, and darn it, HE wanted to win! Even though he hesitated knowing he should end on a good note, he decided to take her out on a trail ride because he wanted a little more.
Now anyone who knows this man can attest, he is the first one to tell you to stop on a success. To listen to your horse. To not push it. LOL! Well, he admits, he didn’t heed his own preachings and that is how he got his first ever helicopter ride – albeit, there wasn’t much of a view as he was strapped to a backboard. Sure, he screwed up but he was right there to tell you he screwed up, and why he screwed up and how not to screw up like he did. As he so eloquently put it, he “put himself before the horse”. He didn’t listen the horse who was slipping in the mud on the trail, or to himself who was saying maybe we should quit for today. Simple as that.
I have been thinking about that a lot. Am I putting myself before my horse? I have been thinking about D out in that pasture. He has all the hay he could possibly eat and a trough full of water. He has herd mates to keep him company. He has fresh air, trees to nap under and plenty of space to meander around. But if all my research and knowledge is correct, horses are relatively stoic creatures. Meaning, they are not going to show pain (limp, flinch, etc.) unless it’s more than just a little pain. If they did, in nature they would be culled from the herd by predators. It’s just nature’s way of making sure the strongest survive. I’ve seen horses with a barely perceptible “off-ness” to have their back palpated and have them drop nearly to their knees. I have no doubt D is in pain, but I have no way of knowing how much and how much is too much. I also need to consider if I can realistically, and by that in all likelihood I mean financially, improve his comfort level.
To have his back surgically repaired starts at $2,500, and it would be another $1,500 to repair his leg by cutting the tendon to relieve the pressure from the scar tissue and sever the nerve. Even if the back surgery was successful the severed nerve is permanent. He would be able to move his leg but wouldn’t register pain – not exactly a recipe for disaster but certainly something to consider with a horse that lives 23 hours a day in a pasture with other horses. Who is kidding who? The reality is I will not pay for his surgery(s).
So what if I just let him live out in my pasture moving as much as he is comfortable, doing what horses do. What am I doing? Who am I putting first? Am I putting him first simply because I am letting him live? Do horses stand around and think about living or dying? Of course not. Their brains do not work like ours. This is not a movie or a fairytale. This is reality. However, as long as he is alive, people will think I’m a wonderful and kind person for allowing him to live out his life and my daughter will be happy knowing her horse alive.
So what if I have him put down? What am I doing? Who am I putting first? By seeing his ‘hitch’ I know that he is uncomfortable. By knowing his history I know that he is progressively getting worse. If I were to take him to the vet and have him put down he would not worry about getting in the trailer – in fact, he would practically jump in! He would show up at the vet looking bright eyed, bushy tailed and healthy to all onlookers; however at the slightest pressure on his back he will easily drop 12 inches away from your hand. As the vet administered the first shot, D would be happy to see the vet because he really loves people and interacting with them. He would drift off to sleep. The second shot would stop his heart and his life would be over. People would ask why he was put down and I would say because he was in pain. They would either think I am a wonderful and kind person for allowing him a dignified passing or they would think I am selfish for not just letting him live out there in the pasture because frankly, I have the land and could afford to just let him be a horse out there.
Maybe I should let him ‘tell me when its time’ as so many have said? Is that true or just a bunch of crap that humans say to make themselves feel better? Because if we listened to our horses more we wouldn’t get to the point of them screaming at us as they so often do. In most cases, if your horse is limping then there was already something wrong way before the limp became obvious. Sure there are exceptions, but from my experience they don’t ‘fake it’ as much as people would like to believe. They also don’t talk to each other when the barn lights go out – just sayin.
Now I’m not saying that every injured horse should be put down. I am saying that if the injury is not repairable and the horse is hurting, then it is definitely something to consider. If your horse is hurting and its going to get worse why would you let it get worse when you can do something about it? When you can prevent the pain and suffering. Who are you putting first?
There will never be another D regardless of his future. Dead or alive will not change that he was our first horse, a wonderful addition to our lives, an opportunity for learning and growing, a funny boy who loves to have his tongue scratched, who loves the vet even when he/she approaches with a ‘big ass’ needle, who was the best lead line pony (ummm, 17 hands!) and who genuinely loves children and small animals. He is a character and no one will ever take that away from him. He taught our daughter so many things and she is a better woman because he was the man in her life for so many years. I will always love him for that – we will all love him for that. It is for that reason I hope we will always try to put him first – he deserves it.
Guest post submitted by: TD