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December 7, 2018

Encore Moves On

A lot can change in a year.

Longtime readers know that Encore's sport career was declared officially over in March of 2016, with the diagnosis of a cruciate ligament tear.  It's an irreparable injury in horses, as they are simply too big & the stifle is the most complex joint in their body.  No more jumping, no circles, no lateral work.

He was 11.  I was heartbroken.

What to do with my big, sexy TB who still had a lot to give in the prime of his life? 
Encore: making my farm more beautiful
I spent more than a year agonizing over it.

He was good for Solo:  despite the bite marks Encore constantly accumulated, the two boys honestly loved each other & played astonishingly athletic games of "No, I'M The Wildest Mustang Stallion.

I could still ride him some, he was ok on straight lines if I kept some muscle on him & he remained a fantastic trail horse.

But as time went on, I felt more & more that things weren't really fair to either of us.  The nature of my job means that I'm often home late, but the one thing Encore couldn't do was ride in circles in the field in the dark.  And it became clear to me that at this point in my life, I'm not content with just moseying down the trail on a Saturday as my only equine activity.  I don't have to compete (which is good, because my sport has priced me out, but that's another topic), but I do need a project.

Formulating the next Terrible Idea
I looked at this goofy, overgrown labrador of a horse who was bursting with vitality, a horse who likes a job & who, if you don't give him something to do, will invent something that involves much poorer judgement.  And who, frankly, I trained the snot out of for five years & has a considerable skillset.

I realized that for us, nothing was going to change unless I changed it.  And I finally came to terms with re-homing him as the awesome trail horse that he is.  I can't afford to have three, nor can I be a bottomless retirement home for everything.  Not when he could do a lot more in a different situation.   

The trick lay in finding the right place for him.  A well-trained, good-minded horse who has gone Training Level eventing presents a lot of temptation for people to try to pull off a "magical" recovery & compete him again; that would not be acceptable. 
I'd be tempted...  Photo by High Time Photography
 And a 16.2 h puppy who sometimes forgot how big his body was isn't for everyone.  I wasn't going to ask a lot of money for him, as he was clearly limited, I would never get back what I put in, & my priority was for him to be safe & happy.  And of course, to honour the terms of the contract I signed with CANTER when I bought him.

So I didn't list him online, just shared his information word-of-mouth.  Long story short, we both got incredibly lucky.

Encore:  I'll climb ALL those mtns!
Trainer Neighbour just so happened to have a new client who was looking for a trail horse for his husband.  I told him to come over & meet us, where I cautioned him that, while Encore IS a great trail horse who learns a trail in one visit, spooks in place (if at all), will bushwhack through anything, wait while you flail around with a plastic poncho in an ice storm, neck reins or rides off your seat, & doesn't give a flying flip who rides him or what kind of saddle is on him...if they were looking for a 20-yr-old QH ride, they should look elsewhere, because he is still a 12-yr-old TB with a big stride & a motor.

Client loved Encore at first sight & they already owned another TB.  So we scheduled a 2nd meeting for the husband to come out & ride him on the trails.  Husband (who I was shocked to see had even longer legs than me) liked him & Encore liked that husband was a very casual rider.

Still miss this
Encore now lives 3 miles from me, on a beautiful farm with a restored southern plantation house.  That has a name.  And flooring that probably costs more than my salary.  The barn is behind the tennis court.  No lie.  His friends include a darling 13 h jenny donkey & a positively enormous Belgian, both rescues.  They even use the same farrier as I do.  I suspect he looks back & wonders why he was "slumming" it with me! 

Still, I'd be lying if I said I didn't sob after the trailer pulled away.  I felt, however irrationally, that I'd let him down, that I'd betrayed him somehow.

Emotion is never rational, I suppose.

It was even harder to watch Solo look for his best friend.  I made sure that he saw Encore get on the trailer & go down the driveway.  I didn't want him to spend the next month convinced that his buddy was next door.

Encore & Solo's first meeting in 2011
Trainer Neighbour generously loaned me a retired gelding to keep Solo company.  Solo accepted the Temporary Friend as enough to not run the fence in dismay, but tolerance was all he was willing to give.  I could tell he missed his buddy.

We both did.

