Monday, November 6, 2017

Hanging up my Pinny

Some roads are straight and wide, with perfect yellow lines, gorgeous shady trees and passing zones for miles. 

Someday I’d like to see one of those roads.

I tend to find myself traveling on the hilly, twisty, poor visibility roads that are wrought with potholes and are in various stages of repaving (aren’t those grooved lines the worst?). But every once in a while, after navigating an especially tricky climb around a blind turn, you find yourself face to face with the most wondrous view, and you pause to reflect on just how beautiful life can be when you’ve worked so hard for that one moment.

Life with Cotton has certainly not been the fast lane. It’s been every direction a road can be  . . . with tolls. He’s not always been easy, but he’s always been fun. More than that, he’s always been honest. That horse, though a bit of punk from time to time, is the most genuine horse I’ve ever met. So when he is trying to tell me something, I need to listen.

Most people who know Cotton know that we have had quite a time getting him comfortable with jumping down a bank in competition. He even spent several months with Dom Schramm last winter learning to go down on long-lines to build confidence.  In schooling he’s usually great, and in fact I schooled him just a few days before leaving for Full Gallop’s P/T division this past weekend and he hopped right down a simple bank.

After putting in a really beautiful Dressage test and a Stadium round that had me wishing my saddle came with a seat belt, we headed off on a sturdy but appropriate for the level XC course.  In typical Cotton fashion he carried me eagerly to the first 5 fences and felt absolutely fantastic. The first of two down bank questions came up at fence 6A, at the bottom of a long downhill gallop. I felt Cotton start to question his confidence as the bank came in to view and when we got to the edge he stopped. Although he hopped right down on re-approach and popped over the B element, something in that moment changed him.

I can’t describe it any other way except to say that he just felt deflated. His confidence was shaken and despite every ounce of positive encouragement I could give him, he was sticky and backed off at the next 5 fences. I felt this once before when he stopped at a different bank last year; that same distant sort of feeling like he was here but not here.

He felt broken and it broke my heart. I told him “Cotton, I’m going to give you one more fence to tell me you either want to be here or you don’t, and I promise to listen”.

So when we arrived out of the woods at the 2nd water combination and it felt like a movie scene where the camera is rolling forward but the character is moving backwards, I knew.

I knew and I raised my hand. I patted my horse and told him I would never put him in that situation again.  Maybe a Dom, or a Doug, or a Boyd could cruise him around and make him feel like Superman, I don’t know. But I’ve realized it doesn’t really matter what someone else can do. Cotton and I are a team, and teammates don’t let each other down.

My horse has never lied to me, and I won’t lie to him. We could go back to Beginner Novice or Novice where there aren’t banks (or very small banks) and he’d be fine. But honestly, he’s so good at the other phases and enjoys it so much that I think we’ll continue doing Combined Tests, straight Dressage shows, and probably some Hunter Derbies and Open Jumpers. He’s a solid 2nd level Dressage horse, schooling most of 3rd, and he cruises around 3’7” like they’re cross rails.

The Startbox might be closed, but there is a plethora of doors still open that are about to get a big heaping scoop of Cottonpickwabbit served up piping hot. And they have no idea what’s about to hit them . . .

Friday, July 28, 2017

Being the Bug

Some days you’re the windshield, some days you’re the bug. That’s just science.

At least I think it’s science? Maybe it’s fate. Possibly Karma. Most likely,  just bad planning.  Whatever. The bottom line is that on any given day you’re either the bug or the windshield. You’re either rising above bad luck or wallowing in the mire of it; humming along at a respectable cruising altitude or coming face first with the business end of an SUV that wipes you away with the flick of a finger.

You can even vacillate between bug and windshield within the same 24hour period. I affectionately refer to those days as “White Wine Wednesdays”. Although, pretty much any day of the week that ends in a ‘Y’ can be a white wine day. I’m very flexible.

It usually goes something like this:

Awesome dressage test! I’m the windshield!
Lost my keys. I’m the bug.

Found my keys! Windshield!
Got lost in Stadium. Bug.

Cutest horse ever,  leaping into the water! Shiny, shiny windshield!
Fell off.  Definitely the bug.

