Three days before the eclipse and the sky is on fire. Not in the west, like it normally is when the sun is going down, but in the east. What does it mean?
Today we had the vet out for the horses’ annual shots. It was a routine visit, one that snuck up on me as I had scheduled it weeks ago. But what surprised me even more was the emotion that came over me after the visit.
The story actually begins back in the spring. That was when I heard the news that the large animal vet that we usually use was no longer practicing. I was sorry to hear this because he was someone we liked and respected, and (as a horse owner) it’s a big decision to find a new vet.
It’s been seven weeks since Shady arrived on the farm. I’m happy to report that during the month after BarnStock, the gunshots and Foxie’s “walk-about,” the horses have gradually begun to get more comfortable with each other. Shady has suffered a few kicks and bites. Nothing too serious, just the occasional reminder from Foxie that she’s in charge.
More often than not, when I wander down to the barn or walk by the field, I see the horses grazing peacefully together.
Sometimes they keep their distance.
Other times they move closer together.
A couple of weeks ago, the girls had a lesson, and the horses were happy to be in the ring together. Halfway through the lesson, a rainbow appeared. I’m taking it as a good sign. 🙂
Back at the barn, Shady is learning when to keep his distance…
And when it’s okay to get close….
The next morning, as I walked down to the barn, I was greeted by this sight:
Somebody was ready for breakfast. I opened the big doors at the back of the barn and greeted Shady. I brought him into his stall to eat, and a moment later, Foxie appeared, ready for her breakfast. It was a lovely surprise as I had envisioned having to track down the horses by foot every morning, knowing that Foxie would just as soon stay out and eat grass rather than make the trek to the barn for the handful of grain she received during the summer months. Thank you, Shady!
While Shady was learning the new routine and Foxie was adapting to her stable mate, little did I know that there were still a few more challenges in store for us.
Intense heat was not unexpected for mid July, but the string of hot and humid days with heat indexes over 100 degrees were hard on the horses and people alike. After breakfast, I turned the horses out for an hour or two in a paddock where there were trees. But by mid morning, it was too hot for Shady to be outside because he would wander out of the shade and into the sunlight where the temperature was several degrees warmer. Even grazing in the shade, at times, his coat would be wet with sweat. So I brought the horses in around 10 or 11 a.m. each morning, and they stood in front of their fans, licking their salt blocks.
By 4 p.m., each afternoon, the barn heated up, and I felt it was more comfortable for the horses to be outside in the afternoon shade. The stalls had to be cleaned fairly quickly to avoid the fly population multiplying. I could feel sweat running down my face as I scooped up piles of manure in the near-100-degree heat.
Because the smaller shady paddocks were getting overeaten, it was important to move the horses into the big pasture for the night. But the big pasture was in full sun most of the day, until about 7 p.m. At that time, I turned the horses out to the bigger space.
Unfortunately, Foxie and Shady’s second night together was also the evening of Barnstock, an outdoor rock concert that was just down the road. Over the past several years, during the evening of the concert, it’s been hard to sleep at night as the music played on and on, sometimes through the wee hours of the morning. This year, the equipment must have been upgraded because the music seemed even louder. The horses were anxious as the music played on and on. Just before dark, my husband and I took a walk down the road to see what was going on with the concert. I also wanted to check on the horses. They were standing on the lower part of the hill where the music was slightly muffled. I imagined their sensitive ears were still ringing the next morning.
I was sure we had survived the worst of things when I walked down the hill to the barn the next afternoon. Suddenly, I heard gunshots. They were so loud, I wondered if should duck or call out in case someone was shooting near our woods. It felt like a bullet might come whizzing towards me at any second. Sunny, who usually likes to run ahead, pressed close to my side. The horses were anxiously pacing the fence line. I peered through the trees on the edge of our property and saw my neighbors in one of their fields. They own a large dairy farm, and, occasionally, I’d heard shooting coming from that direction. Perhaps a fox or a coyote was bothering their calves or maybe they were just having target practice. I had no idea what they were doing, but they were awfully close to us, it involved guns and I wanted it to stop. I brought the horses into their stalls, hoping to calm them. Shady couldn’t stop circling and Foxie, who normally carries her head low, was alert and anxious.
