"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo



Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Tales From the Trenches: "Caution"

"Don't touch me."

I looked at the old Golden Retriever curled up at the back of the run, his front legs tucked up underneath him and his head placed flat against the bedding, nose turned off to the side. The only thing that moved about him were his chest as he breathed and his white-rimmed eyes as he warily watched us while his overnight nurse rounded me on his story.

This expression.
Not the dog in the story; photo from the internet.
I quietly studied him as I listened, while being careful to avoid direct eye contact with him, because body language is such an important part of an initial assessment. Whose body language? Both yours and the patient's, of course. How you approach and present yourself to the patient can change the entire course of their hospitalization because with high-strung animals, it can determine whether they see you as yet another source of stress during their stay or as the caring entity that you want to be for them. And how accurately you read their body language is going to determine how you react to their behavior throughout their stay: it can make or break a patient-nurse relationship.

There are shades of gray in between these categories, and a friendly but insecure dog can go from green to red within seconds. Context is really, really important when observing a patient's behavior. For example, one of the biggest causes of confusion in canine body language is a wagging tail: friendly dogs will wag their tails, but anxious/tense dogs will sometimes oscillate their tails as well, and that's not even mentioned in this chart. An individual's body language can also have subtle personal variations. 
To a casual observer, Rambo was a large older dog resting comfortably in the back of his kennel. To me, there was nothing comfortable about him. I saw the defensiveness of his position in the cage, more sideways than forward with head further towards the front of the cage than his hindquarters. I saw the lines of tension etched across his shoulders, back and forehead, the muscle wasting of his hind legs that pointed at either long-term arthritis of his hips, back and/or stifles, or at some mild neurological issue that was limiting his mobility in his old age. And I saw the soft, fluffy, shiny coat that is so often an indicator of owners who pay attention to detail when it comes to the care of their pets, but is also a sign of a healthy digestive tract that allows the animal to absorb all the nutrients from the diet they are fed at home. I saw an old dog that was painful and afraid and that was deeply loved.

Noticing the orange "Caution" sticker on his cage card, I asked the overnight nurse, "How much of a caution is he?" "Caution" is relative in vet med and we place the stickers on cage cards when warranted as a safety precaution for coworkers: it just means you have to be extra careful with a patient because they have certain triggers. For some it's taking their temperatures or touching their paws or giving them oral medications. Discussing these triggers is a routine part of nurse rounds because we are the ones providing the majority of the hands-on care to the patients, so we need to know how to avoid upsetting the patient whenever possible.

In Rambo's case, he was cage aggressive to the point of lunging at his overnight nurse when she had reached into his run. The trigger was thought to be fear of pain because initially he had arrived at the hospital so painful in his belly from the tumor that was threatening to burst, that touching him anywhere had caused a reaction. He had been started on pain medication immediately and once his pain was under control, his behavior had improved significantly when handled outside of his run. I was told to still be very careful when going into his kennel though.

I looked at the old man who was watching us so warily and just had a feeling. "You and I are going to be okay," I thought.

We finished rounds on my other patients for the day and I started on their 8:00 am treatments, saving Rambo for last so that I could take my time with him. It was wonderfully quiet in the main part of the ICU. The only sound was the low voices of the doctors seated at their desks in the treatment area while they did rounds.

Rambo was housed in the Dog Ward adjacent to the main floor of the ICU. It has glass walls and a glass door through which we can see the patients from anywhere in the ICU, but when the door is closed we can't really hear much of what is happening in there. It has the largest runs in the hospital though, so our bigger patients get housed there for their stays so they can be more comfortable. When we have critical patients in there, the door gets propped open so that we can hear them as well as see them.

I walked into the ward, picked up Rambo's own leash that was hanging in front of his run, and quietly opened the door, talking to him gently. "Will you let me come in? I need to do a whole bunch of things with you, but I need you to help me." I watched his body language while avoiding direct eye contact. Life is much easier if you avoid direct eye contact with nervous/scared/potentially aggressive dogs, and it is something that is taught in basic behavior courses in both veterinary and tech school. I let him see the leash: most dogs associate their leashes (vs the hospital leashes) with going outside and I've had the most fear-aggressive dogs change their demeanor completely when they catch sight of something familiar from home that they associate with good things.

If you're thinking right about now that my job sounds pretty dangerous, you are absolutely 100% correct. Fear and pain are the #1 causes of aggression in the veterinary environment, so we deal with this on the daily in the veterinary ER.

His expression softened. I carefully stepped into the run, one foot at a time, watching Rambo's body language. Everything about him remained soft, though his eyes again became guarded as I got closer. I showed him the leash again and he turned his eyes away, expectantly waiting for me to clip it to his collar. I did.

Click went the snap on his collar ring. "Come on, handsome," I said quietly.

Rambo heaved his front end up into a sitting position and from there physically pulled his hind legs up underneath himself until he could stand on all four feet. It was painful to watch. I wanted to help him so badly but it would involve touching his belly and I wasn't sure yet how much it still did or didn't hurt. Starting off on the right foot with him would make everything so much less stressful for both of us for the rest of the day, and inciting pain from the get-go is not the way to do this.

So I helped him by moving one step at a time out of the run and onto the floor of the treatment area. Once out of the ward, he was fine as long as we stayed on the rubberized mats we have all over the ICU to help our canines have traction on the otherwise slippery floors.

I took him out into the middle of the ICU where I could easily ask for help if Rambo decided to misbehave because I was amidst the doctors and techs.

"Sit Rambo," I said.

He sat down next to me with obvious relief at not having to continue to stand. "Good boy. Down, Rambo."

He lay down. "Good boy. Now stay."

He stayed. Thank God for well-trained dogs, because they are not common in the veterinary ER. A dog might be well-trained at home, but it is rare that one encounters canine patients that are so well-trained and well-socialized that they will still obey in high-stress environments with strangers.

I slowly sank down onto the floor next to him so that I was sitting right flush against his body. He was wearing a plastic cone for our own protection and being closer to him meant that I would be fully shielded by his cone if he decided to suddenly turn his head towards me.

Still talking to him and telling him what a good boy he was, I gently ran my hands all over his shoulders in a circular motion while watching his expression. He made no eye contact with me, but I saw when his eyes initially widened at being touched. He then blinked and visibly relaxed, "Petting is okay." I continued stroking his fur and slowly made my way down to his back leg, finding the shaved patch right above his big paw pad where I could place the Doppler probe to obtain his blood pressure. He objected to none of it: the cuff around his leg, the gel against the shaved spot, the pressure of the cuff. He just lay there quietly, seeming to be relieved at not having to do anything other than just rest, and closed his eyes.

Photo from here.
I continued to watch him carefully as I gently made my way over him, but he let me do everything to him by myself while napping peacefully in the middle of the ICU floor. I got a full set of vitals on him, including his temperature, and was able to obtain a small blood sample for the labwork his doctor wanted me to run. I needed no help whatsoever; nothing that I did disturbed him. I had somehow 100% earned his trust without really doing anything special at all.

While I had him out, I got up and fetched one of those Help 'Em Up harnesses that I've mentioned on here before. He continued to rest in his spot when I walked away. I returned and he continued to lie quietly while I fitted the harness to him. It would be so much easier to help him stand up and get going if I could have the extra assistance of one of those harnesses with the rigging around the hips.

