Paid in full

My horse’s injury put a halt to my competitive dreams, but the bond we developed during his recovery meant more than any award ever could.

I remember January 23, 2000, like it was yesterday. Just the day before, I had received two year-end awards from our local dressage chapter: Sr. First Level Champions and Adult Amateur First Level Reserve Champions. These may not seem like a big deal, but for a “newbie” like me, they were a major accomplishment. I had been riding dressage for only two years, and now, as I drove to the stable, I was filled with excitement, looking forward to getting started on my next step.

Eros, my 10-year-old dark bay Hanoverian/Thoroughbred cross, was outside for his daily turnout. As I opened the gate, he turned around, whinnied and tried to trot toward me. My heart sank. He was completely lame on his right hind leg.

An emergency veterinary visit left us with grim news: Radiographs showed a slab fracture of the central tarsal bone. In layman’s terms, my horse had fractured his hock. Several consulting veterinarians confirmed that surgery was not an option for Eros. The location of the fracture yielded too little bone to be pinned, and they feared it would shatter. Instead, the plan was at least one year of stall rest with anti-inflammatory drugs to ease his pain while the bone healed on its own.

Dressage. Career. Over.

Stall rest can be hard on an energetic horse, but Eros surprised us all. He handled everything like a champ. My relationship with him changed overnight. I had been the person who cared for him and played with him but also made him work. Now I had become the master groom and treat-giving machine. Eros loved peppermints, so naturally I overindulged him. He had mastered sucking on the candies. After he took the mint out of my hand, he would flip his tongue over and stick it out and you would hear a sucking sound and see his jaw moving. This entertained me as much as it pleased him.

But as the months went by, something unexpected happened. I found that Eros and I were developing a bond unlike any I had ever experienced before. He became so attuned to me that as soon as I pulled up to the stable, he would whinny until I arrived at his stall. I loved these welcomes, and I found myself spending more and more time just hanging out in the stall. Even without riding, my time at the barn had become my escape from the daily headaches of my job. I grew dependent on my horse’s constant presence in my life every bit as much as he depended on me.

During Eros’s convalescence, other boarders offered to let me ride their horses. I gave it a try once, but I felt like I was cheating on my friend. Eros didn’t like it either. He knew I was out there, and for the entire duration of my ride, he paced the stall and got very upset.

So I decided that if I couldn’t ride Eros, I wouldn’t ride.

Finally, Eros was cleared for light work. But serious training and showing would never again be a possibility for him. We would go into the arena and pretend to do dressage, but we really ended up mastering the beautiful trails around the stable. I missed my old riding regimen, but this was no longer a possibility for my friend, so it wasn’t for me, either.

Still, these quiet rides provided me solace for years. The lameness in his right hind leg worsened over time as arthritis set in. Yet we were able to manage his pain and keep him active so that his good days outnumbered the bad ones. Our pace on the trails slowed to a gentle walk. As he aged into his 20s, cataracts began clouding his vision, but we learned our own language with touch and my voice, and with these he could still navigate the terrain. We enjoyed ourselves.

Meanwhile, my husband and I had started our family, and Eros became a fixture in my children’s lives, too. He seemed to know he had to be careful around these little people. Rides on Eros became one of my children’s favorite things to do.

In the fall of 2012, Eros and I participated in our stable’s Halloween fun show. We won the trail class! A friend told me she cried as she watched us navigate the course. My horse was blind yet trusted me completely—she said it was the most beautiful partnership she had ever seen. I was proud of my horse, and I loved him more than ever.

But, just a few days later, Eros developed laminitis. No cause could be found. I had never seen a horse in so much pain. For three months I followed a daily plan of icing his hooves and lower front legs, administering his medication and putting foam pads on his hooves. It snowed almost daily. The dullness of winter was getting to me but I had to focus on getting my horse on the long road to recovery.

But the snow did turn out to be a blessing. My 4-year-old son’s favorite job at the barn became helping me lead Eros out to stand in the snow to cool his hooves. He just stood quietly as my son played in the snow, hollering to me that he was showing Eros how to make snow angels. Despite the hard times, those special moments between my child and horse warmed my heart.

After what seemed like an eternity, Eros improved and bar0 shoes were put on both front hooves. By mid-January, he was completely sound. I was elated.

But I was blindsided again when, on a cold, dreary day in February, I received a call that Eros was down in his stall. He was colicking. My heart broke as I watched him rocking back and forth trying to get comfortable.

The veterinarian said she felt something during a rectal exam, and thankfully, she had her ultrasound machine on her truck so we could get more information. But that was both good and horribly bad. The images showed that he had a lipoma0 that was strangulating his intestine. He had a complete blockage. Tears streamed down both of our faces. Surgery on a 27-year-old blind horse? No, it wasn’t an option.

The day we put my best equine friend to rest was the hardest of my life. After his last breath, the wind calmed, and the sun reappeared, bright and warm. It was like Heaven had opened for Eros. I chose to have him cremated so he could be with me forever. The cause of his laminitis was believed to be the secretions from the lipoma—even though most of these fatty tumors are benign. Finally, I had closure to the mystery of the laminitis. But my horse was gone.

People often ask me why I spent so many years caring for a horse who couldn’t perform in the sport I loved. But the answer is very simple: Because he needed me. Even before his injury, Eros had been an important anchor in my life, when I married and left all of my family behind as I followed my new husband to a different state.

It wasn’t his fault he was injured, and he was the type of horse who needed attention—he would never have been happy if I had just turned him out to pasture. But he repaid me in so many ways, I have to say that in the end, I needed him even more. I’ll always be grateful that Eros was there to show my children how wonderful a life with horses can be, and that he was always so careful with them. He even showed his affection for them by licking them (much to their dismay!). He also taught me a great deal about empathy and what compassion for others really means. I was lucky to have had him for 17 years.

Eros still comes to me in my dreams, and in them I am worried about him. In time, I expect, my grief and anxiety will fade. I am now leasing a new horse, Boy, and we have just begun our journey together. I have no idea what the future holds. But I can be certain that my relationship with him will be all the stronger, thanks to the lessons I learned from Eros.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #448, January 2015. 




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