Gazing out into the green pasture dotted with horses, I can always immediately spot my Tucker, and my breath catches in sheer awe every time. Tucker is a 16-year-old, 18-hand Percheron I bought at auction more than four years ago. All I wanted to do was save his life, but he—quite literally—saved mine.
About two years before I found Tucker, I had a massive heart attack at a very young age. My doctors told me they couldn’t believe I had survived the “widow maker.” Even the emergency room staff came up to my hospital room to congratulate me on surviving—I was the first many of them had seen.
By the time I went home to recover, I’d had plenty of time to think about how lucky I had been and all the changes I would need to make in my life. It was then I made my bucket list, and the first item on it was a horse of my own. I had grown up riding, and I was eager to start taking lessons again once I got the go-ahead from my doctor.
I discussed it with my husband as I was recuperating, and being an instant gratification kind of person, I told him that I wanted my very own horse and sooner rather than later—and that I wanted it to be a rescue. Being the wonderful man that he is, my husband got in touch with Lisa Post, who owns a dressage barn and runs Helping Hearts Equine Rescue in Perrineville, New Jersey.
Thanks to Lisa’s efforts, a large local auction has agreed to post to Facebook pictures of all the horses heading to the block each week—an effort that has so far prevented any from going to slaughter. After several months of monitoring the site, a friend alerted me to a posting for an older horse who was described as bombproof and easy to handle. Lisa assessed him and agreed he was a good match. He was a former Amish workhorse—a very large, very skinny black Percheron. He had rainrot, and his feet were a mess. But he was perfect. And soon, he was mine.
Tucker was held in quarantine for a month before he was delivered to Lisa’s barn. I visited every day so we could get to know one another, and each time I whispered in his ear that he was safe and loved.
My doctor was not in favor of me riding. I’d had a defibrillator/pacemaker installed, and I was still on blood thinners—a fall or even a seemingly minor injury around the barn could prove disastrous for me. But I was determined and a tad stubborn—I bought a protective vest to go with my helmet. I’d ridden hunter-jumpers in my younger days, but with Tucker’s age and my fragile health, I agreed that dressage and light riding were the best choice for me now. Lisa got on Tucker first and determined that he was safe.
And then I got on. Sliding into that saddle for the first time I felt reborn, rejuvenated and alive for the first time since my heart attack. Tucker was indeed bombproof. Nothing startled or annoyed him, and soon his playful personality started emerging.
Tucker was not one to come running when I came to the gate and called his name. No sir, he made me walk a half-mile down a hill to bring him back up to ride. This became a daily ritual—I feel he secretly enjoyed seeing me tramping down to get him. We discovered trail riding, although for Tucker it was a buffet just made for him. Being so tall, he loved grabbing and munching on branches along the way.
In my second year with Tucker, Lisa held a small dressage show at her barn. Tucker and I entered a couple of introductory classes that required only walking and trotting. We received a second and fifth place. For me the real joy came just from stopping and saluting the judges at the end of each test—-it was an indescribable feeling.
Shortly after our test, Tucker started having problems with his feet. He’d had the occasional abscess, but this time he developed several that were quite severe. Then one night I had to call my veterinarian at midnight—Tucker had developed mechanical founder in his left front hoof. My veterinarian wrapped the foot but told me that due to Tucker’s size and weight—almost 2,000 pounds—it didn’t look good. We’d try stall rest and hand-walking, and in the morning our farrier would be out to build a cushion, but I was told not to get my hopes up.
Every day, like clockwork, I came to the barn and walked Tucker. I sang to him, discussed politics, cooking and how he and I were going to have many more years together. He, of course, hung on every word. For six months, through Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year holidays, I walked with him. And, much to everyone’s surprise, he remained sound as he grew out his new hoof. By spring, he was able to go out by himself during the day, and now, almost two years later, he is turned out 24-7 with a Mini named Finster I adopted for him.
Tucker is now retired, due to severe ringbone0 in both front feet, but he is pasture sound and free of pain. I am blessed to be his caretaker for the rest of his life. Not long ago I went to have another cardiac test done. The extensive damage that had occurred during my heart attack has been reversed a bit, and my heart is pumping much more efficiently.
My doctor, who once had so opposed my riding, finally admitted that walking a 2,000-pound horse uphill every day, plus grooming and riding, had indeed saved my life. Honestly, I hadn’t been expected to survive this long. Some may say I saved Tucker, but I know he is the one who really saved me.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #459, December 2015.