A bit of Solo's light dimmed in the following days.  He ate his food & remained calm.  But he kept a vigil for his big little brother, systematically watching & listening at each fenceline for a hint of Encore's ridiculously girlish nicker.  Every day he didn't find it, he seemed to grow a little sadder.

Every day, I missed seeing that heart-shaped star under surfer bangs, hanging over the shed wall.  Honestly, I still get a little sniffly thinking about it.  I was grateful to have Solo to hug.  He didn't protest it as much as usual. 

Encore made me a better rider & a better horsewoman.  He challenged me to be softer, to respond more quickly, to be lighter, be stronger.  He dared me to aim higher, be bolder, go faster, go slower, be more creative.  He brought the caliber of my skillset up several notches while still being so honest & forgiving every time I screwed up.  He made me laugh & he always brought me home safely.  He was a gift from my mother who bestowed gifts of his own.  I am so grateful to, and for, both.   

We dared. Photo by High Time Photography.
I visit him on occasion & I know he is happy & has great care.  I know how fortunate I am that he is so close, in a place where they can afford to indulge him on the management details that keep him comfortable (special hind shoes, Adequan/Legend, summer fans so nature dare not touch his anointed hide).  I think of him as a Team Flying Solo alumnus - still very much a part of us, but graduated to a new chapter in life.   

As for Solo, like many intelligent, intuitive animals, his loss took some time to heal.  His Temporary Friend was a little bit of an asshole when it came to hay, but Solo did finally break down & play with him on a sunny winter day.  That made us both smile.

Temporary Friend, though, was exactly that:  temporary.  Because another big change was yet to come.

That story comes next...

November 25, 2018

Something Good Happened

It's been so long since I've said those words out loud, I have to say them again.

Something good happened.  And it looked like this:


I'm way behind, but I want to share it because not only is my best friend doing well over a year after the 7-week ICU stay of 2017, I can once again look at the world framed by the shiniest orange ears.

Side note:  I have never seen Solo physically smile in a photo... until now.  He was so thrilled & now I smile every time I look at that picture.

I was certain I would never sit on Solo again after a low bow in his RF leg we discovered in 2015 & another higher up in 2016.  I told everyone he was retired from riding & while I was very sad, Solo was still fully employed as my all-around therapy horse & Delight To Be Viewed every day on the farm.

22 going on 12
But this spring, he was looking great.  He was trotting & cantering up for meals, with some of his old suspension back in his step (vet said he'd likely lose that permanently after injury).  There was energy in his muscles & a bold spark in his eye.


So I thought, heck, I'm not going to hurt him just walking around bareback for 10 minutes - let's see how he feels.

He felt good.  Even, with no tripping (which had been a tell when the RF was bothering him).

The best view
So I put his saddle on.  I tried some bending, suppling, I tried some trot.

Um, he felt really good.  Although he was very clear that in case I forgot, he still finds dressage beneath him & he only humours me because he can.

I felt...ok, I felt ecstatic.  And terrified.  Because it HAS been so long since A Good Thing, that the possibility of one induces panic that it will somehow go horribly wrong.

But it hasn't.  And not only does it feel so good to sit on my favourite saddle on my favourite back, but Solo is a happier horse too.  I think we all need to feel needed in some way, to feel like we are part of something; my partner is no different.  He has never been thrilled with full retirement, he's a horse who wants to DO things with you (so long as they aren't dressage).

I'm not trying to "bring him back" to anything.  And I still won't jump him on that leg.  But we can enjoy trails, do light trot work, even, when he's feeling up to it, sneak in a brief canter on good ground.  It helps keep those joints moving & more importantly, it makes both of our hearts happy.

If you know Solo, you know that he is a deeply intuitive, emotionally-driven, intelligent, complex, & truly unique individual, like no horse I've ever met (even without my clear bias).  So I don't think I'm anthropomorphizing too much by saying that our daily exchange goes something like this:

Me:  Thank you so much, buddy, for staying with me.  And now we can ride together again.

Solo gently puts his forehead against my ribs & rests it there, it's his version of a hug: Thank you, mom, for sharing your time with me. 

Me:  I still need you for many more years, so stay healthy & strong for me, ok?

Solo:  I am here & will give all that I have...

Solo:  Now pour my food. 

