The Trials of Job

“I’m sorry Deb, I can’t make it out. Sami [a dog] is throwing up and I need to stay home to take care of her.” That was cancellation number three in less than twelve hours. Dorina had cancelled 8pm the night before. Jill cancelled Kali at 10pm because when the grandparents left, she had a total melt down. I’d already turned away riders because the day was full. But lucky Sammie! Too young to go on long rides with many riders and too busy to schedule a “special event”, riding to the best parts of the hills could only happen on a blue moon. Sammie got her moon.

The girls love riding horses so much that all the chaos and commotion of riding around the semi-urban parts of the hills doesn’t matter to them, but peace descends when you ride up the Artemas Gintzon trail and into Byrnne Preserve. Sammie is skilled enough to canter as much as she liked and Rachel rode with her to keep her safe. For a young rider, you can’t get any closer to pure joy.

The day was turning out to be hotter than expected. Due to the unparalleled opportunity of a stellar ride, we were more than an hour later returning than expected. But that’s what summer is for.

Along with Savannah’s text early in the morning, was an urgent text from my vet. Dr. Carlson, the surgeon, had finally looked at Skipper’s X-rays. He said he thought Skipper needed another set of X-rays and he could come by that afternoon.

Skipper had been three legged lame for almost three weeks. He’d been kicked, hard, by Bella and, at first, looked like he’d heal up. But seven days after the kick, all of a sudden, his right, front leg hung limp from his body.

In Bella’s defense, Skipper was asking for it. He just doesn’t take no for an answer.

Skipper showed up on the Los Altos Hills horse scene about a year ago and never was there a more perfect pony for training kids to ride. The ideal height of 13.2, he was backyard bred, which meant his legs weren’t as straight as they should have been, but it also meant he was bad at bucking, unbelievable good tempered, happy to go forward at any gate desired at any time at any position in the line. Finding a pony like this is harder than you’d think. When I purchased Cowgirl, she was the only one out of two hundred for sale at the time that even came close to being appropriate for training kids. Finding Skipper was like finding the needle in the haystack.

His most remarkable quality was that he was bomb proof. People say this about horses all the time and I’ve never, ever known it to be true, except with this horse, though the reason why ended up being the reason he died.

I didn’t think I had a prayer of ever buying him, but as it turned out, Judy, his owner, had purchased him to save him from living in squalor. He was really too small. The same month I retired Cowgirl she asked me if I’d like to buy him. She could have demanded triple what he was worth and I would have done it.

From the get go, he loved the girls and they loved him, no one more so than Arya. Small, with brown skin and black hair, they were a matched set. Arya said she was going to marry him and take him to college, though not sure in what order. All I knew is that I finally had a horse that her skilled, but petite, body could wrap it’s legs around.

Dr. Carlson arrived at 4. He travels with an assistant, which Kristin, my regular vet, does not. Strong as Kristin and I are, Dr. Carlson has the advantage of testosterone, which allowed him to pick up Skipper’s good leg, something necessary to get more thorough X-rays, but that required hoisting up about 300lbs of horse.

Arya, Sophie and Jaya had all arrived at the end of Skipper’s photo session. Dr. Carlson was in the barn examining X-rays when they arrived and the girls got busy giving Skipper a spa treatment. It didn’t take him long though. I don’t think the girls noticed when he walked out of the barn, leaned back against the grill of his Chevy Suburban and said, “There’s bone chip in there all right and it’s moving. There’s a good chance it’s the cause of the problem but we won’t know until after we take it out.” The girls also didn’t hear him continue with, “but we have to take a look at the joint first. If it’s good, taking the chip out will be worth it. If the joint is trashed, we just won’t wake him up.” Even if they had, I’m not sure they would have understood what that meant.

After Skipper was properly primped and preened and the commotion of the vet exam was gone, Sophie announced, “I want to take Cowgirl to the arena and practice vaulting!” To this, Arya added, “And I want to ride Bella double with Jaya!” Jaya, who talks to me only when she has to, nodded a vigorous assent.

