A Better Name for Chronic Lameness

namaste, 036 (606x640)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.

48 thoughts on “A Better Name for Chronic Lameness

  1. Sharon

    A very touching tribute to one of those stoic mares. Thank you Anna for giving her care, and loving attention in the end. Not an easy thing for you, but by sharing it helps the rest of us understand a little more.

  2. Martha McCoy

    This week in my daily meditation I am focusing on loving kindness. Your story is multi-layered but infused with loving kindness. Every seemingly small gesture is important, perhaps more so at the end of life. It’s a gift we can give every day.

  3. AJ (Jan) Long

    Oh Anna, Thank you so much for sharing that piece. How beautiful and sensitive. Here is a poem I wrote in honor of the love of my life, who left this world four years ago….

    “When You Crossed the Rainbow Bridge”

    I remember it like yesterday
    When you crossed the Rainbow Bridge
    Like someone took a picture
    Then taped it to the Fridge.
    I found you lying in the dirt
    No struggle left inside
    Until you heard my voice
    Then you raised your head up high.
    I knew within an instant
    You had waited just for me
    Your rear leg was so swollen
    It was broke above the knee.
    I threw myself beside you
    And stroked your sweet, soft mane
    Then phoned the Vet to hurry
    We had to end your pain.
    The poison worked so quickly
    No time for you to linger
    I felt your spirit leaving
    As it pushed right through my finger.
    You showed me how it happened
    So I wouldn’t have to wonder
    Then like a dream you galloped off
    Hooves beating down like thunder.
    You’re with the Wild Horses
    Running free across the Bridge
    I hold on to that picture
    Like it’s taped up on the Fridge…..
    AJ Long 7-12-14

    They fill our hearts and then leave such big holes when they are gone. Again thank you for sharing.

    1. Maggie Frazier

      Beautiful poem-it truly says exactly what we all have felt. Anna, you gave the kind mare a big gift – love, care & the end to her pain. She certainly deserved all of that.

  4. Wonderful post! Horses can be so emotionally resilient, even in the most painful of situations. I envy your ability to keep your emotions in check when dealing with such heartbreaking cases. It takes willpower of steel for me to hold back the floodgates when it’s time to let a horse go, but your post reminds me that a daily practice of kindness and respect is the best we can offer in good times and bad. Thank you.

  5. Dang woman, you did it again. I remember the day I promised my mare that I would never let anyone hurt her again after we discovered the last “cowboy trainer” had tried to buck the bucking out of her. She had rain rot on her entire body with huge patches with no hair on her back. It has been a long, frustrating but wonderful road since then. Your potent article reminded me why I did what I did and how lucky I am that I found this special mare with the most incredible soft eyes when she was still young enough to get a second chance. And OK I cried once again when I read your article. Thank you…

    1. Oh Fred. I’m sorry, you’re just hooked on good mares who need a break. And then you end up thinking you got the best end of the deal. You’re right, of course. It’s a good day when I hear from you and your herd. Thanks.

  6. Susan

    Great post, Anna, and a tribute to all of us who can no longer limp. We put words on it: frail, fragile, reactive, stoic, resilient, robust… and now “tough”. I don’t know if there’s a right word, but it’s good to have the arsenal, because really what’s right is whatever works: whatever keeps us moving, caring, trying.

  7. Next year I will enter into my 20th year of chronic pain and disability, and that’s not counting the eight years or so prior that I pretended I didn’t hurt and fought to hold off the surgery that put the nail in the coffin. I’m not supposed to ride, but my horses are what keep me sane. Yet not one day has passed in 28 years that I haven’t at some point had a fleeting moment where the option you offered this mare doesn’t seem like a good choice for myself. And not because I’m depressed, but because I’m stuck with something I can’t escape and I’m just being honest. That’s what chronic pain does to you and I’d be lying if I said different. Quality of life is truly the lifeblood of all creatures. To know when enough is enough takes a trained eye and a well-tuned heart that is capable of doing what’s best for the animal, not what feels good to us. You nailed this.

    1. Thanks, Cheryl. I appreciate your comment so much. Chronic pain is such an overwhelming reality, and I only understand a tiny corner. She, and you, are humbling. Thank you.

  8. I just read a blogpal’s story of making the same decision for her horse; this is a tough day on the emotions. But then again, life itself is tough on the emotions….

  9. Susan Blount

    I too work with rescue horses, thank you for your sweet sad story. You have to greatly admire the courage and gentleness of rescued horses.

  10. sherryw2015

    Thank you for your kindness and thank you for your courage to realize there was nothing more you could do. I have a relative who fosters rescue dogs. She puts her heart and soul into helping them but it often seems that the powers that be in the organization refuse to realize that fact: sometimes there is nothing more you can do for an animal either physically or emotionally. She has one multi year foster who still cowers at the sight of a human being and spends her waking hours circling – the same size circle she made in the small pen where she spent most of her life. I do not think her quality of life is so much better now.

    1. It is so hard to know in a case like this dog, and I notice for me that it’s easier to judge in other people’s animals than my own… Fear is harder than lameness and those decision-makers, well, talk is cheap sometimes. Thank you for this comment. Rescue is complex.

  11. Gerrianne Nicholls

    Thank you for sharing a very difficult situation. Thank you for your courage to give her the dignity and love she deserved and the freedom from pain that I believe her release brought. Thank you for giving her the sweet time, touch and physical sustance to meet her earthly needs so she could leave content and loved as she must have sensed in that wild tough moment of parting. Thank you and your vet for your braveness to be present in her moment.

  12. Thérèse Cartier

    Very good article and to the point. When the essence of the animal is gone, it capacity to be what he is ment to be, pain and anxiety free, the choice is clear. In my opinion, they are the lucky ones. Us humans have to keep suffering till the end.

      1. Thérèse Cartier

        Things are always much simpler with animals and I say this in the most respectfull way, in concideration of what they are, what they FEEL in their own way. Thanks Anna for all you do for are friends, who ever they are! This is so enlightning, hope it will reach all the do gooder who can give up and only extend the useless suffering. Animals can be saved but not all!

  13. As usual, wonderful post. My father had chronic toughness and often remarked, “They shoot horses when they get like this!” He did suffer until the end. So wonderful that you were there for that mare.

  14. Nina Black Reid

    We should all love as generously ,
    as bravely,and as fiercely as you.
    You are an inspiration…
    Thank you…

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