Life With A Hatchet

The dark, brown mare held her right, rear hoof cocked at an angle, resting only her toe on the ground.  Lady is in her twenties, a Morgan and, as is common with her breed, a “cushings” horse, which, with the resulting lowered immune system, makes her vulnerable to abscesses.  She lives at a barn down the street from Stoney and Cowgirl.  Karen, the barn manager had called asking for my assistance with Lady.  As Lady stood with her hoof submerged in warm water with epsom salts, eating grain with bute, she all but purred as I vigorously scratched the thickly matted hair on her back, wads of dark fluff peeling off in my hands.  Along with not having been brushed in an eternity, her withers were peaked and her back hollow from atrophied muscle.  Her owner rarely bothers to take her out.

It’s not precisely correct to say that Lady lives down the street from Stoney and Cowgirl because right now, Cowgirl is in Salinas.  On Saturday the first, we’d come back from a days work, untacked CG and  she immediately lay down.  That was the first clue.  The next morning, the 2nd, I got a call from Lauren, the Sunday morning feeder; “Cowgirl’s not eating.”   Two doses of banamine (pain killer), several syringes of mineral oil and twenty-four hours later, Cowgirl was still feeling poorly.  Her pulse and temperature were normal and some gut sound present, but she was not a happy horse and not eating and not pooping.  The vet came out Tuesday morning (the 4th) and “tubed” her, running a tube through the nose that dumps a couple cups of mineral oil, plus warm water, into the stomach.  She said that if we didn’t see any sign of the mineral oil coming through (being pooped out) within twelve hours, we were going to have to take her to Steinbeck Equine (horse hospital) in Salinas.

I had called Katherine, a spiritual healer, and asked for her help.  The session was scheduled for 7, but she called in the middle of the day and said she was getting the feeling the situation was urgent and she would do her “work” earlier, around 5:30.  As fate would have it, quiet Maya and psychic Sammy, my two most sensitive students, were with me in the paddock at 5:30 that evening.  The healing session consists of standing quietly with hands on the pony for about 15 or 20 minutes.  I explained what we would be doing and why I felt it helped and that they could join me or not as they liked.  Neither of them hesitated nor budged from Cowgirl’s side for the entire 20 minutes.

I had alerted all the parents that we were facing a critical situation with Cowgirl.  I felt the children deserved a little bit of advance warning should we lose the pony.  Shana came by around 7 to give Cowgirl a big hug and wrote this poem:



I’ll always remember my special times with you!

Riding and jumping

Cantering and trotting

It’s always fun!

I learned so much about staying on a horse.

You increased my confidence for riding.

You mean so much to me – yes, you have a beautiful personality.

You always seemed to smile when I brushed you.

I love you so, so much!

Shana Elena de Urioste


By 8pm that night, there was no oil coming out.  At 10pm, Kristin, the vet, came out, inserted a catheter and started IV fluids, as Cowgirl was much dehydrated.  Cowgirl shook the catheter out of her neck around 2am, at which point we all went home to get some much needed sleep.  Maya and mom Julie beat me to the paddock in the morning.  Sometime in the middle of the night, long after it was the latest time for us to see results, Cowgirls started to poop.  She pooped and she pooped and she pooped and there was oil.  We know this for sure because Maya, upon picking up her hoof to clean it, said, “Eeyew!  My hand’s all oily!”

The longer a blockage persists, the higher a chance you will need surgery and the higher a chance it will rapidly and unexpectedly become a critical situation (with ruptured bowel) that will kill the pony.  To say that we were all enormously relieved is an understatement.

But the relief was brief.  On Thursday she stopped eating again.  On Friday, she started lying down again.  Early Saturday morning, the 8th, I called the vet.  She said, “this is an atypical colic presentation and we need to take some tests to try and find out what’s going on.”  I called karen and arranged to borrow her rig.  Maya and mom Julie met me at the bottom of the hill with Cowgirl.  Julie helped load Cowgirl into the trailer.  She didn’t want to get out.  She said, “Don’t you think someone should just ride in here with her the whole way?”  She was joking, but her concern was very real.

Maya and Julie accompanied me to Steinbeck Equine in Salinas where Maya watched the ultrasound and got to see the results of the X-ray (both negative) and Julie, a licensed DVM, got to talk tech with the other vets.  Before we left, we got the news that CG had a condition called hyperlipidemia, common in cats and specific to ponies, not horses.  Her body had started dumping fats into the blood stream, which shuts off the appetite. If the process could be stopped, she’d probably be OK.  With the total bill for her care nearing $3000, the thought that the solution could be as simple as a dextrose IV was the second big rise up on the colic roller coaster.

The dextrose stopped the hyperlipidemia, but she was still ill the next morning.  A belly tap showed nothing unusual as did a more specific ultra sound.   Gastroguard was administered lest she be suffering from ulcers.  They started talking surgery. (Roller coaster plunged.)

I came to visit at 7pm that evening.  She was fine.  She was perky, lively and eating. (Up goes the roller coaster.)  It turned out to be a drug induced state.  The next morning she was down and rolling.  I visited at 4 that afternoon.  Active and up, but not eating; not at all.  If nothing improved by the morning, she’d be in surgery that afternoon. (Down goes the roller coaster.)

