“My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today”
If you’ve read Richard Adams’ novel Watership Down, you will recognize this quote.It’s an expression of grief for a rabbit that has “stopped running,” a euphemism in the book for having died.
Five days ago Bars’ and my journey together came to an end.His leg was broken in a completely freak accident—this happens often with horses—and there was nothing that could be done to save him.He was euthanized in his pasture with two of his favorite people, me and his “Auntie Pam,” with him, literally holding his hoof the entire time.I was the first to know he’d gone.
Euthanasia is the final and often most important thing we as horse (or dog or cat or bird or…) owners can do for our friends.It also takes some stiffness of spine to have the courage to say goodbye, and to stay in contact to the very end.
Bars was not just my friend; he was a special horse in many ways.I know lots of people say that about their horses, but in Bars’ case it’s really true.He was always so joyful and full of life (and silliness) that he was a favorite in every barn he lived in.He’d only lived in his current place for nine months, and yet the barn owners were almost as devastated as I was to lose him. He loved people, he loved attention, and he especially loved having his picture taken, the big ham.He loved life, even when he was stressed out or scared, but he departed with as much dignity as dying can ever be.He was my partner, my friend, sometimes confidante, and so much more.He was part of the family, and we miss him terribly.
Mourning a horse is different than other companion animals or even family members because the nature of the relationship is different.Horses and their handlers have to rely on each other in ways that dogs or cats usually don’t, so the grieving process and sense of loss is different with horses, especially in cases where horses and handlers have a long standing relationship, as Bars and I have had.I know from having spent the last two years mourning his brother that the days and months to come will be difficult, but I have to move forward without him.Grief and loss is, after all, part of life, and yet another thing that horses have to teach us.
The trails around the new barn were graded this week.They are actually fire access roads and since there was really horrible fire in this area about three years ago, somehow the park has gotten more vigilant about maintaining the fire roads—go figure.What this means for us is that in the last week the footing for Mr. Bars with his aging joints has gone from dicey to great.In addition, the removal of tons of tall grass from the trail area also means I have to contend with far fewer trail hazards.
I love this new barn, but since moving here I have had more ticks on me in a single week than I’ve had in my entire life put together.There are ticks EVERYWHERE.For me it’s even worse because, as noted last week, every time we go up a hill, that means I have to get off and walk back down the hill…and therefore walk through a lot of tall grass infested with ticks.
Ticks are awful.I’m not generally one to excited about very many bugs, but I hate ticks.These parasitic little arachnids are transmitters of all kinds of ugly diseases, including Lyme disease, and they’re just plain yucky.I’ve resorted to using the expensive fly sprays on Bars, because they repel ticks, and even using said fly spray (and bug spray for people, and SWAT) on myself.Never in all my years have I had to deal with this.
And did I mention that the end of California’s drought has brought with it a beautiful crop of poison oak?That stuff is also everywhere, and in some places overgrowing the trails.A couple of months ago I took a short walk on another trail route to check out the footing and there were places there where the poison oak had grown across the trail, completely.Thankfully at the time I was wearing my tall rubber boots.I’ve lived around poison oak off and on all my life and never had a reaction to it, but I’m not about to start now!
For Bars, this new smoother footing means less danger that he will take a wrong step and stumble, twist an already weak leg, or otherwise injure himself.Another lengthy lay-up at this stage in his life could mean the end of riding for both of us, so this is great news.We’ve been picking up our pace a bit—doing more trotting and cantering, which is gradually improving his fitness level.He’s stumbling less, tiring less quickly, and seems to be enjoying our rides more and more.Better fitness for him means we can explore some new trails and get out a little farther each week.This week we had some great views.
I tried an experiment a couple of weeks ago. I have long been in the habit of giving Bars’ front legs a little stretch before final girth tightening, mostly to make sure we don’t have any folds of skin stuck under the girth—ouch! On occasion, when he’s seemed particularly stiff, I’ve given all four legs a stretch. More recently, as we’ve been getting back into shape, I’ve been more consistent about stretching all four legs, but wondered if it really helped. So, one day, I just got on and rode with no stretching…and he stumbled about five times more than he had the ride before and the ride after, both with stretching, so…I guess stretching is now a regular thing.
More consistent stretching is just one of the modifications we’ve had to make over time. Between having injured both rear suspensory ligaments (because he’s a klutz) and having developed arthritis in his hocks, his back legs are a little stiff and wobbly. A long time ago the great Kerry Ridgeway, DVM, one of the founders of equine sports medicine, gave me a piece of advice for horses with these injuries: “Ride up, walk down.” Meaning, ride up hill, and when it’s time to go down, get off and walk. I’ve done this for years and it’s saved us a lot of white knuckling down hills….