His doctor came over to do his morning physical exam while I had Rambo out. Rambo continued to be compliant, not making a peep when we had him stand up again so the doctor could palpate his belly and check for more free fluid with the ultrasound probe. The vet wanted to switch our patient to oral pain medications and he wondered if I would be able to achieve this.

The challenge was that Rambo was not really interested in eating so I couldn't hide the pills in food or Pill Pockets. I would have to pill him, which meant having my hands around his mouth.

I had the distinct impression that Rambo would let me do it though. I slowly reached out to touch his head and he let me stroke his nose and muzzle without issue; his eyes continued to be soft as he looked at me.

The doctor saw my momentary hesitation though, and he changed his mind. "Don't worry about it; we'll continue to use injectables. It will be less stressful for him anyway."

The fluid in Rambo's belly had not worsened. All of his vital signs and blood work that morning indicated that he was stable. His owners did not want to take him to surgery to remove the bleeding tumor though: he was old and they didn't want to put him through such a rough recovery afterwards just to get a few more months of life out of him.

I called them later that morning to give them the nursing update on how Rambo was doing, and to set up a time for them to come pick him up that afternoon. Since he was stable, they would be taking him home to spend time.

I am an introvert that generally prefers to work silently over my patients to speaking with clients. When I'm focused on a pet in my care, the entire world ceases to exist and it's just me and that cat or dog, communicating back and forth with gestures and expressions that don't require verbal language. Words are used to express tone of voice that the animal can understand. But the brunt of communication does not really involve words. And so the ICU floor and the OR are my jam far more than the exam rooms. But time and experience have changed that to a degree. When I first started out as a tech, I had a hard time talking to clients because I wasn't always confident in what I could or could not share information-wise as the nurse, especially when dealing with defensive, worried, stressed pet owners that you want to reassure without creating false hope. Now? Now I enjoy it. Even when the news isn't the best, I try to reassure the owners that their pet is comfortable with us, that we are doing everything we can to ensure that, and go out of my way to mention little personality quirks that I discover about their pet during their stay with us. Most of the time, even when they know it might be a losing battle when it comes to saving them, knowing that their pet isn't stressed or in pain or suffering and that they are acting like their true selves with us is the greatest reassurance of all.

So that is what I gave Rambo's owners. And in exchange, I got to hear his story. It was a story like so many others, of a dog that had been owned since the time he was a puppy, of what a good dog he had always been, of how he lived on the owners' farm and had so much land to roam. He had always gotten along great despite having bad hips. In the story the dog ages and slows down and the owners assume that the slowing down is because of age. But then they realize he is slowing down a little too quickly and the dog gets brought into the vet and the cancer and the bleeding is discovered. A lot of times, the owners blame themselves. They think if they had brought the pet in sooner, the cancer could have been cured. Or if they hadn't walked the dog or let him jump into the car on x day, the bleeding wouldn't have started. Or if they had fed them differently or not gone on that trip they had been planning or if they had thought about it a little more, maybe their pet wouldn't be dying now.

Those are always so hard. Because no matter how much you reassure them that, most of the time, having done things differently would not have changed the outcome because you can't reverse age nor its biggest side effect: death...owners always blame themselves.

But these owners were different because they understood. They understood that this was the end of the road for Rambo. There was no guilt involved because they had done everything right. There was just sadness because a dog they loved so much would be missed once he was gone.

We set a time and I hung up the phone, and went over to Rambo's run. He looked up at me when I opened the run and I knelt on the floor. "Your owners love you," I told him. He made eye contact briefly and then looked away, closing his eyes. I stood up quietly and let him sleep.

The hours ticked by. It was an unusually quiet day in the ICU, which was good because it meant I could take my time with treatments. Rambo had to be taken out of his run every time I had to do things to him and it soon started to get old. He was tired and just wanted to rest. He never once growled at me though. He'd give me an initial hard look, then sigh and lurch to his feet. "Fine. I'll come with you." As he pushed himself up with his front legs, I'd catch the rear handle of the harness around his hips and we'd walk out of the run together.

And then he'd lie down on the ICU floor and patiently let me do whatever I had to do for his treatments before it was time to go back into his run.

His owners arrived in the afternoon. I went over their discharge instructions and the pain medications we were sending home. There were just enough to keep him comfortable over the weekend. Unless he got worse sooner, they would be taking him to their regular veterinarian on Monday morning to euthanize him. We all knew that that was what would happen, but we all skirted around it in conversation.

Rambo's doctor went in to touch base with them while I got the big Golden ready to go home. It involved coaxing him out of his run one more time. It was one time too many: as I reached for the handle on his harness to help him up, he finally protested with a deep rumbling growl. "I don't want to get up."

I stopped. "Rambo. You're going home. Please come with me. You won't have to stand up for me again," I said gently. He glared at me, then finally looked away. I reached down slowly and stroked his coat, then reached for the handle on the harness, which he now allowed me to do. With a groan he struggled to his feet and came with me.

I took him back out into the ICU and uneventfully removed his IV catheter, placing a bandage over the site. I then did what I had honestly been wanting to do all day, but had not been able to because we were respecting the fact that the dog was uncomfortable and could change his mind about us at any moment: I removed the darn cone from his head.

We walked across the ICU. Rambo came alive when he realized we were leaving the treatment area, suddenly gaining a new spring to his step. Like most dogs tend to do, it was him that led me to the room where his owners were, whom he greeted ecstatically.

His owners said hi to him with a mixture of happiness and sadness. They picked up their belongings to leave and Rambo, knowing what was coming next, came over to me, placed his head against my knees so that I could really pet him without the plastic cone in the way, and wagged his tail shyly at me. It was the first time he had wagged his tail at me. It is always such a special gift when they come over to say good-bye before they go. I rubbed his ears silently for a moment before he pulled away with a doggy grin and headed for the door. Smiling, I stepped back so the couple and their dog could leave.

Rambo's owners paused, teary-eyed, and thanked me for my help.  I told them they were very welcome. I stood for a second in the hallway watching them walk away, Rambo's plume of a tail held high over his back as he marched out of the hospital with his people, his age and weakness and pain forgotten.

I was watching an ending. His days were numbered but he didn't know that. All that mattered was that he got to go home to be on his farm with his family one more time. And that made his ending a happy one.

Like I've said before: in ICU and in Surgery, that is all that I ever want for them.

I turned around and walked back through the swinging doors of the ICU to take care of my other patients.



Saturday, September 29, 2018

"Thank you"



I walked out into the field with Gracie's halter slung over my shoulder. She wasn't in the run-in shed and only one other horse was at the front of the field so I figured she was at the back down by the creek with the rest of the herd.

That's where she was, quietly grazing next to the shade trees. With her blonde mane and tail, she is always easy to spot in an ocean of chestnuts, bays and grays.

She jerked her head up from the grass when she saw the human coming around the corner and I saw her ears prick and eyes brighten when she recognized me. I never had to call her: she came right up to me, pinning her ears and snaking her head at the two other mares that also tried to come say hi as she stepped between them and me. "This is my human. You go away." I laughed.

