“So…There’s this horse…”
I was lying on my bed in the middle of the afternoon-a weekend in early May of 2016-feeling extraordinarily lazy, and watching my ceiling fan spin circles above me. I held my phone to my ear and listened as Jeremiah began to explain the plight of a unfortunate four-year-old desert bred Arabian gelding who had been injured in a pasture accident. The injury was deemed “career ending” for the young gelding, once an exceptionally promising and talented performance prospect, and the decision was made to put him down. He was three-legged lame, currently residing in a stall awaiting his appointment for euthanasia after x-rays revealed that he had torn much of the connective tissue in his lower right front leg. He only had a few days before the vet would be back out.
Through an unlikely chain of events (involving the horse’s previous owner, an unexpected shoeing appointment, and a brief conversation with the consulting vet), the gelding, named Phoenix, had made his way onto Jeremiah’s radar. Jeremiah had known Phoenix’s mother and was the farrier for Phoenix’s previous owner. He was just connected enough to the horse to be interested, and he started making phone calls to get to the bottom of the situation.
His conversation with the vet led to his conversation with me. He explained that Phoenix had an excellent shot to recover to pasture sound (pain free but unridable), a decent chance of recovering to trail sound (noncompetitively ridable), and a very, very slim chance of recovering to performance sound, but that, in any case, he would require a lot of time and a lot of money. His owners weren’t willing to make that sort of investment in an almost definitely noncompetitive horse with such an uncertain future.
“What do you think?” Jeremiah asked. “Should we bring him home?”
If you’ve been following this blog for any time at all, you will know quite well that sad creatures are my kryptonite. I have barely bought myself a new pair of jeans in the past four years, but my creatures are well-stocked with their own comforts. However, the fact is, as much as I would like to try, I cannot save them all. My resources are finite, and every animal requires hay and time and space. All of those things have their limits, even out here on 100 acres. I try to be very aware of those limits because at my core, the space in my heart drastically outdistances the space in my pastures or leeway in my pocketbook. That could get me in trouble really quickly. Not to mention, as you might guess given my last post on my divorce, Jeremiah and I weren’t on terribly solid footing ourselves just then…
I paused before responding. “It’s probably a terrible idea…and we might just be bringing the poor thing up here to euthanize in a few months if things don’t heal…”
“I know.” Jeremiah sounded resigned, another horse, especially an injured one, would be a huge responsibility to add to already chaotic and complicated lives.
“It’s good that we’re in agreement on that…” I inhaled deeply. “But I think we should do it anyway.”
I cannot save them all, but, as I’ve said before, sometimes you have to choose between logic and compassion. When pressed, choose compassion. Also, I believe in fate, and it seemed like this particular sad creature was supposed to cross our path. I steeled myself for a potential loss–I already knew there was a good chance we wouldn’t be able to save him–and started clearing a space in my barn for another sad animal.
Jeremiah spent the next week getting Phoenix set to travel while I got the barn ready to accommodate a seriously injured horse. Jeremiah shod his uninjured front hoof in a fancy set of composite shoes for extra support. We had a vet in Southern Illinois cast his injured leg, and we had radiographs and records sent to our vet up here. By the time he loaded onto our trailer to travel three hours North, he had already required a significant investment in vet bills and hoof work.
I had been sent a few photos of him, but when I agreed to take him in, it was sight unseen, so when he stepped off the trailer, I was surprised by a few things. First, Phoenix was stunningly beautiful, and TALL, much taller than I had expected given his Arabian Heritage. Second, with his lower limb in a cast, he was fairly ambulatory, not nearly as lame as I expected. (I had been under the impression that we were bringing home a half-dead horse with a slim chance of survival, but he was in far better shape than I had imagined.) Third, he was taking his trailer ride and new surroundings mostly in stride. He seemed nervous, but obliging. All of that was encouraging.
I got him settled in to an empty stall on the far edge of the barn and began a routine that we hoped would make him better. The vet came out regularly to administer Ozone Therapy. We found someone locally who could administer pulsed magnetic wave therapy. We tried to limit his movement, control his pain, and give him any sort of edge we could find to give him. He was underweight when he came, so in addition to hay, he was also fed grain twice daily.
I was basically already running the farm by myself at that point, with Jeremiah away for weeks at a time, so Phoenix and I spent a lot of time together, especially early on. I cleaned his stall; I fed him; I held him for his treatments; I kept him clean, and fed, and as happy as possible. I planned to remain somewhat distant with him, not wanting to get overly attached if we were to have to put him down, but he had one of those difficult to resist personalities. My sister-in-law took to calling him a “puppy horse” due to his tendency to follow us, demand attention, and cuddle. It wasn’t long before he wiggled his giant self right into my heart.