Coffee stain on my white shirt; sweaty sports bra glued to my skin; running late for work and out of gas. . .  Bug. Bug. Bug, bug, bug bug bug.


I don’t know how others manage to perpetually be in Time Zone Windshield. They always look polished. Their horses are always spotless with flowing tails that flutter romantically in the breeze. They can hook up their trailer on the first try while I’m recalculating my approach for the 9th time in front of a growing crowd of spectators.

Maybe it’s my imagination, or the wine, but I’d swear even their horses look at me like “Oh my gosh, Bernice, that lady is SUCH a bug. I mean look at her; it’s like, lady, please. Get your act together, you’re bringing our group average down.”

And then they roll their eyes and whisper over the hay pile.

Clearly, I need a plan. Maybe there’s an App that secures your position in Windshield Territory for a low monthly charge of $4.99 when you sign up for automatic recurring payments and agree to daily emails soliciting business from other empty-promise bargain sites.  It guarantees to save you time, money, embarrassment, AND makes your lashes grow!

Obviously no such thing exists (yet). So until then, I will relinquish myself to being the bug and celebrating White Wine Wednesday while I wait patiently to morph into a beautiful butterfly. Then all you Windshields better watch your rear-view mirrors, because that’ll be me sneaking up behind you with a can of spray paint.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Cotton's Story - Three to the Third

This is Cotton’s story.

No names have been changed to protect the innocent, all characters are intended to be accurately represented, and occasional embellishment is a given. 

Read at your own risk. And, please, do not try this at home. . . .

This guy. Who on Earth wouldn’t fall for this guy? Look at that mug!

"Not bad, not bad. I could live here"

This was his first day on the farm, and the first day of what would become a very long journey for me, for him, and for everyone around us.

Cotton came off the track on November 22, 2013 after 33 career starts. I had fallen hard when I saw his listing on a rehoming web page after someone had posted a link on the Chronicle Forums. Even his name was catchy: COTTONPICKINWABBIT. How much trouble could a horse possibly be with a name like Cottonpickinwabbit? It’s a cartoon for crying out loud.

Anyway, a very resourceful and well connected friend (Pat Dale of Three Plain Bays) was able to track down his trainer after almost 2 weeks of trying and after sending me some photos of his feet to be sure I still wanted him, she loaded the colt on to her trailer and took him to her farm.

She generously agreed to have her vet perform the gelding procedure and let him recover prior to transport. Certainly a gelding would be easier to manage than an intact, fresh off the track colt? Everything went swimmingly, and on December 30th, 2013 the newly de-stallioned redhead arrived on my farm.

He spent a couple weeks just kicking back and taking in his new digs. I, of course, just thought he was the cutest, punkiest, most entertaining horse I’d ever met. His first few rides went like butter and I thought, wow, easiest horse ever.

Uh. No.

"Hmmmm, what shall I think of next?"

Feb 25th, 2014, not even 2 months after his arrival, I rushed Cotton to NC State Vet Hospital with what had seemed like a simple choke but quickly turned out to be something much more serious. Cotton was suffering from a case of Botulism which had paralyzed his esophagus. For over three days he was unable to swallow anything.

Twice a day the vets would update me and tell me that all we could do was keep him hydrated with IV fluids and wait it out. He would likely colic, they said, and his condition was probably not survivable.  Even though sad and stressed and alone in his medical stall, his eyes would follow me when I visited; confusion and sadness behind his lashes, and it absolutely broke my heart.

Then miraculously, almost comically really, he awoke on day 4, looked at his water bucket and said “Hey water! Nice!” and drained the bucket. After 24 more hours of observation, small test sized portions of food, and to the surprise of the entire team, the once skinny, now emaciated, horse got back on my trailer and came home.

"Do these ribs make me look fat?"

We’ll never know where the toxin came from. He shared the same space, food, water, and fence line as all the other horses. But if there was one teensy tinsy bit of trouble in one of those bags, he was sure to be the one to find it.

He was clearly worn out from his week and cautiously ambled around the paddock. Really, when you add up what he had undergone in the last 90 days it wasn’t surprising he was tired: a move from the track, a very de-masculinizing surgery, a trip to his new farm, the start of a second career, Botulism, a paralyzed esophagus, IV’s, needles, tests, tests and more tests . . . good grief!  No wonder the guy was a bit pokey.

