Labor Day 2016: My first day off of my first semester of veterinary school, and instead of spending my three-day weekend sleeping in and catching up on course work, I was on the phone with the emergency line for the vet. The Mare had a swollen hind right, and I was convinced she had a cellulitis. “No, a cellulitis. Spell it? c-e-l-l-u-l-i-t-i-s”. I went around in circles with the receptionist until I actually spoke with one of the vets. In order to avoid a hefty holiday farm call charge, I scheduled a visit as soon as possible the next day.
This started a nearly 2-month process, with multiple rounds of NSAID’s, antibiotics, a trip to the vet hospital, ultrasounds, more hours of hand-walking and hand-grazing than I would care to admit, and 8 weeks (and counting) of no turnout for The Mare.
Her diagnosis originally was some minor tendon swelling after a kick from a fieldmate, with 10 days’ stall rest and bute until the swelling dissipated. On her first night back outside, she got kicked again, same leg, but with substantial swelling. We took her to the vet hospital where she spent the night, and had radiographs. They were clean (thank God), and we were sent home with more meds, and the task of wrapping her leg from mid-gaskin down. I spent weeks wrapping and re-wrapping, attempting to keep her happy while confined, checking in with all the vets who had seen her, making progress only to take steps backwards before making progress again.
Without resolution after a month, her hock was ultrasounded to ensure no damage to her tendons had been sustained (again, thank God, they were clean). With a new diagnosis of an oddly-presenting cellulitis, it was a third round of meds in an attempt to clear out the infection, more hand-walking and more wrapping. Currently, there is still some residual swelling in her leg, which I am told might not ever go away, due to the severity of the swelling–it may have stretched the tissues beyond the ability to return to normal. But, she is sound, and we have just started back into work, with a 3-4 week schedule to return to full work (and still no turnout until she’s back into work a little more).
I have been quite lucky to have a horse that is hardy in every sense of the word. This was her first real health issue, and I have a newfound respect for anyone who has had to deal with a long-term injury with their horse. 2 months has been seemingly an eternity, and while we both have been stuck, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect and a lot of time to learn.
So for anyone who has had to suffer alongside their four-legged partner, here are the 5 Stages of Stall Rest.
At first, I was in disbelief. Each added ‘give it another week or two’ felt like a prison sentence. ‘She’s always been perfectly fine, she’s going to bounce back from this so quickly’, I would tell myself. ‘In a few days, that leg will look totally normal, and we can get back to work and turnout’.
And then I was angry. Angry that my horse had gotten kicked. Angry that she’d gotten kicked…again. Angry that she couldn’t just make new friends and get along with her fieldmates because now she was being trailered to the vet hospital. I was angry that I was looking at who knows how much in vet bills. I was angry that she had-just a month or so prior-been winning jumper classes hand over fist, and I was angry that in just a few short weeks she was already losing tone (and so was I). I was angry that I couldn’t ride, and angry that I had to be out at the barn every single day, no matter what my class and exam schedule looked like. I was angry when her hock wraps wouldn’t stay on until the next day, angry when she was rude on the ground or while we were hand-grazing. I was angry that my horse, my athlete, my partner was stuck in a box indefinitely until we could get a handle on what was going on in her confounded leg. It wasn’t fair-what had we done to deserve being sidelined like this?
I started to get desperate. I was taking pictures of her leg each and every day, absolutely crazed to see a positive change in her leg. I was calling the vet probably an obscene amount, trying to pinpoint what I could do to help her. I was looking up treatments, wives’ tales and getting a hold of anyone I thought might have a helpful word of advice. I bought hock boots, looked into topical treatments, titanium wraps, different methods of hock wrapping, benefits of hot vs. cold therapy. I went insane trying to make a deal with the infernal swelling that would not go away. And the longer it persisted, I stopped asking for it to go away, and switched to asking for it to not be something career-ending. I switched to praying that the tendons and other major structures in her hock and leg had not been compromised. And I continued to trade time I did’t have into searching for a magical cure-all.
The longer the stall rest continued, and the longer I didn’t have an answer, or reduced swelling, the bleaker my outlook got. What if she could never jump again? What if I could never ride her again? What if she was reduced to nothing more than a lawn ornament? What would I do? What would she do? With an increasing amount of
responsibilities as a vet student, taking several hours each day to go change her wraps, evaluate the leg, and hand-walk and hand-graze a horse who really wanted to be doing anything but be confined or attached to a person in any way was taking away the magic of being a horse owner. The Mare was tired of being inside; she was used to 12 hours of turnout and being ridden 4-6 days a week, hard. She didn’t want to stand still while I unwrapped and re-wrapped her legs. How could I blame her when she went to drag me towards grass after being stuck inside 23 hours a day? And did that little bit of time I could give her even matter? She had lost all of her tone, her personality was changing, and I barely wanted to go see her. She only wanted to see me because it meant that she got to be out of her stall for a little while. At this point, I scheduled the ultrasound, because I needed to know what I was dealing with.
After getting a clear ultrasound and a new diagnosis to work off of, I did feel better. And about 2 days into her new meds, her leg started responding tremendously. And at this point, I started to accept our stall rest sentence. I didn’t know if these meds were going to ‘cure’ our issue, but after a swift kick in the pants from my mom (thanks mom) about my obligations to my horse, and all the work that we have put in thus far, I was accepting our fate. Yes, it’s been about 2 months since we have done anything. Yes, she is grossly out of shape (and so am I). Yes, I have a nice chunk of change in vet bills that I definitely don’t have the budget for, and yes, I have spent a disgusting amount of time and money driving out to the barn every day (sometimes multiple times a day). Yes, I have a million tests to study for, but somehow find time to hand-graze my horse for an hour. And yes, whatever happens, I am in it for the long haul with her.
We lucked out; a silly situation (like, honestly, why can’t she just make friends?!) turned south, but the end of the story could’ve been written so many other, much more distasterous ways. In the last couple weeks, and as we begin our journey back into work, I have begun to enjoy my horse. Not just enjoy riding my horse, or working my horse, or jumping my horse. I am enjoying my horse. I am soaking up every second I get with her, from the moment I walk into the barn and she hears my keys and whinnies down the aisle to me. From the second I get her in the cross-ties and she starts assaulting me for treats. From the moment she gets to go graze, and her ears pitch forward and she stays glued to the ground, except when she does take a second to come up for air and she uses that time to snuffle my hand or my head (whatever is close).
I have learned so much over the past 2 months; about her, and about me. I was taking her for granted, and I didn’t even realize it.
So take it all away. Take away the shows, the ribbons, the lessons. Take away the hacking, and jumping on bareback for the heck of it, the trail rides, the rides with your friends. Take it all away. Take away weekly training session, conditioning. Take away all your goals as you had them set before. Take away working your horse totally. Take away getting to watch your horse as they get turned out, getting a good roll in before settling in for a night of grazing. Take away getting to put on a pair of breeches everyday. Take away hours, days, weeks, months, years of work you have put in. Take away everything-from you, from your horse. All you have is…each other. Would you still do it? If all you had, all you could do was look at your horse, would it be enough for you?
I had to remind myself why I was here. Once I slowed down and stopped trying to blame an entity that didn’t exist for my horse’s misfortune, I could remember. I have a horse. This magnificent creature who chose me to be her person. Who is more like myself than I care to admit at times, and who makes me happy and my heart whole on a level that I cannot accurately capture in words. Take it all away, and we still have that. Everything else is a bonus.