She used to do that even before she was officially mine. But then again at that time she did that with all people because she thought everyone was a Pez treat dispenser. It's been four years and she knows that I'm not bringing treats to her in the field, so it is extra special that she'll come to me so willingly anyway. At the beginning of our relationship, she would insistently whuff at my hands looking for the cookies I never had. For years now, she will simply come up to me and stand still for me to stroke her forehead before sliding the rope halter on.

We walked out of the field to her waiting bute-laced grain, which she slowly munched on while I groomed her and tacked her up with the bareback pad. Part of legging Gracie back up is working through her hock and RF fetlock arthritis, which tends to get worse with inactivity even when she is out in a field 24/7. Right now we are in a no-pressure stage where the goal is to just get her moving for a short period of time while working on both strengthening and stretching. The stronger and bendier she is, the less stress there is on her joints, and consistent movement with a purpose helps get those joints lubricated again. She gets a big say in what we do or don't do on a given day, especially at this stage: she has a great work ethic as long as her rider is fair, so anytime she is trying to give me a "Nope" or an opinion about an activity, I know at this point it is because something is physically bothering her.

In the meantime, she gets bute in her grain pre-workout to help. I haven't posted about any of the stuff that had been happening with the horses, but due to some recent major staff changes at my regular equine vet's office (basically Dr. L, my vet for the last 4 years, left the practice), they weren't able to come out to this barn for emergencies because it was now out of their service radius. (Dr. L was local to me.) The practice owner was kind enough to come out himself for our regular wellness visits but with Lily out of the picture I finally made the change to a different but still heavily recommended vet who can come out with more ease and on whom I can rely on in the event of an emergency. They come out for the first time this week, at which point I will be discussing getting Gracie on a regular joint support program again: she needs to go back on her IM Adequan and have her joints injected again. The bute pre-ride helps for now far more than oral joint supps, which is why this was a tactic previously advised by Dr. L.

At this stage of conditioning, I can mentally get bored in the arena if I don't have a couple of plans for the session on the brain already (there's usually a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, which will get picked based on the horse I have underneath me on that day), so I try to keep the work interesting for both of us: if I get bored, Gracie gets bored. Given how much rain we've had, working in the grass around the property is limited right now because the footing is plain slick. The great thing about this giant arena we have now, other than its size, is the stone dust footing: it is both firm and forgiving. She definitely prefers to work outside of the arena but there has been a lot less annoyed tail swishing over arena work since we moved to this barn. She loves time spent with her people and if this is one way to get it, so be it.

This was the only ride I was able to get on her this week thanks to never-ending pouring rain (yes there is an indoor. I'm trying to stay outdoors as much as possible for now) so I put her on the longe in both directions for a couple of turns to see where her brain was at and what she wanted to do. She trotted, which wasn't unusual, but her inside ear was turned into me and her eyes twinkling: she was game for whatever.

I hopped on and we started out at a walk in both directions. Mareface was stiff on her RF so we started off to the left when moving up into her gait. She was also reluctant to collect, which I was expecting: it is time for her hocks, which she tells me by letting me know it's uncomfortable to sit and engage. She's usually able to work out of it as her fitness increases and she can go for longer stints of time. Injectable joint support will help even more.

We changed directions to the right and she immediately switched to a trot. I half-halted, she broke to a walk (what I had expected) and I asked for the gait again. She gaited for two strides then switched to the trot again. Hmmm...this is unusual for her. Like I've mentioned before here, gaiting is a bigger workout because it requires a lot more engagement. If I'm letting her take it easy, I'll let her pace in whatever way she chooses while warming up, and then ask for engagement once she feels ready. Her trot usually feels clunky, unbalanced and really heavy on the forehand, but on this day it was...lovely, actually. I realized I had no issues sitting it in the bareback pad and she was asking to stretch down while lifting her back: she was clearly telling me what her body needed. So I shrugged, let the reins slide through my fingers to allow her to stretch, and relaxed my hips to follow along with her movement. I kind of felt like Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro as we glided around the arena at this big but smooth trot. 

We proceeded to have SO MUCH FUN. We did lengthenings down the long sides of the arena and big loopy circles, then changed directions. She offered to gait when going to the left again. "You can keep trotting if you want," I told her. She switched back to the trot and we continued on with the same pattern. She wanted to be in this long and low frame while trotting but her withers were up and she felt as in front of my leg as she can be at this stage of conditioning, so I let her do what she needed to do and interceded merely to give direction in terms of patterns and changes of direction.

This is my favorite part of riding: the unspoken conversation with your horse. The quiet exchange of energy with your partner.

My mind wandered as I became engrossed in the flow of riding, and I remembered how riding used to be my active mediation. The barbell does the same thing for me: it allows me to be present only with myself. Riding in harmony with your horse brings about that same awesome stillness that I get from barbell work...that then becomes a part of the stillness inside of the 1,000 lb animal underneath you. That is when you become one with your horse, when the centaur emerges.

I thought then of this mare and the circumstances that brought her into my life.

I had been going through a phase where I missed Lucero so so much. I didn't get to say good-bye to him when he died and it also happened at the time we were getting ready to move from South Florida, so I felt like I never got to properly grieve him. It caught up to me three years later, the same spring that Lily came in from the field dead lame on both fronts after a week of rain followed by a hard freeze.

At that time my frustration over the already endless issues with the mare and having to cancel our first endurance ride right when I had been about to mail in our entry after 6 months of conditioning (we were originally scheduled to attempt No Frills's LD that year; I never had the intention of doing Old Dominion as our first ride!) snowballed into this huge, "Why can't I still have Lucero? He never got injured, he was never lame, he was fearless everywhere and anywhere, and he was gaited to boot."


Photo of one of my favorite pics of Lucero.
That had evolved into, "I want a back-up horse. And I want him/her to be gaited."

As so often happens in my life, that same week the BO had talked to me about starting to work with Gracie after a conversation with her owner.

Gracie used to annoy the hell out of me in the field because she would chase Lily away when I was trying to fetch her. It was hard not to like the mare because she had so much personality and she was drop-dead gorgeous on top of that, even when she was a chunk, but it made me crazy that she sometimes complicated my ability to catch my own horse. 

"Whatchu doin' in there?" as I was setting up Lily's feed.
My first ride on her though? It had been love at first ride. Gracie wanted to have a conversation. It was pretty argumentative at first, full of "But WHY?s" but set a boundary and she would respect it more often than not. I had not laughed that much during my initial interactions with a horse in...never. That had never happened before. Yet she was so familiar to me that when her trainer's wife whispered to me a week later, "She's for sale," I had to find a way to buy her because the Universe was readily dropping this mare into my lap right when I had asked for her.

That time I took Carlos to the barn so he could meet Gracie for the first time.
"She's awesome and she's for sale. Can I have her pleeeease?"
And that is how Gracie became a part of our lives and how she kept me busy when Lily was down for the count that spring.

