We’re pleased to be bringing you the first entries of our International Equestrian Blogging Contest. Remember, you can still enter as long as all three of your blogs are submitted by September 30. You can find full rules here.
Just Like Black Beauty, by Katherine M. Babbs, ESMT
I knew something was wrong with Hercules the moment we pulled in the driveway. My fiancé Ryan and I had taken an extended weekend trip, and left the horses in the care of what I thought were experienced horse people.
My other two geldings, Stormy and Padraig, were at the complete opposite end of the paddock from Hercules. I had that kind of sinking feeling in my gut that you get right before someone delivers bad news to you; Hercules wasn’t right. As the lone 17 hand Thoroughbred in my small herd of pony crosses, Hercules is easily the ringleader. He is never without one or both of his Connemara cohorts. The fact that they were both ignoring him was a huge red flag in itself, but as I got out of the truck and walked over to him, I realized that it was even worse: Hercules’s head was lowered, his eyes were glazed over as though he’d been drugged, and he was holding his left hind leg several inches off of the ground. Most alarmingly, he was skin and bones. As a neurotic worrier who has refused food when I’ve been gone before, it is typical for Hercules to have dropped some weight when I go away for more than a day at a time. Even when I was gone for almost an entire year to be a working student out of state, he had still been at a healthy weight. This, however, was drastically different—he had literally lost hundreds of pounds.
At 7 a.m. the next morning we were at the vet clinic.
Almost immediately, we had a diagnosis: broken pelvis. It was snapped completely in half, so that you could stand behind him, grab his point of hip on each side, and “saw” his pelvis back and forth. Because of his extreme weight loss, my vet and I both agreed that the pelvis break probably happened almost immediately after I’d left, meaning he’d been standing in a field for four days with a totally broken pelvis.
I braced myself for the dreaded E word, but instead, my vet surprised me by saying, “He’s still fighting. I’d say he has a 50/50 chance.” He then began to stroke Hercules’s face, and added, “It’s like that scene at the end of Black Beauty. He was yours, he got into a bad situation, and now you’ve got him back again.”
(Cue the waterworks from me.)
I am a realist almost to a fault, and with any other horse, a 50% chance of survival would have probably made me think that we needed to go ahead and humanely euthanize, but Hercules is (although I have mixed feelings about this term) my “heart horse.” He and I had been through so much in our six years together. Even though an irregular heartbeat meant that he wasn’t ever going to take me around Rolex or anything, I couldn’t imagine losing him. So we decided to give him a chance.
We left the vet with a dietary plan to get him back to a healthy weight (at that point, it was more important to get weight on him than anything else) and a prescribed year of stall rest with minimal hand grazing. I was skeptical; even the calmest horses I’ve had can turn into fire-breathing dragons after a few months of being cooped up, and I knew that an eleven-year-old OTTB might not be the best stall rest candidate. Instead, he became even more lethargic. Hercules’s injury eclipsed everything else in my life; I dropped out of the summer elective I was enrolled in, I stopped going out with my friends, and gave my other horses the summer off.
We moved Hercules to a different farm, where he could be in a barn that was located in the middle of a paddock so that he could always see his pasture buddies. We bought him a therapeutic stable sheet, a collection of stall toys, salt rocks, hand grazing him multiple times a day, and, since I am a certified equine massage therapist, I was giving him regular bodywork sessions. Nothing helped. If anything, Hercules got worse.
Hair began to fall off of his body, leaving behind gigantic bald patches. His mane, which had always laid neatly on the right side of his neck, flipped to the left side. His black coat turned mousy brown. I was sitting in his stall for hours hand-feed him, and instead he got skinnier. A dark, gooey fluid had started to ooze out of his pores, leaving his entire body feeling like it was coated in tar.
As I was about to call my vet to tell him that we needed to euthanize, Ryan suggested that we try turning him out.
“Maybe it’s as much mental as it is physical,” he suggested. “The ground is flat, he’ll be with his friends, he’ll be grazing all day, and even if he does die, it’ll be out with his friends, and not in that stall.” So, after checking with my vet (whose attitude was basically, “You’ve got nothing to lose”), we turned him out.
The improvement was almost immediate. Hercules began putting on weight as quickly as he’d lost it, his coat started to come back in, and his mane returned to the right side. Six months after his initial injury, Hercules was jogging sound.
Today, Hercules is better than he’s ever been. He is adjusting to his career switch from eventer to trail horse, which isn’t a bad gig when you live somewhere as picturesque as rural Southern Indiana, like we do. We’re hoping to participate in the Thoroughbred Recreational Riding Incentive Program and accomplish our 25 hour badge by the end of this year. And when I look out into the pasture and see Hercules rearing up and playing with his friends, just like a scene from Black Beauty, I’m glad that we gave him the chance to survive.