Shine on, my heart

August 12, 2017

Hope And Home

Before proceeding, I cannot say thank you enough for all of your kind words & support - I have read & re-read them, each one a mini-life buoy amid some seriously rough seas.  I even read your well-wishes to Solo, I think he definitely appreciated them (at least he appreciated that I cannot read to him & squirt nasty medications in his mouth at the same time).

Normal is an unbelievable treasure
Posting delays inevitably result as I struggle to fit work, which forced me to travel last week, & 8-hr intervals of equine nursing duties into days with insufficient hours.  But I can tell you that Solo is home.  Beautifully, wonderfully, shiny-ly (it's a word now) home.

He's gone back for his first hospital follow-up, during which we got to get rid of the catheters that had been keeping the abscess drain tracts open.  The endoscope revealed much healing & no additional signs of new infection, which was a first...& a very welcome one.

We've just finished (I hope) the course of antibiotics.  I am flushing those tracts daily & he has to stay on a special gastric medication until his albumin levels return to normal, as he developed some colitis in the hospital due to the combined stress & intensive pain management medications.

Home.  Free.
But Solo is feeling good.  He looks fantastic.  Grazing with Encore, napping in the shade, rolling heartily after a tasty meal - all without my having to tape his head together anymore (perhaps I will be able to show you all the phases in a future missive).  He gets to be a horse.  And while I am physically, mentally, & emotionally exhausted, while we still have hurdles to clear & work to do, this is a very very very good thing.

Because when I look out my window, I see what I feared lost, so many times, on so many trips to Raleigh, in so many hours with that cold vise of fear around my chest.  I see all the best parts of me embodied in a chestnut larger than his own life:

A Haiku For Hope  

Softly shines again
That heart who defines for me
Every part of Home.

July 23, 2017

Not The Solo Update I Wanted To Post

Solo has been fighting for his life over the past five weeks at the NC State University Large Animal Hospital.

After all this time since the last post (if there is anyone still out there reading, bless you), I wanted to tell you about how he recovered from his tendon bows & went back to frolicking with joy with his big-little "brother" in the fields.  Because he did.

Feeling good yesterday in the "horse-pital" paddock
But in mid-June, following a horrific series of emergency vet calls & midnight vigils, I had to take him in to hospital in Raleigh for an emergency admission.  When it began on a Thursday evening, we thought it was an allergic reaction, but the next Tuesday, we discovered he has an extremely rare infection of one salivary gland.

As in, this is only the 2nd case they have seen on the Soft Tissue service in 15 years.

We will never know the exact cause, it can be anything that irritates the opening of the gland under the tongue, a grass seed, a piece of food, a...?  Like any injury in the mouth, once there is an opening, all the bacteria which normally live in your gut & the soil & the world, get into spaces they are not supposed to be.  The result was large, infected abscesses that are still draining through two surgical incisions under his jaw.

To say it has been a difficult road would be a gross understatement.  Two weeks ago, we were having the conversation about euthanasia, twice.  Solo, however, has remained true to his nature:  his heart defies the limitations suggested by his body.  I drove to Raleigh twice expecting to have to say goodbye to my best friend, but Solo shocked us all & said no, he was far from done.

I do have photos of the progression of the drain tracts, infection, & incredible healing, but they are extremely graphic, so I will not post them directly without a warning (I could link them, but the site I used to use for that no longer offers that service).  I drove home many times after helping with treatments, covered in blood, pus, necrotic tissue, & steeped in reeking anaerobic bacteria. 

Packed main drainage incision last weekend, looking really good
Today, I watched my horse hang out in a paddock, graze on clover, talk to his horsey neighbours, & enjoy a good roll.  It was a gift beyond measure that brought the good kind of tears to my eyes as I smelled his warm fur in a hug.  Even more so because there have been far too many of the other kind of tears in the past month.

He is very close to being able to come home:  as soon as the drainage tract no longer requires packing, I can take over his care.  He is feeling like himself again, fat, sassy, no pain meds for the past week, & eating & pooping & drinking well.

The most difficult part is the currently impossible financial situation, made even more complex because this entire thing has been once of uncertainly & creeping increments.  With no case history in the scientific literature, we had no way of predicting how things would go.  With stutters & complications, there have not been any big "opportunities" to have any kind of budget plan (if that is even possible with horse anything).  And now, we are beyond invested, better beyond expectation, & cannot risk attempts at short cuts. 