The back-up horse. She was so bummed when I introduced her to Carlos later that summer, and she was pretty clear about it. Her and I had already established a relationship and she would happily come to me in the field every time I went to get her, "What are we doing today???" But when Carlos officially became part of the picture with her, she had a phase where she became somewhat sullen towards me. "Fine. I'll babysit him if that's what you want me to do," she said. But she wasn't thrilled about it. Until they got to know one another and she realized that I hadn't surrendered her to him: she belonged to both of us. We went through some growing pains in order to reach that point, but once she understood that she wasn't being passed along to someone else again and that I had not given up on her right after her and I had become friends, she settled in with the fact that she got to have TWO whole people to herself now...and she was absolutely fine with that. She understood that Lily came first for me, but she also knew that I loved her no less...in fact, I was constantly struggling with the fact that Gracie was my favorite. I think Gracie always knew though. And it would become more and more evident over time.


That winter that I was concussed (because of Gracie...) I hopped on her bareback one evening after a frustrating ride on Lily and took her out into one of Kathy's snow-covered fields where we putzed around. From a rational standpoint it had been a crazy thing to do, especially given that my balance was still not quite 100% from the head injury and I hadn’t really ridden bareback in years, but from a gut-feeling point of view, it had felt like the right thing at the right time. One of the things that impressed me at that moment was Gracie's obvious desire to take care of me that evening. I was very blase when I wrote about it after but the truth is that I had been nervous about attempting this. However, instead of becoming nervous herself in response to my emotions, Gracie instead did everything in her power to reassure me that she was not going to try to escape from underneath me as she walked around on the frozen ground, completely attuned to my precarious position on her.


The reason why I had bought her was because I had known then: this mare has it in herself to be the horse with whom I could do anything.



That night as I rode her bareback with my concussed head, she proved it for the first time. I had later dismounted with this enormous grin on my face.

"Thank you," I had whispered to her when I said good-night.


The summer that Lily ran away with the hitching post, I didn't have much time to ride Gracie thanks to all of Lily's treatments when she returned home from the hospital. Gracie still came happily to me in the field and resignedly sighed when she realized she was on babysitting duty again: this time for Lily. She quietly hung out in the stall next to her sister so Lily wouldn't lose her mind over being cooped up alone in the barn at night.





During these times, she always managed to give me exactly what I needed, even when I didn’t know what it was that I needed.


That October when Lily tried to rip her face off, I turned around and outright told Gracie, "I really need you right now. I just need you to be here for me right now." And she gave me the gift of just being there for me right when I needed it most. Sometimes it involved going for a ride. But often it was just about walking out into the field and burying my face in her golden mane so my mind could be still for awhile. She was happy to provide either one.




The troubled summer where I realized I'd have to leave the hospital I had worked at for four years, I was often too stressed to want to go for a ride on Lily. I'd show up at the barn and pick Gracie instead. I'd hop on and I'd give her the reins. "Take me wherever you want. You pick."


She loved these rides. She'd wander down to the trails and we'd cross the river or walk through chest-high hayfields that shimmered and rippled in the sun like a bright green sea.




I never did write about those rides. But I plastered my personal Facebook with the photos at the time.

I'd remove her halter in the field afterwards, feeling like I was a new person again, hug her head and whisper, "Thank you."


When I was too injured to ride Lily after the fall in the river, I was thrilled to discover I could still ride Gracie. When I pretty much couldn't do anything else activity-wise because even running and lifting at the gym were painful, Gracie allowed me to go outside and do at least one normal-for-me thing: ride. 


I'd remove her halter in the field afterwards and again whisper, "Thank you."

After the May incident this past spring, I had stopped riding both horses when the guilt over what to do with Lily became too much to cope with. Just being at the barn I felt frozen into a state of, "I need to work with Lily but I really don't want to." So Carlos would go for me instead. 

It wasn't long after that that we had historic rainfall over the course of 48 hours. It rained so hard for so long that the stream that runs through the property flooded and took down the mare field fence...as well as flooding the entire front of the property and both arenas. Thankfully our BO noticed what had happened with the fence and was able to evacuate the horses to a different field where they stayed for a week while waiting for the waters to recede enough to be able to repair the fence.

I went out to check on the girls when I got out of work the next day, mainly to make sure Lily was still in one piece. She ignored me when I went up to her. I was a wreck of emotion that I was insisting on shoving into a box because I couldn't deal with it right then. 

I had been walking back out of the field. Gracie had been off grazing with her friends at the far end of the field and she saw when I was leaving. Ever perceptive, she left her friends and came over. It was actually Carlos, who had come with me and had been waiting at the field gate, who pointed out that I had a follower. I had stopped and Gracie had slowly walked over to me. 


"You forgot to say hi to me. Can I walk you to the gate?" And that's what she did.

One afternoon this past July I really wanted to see the horses and we swung by the barn. I walked out into the field and both of them came to me. Lily approached me first and I stroked her forehead and scratched her itchy spots but I was sad and wistful, thinking, "What on earth am I going to do with you?" 

Gracie had gone over to say hi to Carlos first. Lily moved away to graze close by and Gracie, seeing that I was available, turned away from Carlos and came over to me. 

And she just stood there very close to me as I untangled her forelock and rubbed my fingers in circles down her neck. I finally gave up and wrapped my arms around her, hiding my face against her soft silky coat and letting the tears flow silently. It had been a long time since I had cried with my face against a horse.

She just closed her eyes and stayed, not even twitching her skin at flies or even thinking of trying to graze, until I finally let go of her and took a step back. She turned her head and looked at me, "Are you better now?"

And I had smiled at her and thought, "Thank you."

She had pricked her ears and twinkled her eyes at me. She then walked with Carlos and me all the way back to the field gate. 

I thought about that as I rode now, about this mare that had been sent to me to be the back-up horse, when in fact she has really been the backbone all along. 

I asked for a walk and we did some shoulder-in and leg yielding into and out of the circle. 



I finally dismounted and walked her back to my car in the barn parking lot, where I pulled a couple of treats out of the trunk to offer her. She was so happy.

She then hung out, untied, next to the barn while I removed her tack and brushed her off.



And looking at her with her blonde mane gently waving in the cool autumn breeze that afternoon, I remembered a different horse who had meant just as much to me. 


And thought about how the Universe is such a crazy thing sometimes. 

Afterwards, I took her out into the field, removed her halter, kissed her forehead and whispered, "Thank you."

Sometimes you realize that exactly what you needed has been in front of you the entire time. 





****Many, many thanks to everyone that took the time to comment on the PR and Lily posts. I've cherished each and every one. <3<3<3

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Farewell Lily




Rhythm.

It is life, marking the beats of a heart on the EKG.
It is the expanding of our chest with every breath.
It is the bass beat that we move to on the dance floor.

It is the patter of falling rain, the sound of a cantering horse's footfalls, the purring of your cat curled up on your chest, the sound of your fingers over the computer keyboard, the song of the birds singing outside your open window.
It is the wind rippling through the trees with an incoming storm. It is the sound of the waves crashing on the shore.
It is in the solidity of that which you touch, as molecules vibrate together ever so tightly to form rock, earth and iron.
It is in the light, each color in its spectrum determined by its individual frequency.
Rhythm is everything. It is in everything, within us and surrounding us.

Harness a rhythm and you can do anything: with rhythm you can continue life, you can create it, you can celebrate it, and you can sometimes even bring it back. Control the rhythm of your heart and your breathing, and sometimes you can make your feet go on forever.