By vaulting, Sophie means practicing jumping on and off Cowgirl. Sophie is a talented acrobat with long limbs so Cowgirl, despite her retired status, doesn’t mind this at all.

I don’t remember what the girls talked about getting the horses ready and riding to the arena, but three happier horse girls there never were. For my part, I was taking every spare second to send text messages to the dozen or so people connected to Skipper who needed to know of his dire situation and to rearrange the next day for the contortions necessary to trailer him to the horse hospital in Salinas the next day.

Mostly they all practiced jumping on and off of Cowgirl in the arena and practiced standing up on her back while one of the lead her around at a walk.

Arya and Jaya did ride double on Bella to and from the arena, but with me walking carefully placed beside them, lead rope firmly in hand. At one point, Arya looked down at me and said, “I feel sorry for you, Miss Deb, having to walk so much.” Though it was cool now, I’d been up since six, I’d sprinted on my bike up to Westwind that morning and I was ready to be done for the day. But I said, “I’m a little tired, but if it means keeping you safe, being tired doesn’t matter at all.” Even when all hell is breaking loose around her, Bella is near perfect on the lead line, but you do need to be holding that line.

There was no prying the girls away from the arena until sun had started to set and we had just entered nautical twilight, what most people call “night”, as we descended Quail Lane to the barn where their parents were waiting. With no school the next day and no camps, the girls then fulfilled their dream of taking care of all the evening barn chores at Quail with their best friends. It’s sad to me that this can only happen once or twice a year, but it did happen and that’s what summer is for.

It was well past nine when I finally left Quail for Campo. It was nearly ten by the time I started to drive away from the barn. The next day would involve getting up at six, walking the dog, feeding the cats, packing provisions, cleaning and feeding at Quail, cleaning and feeding at the barn where Dancer lives, driving to Saratoga;involving several miles on narrow, twisty road; to hitch up the trailer, driving back to Los Altos Hills, stopping to fill up on the way, inching Skipper all the way down Campo Vista to the trailer, then shoving off by 10:30 at the latest as they wanted him in Salinas as soon as possible.

Dinner, damage control in the house, and several dozen, lengthy Skipper related text messages left me dozing off to sleep at midnight. Moments later I woke with a start remembering that I had failed to refill Skipper and Velvet’s water tub. So it was back out to the barn, in my bathrobe, and back in bed at one a.m.

Skipper was as chipper as any horse with three legs could be. He hopped out of the trailer at the horse hospital an into the prepared stall with little fan fare. Dante and I walked around the grounds a bit to stretch our legs before the ride home. When I returned to the stall, they were preparing him for catheterization. The first time Kristin tried to catheterize him, two weeks prior, Skipper had pitched a fit. The calm, co-operative, agreeable, sedated Skipper, tried to rear and strike. Kristin looked at me and said,”this horse was late cut [castrated late]”, which explained a lot.

After warning the techs, I put my heart in my hand and put my hand on his forehead and said goodbye.

It was noon. And then it was two. At four, text from the vet said they now had one horse in front of him. At six, text said they were bringing him into surgery. Allison texted me same time: What time should she walk Cowgirl? I told her what was going on with Skipper and that I had to feed and clean at both barns, but she was welcome to come along and keep me company. She said she thought she should come along for moral support.

On the way to pick up Allison, at text came in from Shaliza. Never one to take life sitting down, Arya had set up a GoFundMe account to raise money to defray some of the medical expense. She wanted to know how much to ask for.

