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Thursday, August 16, 2012

A True Story: part 4

The thing about horses is that they are an odd mix of resilience and fragility. Injury and illness prone, they have a digestive system that needs careful maintenance and legs that – holding up over a thousand pounds of body weight – are always at risk for catastrophic ailments. A broken bone doesn’t just mean a cast and six weeks propped up like it would for humans or small pets – most often, a break is a death sentence. Tendon and ligament injuries can be career ending. Two of my current horses have metabolic disorders and their sugar intake has to be monitored and controlled (yeah, there’s sugar in feed, hay and grass). They can be the strongest and weakest of animals and most of the time, they don’t die of old age, but have to be euthanized.

So, Cosmo’s left hind leg had a big ‘ol crater in it. He slowly gained weight, and as the fungus cleared, hair began to grow. Flesh filled in his ribcage and I could no longer count the vertebrae in his neck. But that hunk of missing muscle in his haunches gave him the mother of all pimp walks. Rather than articulate his hock, the entire hind leg lifted as a unit with each step. It moved in a series of quick jerks. Click-click-click, and then clapped back to the ground. He had no pushing power with it; it was very much a peg-leg gait.

But horses are grazers, and much of their circulation and digestion depends heavily on continuous movement. Plus, like humans, injuries are less stiff and scar tissue more manageable when they get steady exercise. The general rule is: stiffness should be treated with light to moderate exercise. If a horse is notably lame – favors a leg in a head-bobbing, limb-dragging, obvious way – or if there’s heat or swelling, the horse should be rested.

Retired for a year, Cosmo had had plenty of rest – plenty of starvation too – and he was not, even with the clicking, peg-leg, lurching pimp walk, lame. Cosmo’s owner said that after his “injury”, she was given pages and pages of rehab therapy to do with him, but it hadn’t ever been done. My vet said a little exercise wouldn’t hurt. He had what the doctor called…well, to be honest, I don’t remember. Something-myopothy that was diagnosed by his particular gait and nature of his gluteal muscles. But, the point was, some rehab would do him good.

Twelve years old and really not in any position to rehab anything, I began the process. So, so many horse people are impatient when it comes to their horses’ fitness, but I was too patient, a trait that sometimes frustrated others. There was no such thing as too patient with this horse.

We started with hand walking. Cosmo – even after being failed by humans – was such a people-horse. He loved to be social, so he was happy to go for long, slow walks. Then we progressed to up and downhill walks. Trotting in hand. When I started longeing him, it was not in the traditional sense: I jogged alongside him so he could go all the way around the arena because tight circles would have been too hard on him.

Then Cosmo’s old trainer learned what I was doing. She wanted to, in her words, “come get on him and see if he was salvageable before she turned him over to a kid”.  But I was the one with the real trainer – the trainer who understood that things take time, who knew that under their shiny coats and flashy movement, horses have personalities and hearts. I have Kelly to thank for developing my attitude toward the sport: making the most of what’s in front of you, taking care of your horse is more rewarding than any award.

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