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Jack of all Trades- On Horses & Farms

‘Jack of all trades, master of none, but better that than a master of one.’

At a quick glance around my room, there’s evidence of a variety of trades and skills picked up and abandoned. A piano that I’ve been meaning to get back to and remember my RCM musical theory and recitals, half chaps and saddle pads, notebooks & journalism guidebooks, my tae kwon do yellow belt and dobok, boxing gloves and hand wraps, dusty Nikon DSLR, the vintage Singer sewing machine that doubles as a desk, plant cuttings and seeds, cookbooks, pinned up reminders of deadlines for writing submissions, post cards from travels, a moose skull dragged out of a piece of land while tree-planting in Hearst. I want to do everything and that drive doesn’t fade, it remains, burning fiercely and brightly, but I wonder, had I concentrated my energies on one thing- cooking or writing or horse back riding, where would I be with it by now? As opposed to being passable at a hundred different things, I might be a master of something by now. But who wants that. So I’m revisiting, in a series of blog posts, different careers and hobbies. Today I’m going to touch upon my time spent horse farming and riding.

 

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Life doesn’t get much more magical than a hack in the snow.

 

There’s no good place to start when talking about my relationship with horses. Do I start with clambering over split-rail fences in Gordon County to get on a white Arabian mare who I don’t know is broke to ride or not? Riding miles and miles around Gore Bay on a gray QH gelding who scares up monarchs from under-hoof and gamely takes me for swims in the shallows of the bay? A gray pony (I like grays, ok?) rescued from auction for $54? Riding lessons at high-end hunter barns and a succession of falls, too numerable to count? Stuffed ponies and horse books and trinkets, going to England at sixteen to work at a livery yard, galloping on the Downs, bringing home my own gelding, half starved, backing colts, staying up all night with colics, weeping as we dragged a yearling onto the trailer to go to the University of Guelph to be euthanized, birthing colts… That’s where we’ll start.

When I was eighteen, I started working at a farm outside of Guelph, ON. At that time it was Tallery Stable, a hunter-jumper lessons barn and boarding facility. My boss had a valuable pregnant Dutch Warmblood. The mare’s first foal was a wonderfully tempered, stunning chestnut colt named Oakley. When Oakley died, I almost quit horses. The heartache associated with such surprisingly fragile animals is endless. Oakley and a Rio Grand mare switched off half-day turnout and on this particular day, Oakley stayed in in the morning instead of going out as usual, because the mare had a chiropractic appointment in the afternoon and wouldn’t have the opportunity for afternoon turnout. That small detail will never escape my mind. Oakley, happy in his stall with hay, somehow managed to slip and fall. Mucking a few stalls down from him, my heart stopped. He quickly scrambled to his feet, but something was clearly wrong. He went down again and lay awkwardly with his front legs sprawled in front of him like a foal trying to get to his feet for the first time.

I dropped my pitchfork and ran for the apartments at the far end of the indoor arena, where one of the trainers and co-owners of the business lived. I can’t even remember if I said anything or if my panic was written on my face, but he came running to the barn in his house coat and slippers, already calling the vet on his cellphone. We managed to get him up and standing, but his hip was visibly out of place. Horses can’t be recumbent on their sides for too long- their immense weight crushes their organs and they become unable to breathe or function. This is part of why fractured legs and injuries that would leave a horse recumbent are such a big deal- trying to keep the weight off of the injured limb but also keeping the animal standing is nearly impossible. Barbaro is a prime example of this principle. Even with millions of dollars and the best veterinary care available, he eventually succumbed to complications associated with his injury.

Our extremely capable vet, Mary, came and diagnosed him with a dislocated hip. She popped the joint back into place with a struggle and left. A dislocated joint is no small deal with a performance animal. Although all appeared to be well, the injury would require careful monitoring and rehabilitation over the coming months and years, but we were hopeful. A few days later when I came in the early morning hours to feed, a feeling of dread came over me as I entered the barn. Having been working at the barn five days a week for some months by then, I knew my horses well. When I parked my bicycle at the doors and came in, each had a distinct whinny and behavior. Ryan pawed at the front of his stall, Aspen walked in circles around his stall, Oakley rested his muzzle against the bars of his stall and peered out, attentive and bright, bugling his high whinny and asking for his breakfast. But this morning, that velvet muzzle was missing. He still whinnied his welcome, but sounded confused and hurt. He was down in his stall again.