I haven't figured that part out yet.  I am enormously grateful to kind contributions made by our wonderful friend, Erica, & my mom.  Huge thanks to my neighbour, who has been sheltering Encore during all of this.  Whenever I get half a chance to breathe between this & the busiest time of year at work, I will have to look into options, as I've already put my own medical care & everything else short of electricity & fuel on hold.

I get the best people
There aren't words to encompass my gratitude towards the incredible team who worked alongside us with compassion, insight, phenomenal communication, respect, & sheer brilliance:
  • Drs. Timo Prange & Callie Fogle
  • Drs. Alex Fowler, Laura Marley, Kelly Shaw & Arlie Manship
  • Solo's Interns - George, Megan, & Emily (& now Leland) 
As well as all the techs & hospital staff going out of their way to give Solo baths, scratches, treats, hold his food when it hurt too much to eat off the ground, take him for walks, & so much more...

This is not something that I would do for any horse, nor has it been embarked upon lightly.  But I have never in my many years among horses &  people, experienced a relationship like this one.  Solo is 21, but looks half that; he remains strong, healthy, & even his student interns have noted his determination & enthusiasm for living.

If Solo had told me he was done fighting, I would have let him go, that was a promise I made to him long ago.  And a responsibility of care that I have carried out for other beloved friends when it was time.  But he didn't.  And he has always been there for me, even through the darkest time of my life that defied expression.  He quite literally saved my life.

So as long as there is breath in me, I will be there for him.  And I will do everything I can to return the favour.  

September 14, 2016

Solo Struggles: The Tendons That Bow

Yes, you read that correctly.   No, the plural is not just a literary reference.

I haven't been able to write about it because in all honesty,  I haven't been able to think about it.  But as Solo & I try to take care of each other, he reminds me that we don't have to be alone.  So I wanted to try & share for the many of you who have been part of our journey.

On August 5th (it still feels like yesterday), I walked out to replenish fly spray layers during my lunch break.  It was a horrifically muggy Friday that was about to worsen by orders of magnitude.  My eyes snapped to Solo's forelegs as  he was standing slightly out in front, unusual for him.  And a pit opened in my stomach when I saw his right front pastern was swollen & there, in mid-cannon, was the smallest bulge of a textbook bow.
This one's sore, mom... (post-first-aid, obviously)
Knowing he was fine at breakfast, it had to be fresh, but it was also the same leg he previously had a low bow on a year ago.  I scrambled ice, hose, standing wraps still scattered from Hell Storm 2016 & got vet on phone.

Day 2, post-hose tendon bow
Long story & 3 emergency calls later, Dr. Bob confirmed my observations when he came out for fall shots 4 days later.  Three months confinement to small pen, six weeks with wraps.  Not the suspensory, which was good, but another insult to the compromised deep digital flexor tendon (DDFT) in that leg.

Except a week later, the amazing Erica was visiting to help with care & repairs, when we discovered during a wrap change that the left front had succumbed to a matching support bow.  I am so grateful that she was here for support, as that crushing discovery alone would have been that much worse.

Turbulent Tending

The first few weeks have been full of stressful worry for my shining buddy.  He developed running diarrhea from the anxiety of not being able to follow Encore down the fenceline.  Trying to keep heat & moisture out of tendons during the hottest month in the literal modern record of the planet, with humidity you could drink, was exhausting in itself.

I can report that Solo has begun to stabilize.  We have returned to normal poo (always a cause for equine celebration).  It is 30 degrees cooler outside & swelling has been absent under wraps.  There is hardly any heat at all when the wraps are changed.  No limping, which is critical in such big animals.  And we're down to 1 gram of bute a day just to keep any swelling from temptation.

Prison breaks both our hearts, as I watch the horse who discovered pure joy in a galloping leap, gaze over his fence with longing you can touch.  But he has achieved two jailbreaks, one this week, & after ascertaining no harm done, I took solace from the renewing spark in his eye.  He will never return to a riding career, but all I need to know is that he is comfortable & happy.

Solo gave me an entire world, a sphere of irreplaceable gifts in moments & adventure.  I still need him here to light the path ahead though.

Because he literally walks on water... Photo by Brant Gamma