Julie and Maya wanted to come down for the surgery as did Haley (soon to be sixteen, responsible for having selected Cowgirl to join the KLH herd).  We braced for the worst.  When we arrived at Steinbeck at 2, the surgery had been called off.  Cowgirl was eating.  She was eating and eating and eating.  (Roller coaster goes way, way up and up and up.) We stood around, stunned, for quite some time.  Cowgirl is loved by many, but Maya and Haley are her favorites; Maya because she spends so much time bestowing care and comfort on Cowgirl and Haley because almost all animals love Haley and that’s just the way it is.  After about half an hour of mumbled musings, Julie got the idea to ask the intern if the girls could look at some X-rays (radiographs?).  The suggestion was happily accommodated, the lead rope handed over to me and off they all trotted to the exam room, but closely followed by Cowgirl who, on noticing that her girls were abandoning her, decided to keep them in sight.  (Due to extended care for a previous eye surgery as well as numerous applications of ointments, fly spray, wormers and medications of all sorts and sizes, Cowgirl doesn’t exactly associate me with comfort.)  She would have followed them all into the Xray room had they let her.

Wednesday we made plans to bring her home on Friday.  Thursday morning she was fine.  At 2pm, a call came in on my cell phone that I was not able to answer, the message was, “This is Dr. Tenney at Steinbeck.  I’d like to talk with you about Cowgirl.”  I called back immediately.  Dr. Tenney was with a client. “If it’s urgent, please have him call me again.”  Dr. Tenney did call back; at 9:30pm.  That afternoon (the first call) she has started to decline, again. (Coaster does vertical drop.)  “I don’t think it’s a good idea to send you home with a sick horse.”

In surgery the next morning they found she has nothing other than inflamed bowels (colitis) and a fairly mild case at that.  Colitis was never mentioned as a possibility prior to surgery.  Could they have deduced and treated the condition without surgery?  Possibly, but not probably.  With surgery we are left with a bill that now approaches $15K , a month of intensive nursing and another two or three months without a working pony.  This is the second big medical financial blow for KidsLoveHorses.  One more blow and we are out of business.  Only one percent of horses ever need colic surgery and few need any medical intervention of similar intensity.  There is every chance that we will be able to continue in the manner that we have until my planned retirement in June of 2028.  But I am now working with a hatchet hanging over us.

Because the parents pay for lessons, most of them refer to what I do as a business.  But it will never make a profit and was never intended to. Profit in the horse “industry” comes at the expense of the lives and well being of the horses.  Cara, Shana’s mom, calls it my hobby.  Sometimes I refer to it as a calling or a mission.  But it’s not that either, nor is it a charity.  Charities are for the cerebral palsy kids or the ASPCA rescues.  What KidsLoveHorses is, is a gift.  It’s a gift from me and Erik to the horses and the kids.

For me, the worst thought was not the money or the possibility of losing the pony.  The worst thought was, “What would this do to Maya if we lost her.”  Cowgirl is not medically straight forward.  She’s cushings, she has a calcified tendon, she’s allergic to the biting gnats and needs vigilant treatment to protect her from them.  For young kids you need old horses.  Old horses come with baggage and she sure did.  When she joined the herd she had all the obvious signs of abuse or neglect: sore back, over grown hooves and no sign of dental care.  But, out of two hundred, she was the best of the lot that was for sale.

If ever there was a child who deserves to own her own pony it’s Maya.  Her natural capacity for care taking and diligent attention and commitment to this pony is impressive even by adult standards.   Cowgirl is very, very, very loved, but it is Maya who has put in most of the elbow grease.  Reserved and quiet, Maya opens her heart to few and to those that she does, she loves them passionately.  Maya loves Cowgirl.  Maya would have probably loved any pony I had purchased, it just so happens that I needed to purchase a pony who was as safe for younger children as possible and any pony in the category was going to come in a physically compromised state. I know it happens, but if Cowgirl had passed suddenly, that would just have been too much of a blow for someone as young as Maya.

With Erik’s income, if I’m employed, I have to earn over 60K before we get more of a benefit than a detriment because of taxes.  Then, after being out of the “work force” for twenty years and being an “older” woman, getting hired is like fishing for the proverbial needle in a haystack.  It makes more sense to invest my life in something that will leave a tangible and positive contribution to the world.  But our financial resources are not limitless.  Stoney was purchased because I just couldn’t bear to watch Haley and Katie (then 12 and 13) get their hearts ripped out one more time because they’d fallen in love with a horse they had a work/trade arrangement for and no consideration was given to their feelings when the horses were moved or the owners changed their minds.  It’s difficult for non-horse people to understand the power a horse has over the heart.  They speak with their hearts all the time.  The day I made up my mind to purchase Stoney, after a year of watching him in live as an abandoned horse, he knew it.  I had walked into his pasture for other reasons, but he made a beeline for me.  Entirely of his own volition, he gave me a hug. The burst of love coming from his heart was palpable.  He has never done this since, though he hugs Katie and Haley almost every time he sees them.  I have no natural affection for this horse.  The experience was unexpected and unsolicited and almost alarming.

Knowing the way horses connect with the people they love and the way that affection is reciprocated, I feel it would be a violation of trust to work in the manner I do and not have the funds in reserve to cover a medical emergency.  “Sorry.  The horse would have been saved by surgery but we didn’t have the money to pay for it.”, just doesn’t cut it with kids.  If you lie to cover it up, they always know and if not, they eventually figure it out.  But we only have one more “get out of jail free card” and then we’re done.

Lady has called to me (sent her hear out with a request).  She called to me the first time I met her, over a year ago, when she moved in at Karen’s barn.  She’s an unusually sweet horse who is older, small and would be safe for the kids.  Lady wanted me as her owner and caretaker. Taking on a fourth horse is way beyond my capacities. Tending her abscess was the only interaction we’ve had since.  She’s gone downhill; quite a ways.  She was dull and lifeless and despairing.  It is for horses like Lady and for the kids who love horses that I continue to work.  As I work, I will continue to pray that the hatchet stays put.


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