Now let me back up a minute to say that horses have been a part of my life since I was a child. Sometimes I think that some humans are placed here on earth just to take care of the horses. Many of the horses I know seem to share that opinion. And I want to tell you that a horse is a big animal. In a way a horse feels too big to die. Especially when the horse is a friend who has shared so much of life with its family. AC is such a horse. He is a big horse and a good friend. He has carried various members of my family over jumps, along trails, to horse shows, always pulling it off with confidence and grace. He is that kind of horse. He has heart.
It is sort of a funny story how he came into our life. We were looking for a junior hunter for my daughter Claire. We didn’t have as much money to spend as many people in the horse show world but we wanted a horse that Claire could compete with in regional horse shows, a very special horse, as junior hunters and junior equitation classes are some of the most competitive classes. When Claire and I arrived at Gulfport, a big show held during the winter season, our trainer, Misty, pulled me away to tell me that she had found a horse she thought we should look at.
I love horse shows. I love the pageantry and tradition and that edge of competitiveness. And I love to watch all those beautiful animals and well-turned-out riders heading this way and that. So I remember that day, and it was a beautiful soft Mississippi spring day. After we got our horse, Ocho, settled into the barn, Misty and I went over to the barn stabling this horse candidate. Now you need to know here that I had many ideas about what this horse would be like. I had a vision of an exquisite, long-necked, elegant horse with a sleek shiny coat covered with dapples.
Misty led me to the stall and I looked inside. My heart sank. This horse was not beautiful in that way. He was big and strong. He was clearly well cared for, but his coat was thick and he didn’t have a bit of white on him anywhere. What would my friends (other mothers looking for junior hunters for their daughters) think? What could Misty be thinking? I opened the stall door and stepped inside. The horse turned his head to look at me. He looked directly into my eyes with curiosity and interest. I felt a shock of recognition as if we had known each other forever.
Well, one thing led to another. Claire rode him and it was love at first sight. There were ups and downs. For example, I never thought we would be able to afford him. We left the show thinking we would not be able to buy him. Claire cried all the way home. But somehow the path opened up and three months later AC was vetted and was on his way to Little Rock.
And we had a wonderful time. Claire rode through her remaining junior years in hunter and equitation. Then she went off to college. I rode him for a while in hunters. My sister had him for a while and showed him in hunters. And he was always good. AC was a professional. As the years went by it was mostly AC and me. He grew older. I grew older. Our jumps grew smaller. We still had fun. We took pride in our successes although they were on a different level. AC still looked forward to the sound of the horse trailer.
So that is how it was the day I got the phone call. He was 21 that day. The barn manager was calling to tell me that AC had somehow been hurt in the pasture the night before. The vet had already been called. Well, honestly, horses get hurt all of the time so I wasn’t that worried. “Ok. Let me know what the vet says.” But as I drove I realized I felt like I needed to go check on him before going to work; just some little voice inside. I turned around and drove to the barn.
I parked and went directly into his stall. He was standing in the corner on three legs. One leg bore no weight and was shaking all over. He looked up at me and our eyes met just like that first day, but this time his were filled with confusion and pain. And I swear I could hear him asking me for help. And he is a proud horse. “Oh, AC,” I said, “Whatever has happened?” The shoulder of the affected leg was swollen. No bites and no marks. Just swollen. The barn manager told me that the vet had drawn a blood sample, but had little to say. My anxiety climbed.
I called another vet and settled in for a long wait. AC stood immobile. He wouldn’t put any weight on that leg. He couldn’t move forward. He couldn’t lie down. I carried water to him. He drank a little and turned his head away. He only wanted the pain to stop. I carried food to him. He didn’t want to eat. I did find that he would eat grass, so I found some scissors in the barn and cut grass to carry to him. I dampened it a bit to get some fluids into him. I knew he needed to keep eating. And it was something I could do.
When the vet came, he examined AC’s legs and x-rayed his shoulder. As far as he could tell nothing was broken. He gave him some medicine for pain and started an IV to administer DSMO, a solvent that vets frequently use as an anti-inflammatory. I wasn’t sure of its effectiveness. I wasn’t really comfortable giving IV medications in a barn. Plus the IV kept clotting off. Honestly I wasn’t feeling great with the treatment plan.
A horse is a big animal but lots can go wrong. His leg remained swollen and unable to bear weight. He became septic from the IV and his temperature soared. His head hung low now. I sprayed him with water to try and bring his temperature down. My daughter Claire and our friend Kirstin were with me by now. Bryan, who owned the barn, was in and out. We cut grass with the scissors and watered it down. The vet came and went and the number of medications he was on grew. We continued the IV DSMO. AC was receiving milk of magnesia, three different antibiotics. He was so patient. He stood quietly as we medicated him and sprayed him off. His eyes followed us as went in and out of his stall. He knew that we were trying to help him. And he knew that there was something terribly wrong. Slowly his temperature stabilized. We breathed a sigh of relief and kept cutting that grass.
