Transitions at the Farm, Part II: Welcoming Shady

During the same weeks as I was processing my grief and acceptance over April leaving, I was beginning to celebrate the fact that Lauren-Kate, had found a horse that seemed to suit her. I’ve been teaching Lauren-Kate riding lessons since we first brought Foxie to the farm over a year ago, last spring. And she and her mom, Karen, helped us clean up the barn and have been sharing chores with us since that time. Karen showed me the video of Lauren-Kate riding Shady, and as I heard her talk about him, I had the sense that this horse could be “the one.” They had been patient in looking for the right horse. Lauren-Kate had leased Misty, a sweet paint mare for several months last year, and she had tried out a handful of other horses. For good reasons, none of them had been quite the right fit. But Shady, this new gelding, seemed like something special. He was an elegant chestnut Quarter Horse (though he didn’t have a typical Quarter Horse build) with a sweet face and a kind temperament. He also had some dressage training in him.

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Lauren-Kate trying out Shady.

I couldn’t help but take in the similarities to my old horse. Crimson, the same color, had been an Appendix Quarter Horse gelding with build of a Thoroughbred. He also had a laid-back temperament, and I had ridden him dressage for years.

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My old horse Crimson. He and I competed in many dressage shows over the years.

Lauren-Kate took a couple of lessons from Jennifer Flowers, a wonderful dressage trainer at the barn where Shady was, and I went up to watch them together. Shady’s low-key and willing attitude, his previous dressage training and his steadiness seemed to be everything Lauren-Kate was looking for. The smile on her face when they were together told the story. When Karen asked me what I thought, I couldn’t help but say, “He seems like a good fit.”

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Shady and Lauren-Kate

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I watched Lauren-Kate as she cantered on Shady.

Shady had been donated to Race2Ring, a rescue organization Lauren-Kate volunteers for that also matches up qualified horses with new owners. The adoption process was a smooth one, and on Tuesday, July 12th, Shady was delivered to our farm by Erica, a friend of Karen and Lauren-Kate’s and one of Race2Ring’s board members.

It was a typical warm July day. Sydney was at a basketball camp, and Lauren-Kate and I went to bring in the horses, so that Erica could pull her large truck and trailer into our big pasture to turn around. Foxie and April were grazing in their usual fashion, and I asked Lauren-Kate to lead Foxie to the barn, knowing April would follow, so that I could open the gate near the road. April followed Lauren-Kate and Foxie from the pasture into the ring, but then she paused as if she was unsure if she should continue as she watched me walk toward the gate. Typically, April sticks close to Foxie, so I couldn’t help but notice this behavior. If it had been another horse, I wouldn’t have opened the gate. But I knew April would never try to leave Foxie. Surprisingly, April waited for me, letting Foxie get out of sight. After swinging open the gate, I walked towards April, and she and I continued to the barn. In their stalls, I threw each horse a flake of hay, turned on their fans and made sure their water buckets were full.

Within a few minutes we heard the low rumble of Erica’s diesel truck. We hurried up to the big pasture to greet Shady. He was nervous as he backed off the trailer and was covered in sweat. He lifted his head high looking around to see where he was. After a few moments, Erica handed his lead rope to Lauren-Kate. She was beaming as she led him towards the barn. Erica, a friend who had driven with her, Lauren-Kate’s mom and I all followed.

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Erica’s trailer (with Shady on board) pulling into the pasture.

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Erica leading Shady off the trailer.

Lauren-Kate filled with joy as she takes ownership of Shady.

As we entered the barn, there was a flurry of nickers and neighs…and I noticed that April was lying down. My first thought was, “She must be enjoying a little nap in her stall,” since she’s out most of the time. April got up quickly and stretched her neck towards Shady. Her nostrils fluttered as she nickered. Shady answered her back.

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Foxie and April showing interest in Shady as he comes into the barn.

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Lauren-Kate, Shady and Eric

Once in his stall, Shady circled a few times, then stood with his head over the door looking towards April and Foxie. I asked some questions about Shady’s feed and turnout schedule, his shot records and other miscellaneous horse info. After a bit, everyone except me headed back to the trailer to pick up Shady’s tack that had been donated. Karen offered to give me a ride back to the trailer, but I declined wanting Lauren-Kate and Karen to have a few moments with Erica. I was also glad to have a brief moment of quiet in the barn so that I could observe the horses and begin to process some of the emotions of this transition. This was a big day. I couldn’t help but remember how excited I was when I bought Crimson many year ago and when we brought Foxie home to the farm last spring. Buying a horse is like welcoming a new member into your family. Your relationship changes. The horse becomes more than an animal you ride and groom for a few hours a week. He becomes an animal you think about on so many levels from feeding to turnout and everything in between.