It wasn’t quite 7 p.m. and the big pasture was still mostly sunny and very hot, but I thought the horses might settle down if they were further away from the shooting. I led the horses to the back of the barn. Once there, they galloped up the lane and into the ring (which is in the middle of the big pasture). During the sunny hours, the ring is the hottest place on the farm, so I didn’t want to leave them there. The horses were too anxious to turn around and go back out the gate they had entered because that would mean they’d have to move closer to the gunshots. So I walked up to the ring to slide open the metal bars that were on the far side away from the noise. After I slid the top rail off, Shady trotted over and jumped the lower rail. Foxie waited until the second rail was open before joining him.
There was a patch of shade by the trees that was slowly expanding, and I hoped the horses might walk into it. By now, the horses were both covered in sweat, after running up the hill and then standing in the hot ring. The combination of heat and anxiety worried me. I didn’t want either of them getting dehydrated or suffering from heat exhaustion. I walked back to barn and grabbed a halter and lead rope. Back in the big pasture, both horses were still standing in the sun, heads high, as they looked towards where the gunshots were coming from.
I walked over to Foxie, put the halter on her and led her into the shade. Shady followed close behind. I stood with the horses enjoying the slightly cooler air. But as soon as I slipped the halter off of Foxie, she cantered right back into the sun, with Shady right behind her.
I grumbled aloud. The heat and their reactions were making me irritable. I wasn’t that surprised. They wanted to be as far from the gunshots as possible. And fear overrode discomfort. But I couldn’t leave them in the sun, their coats slick with sweat. I walked up to Foxie again and slipped the halter over her head. My plan was to lead her (with Shady following) down to the shady paddock. They would be a little closer to the gunshots, but at least they wouldn’t overheat.
I led Foxie down to the cooler paddock, and, as I suspected he would, Shady followed. I opened the gate and walked Foxie several feet in in order to give Shady room to enter behind her. Without thinking, I slipped the halter off of Foxie, preparing to walk over and close the gate. Typically, Foxie would stand still, drop her head and begin grazing. But at that moment, another round of loud gunshots went off. As soon as Foxie felt the halter clear her head, she whirled around, galloped past me, slipped out the gate and took off up the hill. Shady, of course, was right behind her. I stood there shaking my head, exasperated.
About this time, I heard my husband’s car coming down our hill. I hurried to the front of the barn to meet him, waving my arms to slow him down. He opened his window with a questioning look. I yelled: “Do you hear the gunshots? The horses are going crazy! I’m afraid they’re going to overheat! Can you call the neighbors?”
A few minutes later, my cell phone rang. Joel told me the neighbors were shooting skeet. He told them the horses were acting up, and they kindly offered to move to another field. I’m thankful that Joel made the call, as I know he was extremely cordial, acknowledging that they were on their own property and asking very politely for a favor. As I’ve said in the past, we have wonderful neighbors. But at the end of this long week, seeing the horses so upset and dangerously hot, I wouldn’t have been so polite.
A few moments later, thankfully, the gunshots subsided. The horses were still in the direct sun, so I didn’t feel comfortable leaving them there. This time I walked up our gravel driveway, hoping to call to them and encourage them into the shade, now that the noise had ended. But, of course, the horses weren’t ready to settle down and graze peacefully. They trotted around with their heads and tails held high. I had been reading lately about heat exhaustion in horses. The article warned of flaring nostrils as a first sign. I could see the pink of both horses’ nostrils.
I still had Foxie’s halter over my shoulder, so I went to the big gates along the driveway. I would slip through, halter Foxie and lead both horses to their stalls. That way I could give them baths and let them stand in front of their fans for a bit, cooling their body temperatures before turning them out again. A wasp was circling the gate, but I figured I could easily slip by it. I made it inside when the chain that kept the double gates closed fell to the ground. I leaned down to pick it up, then wrapped it around the metal bars. Unfortunately, I had to do this blindly, and being overheated and stressed myself, I was rushing. I felt two pin pricks on my arm. Ugh! The wasp! Maybe it wouldn’t be too bad. My adrenaline must have kept the pain down for a minute or two. Suddenly, I felt the intense sting that always comes with a wasp. It was accompanied by another wave of irritation … I knew better. I could have prevented this.
