by Shannon Brown
I believe writing is cathartic, and it lets you express emotions that you can’t speak of out loud. I decided to write this to share my experience, and to also offer some advice so that maybe someone else will not experience the heartache that I have.
Lincoln came to me in May of this year. A 17 hand chestnut OTTB with a peculiar stripe down his face, he was a powerhouse. A friend of mine got an opportunity to be a working student, and could only take one of her horses, and Lincoln was her second project, so she offered him to me on a free lease agreement. We decided that I would take him and try him out, and if he wasn’t going to hold up to what I needed then I would put him on the market and find him a great home. Because he was sound and sane at the time, I skipped doing a pre-purchase exam on him, as we had no reason to suspect he had anything worse than the typical thoroughbred feet and an old bowed tendon from his track days that had not given him any further trouble.
At 14, Lincoln had various experiences throughout his life. He raced a whopping 7 times and wasn’t fast enough, then he was a jumper, then a dressage horse, and he came to me with the thought of doing eventing with him. I was looking for a horse that I could move up to Training level and eventually Prelim, and for all intents and purposes, Lincoln fit the bill. I was mildly concerned about starting an event career with him at 14, but after a few weeks of work, we went to our first XC schooling outing to play around and see what he thought, and he put that fear to rest. I didn’t jump him a lot as we hadn’t done a whole lot of jumping yet, but we explored a few jumps, the water, ditches, small banks, and he had an absolute blast doing it. Even though I told myself when I agreed to take him that I wasn’t going to get attached, that went out the door after that day. It is hard not to fall in love with a horse who falls in love with cross country on the first day.
For the next few months, I worked with Lincoln on the flat mainly, conditioning and building strength, only jumping him here and there, as he had proven he could jump and I am a believer in minimizing the amount of jump work you do when they aren’t having a problem with it. We went to a jumper show at the end of June and competed at the 2’6 and 3’0 level and he was wonderful.
As we continued to work however, it became evident that some of his old injuries and evidence of some arthritis would cause him to struggle if we tried to take him up to Training level. It was a 50/50 chance that he would or would not hold up, and being the great horse that he is, I decided to sell him to a lower level rider rather than taking the chance of breaking down this magnificent horse.
A week after putting him on the market, he came out of the field three-legged lame one morning. As I’m sure we’ve all experienced, my stomach did a flip flop, and I thought to myself “okay, it’s probably just a bad abscess” as we hadn’t done any difficult work the week prior, just trail riding and flatting.
A few days later, he was getting worse, and we decided to do x-rays. That is when we found out that he had a fracture on the distal part of his coffin bone. It was a complete mystery as to how he did it, because before that morning, he was perfectly sound, and we had done nothing to constitute that type of injury. He went out the night before sound, came in the next morning dead lame. I walked his pasture over and over trying to find a hole, a kick mark on the fence, something, to indicate what he had fractured it on, but could not find any clues. We would eventually find out that he also had a fracture on the opposite foot as well, leading us to believe that this was an old track injury that had been re-injured. We put a cast on the foot, and it became a wait and see situation. Surgery was not an option for him or us, as the prognosis wasn’t the greatest, and my friend and I both agreed that we did not want to put him through the stress of surgery without a good prognosis. We had him on all the medications he needed, antibiotics, gabapentin, etc.
That weekend, he spiked a temperature of 104, and we were concerned for a bone infection. We had consulted with all the vets and farriers on the east coast it seemed, and the plan was to give him the night to break the fever, or we had a hard decision to make. The next morning he broke the fever and blew a nasty abscess on the coronary band, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. He was walking better now that the pressure was out of the foot, and seemed back to his old self, talking constantly whenever I entered the barn and wanting out. We made plans to move him to my friend’s family farm where he could rest and recuperate for the next few months first on stall rest and then in a small paddock, and then eventually he was going to retire at his first owner’s farm after she contacted us and graciously offered to give him a forever home, as the hopes of him returning to work was not very high, and we didn’t want to chance reinjuring the other foot. It seemed that everything was going well.
A week later, my vet was out to look at another horse, and upon examining the abscess, was not happy that it was not healing. He decided to take a few more x-rays, and I received the heart-wrenching phone call that “it wasn’t good”. The margins of the fracture were deteriorating, and after consulting a few specialists, it was determined that the bone was dying and causing an infection, and basically eating his foot from the inside out. I heard the words that no one ever wants to hear “it’s time to make the call”.
I called my friend, who at the time is nursing a severely broken leg, and the first owner, and we all agreed that we did not want to let him get to the point that the foot started causing him misery again. He was happy at the moment, and able to go out and graze, and we wanted him to go to sleep happy, not in agony and unable to walk.
That afternoon, I put Lincoln in a small paddock and let him graze for a few hours, as he was miserable being in a stall all the time. We then walked around the farm, found all the best patches of grass, and I fed him a million cookies. I told him what a great horse he was, and how I was going to miss him so much. I hugged his neck and cried, and he sighed and stood there, the stoic boy that I had fallen in love with. When the vet arrived, I walked him to the back field where he would take his last nap, letting him break all the rules about not dragging me around and walking ahead of me, and fed him cookies as we sedated him. I asked the vet one last time “we’re 100% sure this is it right?” and he told me yes, I had done everything I could, and it was time to let him go. As he administered the euthanasia, I fed Lincoln one last cookie, and he went to sleep searching my pockets, as I rubbed his forehead and told him he would be okay now.
Walking into the barn two days later was difficult. My talkative boy wasn’t there, and it was too quiet at first. I was okay until the other OTTB in the barn called out to me, sounding just like Lincoln. I told myself again that it was so much easier on Lincoln than it was on my friend and I, and that he was pain free now and I have to believe off somewhere having a blast. I tried to distract myself with keeping busy and staying around people, but as anyone who has lost a horse knows, it seems like every little thing reminds you of them. I know that only time will make it easier, and talking to friends who knew him and who miss him too.
I don’t regret taking Lincoln on for these few short months. He taught me so many things, delicately exposed my weaknesses in my riding, and taught me what it was like to give 100% every ride. He was sweet and loving, and up until the end I like to believe he knew he was loved. He was an all or nothing type of horse, and from the first day I rode him we clicked, and I believe he trusted me completely, and I trusted him.
My only regret is that I did not choose to x-ray him before taking him on. I can’t help but wonder, if I had just done that, would we have seen the fractures then? Would we have taken a different route? Did my work with him cause the fracture to weaken and eventually lead to the reinjury? Or was it just a matter of time, and it wouldn’t have mattered if he was in work or in a field? These are questions I’ll never know 100%, and will bother me for a long time.
Our sport is expensive, and a lot of times we try to save money where we can. Personally, my budget is very small, and I have to make decisions constantly from a financial standpoint, which isn’t always easy. If I have learned anything from this experience, it would be that from here on out, I will pre-purchase any horse I take on as my own, with x-rays, so that I know what I am working with. I don’t know what we would have found back in May, and we are not 100% sure if this fracture was new or old, but I do know that I wish I had those x-rays to look at and compare against. While the cost can be prohibitive, it is nothing compared to peace of mind. I have always preached this advice to my clients, and unfortunately, this one time, I did not practice what I preached, and I am now seeing the full effect of that. My hope is that by sharing my story, it will help others to make the decision of whether or not to take that step.
Lincoln’s track name was “Bravest and Finest”, and to me there is not a better fitting description for him. I will forever carry these few months with me, and remember all that the big monster taught me.