Erik Loves Ponies

“I could do it right there.” Kristin, my vet, is pointing at the patch of dirt next to the cement next to the gate at Quail. “You need a soft spot so they don’t break a leg as they go down. Janice can get the winch through the gate. But you’ll want to schedule the euthanasia for a Tuesday or Wednesday. Definitely not a weekend.” Janice runs a tallow company, which is the fate of almost all horse carcasses. The horse that Kristin and I are talking about is Cowgirl.

I don’t know why I didn’t notice the string halt/calcified tendon when I first bought her, but it must have been there. Not that it would have made any difference. Out of the 200 ponies for sale at the time I had to buy, she was the only one who wasn’t advertised as “will bring home blue ribbons as a show jumper” or was simply completely untrained. She had been a pony party pony and a summer camp pony and who knows what else. She was advertised as being thirteen, but vets guess was her being twenty; plenty of time to inflict irreparable damage. Certainly the untreated Cushings was masking the problem. As soon she started getting medication for the Cushings, about three months after she joined us, the limp in her step started to show up; a little at first, but more and more each year.

Cowgirl nipped at the kids from the get go. Savannah, now fifteen, at age seven wrote an entire book all about Cowgirl. It goes something like this: “Cowgirl has brown hair and a white blaze and she tried to bite me.” Followed by, “Cowgirl is my size and has a red saddle as she tried to bite me.” And so on and so forth. Sometimes the nipping is just a bad habit. More often it is a sign of pain. Cowgirl got massage and acupuncture and pain meds and chiropractic and craniosacral therapy and cold laser treatment and any and everything I could think of that would help her body.

Despite the nipping, Savannah’s book ended with “I love Cowgirl more than anything.”

Inside the door of the hay room at Quail is a two and a half foot high picture that Maya drew of Cowgirl when she, Maya, was nine or ten. Maya did very little art so this picture was special. She intentionally drew it to be as close to life size as possible. Maya probably rode Cowgirl more than anyone else. She galloped up Rhus Ridge on her. She rode her all over Arastradero Preserve and through all the trails at Jack Brook. When I first got her, except for the objection to being saddled, Cowgirl went any and everywhere with us. With the right rider, she’d even careen around the arena and leap the jumps like the other horses. In the first year I had her, Cowgirl jumped a three and a half foot fence. She was being pursued by a loose dog, but she jumped it never the less.

It was on our third trip to Jack Brook (horse camp) that she started to have trouble carrying a rider up the hills. I would ride one horse down, then switch and run up the hills behind Cowgirl, without a rider, holding her tail. It was three years ago that she started slowing down on our regular rides. Maybe it was Cowgirl getting older or maybe it was the girls getting heavier. It was hard to tell. She started coming along footloose and fancy free, running between the horses without a rider, which she enjoyed very much. But last year, at Jack Brook, she stayed at the camp for half the rides.

In the arena, it can be hard to tell if a horse is having trouble physically or if, because her primary riders are all novice, she’s just fed up with every single rider doing the wrong thing. Up until nine months ago, she’d show pep in the arena when the older girls would have her race with Jackson.

About a year ago, Kayla started riding her, but Cowgirl seemed to have lost her “go”. Was it the way Kayla was sitting? Did she need to improve her skills? Kayla wants Cowgirl to live at her house when she retires. She talks about it endlessly. Kayla would have done anything for CG to make riding work for her. It wasn’t Kayla. It was Cowgirl.

She started to drag with the beginners even more. She’d walk at a slow pace. Nothing the riders could do to make her move any faster, then finally she’d burst forward, often unseating her young rider in the process.

If she can’t carry a rider, where’s she going to go? Unless a horse has a situation where it can be taken out and brushed and walked and otherwise cared for, retirement for most horses is a fate worse than death. Standing around in a paddock day in and day out waiting for the end is like being in jail for the rest of their lives. Putting Cowgirl out in a pasture is an even crueler death sentence. It wouldn’t be right away, but founder or laminitis would be inevitable, both being excruciatingly painful conditions. And while she waited for death, unbearable, constant itching from untreated sweet itch.

I need a pony. I see these small bodies on my small horses and most of the time it’s fine, but I want these kids safe and for some of them, that means a pony, which means how the heck am I going to have time to tend and care for Cowgirl on top of the other six when I’m about ready to keel over from exhaustion all the time anyways to say nothing of the $600 a month it takes to simply keep her alive. Who will pay for that? Not the parents, that’s for sure.

But maybe she just needed a little schooling? I walked her to the arena and back, insisting she “maintain the gait” there and back. The next morning she was so stiff she could barely walk. There is not need for schooling. Her body just can’t take the work anymore.