Allison and I got to the barns at seven. We mucked and sorted and fed and groomed. By eight, there was still no word. Allison left at 8:45. I had one last bag of pellet to schlep into Quail. It was nine and the call came. “We can’t see much of what’s in the joint, but it doesn’t matter. With Skipper under anesthesia, we were able to take much more thorough X-rays. That bone chip? It’s huge. And so is the fracture – it runs right through the joint. The only tool in the country that can fix this is at Texas A&M and even then, the odds on recovery aren’t good. I recommend you let us put him down.” I have never had a vet say that to me. When a vet says, “I recommend,” what they really mean is, “If this were my pony, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

It was another late night with another early morning: Dog walked and fed, cats fed, provisions packed, Quail fed and mucked, at Campo by 7:40. Shana, whose life has extenuating circumstances, hadn’t been able to ride all summer. She was supposed to ride the day before, but it had been too hot. She was supposed to leave for Boston that afternoon, expecting to be gone for the rest of the summer. She said, “If I sleep well, I can ride from eight to nine!” Riding from eight to nine would only be possible if I was there to tack up. I still didn’t know if she was coming, I had to be at the Robleda barn by 8:20 at the very latest. There was no response to my text asking whether she would make it.

Shana showed up at 8:10, still needing to leave at nine. Rushing around like a chicken with my head cut off, we got Velvet tacked in record time, but not so little time as to not check the girth, which was loose, before Shana took off.

It was supposed to have cooled off Saturday, but it ended up being hotter. But ten, it was already eighty. Julia, Jaya, Sammie and myself were walking from Quail to Campo when Shana’s mother, Cara, called. I let it go to voice mail.

Everyone was grouchy that morning because of the heat, which gets particularly intense in the exposed, unshaded staging area at Campo. It was a fight to get the girls moving to groom and tack. At one point I had to have Sammie toss one of the stirrups and stirrup leather. She did so without thinking and unintentionally smacked my had with the stirrup. I started to see red and said, “I need to go away and go calm down!” I made my way to the back of the barn without losing my temper. Sat for a bit and decided I might as well listen to Cara’s message. It was a three minute rant about how Shana had come home in tears because I’d so mean and condescending to her and how I’d ruined her whole day and didn’t I know she was leaving for Boston and so on and so forth. I texted Cara saying I’d just put a horse down, I was tired and had a lot to do that morning and to tell Shana she needed to not take anything I did or said personally. Cara texted back. “I’m sorry for your loss. But that still doesn’t excuse your behavior. You need to learn to be less abrupt!”

Skipper’s injury was the fifth serious and first fatal injury we’ve had at the Campo barn, any of the other four having been serious enough to be life ending. One of those was directly the fault of the barn owners. Three were indirectly the fault. As for Bella’s kick, someone like Jan, the Quail barn owner, would have noticed the escalation in Skipper’s overtures to Bella and also her excessively aggressive behavior during feeding. If I’d had any say in the matter, I would have had Bella stalled for every feeding. But the Campo barn owners are do resistant to action not of their own idea that it took me four years to convince them to allow me to muck the paddock. The owners are concerned about damage to their barn, not about

The night before Skipper’s surgery, I had a dream where Jan had moved all of my horses to her barn. She’d figured out how to cordon off part of the orchard so that there was room for all of six of them as well as a couple of rescue steers. When I told Jan my dream, she said she wished she had that kind of property. If i can find a property that would have room for all of the herd, my dream would be to take Jan with me.

The real culprit in Skipper’s death was his “stallion” state. The only reason I know of to castrate late is if you are thinking a particular horse might be a good stallion prospect. With his knock knees, overly long back and sickly hocks, I couldn’t imagine anyone thinking he’d be a stallion prospect. But there is another reason for a late cut. As a “stallion”, Skipper was heedless of his life. I saw that first when Stoney and Skipper had at it at Campo one afternoon. Although I was able to separate them, it wasn’t before witnessing Skipper’s wanton disregard for his own safety. That incident was not intentional, and I never let them out together again, but for a few moments I was seriously worried that Skipper would get himself killed.

So what makes a horse spook? They want to preserve their life. With no instinct for that, Skipper was fearless on trail; a good reason for a late cut, but one that comes with other problems.

Several of the girls have asked if I will replace him. This idea is not even on my radar yet, but Skipper was irreplaceable.

Even though we had to let him go, Arya went ahead with her GoFundMe campaign anyways. Kayla, Kate and Rachel have promised to make a memorial poster of all their pictures of him. On things for certain, we will all be sad for a very long time.

Rest in Peace, Skipper.

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