Foxie and Shady walked somewhat placidly down to the barn. I bathed them both and let them cool down in front of their fans before turning them out in the smaller paddock. In the wash rack, I ran cool water over the swelling on my arm. What could possible happen next?
Well, the next afternoon, Foxie showed signs of being in heat. I first noticed her pacing the fence line, then, after turning her out in the big pasture, she stayed by the barn, circling the small area at a trot. Shady, who had cantered up the lane to the big pasture, realized Foxie wasn’t behind him and slowly meandered back to the mare. As soon as Shady arrived, Foxie trotted back out to the big pasture. A few minutes later, she came trotting back to the barn and began circling again. She did this over and over…and Shady followed her back and forth. Foxie hadn’t turned into Super Mare, the way April did, but this was not Foxie’s normal behavior. She was in a stronger heat than I’ve ever seen with her.
I was beginning to wonder if the universe was conspiring against me and the horses. From Foxie escaping to the loud concert and gunshots to the unbearable heat, wasp stings and now Foxie’s strong heat. Shady was new and his presence at the barn had shaken things up. I was prepared for some activity. But usually horses transition to new situations within a few days. This wasn’t Shady’s fault. He was as much a victim as I was.
A part of me was frustrated and tired, but another part of me noted each unusual event with curiosity and interest. Horses and their personalities have always fascinated me, and watching how they reacted to new situations was like unraveling a mystery. I appreciated the opportunity to understand these wonderful animals at a deeper level. But I was tired…and ready for a rest.
After the scare with Foxie going missing the previous day, I wasn’t sure what I would find in the big pasture the next day. I was so relieved to catch this “first glimpse” of the horses in the morning. They were together, resting under the trees. It looked like a glimpse of Eden.
I called to them as I walked up the hill. Both horses turned to face me. It took some time, but eventually Shady took a few steps towards me. We hadn’t established a morning routine yet, and, without April to lead her, I knew Foxie might not walk towards the barn.
I walked back to the barn and grabbed a feed scoop with some grain in it. This time when I called to the horses and shook the scoop, Shady walked purposely towards me. He liked the sound of breakfast. And Foxie began moving slowly behind him.
That morning was drama-free, and I enjoyed watching the horses as they ate their grain, and later, as I turned them out into the shaded paddock beside the barn. Maybe we were turning a corner.
After saying goodbye to April, it was time to let Foxie and Shady get to know each other on their terms. We turned Foxie and Shady out into adjacent pastures, so they could visit over the fence. To my surprise, there was no squealing, just some touching of noses and then a sweet moment of mutual neck scratching.
Since things were going so well, I decided to let the horses graze together in the paddock. I watched them for a long while to see how they would get along. Mares are typically “in charge,” and will often put a gelding in his place with a well-timed bite or kick. Shady was clearly more interested in Foxie than she was in him. He followed her around the pasture, never letting her get more than a few feet away without walking or trotting up to her. Foxie seemed mostly disinterested, though occasionally she would pin her ears at Shady, as if to say “That’s close enough.”
That evening, I turned Foxie and Shady out into the big pasture together for the first time. In preparation for this, earlier in the week, I put April and Foxie in the big pasture during the evening and put Shady in the ring where he could graze and see them. I wanted Shady to get a feel for the openness of the larger pasture, and I wanted Foxie to get used to Shady’s presence.
Shady cantered up the lane to the big pasture, and Foxie trotted behind him. I hoped that this would mark the beginning of their friendship — an evening together, grazing and watching out for each other in this larger space. Later that night, Sydney and I walked down to see how the horses were getting along. All looked calm and peaceful.
The next morning, I woke up to the quiet anticipation of seeing Foxie and Shady together in the big pasture, noticing their interactions and watching how the feeding routine worked itself out. Which horse would lift his or her head first? Who (if either of them) would come to the sound of my voice? Would Foxie whirl and try to kick Shady to teach him to respect her? Or would Shady come galloping over, leaving Foxie to meander to the barn at her own pace?
