[tough topic warning here – I needed a few tissues to write this fwiw]
I work my horse at liberty only because he falls. The classical trainer in me wishes I could use side reins to help balance him however there are two reasons not to with a horse with his issues: (1) he’s asymmetrical and using these can (and has) inhibited him from making the careful counter balancing positioning he needs to ‘find his own unique balance’.. and (2) falling in side reins can really be dangerous for the horses’s mouth (head/neck/etc).
Two years ago almost to the week now I made the decision to send him to a vet hospital for a real answer. I’d had 3 chiropractors and I don’t know how many vets look at him for issues that stemmed back to foal-hood that were basically all coming back to what clearly was something (literally!) deep seated but not neurological. So I bucked up and sent him to the only facility nearby (most expensive on the east coast too!), to have a radioactive bone scan done. He was so fascinating that a whole group of vets joined in on getting to the root of the issue over the course of the week he was there being studied. Answer? Crooked hips from a foal-hood injury. Old injury but even at age four the hip/spine joint area was still undergoing some remodeling and eventual premature arthritis was certainly in his cards too. Prognosis was mixed. The vets initially were positive that constant hip injections and yadda yadda plus exercise would overcome it all. There was a rub of course. Horses aren’t made to stand crooked so when you misalign a major central joint all that stems from it (both hind legs and both fronts from uneven diagonal pressure) experience higher than designed for stresses. The properly aligned horse is an amazing and delicate balance in engineering. Screw small things up and they get pretty funky, screw a big thing up and they are dangerous to be around. I’ve been very close to him a few times when he’s fallen and it’s no joke to see a 1200lb animal slam down like that. Primarily it happens when turning at speed and one of the hinds doesn’t support him properly. Sometimes he can overcome the issue with a buck and realign himself behind or bunny hop (hinds land together) until he can sort himself out. Unfortunately the bigger danger to humans around him is that he also misaligns when doing that spook in place thing – you know, the stiff legged stance? Here he is as yearling doing that (and not falling obviously).
When he’s done that stiff legged in-place spook and misaligned (2 times in my presence in his 6 and a half years), he falls like a marionette (or a very heavy piano?). It doesn’t happen often (2 times that I know of like I said) but it’s pretty catastrophic (real vet’s description of it actually) when it happens.
So I wrestle with the inevitable knowledge that at some point he is likely to hurt himself seriously and it would be more humane to euthanize him before then. Many would think me foolish for investing my time, effort and love into a hopeless horse. He’s hardly hopeless. Anyhow, I had thought this would be on the time frame order of at least a decade or so from now. However in the past year I’ve had a lot of introspection and recognition of signs of minor discomfort on his end that lead me to think it will be far sooner. Very little things about the way he moves really. It’s taught me so much about the subtlties of biomechanics and physical therapies for disabilities. He’s such a damn happy horse though so I’m certainly not feeling like he’s suffering in any terrible way. I can understand the pain of those who have a loved one in a coma where the brain is still alive and well. There is a certain weight to having this looming uncertainty and no clear answers anyone can give you. Most of my pets have very clearly told me when “it’s time”. I’ve only just come to admit to myself that I am probably going to have to make a decision. All I can hope for is the wisdom to know when – I may not be timely enough but I certainly don’t want to be hasty either.
Pretty grim post so far eh? I’ve actually had to stop typing a few times. I can’t really talk too easily about it.
Anyhow, there is a relevance to this being in my sculpting journal. And no, it’s not just that this has pretty clearly bummed me out a bit over the past year and kept me quieter than usual online. ;) Seriously, I would like to encourage horse owning sculptors to spend lots of time doing liberty training if they have a place to do so. We use a small paddock that is basically standard arena size but squarer. My horse and I have been doing this for his whole life, not really Monty Robert’s type things.. more along the lines of Klaus’s book “Dancing with Horses” . Video and lunging give you some ability to study aspects of biomechanics, but having this 3 dimensional interaction where you can walk behind the animal at different gaits and turn them at a distance and study where they put their feet, how each muscle flexes, the parts move in concert etc etc.. these are the things that really “gel” biomechanics. When I, someday far down the road I’m sure, get another equine partner that I can ride any time I want to, I still will definitely want to do lots of liberty work to better understand how they function as an individual. It’s absolutely fascinating to me now to study my small collection of boarders daily and see how very very differently each one moves even though 4 out of the 6 are all Thoroughbreds too! Their slight variations in build create vastly different gait types as well.
So on that note, I think I’d better quit while I’m ahead here. I really have been thinking a lot about this lately (with winter coming on all horses with issues get stiffer so it’s natural to really question things). I decided to be entirely candid here too because I know many of my friends have heard snippets of this but not the whole story and my current mindset on the future of things for my dear boy. And I know that many of my customers ask about him and, well.. there it is. Since my love is my work, my work can be both broadened and stifled immensely by the pangs that go with loving an animal.
I like this quote to summarize my feelings on the matter;
"Unlike some people who have experienced the loss of an animal, I did not believe, even for a moment, that I would never get another. I did know full well that there were just too many animals out there in need of homes for me to take what I have always regarded as the self-indulgent road of saying the heartbreak of the loss of an animal was too much ever to want to go through with it again.
To me, such an admission brought up the far more powerful admission that all the wonderful times you had with your animal were not worth the unhappiness at the end."