Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

Intestinal Fortitude

How to provide an update to my gentle readers, those of you who hang upon my every dulcet word?  I know I haven’t been posting, and if you don’t want to be bummed out you might not want to read this one.  Fair warning.

Like the rest of North America, manners and civility are much on my mind thanks to an overdose of Downton Abbey.  Never mind, my dear, we all shall muddle through.  Muddling is pretty much all I ever manage, and especially so over the past month.

I’ll spare you the garden-variety whining about winter.  Canada has admirable universal health-care, a degree of gun control, a tolerant and mostly-secular society, and is in a whole bunch of ways an excellent place to live … and winter is just the trade-off.  So be it.  I’ve been through enough of them to know that winter eventually ends, and unlike a lot of people who get very depressed in February, I tend to look at it as the light at the end of the tunnel.  (It’s November that really gets me down.)

My difficulty with generating any witticisms stems from a more sober realization I had to make a few weeks back.

I had a lovely pony mare.

She came with the name Nysa, but that always sounded to me like a bad straight-to-video Disney heroine, so she was nicknamed Trouble (because she was, you know, a pony) and it gradually became her true name.  Despite that, she was actually the least evil pony I’ve ever met — a gentle little bay Hackney/Shetland cross, just 11:3 hands, who had been abused in her early life (I never understood just what sort of asshat would feel compelled to thump on such a petite creature) and needed a home.   She was so squirrely when we first met that I could barely get a hand on her … but as she learned to trust me, I discovered she was canny and clever, great with kids, and an exceptional nanny pony for the two weanlings I (she) have raised.  She was patient and tolerant with each of them up to a point, but she never hesitated to teach them some manners when necessary, a quality I admired in her very much.  Neither Spike nor Parker would be half as nice a horse today were it not for her tough love.

Trouble was also a holy terror with dogs.  They never invaded her space more than once.  I once saw her bowl over a 150 lb. Newf who was foolish enough to venture into her territory.  The Newf, who had never been one to learn lessons the first time, was uninjured but absorbed a whole new respect for equines that day.

Trouble was never much more than green-broke, through no fault of her own — it’s just that her Hackney blood made her a hot little thing, and I never found a hotshot kid who was small enough, and could stick well enough, to get her going properly.  They grow kids at such a size these days, by the time they have the skills to ride something like Trouble, they’re six feet tall.  It’s a shame, because I always suspected she would jump like a little stag.  (Most Hackneys can.)  I did try to get her going as a driving pony, but we had an Unfortunate Incident on the day we first soloed with the cart.  Okay, a trainwreck.  My neighbour let loose his dog, who ran right under poor Trouble’s feet while she was trying rather nervously to concentrate on pulling my little Greenhawk breaking cart … and let’s just say it didn’t end well.  She never quite recovered, and neither did the cart.

I may have mentioned that she had issues with dogs.

There are so many more stories I could tell you about Trouble; we were together 13 years and there were lots of them.  She was lion-hearted enough to stand up to Toddy’s initial hostility (and 16:3 hands of copper Thoroughbred bearing down on you with ears laced back and teeth bared would have put the fear of god into most ponies — but she just dipped and dodged across the pasture and stayed just out of reach of those teeth till he relented).  She was the consummate babysitter for any horse on stall rest, accepting that she had to be incarcerated in the adjacent stall, until company was no longer necessary.   She knew her job and did it with quiet competence.  And she was absolutely the perfect size for hugging.

Like most ponies, Trouble was a case of laminitis looking for a time to happen, and eventually, it did, despite all my best efforts:  thyroid meds which sped up her metabolism, to some degree, and a grazing muzzle to limit her access to grass (which only worked until she managed to ditch it, and she was very, very skilled at ditching it).  Also like most ponies, Trouble was as tough as nails, and she bounced back from each episode with her usual determination.  We sort of fell into a routine of, uh-oh, ouchy feet again, better incarcerate her in a stall and put her on bute and give her a couple of weeks, and then she’ll be back to normal.  And for 10 years or more, that was our reality, Trouble and I, and neither of us minded all that much because she always bounced back.

Until she didn’t.  Chronic laminitis is not something you cure, as a rule.  With each episode, there’s a little more damage to the laminae, the fringey, frondy tissues that attach the interior of the hoof wall to the bony structures inside the foot.  And there comes a point of no return.