Since Bars had such a rough winter, his legs are a bit stiffer than before, his arthritis is a little bit worse, and, as of his last checkup, his cataracts are also a little bit worse. All this means that I have to ride more supportively and actively. No passive passenger riding with an elderly horse! I have to keep an eye on the footing and raise myself out of the saddle more often than I used to, preferably without adding extra weight in the stirrups. (try it sometime, I dare you!) I also am very careful about when and where to give him a loose rein. He’s always been a bit of a goofball, but a supporting hand on the bit has helped him pull himself up from many front end stumbles (because he’s a klutz). His back end stumbles are generally due to stiffness, and lifting myself up and forward often helps him get righted.
We’ve tried some other experiments recently, too. There are places on the trail where the footing is really chewed up from people riding on it when it was wet, and it’s dried into all kinds of ridges. We have to go slowly and carefully over such footing, and Bars has never in all his days been good at either of those things. But a short halt before and following such terrain seems to help. Same with crossing creeks, which he tends to rush through—after telling me all about the Invisible Horse Eating Crocodiles, of course.
More recently I’ve been trying a short “massage” of his back legs after riding in hopes of easing the stiffness and loosen up the scarring from his injuries. It seems to be helping—either that or the last two days someone has been feeding him zippy pills.
I expect we’ll have to make additional modifications in the days to come. You bet I still ride him.
I may have mentioned before that having elderly loved ones in your life is a good way to learn to enjoy every day you have with them.Elderly pets are also included in this category.But, being a caregiver to an elderly loved one also comes with a certain amount of separation anxiety.
If you search for “separation anxiety” on the internet, you’ll find a host of sites giving you advice on how to deal with separation anxiety in your children or your dog.Anxiety over separation from your horse? Not so much. But, with summer travel season looming and a winter of near-constant vet calls behind us, I find myself experiencing a fair amount of anxiety at the thought of being away from Bars—and largely unreachable—for more than a couple of days.
While I’m looking forward to our upcoming trips, I am also viewing the plans with some trepidation.If something should happen while we are hours or days away and not reachable by cell, the burden of caring for him and making difficult decisions will fall on someone else.More, there is a very real possibility that the worst could happen and he won’t be there when I get back.
As a conscientious boarding client, it has long been my habit to make sure the barn manager knew if we were going to be out of town for a period of time and how to reach us in case of an emergency.Since Bars’ brother Tecate died, I confess I’ve gotten a little obsessive,and it’s grown in the recent months. For example, I am never without my phone.Not ever.Whereas before I left it in my purse overnight, I now sleep with it on the nightstand. I only turn it off in movie theaters.At living history events, where I once would have put it away in a box or drawer, I now have it in my pocket.If something should happen at any hour of the day or night, I am reachable wherever there is cell service.Also, after the events over the winter, I now check in with Bars’ Splendid Vet to make sure he’s on call when we are gone—and if he’s not, to make sure we know who’s covering his calls for him.
For our upcoming trips I’ve been coping by appointing guardians, assembling a nauseating array of emergency contact numbers, and a certain amount of jaw clenching.The rational part of my mind knows that he’s been perfectly healthy for five whole months now, that he’s returning to his more normal level of work, and there is absolutely no reason that his health will take a sharp turn for the worse the minute we leave the county.And yet….he’s 31.Every day is a gift, and I don’t want to miss a single one.
I’ve not yet gone so far as to propose curtailing our travel plans.Not only is that a little ridiculous even for me, such an idea would likely be met with some degree of marital disharmony.And yet…I’m anxious.That’s the only way to describe it.
Yesterday we had a birthday party. There was cake, drinks, party hats, and silly decorations—all for Bars.
Well, ok, the cake was for the people, but there were plenty of horse treats, too.
It may sound a little silly or juvenile to have a birthday party for a horse, but after the last few months we weren’t really sure he’d still be here to see his 31st birthday. Since mid-October he’s had to move to a new home; he’s suffered a choke, a colic, an infected nasal passage, a neck injury, and mild laminitis, which is an inflammation of the connective tissues in his feet. That’s quite a lot for any horse to go through, and for an elderly horse with Cushing’s disease any one of those could be life threatening. And yet, he’s still here, snorting at turkeys, running around with his friend Jasmine, still trying to convince me there are invisible Horse-Eating Crocodiles in the mud puddle. The farrier says his feet are improving. We’re starting to ride the trails again together.