Crisis averted and horse safely home. Or was he?

"And now for my next trick . . ."

Two days later while at work, I get a panicked call from my husband and a simultaneous call from a very composed but very tense vet. Cotton had been placed in a stall during a heavy rainstorm and immediately hit the panic button. Flashbacks of NC State must have rolled around in his head. He threw himself against the walls and tried climbing over the stall front. Knowing he’d be safer outside, he was returned to his paddock. As my husband walked back to the house after observing for a bit, Cotton took off after him and, unsuccessfully, tried jumping the paddock fence.  In his weakened condition he just couldn’t clear the upright and split the top rail sending a large piece of board into his leg.

Hearing the sound of not-quite-thundering hooves, Mike turned around to see a lame, blood soaked horse standing next to him.  He had a torn gaskin, a punctured stifle, a probable torn ACL, and a litany of scrapes and cuts. My vet believed it was certainly career ending and with the risk of infection so high, he was unsure if Cotton would  even be pasture sound.

That was the first of 3 times I asked my vet to please euthanize my horse.

“Now, now” he said. “Let’s just wait and see if the joint gets infected. It’s a long shot but maybe he’ll surprise us. We’ll keep him comfortable and as long as he doesn’t go on 3 legs in the next 48 hours or spike a temp he might be okay as a pasture horse”

So we waited. We scrubbed. We gave antibiotics. We built a temporary safety stall in his paddock that he promptly body slammed apart. We watched his bony little body make its way to his feed dish. We tended our breaking hearts and prepared for the worst.

Clearly, being enclosed was not an option

And then the oddest thing happened.

He got better.

He trotted around his paddock nickering at the mares. He greeted me at the gate. He bobbed his head around looking at all the sights on our hand walks.  And I thought, holy crap, he’s actually going to be okay. In fact, he felt so okay that he got into daily face fights with everyone. He was constantly coming in with a new bump or scrape, but always with a big cookie stealing grin on his face.

All I had to do now was wait for him to be healed enough to start riding.  As he started showing signs of boredom I’d take him out and tack him up just for our hand walk. I even sat on him in the roundpen. He didn’t know it wasn’t REAL work, he just knew that for that 10 minutes he had a job, and that was enough to keep his mind occupied.

That was March 24th, 2014. 

Four fairly uneventful weeks later (by Cotton’s standard anyways) I made my annual trek to Kentucky to spectate at Rolex.

On April 25, 2014 at 6:30 in the morning I left on a plane for the Bluegrass State. On April 25, 2014, sometime between 9:00pm and 6:00 am the next morning, Cotton once again made an unsuccessful attempt to exit the pasture. This time was different, though. He actually ran straight into one of the uprights and knocked it over almost to the ground. It was like he was running and didn’t even see it. My guess is a deer sprang through his field and he took off looking backward at it.

The results? Pretty catastrophic.

Surprisingly, my vet said he thought he would recover as long as he didn’t get an infection and if I could keep him confined to heal the wound.

Confined? Yeah . . .um . . . that’s a big fat sack of not gonna happen.

He would at least be pasture sound he said. A companion horse he said.  I told him pasture sound horses that make good companions are the ones that actually stay, oh I don’t know, IN the pasture.

Once again we started with the weeks long treatments: daily irrigations of the wound, antibiotics of every sort and method, injections of medicated solutions through a long straw down into the cavity. It was a herculean effort to keep up with it all and, to be honest, just a little gross.

On day 3 I realized that he had not produced a manure pile yet. The concern, of course, was that his bowel had been injured in his assault on the fence and he would have to go to surgery to repair it. In his weakened state the odds were stacked against him.

That was the 2nd time I asked my vet to please euthanize my horse.

This time he agreed and arrived at my farm a few hours later with the large syringe of blue juice. Having shed my tears and come to terms with the outcome I was ready. The burial site was picked and we had said our goodbyes. We walked to the run-in; him with the syringe and me with the halter, neither of us really wanting to talk at the moment.