For several months, things went very well. Better than expected, in fact. The combination of treatments seemed to be working splendidly. Phoenix moved into his second cast without a hiccup, continuing his treatments each step of the way.
I started planning for his future with us.
Despite offers from a few of Jeremiah’s clients to take him once he was sound, I decided he would stay. As far as I was concerned, he would always be something of a time bomb for the wrong owner: High spirited and athletic but with potential for a re-injury. He was built like a jumper, and I was afraid that would be his undoing in the wrong hands. Also, if I’m being terribly honest, it bugged me a little that plenty of people wanted him sound, but no one else was willing to take the chance on him or spend the required money on him when his fate was uncertain.
And somewhere along the line, between my initial resolution to keep emotional distance from him and the day Jeremiah came home to remove his second cast twelve weeks later, I had unconsciously decided that he would get better. He had gone from being a anonymous horse we were going to try to save, but would likely have to euthanize, to a member of my herd with a future, his own personality, and a place in my heart.
He stood patiently as Jeremiah removed his cast. The leg underneath was atrophied from under-use, but we expected that. Jeremiah asked me to lead him away, and Phoenix followed me obligingly…completely unable to bear weight on his injured leg. I had so thoroughly convinced myself that Phoenix would be sound out of the cast that those first few steps shocked me to my core.
Jeremiah watched him walk and shook his head, lips pursed, brow furrowed. I had seen that look so many times, usually as he tried to decide how to tell a client that things didn’t look so good for their horse.
“Did we expect this?” I asked, hoping he knew something I didn’t.
“No,” he said simply. “But, maybe it will take him a few days to get used to it.”
I put Phoenix back in his stall. He settled in, refusing to put weight on his hoof but otherwise paying it no mind. I fed him, just as I had done every day since Jeremiah brought him home, and Jeremiah and I walked back down to the house.
Both of us were despondent, but I think I felt more defeated. The uncertainty, defeat, fear of loss–those emotions, that vulnerability–are the true cost of what I do out here. The sacrifice of time or of money is easy by comparison.
The next few days showed little improvement. Phoenix seemed happy enough, but seldom put any weight at all on his injured leg, hobbling around pathetically on three legs instead.
The vet needed to come out again; this time to x-ray the affected leg and determine where Phoenix was at. Had the leg been reinjured? Had the tears healed? Was he developing rapid early arthritis (a concern from the beginning)? I needed to know whether or not he was getting better and whether or not I could offer him a good quality of life.
I needed to know whether my baby boy–you know, the one I wouldn’t let myself get attached to–would make it.
The vet wasn’t able to come out for two more weeks. Jeremiah went off on another month long trip and I stayed, feeding Phoenix twice a day (along with everyone else), cleaning his stall, and studying his every movement, looking for improvement…hope…
When our vet’s farm truck rolled up two weeks later, my stomach was in knots. It had already been decided that we would only keep going with treatment if it was fair to the horse, and his state at that moment, still not walking on the injured leg with three months of rehab behind him, made me desperately afraid that I would have to schedule his euthanasia before Doc drove away that afternoon.
I brought Phoenix out of his stall, and he stood calmly as the vet went about his business. He was used to being poked and prodded by then.
The vet was able to pull the x-rays up on his laptop within minutes. He viewed them side-by-side with the x-rays of the initial injury.
“Oh, ok. These look good. See here? This is much better.”
That knot in my stomach melted, and tried to pay attention as Doc explained all the intricacies of the x-rays we were looking at, but all I could focus on was that Phoenix was better. Things would be ok. I could hardly believe that things would be ok.
I watched him drive away with a sense of relief. He wouldn’t be coming back to help me give a unrecoverable horse a kind end. Instead, Doc told me that the muscles had atrophied in the cast, that Phoenix needed time and space. Those things, I could give him.
I opened up his stall to a small run that day. I moved him into his own small pasture within about a month. Then, this Spring, I walked him down the lane and introduced him to the other horses, moving him into the big field where he could run and play to his heart’s content.
I watched the horses munching their hay tonight as the sun set behind us. Phoenix stood in the field with everyone else, sound and a true-blue member of the herd, and I breathed a sigh of relief, remembering again just how miraculous that was.