The first thing I noticed when I got to the barn was that the large back doors were parted and Shady was peering in. We close them in the evening when the horses are in the big pasture, so that, on the off chance that Foxie might wander back to the barn, she wouldn’t be able to slip through the white bars at that end, walk through the aisle, slip through another set of bars and escape. She did this once a few months ago, when April was here, and she stayed near the front of the barn contentedly grazing on the fresh grass there while April called to her and paced back and forth at the back of the barn. April was a little afraid of the sound that the white bars (which were basically chains covered in pvc pipe) made when they moved, so she would never try to slip through them. And I had the sense that Shady felt the same way.
But my first thought when I saw the barn doors partway open was NOT that Foxie had slipped under the bars. Shady wasn’t acting anxious or worried as a horse might if he’d been left behind. He simply seemed happy to see me and ready for his breakfast. So I brought him into his stall and gave him some grain and a flake of hay. Then I walked out to the big pasture and called for Foxie. I was a little surprised that she wasn’t nearby, in the lane or on the hill going up to the ring. But, maybe she was pouting about April being gone…and keeping her distance from Shady.
I looked at the stand of trees near the driveway. No Foxie. As I crested the hill to the ring, I expected to see the top of her back. She was often hard to spot until you were almost upon her because of her low head carriage and the way her light palomino color blended with the morning sun. But she wasn’t in any of her usual places…near the fence by the road, in the far corner of the pasture. A flash of panic went through me. She’s gone!
I made myself think logically. Maybe she was lying down. Could she have colicked during the night? The stress of being with a new horse could have made her sick. She could be in a low spot in the pasture, more difficult to see. No. The pasture appeared to be empty. My mind started clicking…Where could she be? Looking for April? She was in heat yesterday, the sides of her vulva slick with moisture. In the past, when she was in heat, she often ran towards the fence to our west. We often joked that “her imaginary boyfriend” lived over that way. But once or twice when she had perked her ears and called out, she actually received a long, neighing response coming from somewhere in that direction.
I half-ran back to the barn, threw another flake of hay to Shady, who was getting antsy by himself in the stall, turning in circles and whinnying. “It’s okay, fella,” I said softly. “We’re gonna find her.” I walked back up the hill to the house. My plan was to get in the car and drive around the pasture, to look more closely at every spot of the field. And I needed to tell Sydney. I hated to wake her with this news. But Foxie was her horse, and she would want to know. I also needed her help. If we found her somewhere, one of us would have to lead her home, the other drive the car.
“Sydney, Foxie’s gone. She’s not in the pasture,” I said. It didn’t take her long to process my words. “What? Where’s Foxie?” I could hear the panic in her voice. “How’d she get out? Where did she go?”
“We’ll find her,” I tried to be reassuring. “I’m going to drive around the pasture to make sure she’s not there. But I don’t think she is. I’ll come back to the house after that. If I don’t find her we’ll need to search for her.
I drove the car slowly around the perimeter of the pasture, looking for any golden swell close to the ground that might turn out to be Foxie. But I saw nothing but grass and weeds. I drove up our next-door neighbor’s driveway. They have a park-like area next to a creek where cows who escape from the neighboring dairy farm sometimes come to graze. The grass is lush and green. I peered into the shadows under the trees. No Foxie. I drove towards the back of their property where there is a half-acre field, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Still, no Foxie.
As I drove back to the house for Sydney, I considered dialing 911. Is that who you call for a missing horse? Or should I call Animal Control? In all my years of working with horses, I’d never had one go missing. I could post a notice on Facebook, share the news with the local horse forum. But, first, I thought I should stop and talk with the neighbors. We had wonderful neighbors. Living in the country over the past two decades, I’d learned that neighbors look out for each other. This past week, after Shady arrived, April had escaped, the first time she’d ever left the barn (and Foxie). As best we could figure she jiggled the latch to her stall door with her nose and opened it, then jumped over the white bars. Our neighbor saw her cross the road and his father, an old dairyman, was able to catch her and lead her back to our barn with a string of twine. This was the same neighbor who built our barn over 20 years ago.
I grabbed Foxie’s halter and a scoop of feed, and Sydney met me outside the house as soon as she heard my car. “Where could she be?” she asked as we drove down the gravel driveway. “I think she’s looking for April. She could be really far away.”