I found my rhythm two weeks ago as I ran through a chilly misting drizzle in downtown, one foot in front of the other. I keep saying I'm not a "real" runner: "I'm not a real runner because I run-walk." "I'm not a real runner because I won't run in the rain." "I'm not a real runner because I won't run in the cold outside."

On this day, I became the lifter that also runs by all of my self-imposed definitions. On this day, I hit three miles without stopping and still didn't want to stop so I continued on into a fourth mile, despite the cold and the rain.

And it was all because of the rhythm of the music playing through my headphones as I continued. A conspiration from the Universe: Pandora played song after song after song with the same metronomic beat that allowed me to pace to the bass and percussion so seamlessly that I felt like I could go on forever effortlessly.

There is something beautiful about feeling your body working at what once upon a time felt like max effort but is now a breeze. Blood pumps through your arteries as your heart remains at a steady, comfortable beat, thanks to measured breaths and an even, relentless pace.

I was thinking about all of this in wonder as I ran, when Pandora suddenly started to play this song.




Something about the beat and the voices and the imagery made me pay attention. And then it got to the chorus:


"We can do anything if we put our minds to it
Take your whole life then you put a line through it
My love is yours if you're willing to take it
Gimme your heart cause I ain't gonna break it.
So come away, starting today
Start a new life, together in a different place
We know love is how these ideas came to be
So baby run away, away with me."

I got goosebumps. I've talked before on here how music sometimes is a multi-sensorial experience for me, and this song literally struck a chord. I continued running, accelerating my pace to match the slightly faster beat of the song. It finished and I hit "Repeat." And again. And again. And that is how not only did I complete four miles strictly running on this day in both the cold and the rain, I also did them in negative splits, all thanks to this one song.

Once I was back in the car, I flipped over to Sound Cloud and looked for the song so I could continue playing it whenever I wanted.

I ran again to it the next day, still on repeat.

I kept listening to it because I couldn't figure out why the chorus made me want to cry. I finally pulled up the video and that made me start bawling, but I couldn't understand why. The video is wistful, not sad. So I continued listening to the song...and then figured out that the beat reminded me of a very specific canter beat on the trail, belonging to one very specific mare.



"So baby run away, away with me."

The song reminded me of Lily.

And once I figured that out, it was like someone had opened the floodgates and all the grief over her that I've been carrying around silently with me for the last two years suddenly came pouring out.

You see, we spend our lives trying to fit in boxes, defining ourselves by what we do for a living or what we do outside of work or how we look or what we went to school for or what we hope to be someday. Sometimes the best part is deciding we don't want to be defined by any one quality: we can be anything and everything we want to be. We can be multiple things at once that sometimes aren't even compatible with one another, like me being both a runner and a lifter. We just have to put our minds to it.

As horse owners though, we so often become defined by our equine partners.

And I have spent the last seven years defining my life by one mare named Tiger Lily.


------------------------------

Lily sold on September 8, 2018, exactly seven years and two months right down to the day from when I bought her.

I started talking about selling her back in October of 2015 when she tried to rip her face off.



There came a time when I started only posting about her major injuries here. All of the minor ones: the abscesses, the cuts that blew up, the cellulitis episodes, the mystery swelling in her hind legs for two weeks the fall of 2015 that was the cause of us cancelling our participation in the Nationals LD, the stone bruises, the puncture wounds, the fungal infections: I kept all of those to myself. I was tired of rehashing all of that on here. Just reading other bloggers' accounts of their injury-prone horses is exhausting to me after all of the struggles with Lily.


Case in point: that one time I was lunging her over a 2'6" jump in the arena and she managed to nick a small artery in her left hind (always that godforsaken left hind.) She didn't stumble or falter in any way; I wouldn't have even noticed if it hadn't  been for the sudden gushing of blood to the beat of her pulse. Her entire leg was covered in blood within seconds and she left a trail of blood behind her as I walked her back to the barn where I had my first aid kit. She was started on antibiotics to keep the leg from blowing up with cellulitis and had to live with this Elastikon bandage on for a few days.

After she had healed from her torn face, I had put out feelers among people I knew and trusted to see if they knew of anyone looking. There had been no takers so I left it at that at the time, figuring that there was a reason for me to keep her.

And there was a reason for her staying: we had a fantastic endurance season in 2016. Until the fall at the river. One of the few things I clearly remember about that day without having to go back and read the post with the details, was looking up at Lily's saddle on her back and thinking, "I need to get back on. I should get back on," but I was in too much excruciating pain to even be able to think of swinging a leg over. I had known that even if I managed to get back on, I would stiffen up and then not be able to get back off.

I had wanted to cry because I had just been so happy before, right before that happened. Everything had been so perfect. We had been going on a 20 mile round-trip conditioning ride on the C&O Canal with a stop at Harper's Ferry halfway so we could all have lunch before turning around and heading back to the trailer.







There was something so magical about idea of riding on horseback into this little Civil War town in WV. It was also supposed to be the last long conditioning ride before Ride Between the Rivers.

But I had also wanted to cry because deep down inside, I knew it was the end. It wasn't just the outside of me that broke that day, something on the inside also broke. And while my body healed, my insides did not.


The bruises are long gone on that leg two years later, but there will always be some remaining swelling/edema from the extensive tissue damage. It is a constant reminder, as well as my matching scarred elbows.
I did eventually get back on though. Jess competed her for me at Lily's last two endurance rides because I was still too injured to ride a trotting horse. But once I was sound of body, I swallowed my fears, pushed through them and got her back on a consistent work schedule over the winter of 2016-2017.


I pushed through my fears enough to haul back out to the same part of the C&O where the accident had happened.
And then I stopped riding as much because of everything else that was going on: because of politics and their repercussions both here and at home and my heightened anxiety over all of that and over close American friends at the time that said I was "overreacting" which made me borderline crazy. I have never been one to "get political" over stuff. In the past I would be mad about decisions I didn't agree with both here and in PR. I would discuss my opinions if asked, but never ever ever to the extent I do now. Dubya sucked; I moved to the States when he was president and as a Latina with a heavy accent at the time and all of my work experience in Puerto Rico, I got introduced to American stereotypes against "others" real quick in part thanks to that administration's anti-immigrant views. (Let's not get into the fact that legally Puerto Ricans don't immigrate to the US; we migrate here...) Even then though, things were not anywhere near what they are now.

So I was not emotionally in a place where I wanted to deal with Lily on top of everything else. I ran away into the gym. And then I was prepping for my first show. And then, after what turned into months of not riding her, when I finally got back on Lily in August after the show I realized that all of the PTSD that I had accrued from years of one disaster after another had snowballed into an avalanche.


Our ride ended with me dismounting and hand-walking her most of the way after what can only be described as a full-blown panic attack.
I realized then that my anxiety over needing to keep her in consistent work all the time was not just because of her: it was also because of me. Deep down inside I had known that if I had stopped riding her for a long enough period of time, the bad painful parts of our relationship would catch up to me to the point of no return.

Beka once commented on one of my many injury posts something along the lines that it was hard to decide whether Lily or I had the worst luck, since either one or the other was always getting hurt. I had tried to brush it off at the time but it had stuck with me like a burr that you can't dig out of your clothes...because it had rung true: it was like the mare and I had this horrible karma together. I mention the comment now in a positive way because it might have saved my life...but I will never know for certain.