The horse that taught me to sit a canter was past 40, and the stable owners held a “party” for him every year. They sliced up carrots as thin as could be in a food processor and loaded them into a cake pan for him. We all gathered round and spoiled him even more than usual, mostly because we were all amazed that, after all this time, he still had all four feet on the ground.
It was also a convenient excuse to keep in touch with people. We are so busy in our modern world it’s really easy to lose track of people who are important in your life. One shift in job, location, even a new car, child, or pet can alter the rhythm of your day to the point where people you once interacted with regularly become distant. And, as none of us are getting any younger, the next thing you know the opportunity may be lost forever.
So, for a few hours, we were able to gather some people who have all been involved in Bars’ life somehow and spend time together, because involvement in Bars’ life is also involvement for all of us. The weather was nice. We laughed a lot. We swapped lies. We fed all the horses in the barn special treats. That seems like a good enough reason to throw a birthday party for a horse.
It’s even a good enough excuse to wear a silly party hat for awhile….
The coming of spring is strongly associated with new life and fresh beginnings. Animals become more active, looking for mates and building nests. The ancient Greeks believed that spring began when Persephone returned to her mother Demeter from her exile in the underworld, Hindus look to Sita, another goddess associated with agriculture and fertility, and ancient Celts celebrated a spring festival of Ostara, which we now sometimes call Easter.
For me and for Bars, this spring is an especially fresh start. This is our first spring in the new barn, and for a few months there this is a spring I wasn’t sure would happen. Bars has survived perhaps the worst winter of his life; he’s had a choke, a colic, an infected nose, an injured neck, and been cooped up due to weather. California has had a winter of record rainfall, so everything now is green and fresh, and the creeks are flowing. This is all lovely to see, but the last two or three months have been so wet it was not possible for him to get much real exercise.
A few weeks ago I was able to start Bars back to work under saddle. Because of his age, his creaky joints, and a lack of exercise, we had to start very carefully—just 20 minutes at first, walking on level surfaces with decent footing. He stumbled a lot. But, gradually, we worked our way up to 25 minutes, then 30, and today we had our longest trail ride in months—a whole 40 minutes, with a little bit of trotting and cantering into the bargain! He was a little tentative, but he’s stumbling far less, handling more uneven footing like a champ, and even…perish the thought..crossing water without a fuss! Well, without much of a fuss. He’s still stumbling, but a little bit less every ride, and he’s really enjoying the sunshine, the fresh air, and yes….diving his head for grass any chance he gets. Typical horse…..
In a few weeks he will have his 31st birthday, which in some ways is a bigger deal than his 30th. Two months ago we weren’t sure we would make it to spring. But now, spring is here, health is returning, and things are looking brighter by the day. We truly have cause to celebrate.
To paraphrase one of my favorite authors, horses really are amazing creatures. They will always surprise you in a pinch, and Bars continues to surprise me, even after all our time together.
Bars has always preferred trail work over the arena. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that he truly hates arena work. I know this because whenever I tried to work with him on simple things like, say, flexibility, or collection, or carrying the bit properly, in the arena, he would tense up and resist. To this day, asking him to perform a simple maneuver such as a shoulder in/out–which means bending his head a bit to one side while continuing to move forward in a more or less straight line–in the arena is an exercise in frustration. Get him out on the trail, however, and it’s a completely different story. He turns on a dime, performs lovely half passes, collects himself beautifully….all the stuff you can’t get him to do in the arena to save your life.
Now, this does not mean that’s he’s always the steadiest trail horse. In our early days, it was a complete fight to get him 50 feet away from the barn without a buddy—and I mean a fight. Spinning, bucking, occasionally crowhopping—he did it all. So, we spent several years trail riding with a buddy. As time went on he grew more confident and comfortable in his environment…and then we moved to a new barn in a new area where he got to experience things like creek crossings, hills, and gates for the first time. O goodness. One creek in particular became known as “Crocodile Creek,” because of our joke that it had Invisible Horse Eating Crocodiles in it. But he got better about that, too, and for the last 15 years has been such a great trail horse that our barn manager and the local trainers advised new riders to ride with us. How times change….