The horses seemed to appreciate the moment of quiet also. I heard gentle snorting and munching sounds as they nosed through their hay. I walked over and looked at each horse. Shady was alert, dropping his head to grab a mouthful of hay, then popping it back up so as not to lose sight of the other horses. Foxie was her usual calm self, a tiny tear of sweat dripping from one eye. I noticed that April’s coat was sweaty. Without thinking much about it, I pulled her out of the stall and hosed her off. I knew the barn was warm, and the horses were used to being outside where there was a slight breeze. April’s eye had a dull look to it, but I attributed it to the heat.

A few minutes later, Karen and Lauren-Kate returned to the barn and began putting away Shady’s tack. I made another quick check of all the horses. I expected to see April looking more refreshed as she stood in front of the fan after her bath. But, instead, her head was drooping slightly and her eyes were glazed.

“April doesn’t look good,” I said, unlatching her stall and slipping on her halter. My eyes immediately went to her belly, which was distended. She’d developed a grass belly over the summer. So it was hard to tell if it was bigger than usual. But I thought it might be. I checked the color of her gums and put my hand on her flank to see if there were any distinguishable sounds. Because of their physiology, horses aren’t capable of throwing up, so there should be a constant low rumble as grass makes its way through the intestines.

“She may be colicking,” I said.

“What should we do?” asked Lauren-Kate.

“It doesn’t seem serious.”  Less than an hour ago, she’d been in the field with Foxie eating grass as usual. “I’m going to walk her a little bit and see how she does.” I took her out to the field behind the barn where there was lots of shade and watched April as I walked her. She was definitely not herself. Her head was lower than usual, and she wasn’t paying any attention to the new horse. She didn’t even seem to care that she couldn’t see Foxie, something that would normally upset her. Lauren-Kate and Karen followed us. Suddenly, April’s legs buckled, a sign that she was about to lie down and roll, a dangerous move for a horse who is colicking because she could accidentally twist a gut, which could cause the blood supply to be shut off to the intestines.

My own horse, Crimson, had died from colic over a decade ago. I had found him one rainy morning just outside the barn, in the same paddock I was now walking April. Unbeknownst to me, he had colicked during the night and spent hours rolling, attempting to alleviate the pain in his gut. The vet, Dr. Strong, had treated him throughout the day, but wasn’t able to save him. Eventually, he was in too much pain, and the decision had to be made to put him down. All of this flew through my head as April’s legs buckled. I went into action, waving my hands along with the lead rope, yelling at the mare to keep her upright. My movements startled April and she quickly straightened up. We continued walking.

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Me with my sweet boy, Crimson. I still miss him.

I made the immediate decision to call the vet and handed April off to Karen and Lauren-Kate, with instructions to keep her moving. My heart was racing as I pulled out my cell phone and looked up veterinarians in the area. Maybe I was being over cautious. After all, April had pooped in her stall and a few times while walking, another good sign that showed her system was in working order. But she still wasn’t herself. And the last thing I wanted to do was lose another horse in that paddock.

I had Dr. Strong’s number in my contact list. I called the office and texted him directly. When there was no response, I looked up other vets. With colic, early and fast treatment can be critical, so I wanted the vet who could get here the quickest. I was on the phone with a vet who was 45 minutes away when Dr. Strong texted me that he was on his way. I cancelled the other vet and felt a wave of relief flow through me.

I was due to pick up Sydney at her basketball camp as all of this was happening. Karen offered to get her, and Lauren-Kate said she would stay to help me walk April. I was so thankful for their help.

Within a short time, Dr. Strong’s truck pulled into the barn. I walked April into the aisle and he gave her a shot of banamine for pain relief and to reduce inflammation. Her vital signs were “pretty good,” and I wondered again if I was being “over cautious.” Dr. Strong put a tube down April’s nose, pumped mineral oil into her stomach and continued monitoring her vital signs. Her heart rate, which had not increased much, decreased during the treatment – another positive sign. But she had few, if any gut sounds. Basically, we had to wait until the banamine wore off to see how she was. In the meantime, I spent time on the phone with April’s owner, Kelly, updating her.