The trailer door incident at Fort Valley, where Lily sent the door flying and I ended up with a split lip that really should have been stitched back together but no, I had to ride 50 miles the next day on Gracie...that day, as I held ice to my broken face, I had looked at Lily and had been so grateful that I was not going to be the one riding her in the race. I had had no qualms about her and Jess at all; I knew that they would be fine. But I had also known that if it had been me on her, it would have been a different story.

And I remembered Beka's comment then and thought, "Even when doing the most casual inane things around her, this mare still manages to hurt me without even meaning to. I...I can't do this anymore. I just can't."


The day after, quite drunk after the ride, with my swollen lip (the split was on the inside) and bruises on my arm from I don't even know what from the same incident.
Could I have forced myself to work through it yet again in order to ride her consistently? Of course. I had done it a million times before: start out slow, get through lots and lots of positive rides and experiences, and your guard goes down, the anxiety disappears and you get lulled into a sense of security. I never really posted in detail about that side of working with her. This blog started out as, and for a long time was, a conscious effort in me finding the ray of sunshine in owning Lily.

The difference this time around was that I didn't WANT to go through with forcing myself to ride Lily because I knew how it would end: with me injured again. The time had come where I was resolutely not willing to do that again, mainly because I need a functioning body to do my job, to make a living. Major injuries like the river incident can be career enders in my line of work. I had been lucky that time. I was done with tempting fate. If I had not had Gracie as well, I would have been done with horses forever, period. That's how far I had strayed from the horse-crazy girl that once wanted to spend every waking hour at the barn.

I moved the mares to the new barn in the hopes that having access to two decent arenas would help ease my fears: maybe Lily and I could just abandon the trail and stick with dressage. But I found myself grumpy from anxiety every time we headed for the barn to ride and I kept finding excuses to not get on. As the months got warmer, I started dreaming of the trail again.

But I didn't want to do it on Lily.

Carlos was the one who offered to ride her so I could go on Gracie instead. I was not 100% comfortable with that idea but they had gotten along fabulously in the past.



He is so solid and calm in temperament that I thought it would be beneficial for the mare.

We tried this experiment and it went well in the beginning. We stuck to the arena so Carlos could get the swing of riding Lily again and even ventured out onto the barn trails once. It all went really well and I started talking of hauling out with the mares again. Except that when the opportunity arose to haul out, I woke up with this unexplainable and really bad feeling. Given that the previous evening I had been super excited about hitting the trails on this day, we listened to my gut and chose to stay instead. We went to the barn to ride anyway and that's the day that the Carlos incident happened. It was yet another freak thing around this mare, except this time he was the victim. He was none the worse for wear but if things had gone even slightly differently, he would have ended up dead. I later sat in the car a trembling nervous wreck just looking at him, because it had been so close that I couldn't believe he was unscathed.

And that is how three years of looking for excuses to keep her came to an end. That was the final straw.

I'm not going to go into the details of my thought processes throughout those three years and later the four months after the Carlos incident. Long-term readers know that I don't make decisions lightly and I research the crap out of everything I do; I have explained on and off on here where my brain has been going with Lily throughout the last 3 years. I don't expect readers to remember, but I'm not going to rehash it again. To note: My family and I are big believers in that pets are family. You don't sell them or put them up for adoption or quit on them without exhausting every other option first.

I have never sold a horse before. I have rehomed horses in the past with people I knew and trusted, and two out of those three ended up being passed along out of my reach, which was extremely upsetting at the time. But once a horse is out of your ownership, what happens to them is beyond your control because that horse does not belong to you anymore. You don't get a say in it. This is why it took me so long to arrive at this decision and why every other option was contemplated long and hard beforehand: more training, leasing, lessons, etc.

I will not go into details of the sale. I originally wasn't going to say anything about this until the Year End Review since I've barely talked about the horses on here for the last year and a half, but this blog started because of Lily and she meant too much to not say anything.

I need to write some sort of tribute to her.

All you really need to know about my thought processes is this: My one other remaining way of keeping her would have been to retire her but we don't own horse property nor are interested in doing so. I debated sending her to a retirement farm but that then left me with the whole, "If she tries to kill herself I still have to pay for it" part, which I had been done with long before the part where she always ended up hurting me. Plus the type of retirement farm where I would have wanted to send her would have cost more than field boarding two horses.

Would I have kept her if we had had our own farm? I wondered about that. The answer is probably not.

a) There was a factor of unease in keeping her but not working her: I felt like to just keep her retired would have ended up badly for her because keeping a perfectly sound TB with mild herd-boundness issues out in a field with other horses for years is to that horse's detriment if circumstances change and you need to rehome her. I did not feel comfortable with this answer, especially given how often the idea of leaving the mainland gets periodically tossed around in our house in the current political environment. Gracie has a soft landing place no matter what happens: she goes back to her previous owner if circumstances change for us, and if she couldn't take her, it is not hard to sell a gorgeous registered KMH with trail experience that anyone can ride.

b) The other conclusion that I came to through all of this pondering is that, regardless of the scenario, I think if I had kept Lily longer I would have started riding her again at some point because of point a) and also it seems stupid not to ride a perfectly sound horse that loves to work. It would have been a waste not to.

And that was why I couldn't keep her in my life. My reaction to her was that of someone who has been in a toxic relationship for a long time and is afraid of letting go. I had to let go.



------------------------------


Fast forward to her last week with me.

It took me two days to finish trimming her feet because I was afraid of getting underneath her to do her hooves. Not because of anything she would do deliberately. No, I was afraid of some other freak accident where one or both of us would get hurt, right at the end of our journey together. 

But I trimmed up her feet beautifully and uneventfully, with her standing loose in the grass outside of the mare field and patiently keeping each foot on the hoof stand while I worked on them. Just like she had always been for having her feet trimmed.

I worked her twice that last week, just to see where her brain was at and to check her soundness during the home stretch. If you followed along during our endurance era, you know how superstitious I was about our last week before a ride: half the time some random shit would happen to Lily to keep us from going, especially if I announced in advance that we had plans to compete. This was the same thing. 

She was absolutely fine, and she was absolutely lovely. That first day we started out in the round pen with ground work. 


She was so quiet that we both eventually got bored. She was going to another indoor situation so I worked her in our barn's indoor arena at liberty a bit. She would go out and trot and canter and change direction when I asked her to, and of her own volition confronted some of the random trail obstacle-type things the BOs have in the indoor, cantering right up to the obstacles and then darting past playfully.

I had never seen her be so brave on her own.

She finally asked for permission to come in to me and I let her. All she wanted to do was follow me around, so I gave up on working her because it wasn't necessary. I just stopped and danced with her, having her move her hindquarters or her shoulders away from me at the point of a finger, just like I'd taught her, or letting her follow me in turn. 

I stood still and she came to a stop in front of me, and then looked around and behind herself at the arena door and she just looked so pretty that I snagged a picture.





I didn't realize then that it would be my last photo of her. I mean, I knew she was going to a new home, but I didn't think about the fact that I wouldn't be taking another picture of this mare whose persona was 100% of my contribution to social media not that long ago. 