Well, now we’re in a new environment again, and it’s been a really wet winter! There is water, water, everywhere and the creeks are full and rushing. Last week we attempted our first foray onto the trails since last November. Apparently he forgot that Invisible Horse Eating Crocodiles are really a figment of his active imagination, because every little spit of water is cause for alarm. “I can’t put my foot in there, mom! It’s scary!” Well, eventually he got brave enough to step over the teeny tiny rivulet…..and then was faced with the BIG creek. This is pretty fast flowing water and up-to-his-belly-deep. I thought we were just going to look at it and turn around for the day—but no! After putting up a huge fuss over a little tiny stream less than a foot wide, this guy just walks right on through the deep stuff. I didn’t even ask him, just right on through. And, on our last trip, he continues on down the trail, all on his own! Who is this horse? Has he finally, at this advanced age, decided that creek crossings are ok? Who knew?
Well, maybe not. The teeny tiny one still is infested with Miniature Invisible Horse Eating Crocodiles. They’re really there! Honest! Can’t you see ‘em?
Next he’ll be telling me about Rodents Of Unusual Size…..
In Bars’ younger days he was definitely a bit on the snorty side. The first time I ever rode him (bareback, with halter and lead rope) he crowhopped on me a little bit. Well, I figured, he’s been standing in a paddock for the best part of 18 months, so it will take a little effort to put some manners back on him. Uh huh. Yeah. I had no idea what I was doing.
I soon learned that Bars is snorty just because he’s that way. He likes to hop and skip, to run, to jig, and kick up his heels any way he can. He likes to blow air out of his nose and pretend he’s Pepe LePiu. In the early years he did this a lot because, as my trainers explained, he had learned that he could not trust his rider and he was fearful. But as time went on and the bond between us grew, I learned that he also does it for FUN—and sometimes just for joy.
Bars is generally a joyful personality. He loves people, loves attention, and especially loves girls. He doesn’t care if the girls are children, adult people, other horses….he loves girls. And he shows off for his girls by being bucky-snorty. He doesn’t buck to dislodge his rider. I’ve come to believe that he bucks because he’s happy—he likes to go fast and when he’s allowed to he’s nearly beside himself for joy. Luckily his idiot rider (me) has learned to expect these displays of excitement and just ride through them.
This level of excitement has not diminished a great deal over time. A couple of years ago there was a play day at our old barn. For those who may not know, a play day is a event where people can gather to do silly races and games with their horses. You can run or trot through a series of courses, including barrels, that demonstrate not just speed but control. For reasons perhaps left for another day, I chose to participate in this particular play day on my sidesaddle. Well, Bars was so excited over wearing his “special saddle” he was just beside himself. I had to dismount between events because he wouldn’t stand, and when we did our turns trotting (mostly) through the courses, he snorted, he blew, he picked up his front feet, and when asked to run for the finish line…yep, he bucked.
As he’s gotten older he’s become a bit less energetic with these displays and in the new stable he’s been snorty more often from anxiety than from joy…but the joy is returning. It’s great to see…because when your horse is an official Old Man and he still feels good enough and joyful enough to be snorty….you share the joy. Even if you are the idiot riding him.
Humans have often searched for immortality, and a long, fruitful life is thought to be a reward for godliness, good luck, or whatever social virtue is in vogue. Seldom, however, do people seem to consider the downside—outliving your friends and family.
Bars’ two best friends for the majority of his life were his brother, Tecate, and our friend’s horse, Sierra. Bars & Tecate were together for most of their lives and were pretty well inseparable. Tecate died two years ago at the relatively young age (for a Morgan) of 27. All who knew him agreed that Tecate was a special horse, the kind that would gently carry around a beginner on his first ride, and yet challenge a more experienced rider. He was my husband’s horse for the last 15 years of his life, and the four of us did a lot of fun things and covered a lot of miles together. We all three still feel his loss acutely.
Sierra belonged to a woman at our boarding stable who became one of our best friends, and she and Bars were also good pals. She was a part-Morgan little mare, and, like Tecate, took excellent care of her people. After Tecate died, she was there to fill part of the void he left in Bars’ life. We started turning them out together as well as riding together, and they grew ever closer. Sadly, Sierra died last year as well.
Being alone is no fun, but it’s especially terrifying for a horse. Horses are herd animals and they form strong emotional bonds with the others around them, much as we do. Horses that have to go it alone in the wild don’t often survive long. For Bars, having his two best friends gone from his life forever has made everything just a little bit more challenging, and especially this transition to the new boarding stable. Luckily, there was a familiar face there in the shape of another mare who once lived at our previous establishment, and she and Bars now are spending a lot of time together.