The hours following are a blur. Horses are big personalities, every one is an individual. When you take care of them daily, regardless of whether or not you own them, they become ‘yours’. You know their habits and personalities, you have subtle relationships and rhythms with them- every day, you might slip your favorite a carrot, stop to have a chat with a personable Hanoverian, slap on playfully on the butt with a leadrope as they canter off naughtily when you turn them out. You know them and you care about them and you love them, fiercely. A horse down is a horrible sight, vulnerable and misplaced. Our best efforts failed to get the colt up off the ground. At this point, we knew we had to get him into the specialists at the OVC. A trainer and a co-worker materialized. I can’t remember calling for or seeking help, but I must have. We lay horse blankets across the aisle and parked the trailer right at the door and by sheer necessity and force of will, bundled the colt down the aisle and onto the trailer. A horse down that can’t get up is a goner. Chores for the rest of the day were done in a haze of tears.

When his owner and my big boss called me, crying, to tell me that he had fractured the point of his hip and had to be euthanized, it wasn’t a surprise. We cried together on the phone and with an awful, sinking feeling in my stomach, I biked home. The feeling of losing a horse is unique. Guilt and responsibility and sorrow all combined. I thought about resigning for weeks. My boss thought about selling all the show horses and calling it quits. Gwenny, pregnant with Oakley’s full brother, became an obsession for me. I watched her with an eagle eye, terrified of anything happening to that foal, terrified of history repeating itself. And slowly, slowly, the want to quit and the intense anxiety faded.

I was often the only one on the farm during chores. Lessons didn’t commence until late afternoon and owners didn’t usually come to ride during the day. On a sunny day in June, Gwen seemed off to me. There were no obvious signs of her going into labor, she just wasn’t herself. Again, when you look after the same horses day in and day out, you learn their behaviors. I called my boss, then our reproductive vet. “Colin! I think she’s going into  labor!” I was terrified. We’d been sleeping vigil on a haybale bed outside of her stall for weeks, waiting for her to give birth. “She isn’t,” the dry, emotionless English vet replied, “But I’ll come and check her over to ease your mind.”

Chores ground to a halt. I brought Gwen into her big double stall, bedded down deeply with shavings, topped with a two foot deep bed of clean, gold straw. And I stood and stared at her for twenty minutes until Colin arrived, terrified to leave her. He gave her a cursory glance, reassured me she wasn’t in labor, and donned a shoulder length plastic glove to do an internal, just to make sure. The second he inserted his arm into her uterus, his face broke out into a surprised ‘O’ and he said, disbelievingly “I feel feet!” at which point, the mare’s water broke and he was promptly covered with a gush of amniotic fluid.

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Heavily pregnant Gwen.

I was on the phone with her owner, screaming something about her being in labor, frantic and eager to absolve myself of any potential blame, given the situation with Oakley still fresh in my mind. She arrived shortly thereafter, screaming into the yard in her red dually. Things were proceeding quickly. Two long forelegs appeared in their rubbery membrane. The mare trembled and heaved. Her tail was tied up and bandaged out of the way. I alternated standing at her head, holding her halter pointlessly (she wasn’t going anywhere, her eyes were vacant as she concentrated her will on ejecting her burden of eleven months), and her tail, holding it out of the way as she continued to push. Nothing was happening. The foal was stuck. He was just too big. Colin, getting older and frailer, stood shoulder deep, trying to position the foal so he could make his entrance into the world. It felt like we were there for hours, trying frantically to assist this colt in his birth, the levity of his survival heavy on our minds. Finally, his owner left, phone clutched between shoulder and chin on the phone with the OVC once again as she hooked up the trailer to her truck. The mare was going into the OVC for an emergency c-section before the foal suffered permanent brain damage from oxygen deprivation, or worse, died.

She was trailered into Guelph with Tamarind’s forelegs sticking out, an assistant in the trailer holding them out of harm’s way, from banging against the sides of the trailer, and, if I remember correctly, a police escort, although that day was such a blur it is possible that my memory added in that dramatic detail.

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Tamarind, 3 days old.

Tamarind and Gwen came home safe and sound a few days later, there having been no need for an emergency c-section. He made his dramatic entrance to the world at the OVC naturally, though not without causing us all to nearly die of anxiety. The following years of caring for him were not without their share of close calls and anxiety, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything. And I will never forget the look on Colin’s face as he, the expert, reassured me “There’s no way this mare is in labor,” shortly before being covered, neatly, head-to-toe, in amniotic fluid.

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