Allison will probably take the prize as being all time most unique rider as in she doesn’t ride at all, but rather insists on spending every Sunday morning doting on Cowgirl. On Monday, when she comes out and keeps me company with the young riders, she usually spends the entire time recounting, in minute detail everything and anything that Cowgirl did, how she ate her bucket, how she kept nudging Allison, how she was tired and slow or how she felt lively when Allison walked her.

Allison is as indulgent as they come. I used to insist that Allison ride along with us, on CG, but she’d inevitably get off and hand walk her saying that Cowgirl just wanted to walk right now. They’d get far behind, but with Allison being fourteen (now fifteen), I didn’t worry and knew they’d make their way back to the barn safely.

Allison’s email name is “Am a Pony Lover.” Her Instagram name is ponyness_who_all_warship (worship). (Kayla’s Instagram name is cowgirl_the_pony.)

It was Allison’s dream for years to train Cowgirl to pull a cart. I was so hoping for this. It had the potential for extending her useful life. It took about a year to find a cart that would work. We were lucky and got it on sale. Allison used her Bat Mitzvah money to pay for it. But training a pony to harness is no simple task. You can get hurt worse by an untrained cart horse than you can riding. Training takes a lot of time. With the summer between middle school and high school coming up, there was hope. But her parents decided Allison needed to attend summer school, which left no time for training.

Last Thursday it was raining. Sophie and Arya came out for a barn day, as delighted to clean and organize the tack room as they are to ride. Allison came out also. As a teen, I never know if Allison will show up on any given day or not. I was surprised to have her there. Although I usually enjoy her company, it was the day after I’d decided that I didn’t have any other option than to euthanize Cowgirl. I took the opportunity to sit out of the way, behind a hay bale, trying to hide my breaking heart. But Allison was not particularly interested in engaging with the munchkins. She kept talking to me. She finally said, “I had a nightmare last night. I dreamt that something bad happened to Cowgirl.”

I hadn’t intended to tell anyone. Not even Jan. Cowgirl was going to be in retirement in Montana or Mississippi or Texas. But Allison knew anyways.

I talked to Al, Allison’s dad, a couple days later. Would they like to step up to the plate and help pay her expenses? Could Allison commit to taking CG out three or four days a week? Al said, “That’s not what Allison needs in her life.” Followed by, “I’m sure Allison will understand.” He added, “How old is she? She probably wouldn’t live much longer, would she?” This is not true. Ponies live a long time. Cowgirl is twenty eight. Assuming she gets decent care, she could live another fifteen or twenty years. Ideally a horse will be able to work up until the very end of it’s life. Chavali certainly shows signs of doing so and Stoney will come close to it. What happened to Cowgirl is what happens to all those lessons horses and pony ride horses and trail ride horses. The stresses and strains of carrying nothing but people with no skill wears them out in three to five years. Cowgirl lasted longer than that, but it’s the “I just want to go for a ride!” attitude or the “riding is for fun!” attitude or the idea that it doesn’t take any skill or commitment is what kills these horses; all those parents who put piano and the talent show and skiing and anything and everything else above and in front of horses and then come with the attitude of “what am I getting for my money!”, who view the horses as a carnival ride, that cause their demise. Cowgirl came with the damage done so far that I couldn’t stop it, much less reverse it, though God knows I tried.

Allison was out again yesterday, along with seven year-old Kali. As Kali and I brushed Velvet, Allison stood in the staging area, rubbing Cowgirl’s ears. “Cowgirl’s just a love sponge! She’s getting all the love she needs!” Cowgirl was enjoying Allison’s attention so much that her head was nearly on the ground. (For the record, Cowgirl doesn’t let me touch her ears.) As Kali and I tighten the girth on Velvet, Allison leans over CG and starts stroking her sides. Allison says, “I love Cowgirl so much!” At this, I turned to Allison and said, “If you had to come out here three days a week to walk Cowgirl in order for her to stay alive, would you do it?” Allison’s head popped up. With fierce determination she said, “Of course! I’d come out here five days a week if that’s what was needed!”

I had to drive Kali home that evening after riding. Before she got out of the car, she looked at me pointedly and said, “What’s going happen to Cowgirl?” I said I didn’t know, which was a lie.

Erik (my husband) knows about my decision. He’s been party to every twist and turn. He came home to find me lying on the couch, emotionally comatose. He lifted up my feet and sat under my legs. Then he turned to me and said, “We owe Cowgirl a retirement. In a few years time, when Kayla is older and can take responsibility, she can go live at Kayla’s. But for now she needs to stay with us. I don’t care what it costs. I make enough money and we can pay for it.” He keeps saying things like that and I guess he means it. When I wrote about how KLH couldn’t afford to keep Dancer, it was Erik who stepped up. Everyone else just begged for me to keep him, but didn’t offer any real support. He’s doing it again for Cowgirl, bless his heart. Clearly he loves the ponies as much as the girls do. Despite what her father says, I feel confident that Allison will, indeed, walk Cowgirl as much as needed. After all, she can ride her bike to the barn.

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