This photo.
I hosed her off because it was so hot that day, and then set her free in the field. 

I returned to the barn two days later with Carlos and worked her in the round pen again while he watched us. Just walk/trot/canter for about 10 minutes because that was really all she needed. Afterwards I gave her a bubble bath. She stood quietly in the wash stall for once, letting me scrub the dirt off of her forehead and trim her mane and make her white sock sparkling again and condition her tail. She didn't fidget nor call for Gracie: she was present. It was just her and me again.

I then let her loose in the long grass outside of the mare field and sat down close by to watch her in silence. I was silent both on the outside and the inside and Carlos made a comment about it.

"I had missed this part of you, the part of you with the horses," he said.
"What about it?" I had asked quietly, still looking at Lily.
"Your confidence around them. The fact that you go through the motions without having to think about it because they are so familiar and known to you."
I thought about that. He compared it to me in the gym, where it's the same confidence but it manifests itself in a different way: I am fierce and bold when it comes to lifting.

"I go to the same place inside though. In both instances, I am quiet inside. I have to be when lifting or I get in my own way. The difference is that with the barbell, it's just me. With Lily, anything even slightly off about me affects her. I just don't need to worry about that with the barbell. Nor Gracie for that matter. It takes an enormous amount of effort for me to be this way around her," I said to him, indicating Lily. "She is this quiet and calm right now because I am forcing myself to be this way around her. It's why I can't do this anymore: it's such a huge effort. I just don't have it in me any longer."

We turned her back out after, leaving everything ready for delivering her the next day: it was supposed to rain all day and we didn't want to be delayed by the weather.

The forecast had called for thunderstorms at the time we were planning on arriving at the barn to load up Lily but when we got there the sky was just a solid steel gray with no sign of actual rain on the horizon. We hitched up the trailer and I went to get Lily. She came to me in the field as usual and stood while I put her protective boots on her legs. I gave her a full dose of Gastrogard, just like when we used to haul out before: I didn't want to send her to a new home already with ulcers brewing from the stress. She jumped in the trailer like it was any other ride. It took her a second to realize Gracie was not in there with her and she whinnied a couple of times but then settled.

It was an uneventful drive to her new home. 

The person that would now be in charge of her was already at the barn. Once I found them, I went back outside to fetch Lily. She unloaded calmly and looked about. I think she had expected to be at an endurance ride. I removed her boots and her rope halter and put her regular breakaway halter on instead. I touched the charm Karen had made for her on the rope halter, the one she sent us after Lily ran away with the hitching post, and wondered if I should put it on the nylon halter...it was hers after all. But I don't know why, I chose not to. 

I think deep down inside I hoped that now she wouldn't need it. That with me out of her life, her own karma would rearrange itself for good. I had barely ridden her this past year and she had sustained no injuries with my presence being minimal in her life. I hoped that this would continue for her once I was permanently gone.

I removed the bridle tag with my name and phone number from the nylon halter too, and brushed the tears away. That same tag had brought her back to me when she ran away the day of the hitching post.

I then led her into the barn, Carlos following behind. I put her in her stall, where there was fresh hay, water, shavings piled deep, and a gorgeous view of fields and mountains through the window. She nuzzled the hay and then became nervous. She wanted to follow me back out of the stall. 

"Lily, you have to stay," I told her, sliding the door shut between us. 

I said my good-bye to her person and started to walk away...then turned around and unapologetically walked back into the stall, where I grabbed her face and kissed her nose one last time. "Please be good," I whispered to her.

She whinnied as we walked away.

I started sobbing when we got back in the truck. I heard her whinny again as we drove away. Horses are only supposed to do that in movies.

I made myself stop crying once we hit the highway back home.



------------------------------

We dropped off the trailer at the barn right as it finally started to drizzle. 

It rained for days. It was almost a full week before I made it back out to the barn, this time with the intent of riding Gracie. I had not ridden either horse since May.

It was a strange ride. I rode in the bareback pad under overcast skies and involuntarily kept looking towards the mare field to see what Lily was up to, whether she was pacing the fenceline like she did when she was in heat and I took Gracie away, or grazing peacefully. I'd look for her and then remember she wasn't there. I realized then that I had never really been fully present while riding Gracie: my mind was always on Lily. What was she up to while I was riding, what I needed to do with her after, whether it was ride, work or just groom her. What would I do with Lily in the future? What were my goals with her? Should I keep her or let her go? All of these things would flow through my mind while riding Gracie in the past. 

And here I was riding G-Mare, the constant buzz-buzz of "Lily this, Lily that" suddenly silent. 


The sun came out while I was still riding, right when my brain went quiet. 

I returned the next day. It was drizzling again and I was wearing my glasses. I hate riding in the rain because I hate it, period (one day I'll tell you guys about all my rides in the rain down the street in front of our house when my grandfather was dying, over and over and over so Abuelito could hear the paca-paca of Lucero's shod hooves on the pavement in his sleep. But that's one reason why I hate riding in the rain now.) Plus I can't see when my glasses get wet. I had not ridden in the rain in two years because I had had no need to; I don't ride endurance anymore.

But the rain didn't touch me on this day. I walked out into the mare field where Gracie greeted me. I fed her a handful of grain while tacking her up with the bareback pad again. Mareface is fat; the grain was more for positive reinforcement for coming to me. 

She didn't care that it was raining. The indoor was being used so we walked right past it to the outdoor, where I hopped on as it started to rain harder.

"Just 10 minutes," I thought, as water dripped off the brim of my helmet. "Just ride for 10 minutes."

That was all it took. Within 10 minutes the rain stopped and the ride lengthened into 35 minutes, where we worked on collection and lengthening within the gaits, shoulder-in and leg yielding into and out of circles, and then putzed around outside the arena while I reminded Gracie that puddles are not lava. 


I drove home afterwards playing Pandora. The drive is only 10 minutes but Pandora played that song again, Eastside. 

I got in the shower at home, the song still playing in my head, and realized that I had not thought of Lily once during my ride on Gracie. 

So I thought about her now. 


One of the very first photos I ever took of her.
I worked with her for 3 months and she never set a foot wrong. One of the things that impressed me the most about her back then was that I could just take her out on the trails or the field next to the barn in Florida and ride without fear of her losing her mind. I had not had that luxury with Rhythm before her. She was nervous sometimes, yes, but she wanted so badly to trust someone. She needed her own person. And in the wake of losing Cloud and then Rhythm, I needed so badly to find a horse to give my heart to. So when she was offered to me, there was no real valid reason to say no. We were mirror images of one another.

"My love is yours if you're willing to take it
Give me your heart 'cause I ain't gonna break it..."

I thought of one sunny July afternoon when I arrived home from the barn to our townhouse in South Florida, and giddily telling Carlos that I could have Lily for a dollar. He had run to his wallet and so happily produced that dollar. "Now I can finally say that I bought you a horse!" he had joked. 

The most informal bill of sale ever. Her barn name back then was Mystery.
Lily's anhidrosis was one of the catalysts for us leaving Florida. I took a second job so I could pay for her shipping north because we didn't own a horse trailer yet. I then sent her to the nicest barn I could afford in Maryland before knowing we would be stationed in Northern Virginia. 