“I don’t think so,” I said, trying to soothe us both. But in my own mind, I imagined Foxie wandering through the brush, searching for her friend. I had felt her sadness when April left yesterday. My chest had ached when Foxie looked out her stall window and let out a piercing whinny. “We know she’s in heat,” I said. “And whenever she’s in heat, she’s starts calling for her boyfriend.” I gave Sydney a wry smile. “But I know she misses April.”
“We’ll start looking in the closest places and go from there. We’ll talk to all our neighbors in case anyone has seen her.” I pulled down the drive of a nearby farm, the place where we had envisioned Foxie’s “imaginary boyfriend” living. There was a white fence and an empty field with long grass, then a stand of trees. I kept driving and there was another pasture. “There she is!” Sydney pointed. As we both looked, we saw the shape of our Foxie standing towards the back of the field. She turned her sweet face toward us, as if to say, “Hello. I know you. Look what a lovely field I found.” There was a barn just beyond the field, and we saw a man there who must have been the one who caught her.
“Oh, thank goodness,” I said, sighing. I pulled into the driveway in front of the barn and got out of the car.
“Did you lose a horse,” the man said, straightening up from behind a lawn mower. He wiped his hands on his pants. “She’s a sweet one. How’d she get out?” he asked.
“We have a new horse at the barn,” I said, starting to explain. “She nudged the barn doors open and went under some poles.”
“Well, I guess you’ve got a job to take care of this afternoon,” he said to Sydney, his eyes twinkling.
When I called Foxie, she came trotting over, and I slipped the halter onto her nose. I looked around to see if there was any evidence of “a boyfriend.” A miniature horse was trotting around a small enclosure.
“We’ve just got a little pony around the place now,” the man said. “Want a pony?”
I laughed. “Not really,” I said smiling. “We’re having enough trouble with this one.” I looked at Foxie, who was happily grazing.
Sydney and I worked it out that she would drive the car home, while I led Foxie back to our barn along the road. It was less than a mile and Foxie behaved herself. She appeared no worse for the wear, and maybe even a little proud of herself that she’d had this adventure. She particularly seemed to enjoy ending up in a pasture with nice long grass.
Shady welcomed her home with a loud neigh. I led Foxie up to his stall and they touched noses. There was no squealing or striking out with front legs, just a calm sort of acceptance that they were back together again.
I turned both horses out into the paddock behind Foxie’s stall where they could enjoy the morning shade. The horses grazed without taking much notice of each other. A couple of times Foxie wandered over to April’s stall and looked inside. Every now and then, Shady would pick his head up from the grass and walk a little closer to Foxie. She didn’t move away or towards him, just simply continued to graze.
It’s my sense that when horses are in a small herd, as Foxie and April were, transitions are harder for them. They seem to become bonded in a deeper, more abiding way than when they are part of a large herd, or stabled with a greater number of horses.
When Shady first arrived at the barn, it shook things up. His presence was extremely exciting and stimulating for April. She went into a strong heat and was thrilled to see him…at least half of the time. April was prancing near Shady, lifting her tail and whinnying for him. The other half, April would stand in a far corner of the field with Foxie, as if they were a clique – two girls whispering about the new fellow. Foxie, on the other hand, never took a lot of notice of Shady. She seemed to be the steadying influence, the calm horse in the midst of a sea of hormonal surges. But once April was gone, I think Foxie missed her friend. It was more than habit for her to stick close to April or hide behind her. It was a sweet relationship, a deep friendship and bond that had grown over their year together.
Now that April is gone, I trust that Foxie and Shady will “work things out,” that they will become friends. But, it will be a process. I don’t expect the kind of drama that went on this morning to be ongoing. In fact, I suspect Foxie’s laid-back attitude will prevail and the horses will fall into a relaxed rhythm and routine, that Shady and Foxie will grow fond of each other. But it remains to be seen how their relationship will develop. I’ve never had a single mare and a single gelding at the barn, so I’m interested to see how it might be different from having two mares. My hope is that these two horses will grow close and learn to trust and rely on one another as Foxie and April did. But it will take time and shared experiences. There is no rush. We are at the beginning of something new….
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.