Trouble reached that point this fall.  Weeks came and went with no improvement, and as we wore on into January I could see that her toughness was wearing thin.  Above all, laminitis is a miserable, painful thing, and after years of being stoic and relentlessly cheerful, Trouble was finally starting to look weary, stressed, and drawn.  I kept hoping she would rally.  When we had the first decent snowstorm of the season, I was delighted, because it meant that she could be turned out in a small paddock and be knee-deep in snow, which frankly had always been the most therapeutic thing I could do for her feet. The constant cold always relieved her discomfort and  made winter her best season … and with no worries about grass overload she generally had a comfortable few months without the accursed grazing muzzle.

But this time, the snow made no difference.  Neither did the inadvisably high doses of bute she’d been on.  And I knew it was time.

The horror of putting a horse down in the winter, in this part of the world anyway, is that there’s not much prospect of giving them a dignified burial, what with the ground frozen.  Instead I was faced with calling the ‘deadstock guys’.  It’s a call I’ve had to make once before, and I’ll just say this:  if you never have to make that call yourself for one of your animals, count your blessings.

And I don’t want to go over all the wretchedness of the whole thing, but at the risk of going into TMI territory I will say that of course Trouble came out of her stall that afternoon more cheerful and willing to walk on those poor feet of hers than she had in weeks.  Because, of course, that’s what they do when you’ve made the decision.  She also did not go gentle into that good night.  It took three doses of what the vets still call ‘blue juice’ (though it hasn’t been blue in ages) to finally stop her heart, and it was pretty much the most awful, awful euthanasia I have had to witness.   I’m not blaming my veterinarian, because I know there’s always a possibility that an animal won’t respond to the usual dosage in the usual way.  But still, she didn’t deserve so drawn-out a death.

It’s part of what we sign up for, when we take these critters into our lives.  Mind you, I have friends who have gone miles out of their way to shirk that responsibility — to the point of giving away geriatric horses who have served them unbelievably well, to people they don’t even know, just to spare themselves the discomfort of having to put them down one day.  I don’t have a lot of respect for that.

And I’m grateful that we at least have the option of a kind death for our animals.  We don’t yet have that right for our fellow humans (though I hope that Canada will arrive at it eventually, probably long before the United States does), and that makes you ponder the whole meaning of the word ‘humane’.


But still, I’m verklempt and probably will be for some time.  Hell, I have critters who’ve been gone for 10 years that I can’t mention without my voice shaking.  I don’t buy into the Rainbow Bridge nonsense any more than I buy into the Pearly Gates, and I don’t expect to see Trouble again, so please, no platitudes of that nature if you comment.  But I hope I will always be able to remember the particular quality of her nicker, the way that unruly pony mane flopped over to the left side of her neck no matter what I did to try to train it otherwise, her pony kisses, and how she would curl up her tongue and suck on it after she’d had a sip of water — it was the cutest damn thing and I’ve never seen another horse do it quite like that.

In a way, Trouble donated her organs, which is also some solace.  I asked my farrier whether she could contribute to laminitis education in some way, and he was very keen to assist.  Not to put too fine a point on it … after her death, he arrived as promised to harvest her front feet, which he is freeze-drying to serve as teaching tools.  One in vertical cross-section, the other in horizontal slices, demonstrating the anatomy of the disease.  There was no way I could stay there for the harvesting — I excused myself and went to the library, coward that I am —  but I think I will want to see the end result when they’re ready.  I’ve seen freeze-dried limbs before and they are fascinating, but I’ve never held one in my hand that came from a horse I knew and loved.  Wish me a little intestinal fortitude on that one.

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13 thoughts on “Intestinal Fortitude

  1. Beautiful post. Trouble was a lucky pony.


  2. Oh boy that is the hardest part of being in the horse world isn’t it? I feel for you and I know what you’re feeling. Luckily I could bury my beloved mare on the farm but I wasn’t brave enough to be with her when the vet put her down. I just couldn’t look into her eyes knowing it was time. I am comforted by having her grave to visit and I say good morning every day. In a strange way, you may (I hope) find some comfort in seeing your lovely pony’s parts helping to educate others. I know having a bit of my mare’s tail hair has helped me although, I just can’t seem to braid it into a bracelet for myself. It just hangs with her halter in my bedroom. Both unwashed 🙂


  3. My deepest condolences to you on your loss of Trouble. Good for you for thinking of the education/donation thing and I hope it offers some comfort in the wake of her passing. I learned to ride on a plucky and personable little imp of a Welsh/Hackney mare named Topsy. (Our family farm was also named Topsy Turvy after her.) Needless to say, as a beginner I spent lots of time going ass over teakettle. I wouldn’t have it any other way!


