It was the first day that the notion of chronic lameness got personal. My Grandfather Horse was young but he’d severely damaged a tendon in his front leg. My vet explained to me that he would most likely need two years of stall rest. Two years. We recovered–not perfectly but good enough for another twelve years of happy riding before the injury recurred. This time it didn’t heal well, and during stall rest detention, arthritis overtook his back. Chronic. Retired.
Horse owners aren’t surprised. For all their thundering gallops and powerful beauty, it ends up that horses are quite frail. Lots of us have horses standing in our pastures to prove it. Chronic lameness is like a kind of purgatory; it doesn’t go away and it isn’t quite fatal.
Then about five years ago, I developed chronic lameness myself. In my case, it came on slowly. I got some orthotics, compartmentalized the pain, and my compassion for my herd members with chronic lameness evolved. You could call it a weird reverse anthropomorphism: I didn’t see them in my image–so much as myself in theirs. I tried to mimic their stoic calm but as my foot degenerated, just gritting my teeth got more difficult. Purgatory.
Then I got lucky; I gave in to the pain. I had surgery that repaired my foot: some cutting and sawing, five screws, a lever to replace a joint, and a fencing staple to hold my big toe together. Was it the podiatrist’s version of a barn repair using twine and duct tape perhaps? That was four months ago. My foot has less pain and I’m grateful. But I lost strength, my foot is still much larger than the other, and just like too many horse injuries, although it’s better than it was, it isn’t perfect. But this is real life, after all, and I’m aware that others have it much worse. So by comparison, I call it luck.
Around this time, a rescue horse arrived at my barn; a mid-life mare with kind eyes in need of help. The details of her situation weren’t unusual. She was neglected; the owner was not remotely repentant. He wound up with a tax write-off for donating her to rescue but more to the point, she was safe. I thought she was just laying over at my barn for a night, waiting for a ride. But over the course of the next week, there were two non-conflicting vet reports and negotiations between two rescues; people had opinions, misunderstandings, and the best intentions. In the end, we all got pushed toward the answer no one wanted. Somehow, in our crazy world, this passed as luck for this mare, too. Rescue isn’t for sissies, but that isn’t what this story is about. That isn’t the important part.
To say that all of my best teachers have been horses is a draft-horse-sized understatement.
I bedded her down in a pen with the good company of a kind donkey and a respectful mini horse. She was grateful, but even that was too much. The donkey was excused from the pen and she ate well and drank more water than she’d seen in months. The mare was still very reluctant to move, either in her pen or during the vet checks, but at the same time, no real limp. One of her shoulders had an old injury, severe enough to get retirement in a pasture, like we do. Then over time spent shifting her weight to the opposite side to help her damaged shoulder, the good leg failed. Her knee, opposite the bad shoulder, blew up large and somewhere in the process, her hocks were damaged as well. And that’s why she had no real limp. By definition, a limp requires one good leg and she didn’t have that. Watching her over the next days, I came to understand the strength of will she exerted just to stay on her feet.
But the weather was kind and I kept her hay close. Concerned for her pain, the vet prescribed Bute, twice a day. The mare resisted the syringe but I was patient. Over the next few days, it had no discernible effect on her pain. I curried her each day, trying to soften her tight neck muscles. She clearly wasn’t comfortable with the attention, so I went even slower and thought of her life out on the prairie. Horses run for joy, I think, but more important, it’s their defense and escape. There must have been coyotes stalking her. She had to know that she was almost helpless. Did she bluff her way past them, like some smart cats will, to face down a dog rather than start a chase?
When you work with rescue horses, it’s smart to have some discipline. So I cared for her but I kept a rein on my emotions. At one point I lamented to a woman with one of the rescues that she was about the kindest mare I’d met. “Never met one in this situation that wasn’t” was her response. So I fed and curried, and above all, respected her for a few days. Her body didn’t change but her eyes got softer.
On the last day, I offered reiki to her, and anything else I could think of. I tried to explain. She came close to eating an entire bale of sweet alfalfa. The vet arrived in the afternoon and the final decision was made. When the time came, I asked the extra people to leave and then fed my horses to distract them. We walked her out of their view, but not far enough to stress her needlessly. I kept my breathing long and deep as I held the lead for the vet, who was kind and compassionate in her task. The mare died as she lived; she held her ground fiercely, until she was free.
I’m not sharing this story because she was an exceptional mare–she wasn’t. This is just what ordinary horses do. But in the instant she passed, my complacent understanding of what chronic lameness meant to a horse deepened from my tiny human experience of it. Her legacy of stoic courage taught me a better name for this painful mess: Chronic Toughness.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.