The day she shipped north.
"So come away, starting today,
start a new life, together in a different place..."
I looked for jobs in Maryland despite having a Virginia vet tech license so that I could at least work close to the barn where she was at. We then moved to Maryland so that we could be closer to Lily.

We live in Maryland because of Lily.

Our first real fall together in the north.
One of my favorite memories is the first time Lily and I galloped on the trail at Tusculum, winding around the soybean fields, riding into the wind with a speed that made the tears run backwards from my eyes, an enormous grin plastered on my face, my brown mare with her ears pricked in front of me as we flew together. 


I thought of that time we were riding in one of the turnout fields at BF, the barn where I met Gracie. The song "Rude" by Magic! was playing on Pandora and I just dropped the reins and put my arms out like Alec did with the Black on the beach as we cantered around and around the field. That song still makes me think of that moment. 

Then there was the time we went to Wye Island and cantered through the water. It was the one time we got to ride on the beach to fulfill a lifelong dream, and it happened on the shores of the Chesapeake.




Lily said, "You're nuts." And then, "As you wish."

We spent so much time on the trails, just her and I alone, practicing and training and conditioning for endurance, through crunchy leaves under flaming trees in the fall, cantering through sparkly powder in the winter, slogging through mud in the spring and trotting endlessly through the vibrant green of summer. 




(Photo by Kathy Lipton)

(Photo by Michelle Mayer)


(Photo by Becky Pearman)




Season after changing season for the three years that we dedicated exclusively to endurance. There was so much hope and joy during that time as I learned to read her and what she needed with a precision tha I'd never had with any horse prior to her. And in turn, she learned to read me with the same accuracy. We were one entity, like the toruks and their riders in Avatar. Her and I together were invincible. And everyone that read about her during that time fell in love with her, because when I wrote about her they could see her as I did. 

(Photo by Hoofprint Images)
"We can do anything if we put our minds to it
Take your whole life then you put a line through it..."

My life both revolved around her and was defined by her. 

I was sent home one day from work because I was so upset after her most recent injury that I couldn't function. I stopped going to the gym that spring that she came up lame after the rain because I had to go treat her feet twice a day and just didn't have time for anything else other than her. And I was okay with that. I spent every spare minute that I wasn't with her, at home reading about endurance and horse care and hoof care and barefoot management and equine nutrition. When I wasn't reading for her benefit, I was writing about her here. 

My mind flashed to the mountain of Old Dominion, that terrifying soul-crushing mountain on our first endurance ride ever, when I just leaned over her neck and gave her the reins and said to her, "I am so sorry for putting us through this because I had no idea, and I can't tell you when it will end because I don't know either."

And she said, "Don't worry. I will go for as long as you need me to go to wherever it is that we need to get, because it is what you wish."

And she did. She got us to the vet check. She was not okay, but she got us there. And I told her, "I will pull if you want me to. We can stop. Just tell me what you want me to do."

And she looked at me and recovered.
"I will take you to the finish."
And she did.

(Photo by Dom)

I thought of that glorious hand gallop around the fields on the last loop of Fort Valley. She had been eating and drinking on trail like a veteran and she was asking to go, so I let her. It had felt like we could go on forever. All I had wanted to do at that moment in time was stay frozen in that instance as the sun set over the brilliant fall-colored Virginia mountains, flying effortlessly over the bright green grass. 




We completed.

(Photo by Becky Pearman)

And then afterwards Lily ended up on a potassium IV drip. 

That first ride season I learned to never let the horse call the shots and to not let others pressure me into going against my gut feeling.

I almost never competed again because I beat myself up so hard about the end of Fort Valley. 

But we did compete again and I am so glad that we did, because that was Our Time.



It was such a glorious time. 


(Photo by Mike Turner)
(Photo by Becky Pearman)
I thought of our last loop at No Frills, when Gracie was pulled for lameness and I had turned to Lily, "It's just you and me girl."

And off we had trotted together, just her and I on the remaining 9 miles of trail.


Nothing remarkable or out of this world happened during that final loop, but it was my favorite ride ever on her because for those 9 miles it felt again like we could go on forever. And I loved her so, so, so much back then. We were, again, invincible. 

I wrote at the time:
"There is something so incredibly wonderful about a horse that knows, understands and loves her job. The entire day, all I felt flowing from Lily was this intense joy. This happiness over being on this tough trail all day long, going, going, going on and on and on, pacing herself and taking care of herself. In hindsight I never once had to tell her what to do: she clearly understood and gave her all. If she needed to walk, she walked. If she felt good enough to canter, she did. If she felt confident trotting downhill, she did so. I let her call the shots because I 100% KNEW that Lily knew what she was doing. I never doubted Lily's ability one bit because she never gave me a reason to."

We came full circle during that ride. 

I didn't know then that it would be my last endurance ride with her, my last competitive event on her of any kind. 

But maybe deep down inside I did know and that's why it was so very special.


And all of that died one day when I was slammed against the ground at 30 mph when she ran from the quicksand at the bottom of the river. 

I thought then of the strength I discovered because of her. The mental and emotional strength I had to have in order to function around her, the physical strength that I developed in order to be her equal when on the trail. The same physical strength that has taken me on this whole other journey that I never would have dreamed of before. 










All because of my $1 mutt.

All of that flashed through my mind in the blink of an eye,  one moment blending into another kaleidoscopically as I stepped into the shower that day after riding Gracie in the rain.

I leaned back against the wall as the hot water poured over me and it was like the water was the physical manifestation of this unstoppable grief being doused over me. I sobbed like I never have before for a horse. 

I cried over the depth of losing her, of failing her, of all the "what ifs" in my history of owning her and the never-ending self-blame for all of our troubles, of having to let her go, of having to put myself through a year of slow emotional detachment in order to be able to let her go, over the escalation of my fear of her, over the relief I felt about not owning her anymore and the tremendous guilt over feeling that relief. I cried because I had created this Super Mare that could do anything, that was so perfect...she just wasn't perfect for me. I cried because her and I had done the impossible: the little mare that no one wanted, that once upon a time was afraid of everything, that at one point had problems with heat regulation, had let me turn her into a successful mountain-climbing 50-mile endurance horse despite all the odds being lined up against her, including her own genetics. 

"We know love is how these ideas came to be..."
I poured an endless amount of hard work into turning her into what she was. But none of that would have been possible if her response to my crazy ideas had not always been, "As you wish."

I cried then because it was the end of an era with a mare that at one point had meant everything to me. It is still hard for me to comprehend how everything could trickle down to nothing, now that her destiny is beyond my control.

Maybe one day I'll see her at an endurance ride, just killing it on the trail where she was happiest, with her person who adores her. 

(Photo by Dom)
------------------------------

And that moment in the shower after riding in the rain was when I understood why Eastside's chorus made me want to cry: it was because that had been our story:

"We can do anything if we put our minds to it
Take your whole life then you put a line through it
My love is yours if you're willing to take it
Gimme your heart cause I ain't gonna break it.
So come away, starting today
Start a new life, together in a different place
We know love is how these ideas came to be
So baby run away, away with me."

"So baby run away, away with me..."

My one regret is that I didn't tell her that I loved her before I left.