So I thought things were looking up a bit. He still couldn’t walk and his shoulder was swollen but it wasn’t any worse. His temperature was down. Then I noticed a growing restlessness in him. His other front foot was bothering him and he couldn’t pick it up. This was one of our worst nightmares. As I’ve said, horses are big animals. When they can’t take their weight off one of their feet the weight puts pressure on the tissues and vessels in that hoof. And a horse’s hoof is a complicated and fragile thing. If it gets bad enough they can develop laminitis, also known as founder, the fear of every horse person in the world. I called the vet. I called the farrier. My heart was sinking. My heart hurt. “Please come. Hurry. We are running out of time.”
The vet came on July 4th, his wife and child in tow. Little Rock has no vet hospital, which would have had a sling in a stall that could be used to take weight off his feet. The vet packed his feet with an anti-concussive material that could absorb some of the pressure. AC seemed to get some relief. The next day the farrier came and put on shoes that were especially designed to redistribute the pressure on all of his feet. Let me tell you it is no easy task to pick up the foot of an already three legged horse long enough to get a shoe on and off. We worked for hours on that hot day. Afterwards the farrier was my new best friend. The new shoes seemed to help even more. AC went back to eating our handfuls of grass. We breathed again a collective sigh of relief. The crisis was over.
But it wasn’t over for long. Somebody was always with AC as we nursed and medicated him. And it was hot really hot, even at night. The next morning he developed diarrhea. I didn’t know how bad that was until I called the vet. He had developed colitis from one of his antibiotics. Any fluid and nutrition we were getting in was literally running right out. Honestly, I despaired. The vet came back. We had been doing around the clock nursing for four days. Now we were giving medications every thirty minutes. That night I just couldn’t watch him deteriorate anymore and I went home. Claire stayed at the farm with Bryan keeping up with his medications, Claire called me throughout the night to let me know he was still alive. And AC kept trying to live. He took the medicines every thirty minutes, every two hours. But he was getting tired too.
I woke up at dawn, aware that whatever the risks, we needed to get him to the horse hospital two hours away. It was too hot to trailer a horse. He was too sick to be trailered. I didn’t know how we would get him on the trailer. I felt a resolve growing in me. No matter what, we would try. I called Misty. She loved AC as much as we did. She had been in and out through the whole ordeal. Of course she said she would take us. We made our plans. We had a very narrow window during the relative coolness of the morning when he might be able to survive the trip. I drove to the barn. Misty would meet me there. We didn’t know if he could walk on. I didn’t know if he would live until we got to the horse hospital. When I saw him I was shocked again at how much weight he had lost in four days. “Hello, old friend,” I said, holding out a handful of grass. He ate slowly and we looked at each other while we waited for Misty. And he walked right onto that trailer. Thin, lame, dehydrated, with us physically supporting him, he walked right on. Trusting us as he always had.
The clinic knew we were coming. It was a beautiful morning as we drove into the countryside. The smell of grass and growing, living things was very strong. I slumped down in my seat. I was depleted and worn out. I was just hoping now. Misty wanted to stop halfway to check on him. “Why, Misty?” I asked. “He is either dead or alive. There is nothing we can do either way.” But she stopped and she checked. He was still alive. I just thought: Drive, Misty. Please drive fast – a horse is too big to die.
We did get AC to the horse hospital. Through it all he clung to life. His heart was just so big and his will so great. He tottered off the trailer. They were waiting for us and hooked him right up to the IVs and probiotics. We visited him as many days as we could, cutting grass every time. But very soon he was eating hay and grain again as well.
His front leg nerve palsy resolved. He went to horse shows, took us on trails. And he did it all with dignity and grace. At 27 he retired to eat grass with his pasture mates. When the farrier comes with his apprentices, he tells them the story of how all of us together saved AC’s life.
For me the critical moment of the whole ordeal was that early morning when I decided to keep fighting for AC’s life as long as he was fighting so hard. If I had ever seen capitulation it might have been different. I never did. Part of me was already resigned to the inevitability of his death. Then I remembered meeting his confused, sad eyes, asking for help as he stood on his three somewhat good legs. And I thought of his giant heart and how he kept trying to live. I knew I had to keep trying as long as he did.
I have been a child psychiatrist for 25 years. It has been intense and sometimes painful work. I work with children suffering with combinations of biological illness and stress of all kinds. Sometimes I don’t know how they make it from day to day. Sometimes I see the same sad, confused look in their eyes, asking for help without knowing the right words to use. I feel them struggling to survive and even blossom in their bleak environments. I feel it strongly. Sometimes I feel it is too much. The obstacles are too great. Their need is too great. But when I see their eyes I know that just like AC, I will keep fighting for them as long as their hearts hold out.