As we approached the shed, Cotton looked at us with those puppy dog eyes, turned his head away, and then proceeded to lift his tail and drop a big steaming pile of manure right in front of our eyes.

“Son of a bitch” I said.

My vet turned to me with a huge grin, put the syringe right back in his pocket and said “We won’t be needing this today” and he got in his car and beat feet off the farm as fast as his Chevy would take him.

“Cotton”, I said, “I really don’t know whether to love you or hate you right now. But let’s start with hate and go from there”. The emotional roller coaster was dizzying.

So we carried on for 2 more weeks of this around the clock skilled nursing facility care. I would tell him he needed to be one of three things and he could pick: 1) A good companion horse, 2) A good riding horse, or 3) Fertilizer.  I always gave him a pat on the neck when I said it, so I’m pretty sure he thinks I was joking.

But not really.

May 9th I walked out for the morning routine to find my horse looking like a Macy’s Day Balloon. Seriously, he was plumped-up from cheeks to tail like a blowfish and wobbling around the field like a tipsy Weeble.  I dropped his food in the dish and stared at him making his way towards me like a drunken sailor trying to pass a sobriety test.

His entire body was encased in subcutaneous emphysema, a condition in which a layer of air is trapped under the skin during respiration; probably from a small pleural tear. If I placed my hand against his neck it would leave a perfect indentation.

That was the 3rd time I asked my vet to please euthanize my horse.

“Is he eating?” was the response. Yeah, I said, he’s eating happily. He said he’d wait until Tuesday and if Cotton had stopped eating he would administer the medicine to end it.

Fine, I said. We’ll see if he keeps eating.

Well, Cotton ate. Oh, he ate plenty. He ate and ate and ate. He ate everything I put in front of him and asked for more. After a few days he started playing twister with his blanket.

Day after day the wound got slowly better and Cotton’s body returned to normal.  He was still never going to be sound to ride, but maybe he’d learn to relax in the field.

June 6th, 2014 I watched that son of a gun canter around his field and thought “Heck, let’s see what we’ve got ”. I pulled him out, threw some tack on a horse that had had more time on antibiotics than he had under saddle and I got on. And for the eleventeenth time, he surprised me.

I’d be lying if I said the tears weren’t plopping down my face when he carried me around the property with a pep in his step that destiny said he’d never have.  He didn’t have much, but he had enough to show me that he had plainly picked option #2.

He never gave up. Ever. I threw in the white towel 3 times. Each time he caught it before it hit the ground and threw it right back at me.

On October 12th, 2014, Cotton went to his first event, showing in the Beginner Novice division. He wooed the ladies in dressage with a 28.4; showed off his jumping prowess with great big awkward baby leaps in the stadium; and pinged and porpoised his way around XC like a kid seeing Disneyworld for the first time. 

To him, it was as easy as 1-2-3. Which, as fate would have, also happened to be our number.

He promptly proceeded to be the Beginner Novice Series Champion his first season out.

Today is the 3rd anniversary of the 3rd injury that, by all rights, he should not have survived. Three years ago a horse taught me to dig a little deeper, fight a little harder, and hold on to hope just a little bit longer. 

He’s quite a bit more mature now. Instead of late night frat parties I think he’s having late night Netflix parties. The rugby games have turned into Bocci Ball championships (although I’m sure he takes cheap shots at the other team’s knees when no one is watching).

We still have the random WHAT ON EARTH HAVE YOU DONE NOW? Days:

And the occasional miscue, like the Holy Mackerel long-spot to a fence:

The horse that should be dead? He’s pretty spectacular. 

And probably the best before & after picture of all time.

I still thank my vet for not putting Cotton down. I don’t know why he didn’t, but I sure am glad.  He does fondly call him Crash instead of Cotton. Rather fitting, I suppose.

Cotton is just Cotton. He’s the same horse as he was before, just a lot less self-destructive. He still enjoys being the ever naughty punk, and proved it when he snapped the cross tie while getting braided for a show this past weekend, and proceeded to run along the fence taunting another horse with a half braided mane and a cross tie flapping behind him.

All I can do is smile. The story of Cotton is only on chapter 8 . . .