My mare is lame.
Has been for a year and three months.
We don’t know how she did it, but she came in from the paddock in August 2012 with two injured ligaments in her left front.
So, she did a year of stall rest, and I have been bringing her back slowly. But some days don’t feel like progress.
This guy was scared. Scared of the “pop” as the vet pulled on gloves to examine him. Scared of anyone entering his stall. Scared to take a treat. So scared, you could see knots along the muscles of his back.
My barn manager, “Barn Queen,” is an observant woman. She knew I was down about my mare and the only thing that could help was a project.
I’m at the barn almost every single day: grooming, hand-walking, or (ideally) riding.
Barn Queen spoke to Sam’s Savior, and then to me. Sam needed handling. The more hands, the better. His Savior obliged.
At first, I couldn’t even get Sam to come to me for treats in the paddock. Over the last 10 weeks, we’ve built a bond: Sam, his Savior, Barn Queen, the trainer, staff, myriad boarders, and I.
We have done lots of desensitization and trick training, and Sam’s confidence has skyrocketed. We’ve exercised Sam’s mind, and it’s time to exercise his body.
This week, we began a new challenge: loosen Sam’s shoulder and withers. This is where Sam visibly holds tension from his unknown and frightening past. And this is the exact part of his body that will eventually carry a rider. If you can get the horse to step its front feet onto a high box, the withers and scapula stretch to release the muscles used under saddle.
I got to the barn Thursday and saddled my mare. My heart fell into my stomach when she trotted off lame, and fell even lower when she didn’t work out of it. I untacked, gave her a nice treat, wrapped my arms around her giant fluffy neck, inhaled her sweet horse smell, and resigned myself to the fact that I would not be riding this weekend.
I filled my pocket with a giant carrot and headed down his aisle. His head hung over the stall door. Six weeks ago, as any human approached, Sam would have backed into the corner and hid. I pulled off his halter and slipped on the blue rope training halter in the dark stall. Off we went to the indoor arena.
The staff built a 16 inch rubber topped wooden pedestal for training. But just having the right equipment doesn’t ensure success.
I put Sam through a few minutes of our now-usual longe routine first. For an insecure horse, familiar patterns provide comfort. We headed for the pedestal.
I stood on top, gave him a few pieces of the carrot, and scratched his star. Then I sat on the edge of the box, carrot in hand.
And then, I waited. Working with a rescue horse teaches you two things: patience and pride. I bit a chunk off the carrot making sure it made a loud “crack.” This reminder of how delicious the prize would be prompted a hind leg to step up under Sam’s belly closer to the pedestal, for which he earned the little bite.
I hadn’t yet convinced him that stepping on this box was a good idea. And I can’t blame him. Sam would not let a human on his right side 10 weeks ago. Now I wanted him to follow me up onto a moveable foreign object.
I stood on the far side of the box, carrot in hand. I cheered him on, “Sammy, come come.” The other hind leg stepped up. He looked at me as if to acknowledge how silly he looked with all four feet tucked in a tiny radius beneath him. And then…
With courage and conviction, he placed one foot and then the other atop the box. He stood there for about a minute at first. So we did it again. And a third time.
It was obvious this was a comfortable position. Sam squared up his front feet and lowered his head into the stretch.
The next evening, after longing over a single cavaletti, I brought him back to the box. I stood with him and rubbed the long muscles that run along his spine from withers to hip. We did some leg yield on the ground and then I unclipped the lead rope. He followed me onto the box at liberty.
My mare’s lameness is heartbreaking. Not riding is frustrating. But maybe her injury is my “box.” A big scary hurdle meant to stretch me further than I thought I could go.