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Dr. Strong treating April.

Dr. Strong’s assistant was surprised at how long April stayed under the effects of the banimine. Her head was drooping and her eyes were half-closed. I felt as if the ghost of Crimson was with me as we waited for April to wake up. I remembered clearly how he had stood, bearing the pain of his colic with a quiet strength, and my chest ached at the thought. Imagining how hard it must be for Kelly to be miles away from a horse she loved, waiting for updates, I took a few photos.

Gradually, April began to come around. The vet suggested letting her walk in the pasture, as long as she didn’t roll, to see if she wanted to eat. Even though she was still sleepy, I could see an immediate change in April. She had energy in her walk, and interest in grass. She even called softly for Foxie.

April, upon waking from the sedative, looking more like herself.

I asked the vet if I could turn the two mares out together. He said, “Sure. Whatever it takes to keep her moving.” Foxie was happy to join April, and the two horses started walking side by side, then April began trotting around the pasture. To my eyes, April looked not only good, but great! It was as if she had gone from a horse with a bellyache to a horse who was fully aware of her magnificence and grace as she pranced around the field. It was an amazing transformation.

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After the mares were turned out together, April starts trotting. She appears to feel great!

During the vet’s visit, Shady had been eating hay and watching the action unfold from his stall. We decided to turn him out to let him stretch and see how the mares would respond to him. April, who has always been submissive to Foxie, turned into Super Mare, rushing over to Shady, squealing and turning her rear to him. Foxie, patiently stepped away from April and seemed to watch the whole interaction like a wise mother.

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Foxie and April greeting Shady.

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April turns into Super Mare and moves between Foxie and Shady, staking her claim.

I spent much of that afternoon and evening watching the horses – to make sure April’s colic didn’t return, to see how Shady and the mares reacted to each other and to see how Shady settled into his new environment. I had the sense that my presence was calming to the horses, almost as if I was the experienced older mare, setting a tone of quiet security for the rest of the herd. At the same time, being with the horses calmed me. I brought a chair out into the field and placed it where I could view all the horses. I needed time to simply be and breathe, to let go of my old anxiety and grief over losing Crimson and absorb the joy in seeing April recover so quickly and easily. I also wanted to observe Shady and begin to get to know him.

Later, Sydney, Karen, Lauren-Kate and I discussed what had happened. It seemed as if Shady’s arrival may have initiated a strong heat cycle in April, possibly causing her to colic. And when she came out of it, she was “another horse” for a few days. When I researched heat cycles in mares, I learned that sometimes mares who have not been around male horses for several months can go into strong heat. April had never exhibited any signs of heat throughout the year we’d had her, even when she was boarded at Runneymede, so this made sense. Mares typically only go into heat during the spring, summer and fall months, and April was boarded during the winter, the non-heat months.

We also talked about how the timing of Shady’s arrival was a blessing, in that we were able to be with April, notice her symptoms and care for her right away. If there was some reason for her colic (other than her going into a strong heat), we might not have discovered it until several hours later.

During the early evening after April colicked, Foxie and April retreated to the far end of their paddock. They stood head to tail, resting and swishing flies off of each other. I felt a little bad for Shady, who paced the fence, calling loudly to them. The mares acted as if they wanted nothing to do with him. Eventually, Shady settled down and started grazing. Perhaps (like me) the mares needed some time to process the change in their lives.

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In the early evening, Foxie and April stand at the far end of the field (away from Shady).

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The mares rest, swishing flies away from each others’ faces.

Before going to bed that night, I drove my car down to the barn to check on the horses one last time before morning. It was dark and I couldn’t see the horses at first, so I kept driving along the fence line of the paddock. The mares were no longer in the far corner. As I turned the car around, and the headlights swung across the field, I caught a glimpse of their shadowy figures. Shady was standing by the fence, his neck in an arc, as April pranced in front of him and Foxie romped close by.

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“Hey, what about me?” says Shady.

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Later in the evening, the herd will come together again.

For Transitions at the Barn, Part I: Saying Goodbye to April, click here.

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