    • I’m currently working a great little Welsh cob gelding a friend of mine wants to sell. His kid decided she’d rather play hockey than ride, so he needs a new kid and a new job! But I’ve been having so much fun with him, I’m beginning to think I’m always going to need at least one pony around the place to offset the Thoroughbreds. In the end, he may find himself coming home with me …


  4. poor pony and poor you, sorry this had to end this way, by the way laminitis is inability to handle the sugar in grass right? well next time you get a pony instead of trying to force it to eat less (maybe put on low quality grasses) maybe give it vitad3 it turns out many people aer low on this and I bet some horses (they can be low onsulfer due to low sulfer in the ground) it can decrease leptin response in the brain and descrease glucose tolerance and the body wants to get fat (to store whatever fat soluable vita it can get and convert sugar ot fat since the cells can’t use sugar.) you need sulfer in your skin to make vitad3 you need adquate good quality cholesterol too so my guess is the sugar is building up in the blood and where hte circulation is weakest (the feet) causes this laminitis (inflammation is classic response to glycation and tissue damage due to sugar build up and sometimes when the body is unable to handle glucose at the heart, liver and brain the body will rob the sulfer(to make cholesterol sulfate) from the tendons of the feet to supply it. maybe keep this in mind for the future, give a horse you suspect has metabolic sydrome (inability to handle glucose properly but not full blown diabetic yet) try vita d 3 and some other vita min supplement and see if that helps, you could even feed sulfer rich foods to a pony like cauliflour, brocullie, grapefruit, I don’t think onions would sit to well, any of the bitter plants would do, I rememeber once i caught my horse eating some weeds, once eating the bark of the red maple tree, and once she was eating burdock, (I am guessing she wanted the minerals in it like sulfer which I bet burdock has. I think ladys thumb plant had that too. or some other mineral. truly it hurts to loose a pet you love so dearly. I happen to like hackneys by the way.


  5. Thanks, Roberta, for your comments, but Trouble was likely not sulfur-deficient, since she was on MSM (methylsulfonylmethane), a supplement which I gave her to encourage good sulfur bonds in her hooves. She also received a ration-balancer which contained recommended levels of vitamin D, since she got no grain (just soaked beet pulp and a few hay cubes along with grass hay). Research on vitamin D is still on-going, of course, but I haven’t heard anything about it being implicated in laminitis — and since in my life as a journalist I’ve been lucky enough to interview some of the world’s leading laminitis experts, I probably would have heard about it if it were.

    In my other OTHER life, btw, I am also an equine nutritionist. One should be very careful about making recommendations from a human diet for other species. Onions, cauliflower, and broccoli are all toxic to horses, and as for grapefruit, I’m not sure about the fruit itself, but most of the other parts of the tree are toxic to horses as well as cats and dogs. And most maple bark is, as well!

    I know your heart is in the right place, though. My farrier has tried to comfort me by telling me that there are only two types of ponies: the ones who are foundered, and the ones who haven’t foundered yet. It’s very, very difficult to manage them in a domesticated environment and keep it from happening — without removing any chance of quality of life. I certainly tried like hell to prevent it. Chris Pollitt, who is one of the world’s leading laminitis gurus, also once told me that upwards of 40% of founder cases are never adequately explained. So there’s much we still don’t know about how it works and how we might be able to keep it from happening. I hope to keep learning.


  6. She sounds like a super pony. Good on you for doing the right thing all around, for her, and for future generations.


  7. Good for you, Karen. What a great idea. She needed to go and you had the fortitude to recognize it. You realized that her body could help others. You allowed it. Most people don’t have that type of courage… or fortitude. Congratulations.

    And, if I were closer, I’d give you a comforting hug. I’ve been through similar decisions and times.


    • Thanks, Helen. My farrier is coming tomorrow to trim the four remaining, and I suspect he may have something to show me. Steeling myself for that and hoping it will feel positive.


  8. Great writing even in the face of the thing-we-all-dread. Lost my oldie in November and it still feels very fresh, so send you genuine sympathy (but not too sentimentally- the Rainbow Bridge thing has me gushing like a geyser even though I don’t subscribe to it). I too have a – “recovering” I hope – laminitic and managing his determined piggery is an endlessly frustrating quest. Look forward to discovering more of your blog….


    • Thank you, Stella, and sympathies both on the lost of your old guy and on your continuing founder battle. On my ‘about me’ page there’s a photo of my Toddy, whose loss two summers ago is still very fresh to me. He was 28, so had a very good innings, but he was my horse of a lifetime and his absence is very keenly felt.

      Thanks also for adding me to your blogroll!


  9. Great post — and what a hellish thing to face. I’m impressed at your forethought of sharing the disease with others to learn from. So sorry for your loss!


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