It’s hard to know for sure, of course, but part of me thinks that Bars has been pretty lonely since Sierra died, especially in the previous barn, which got pretty empty toward the end. Luckily, Bars is blessed with an outgoing and pretty charming personality, and both other horses and people tend to like him. Jasmine and Bars were never particularly close buddies when they lived in the same barn before, but now Jasmine “talks” to Bars whenever we come back from a walk or ride, and Bars objects most strenuously when Jasmine gets to go out and he is left behind.
I had hoped that his ability to make new friends would make things a little less lonely for him in the new barn, and so far he seems to be settling into this new ‘herd,” making new friends, and adjusting. So, maybe that’s really the secret to a long and fruitful, happy life—the ability to make new friends. Because it’s really no fun to be the last horse left in the barn.
If you’ve ever read the book 101 Dalmatians, you might remember the Splendid Veterinary Surgeon, who was summoned at all hours to care for the various dog characters in their times of need. “Splendid Vet” was a family friend as well as trusted caregiver, and his relationship with the Dearly family was a minor plot point in the story.
Bars and I have our own version of Splendid Vet in the form of his primary care veterinarian. From my previous posts, you’ll remember that Bars’ stressful adaptation to his new home included a “choke,” and the treatment from the “choke” led to an infected nasal passage and a bout with colic—the first time in over 22 years. For those readers who may not be familiar, colic in horses is an obstruction of some kind in the gut. Some colics are mild and some are fatal; all are life threatening and should be treated as emergencies. Needless to say, it’s been an interesting few weeks!
Through all of this, Bars’ Splendid Vet has been an absolute rock. For a few weeks there we were in touch almost daily via text and phone. He patiently looked at videos and pictures I sent him, reassured me when he thought things were progressing ok, and has, in my opinion, provided care above and beyond what some other practitioners might.
When I had to call him for the colic (at 5 pm on a cold Monday night) the symptoms were mild and some had improved by the time he arrived (after fighting his way through a winding country road in the dark.) I had some trepidations about possibly having called him out on a cold dark night for no reason…but he shook his head at me, indicating confidence in my ability to judge whether he needed to drop his evening at home and come. And I was correct. Luckily the colic was resolved, thanks in part to my quick assessment and to Splendid Vet’s timely arrival.
Excellent medical or veterinary care is not just about the skill of the practitioner. It is also about your own awareness of the situation and the relationship you have with the practitioner. This is especially important in geriatric care, whether the patient is a horse, dog, cat, or human. You and your veterinarian need to develop some trust in each other; you need to know that your veterinarian has the knowledge and skill necessary to meet your horse’s needs, and your veterinarian needs to know that you are an active partner in your horse’s care. In general, developing this partnership is fairly straightforward. As a client, you can make your veterinarian’s job much easier by learning to assess your horse’s health when he’s not sick, so that you know beyond doubt when he’s not “normal.” For years people have made fun of me because I will randomly take Bars’ temperature and get out the stethoscope and listen to his heart & gut. But because I’ve done this, and I’ve been able to do so over the course of 22+ years, I have a pretty good sixth sense of when things are not quite “normal.” I can also give my veterinarian reasonably accurate vital signs on the rare occasions that I do need to call, which is very helpful to him-I once had a vet say to me that I was one of her favorite clients, because she always knew what to expect when she came to see Bars. This was crucial on the night I had to call Splendid Vet away from his well earned evening at home.
Along with learning about your own horse, it can be helpful to educate yourself a little bit about horse care in general. Take the time to find out about how your horse’s digestive tract, for this example, works. Read some books or magazine articles. If your horse has a specific condition, like Bars has Cushings, do a little extra research. The more educated you are, the stronger your partnership will be.
When you find your own Splendid Vet, pay your bill promptly and without complaint. Rest assured that nobody goes to vet school to get rich. Nobody. Veterinarians operate with tremendous overhead and most often very narrow profit margins. When you write your vet a check keep in mind that you are paying for all that overhead, which includes equipment, taxes, special fees for owning/leasing medical equipment, office space, whether fixed or mobile, and at least four years of undergraduate education, three to four years of post-graduate education ,AND some kind of fellowship or residency after that. Many people feel that veterinary care is expensive, but so is your doctor—you just don’t see the total cost of your annual checkups, cancer screenings, and vaccinations because for humans they’re covered by insurance (hopefully.) By comparison, veterinary care is a bargain.
So, thanks to our Splendid Vet and the other members of our team, Bars is now eating, his gut is back in full form, and we’re ready to start riding the trails again. Now, if only the weather would cooperate a little bit…..