There’s one serving less of beet pulp soaking in the yellow bucket this morning. An empty halter, and an abandoned rainsheet, on a straw bale in the barn. Her absence is everywhere.
(That ought to be enough foreshadowing to induce you to stop here, gentle reader, if you don’t like stories that don’t end well.)
Trixie came to me as a freebie yearling, from a very nice, knowledgeable small breeder of Thoroughbreds. She was not destined for a racing career, so needed a home. She was nicely put together, and a lovely mover, but there were three strikes against her right from the start. One, she was congenitally swaybacked. Two, her dam — through no fault of her own, from what I could tell — had produced two or three other offspring who hadn’t made it to the races. (That usually makes buyers at a yearling sale hesitant to take a chance, especially on a filly with, um, unusual conformation, despite the fact that there have been several very successful racehorses who were swaybacked.)
And three, she was a chestnut Thoroughbred mare. That’s not a curse from a racing point of view, but certainly something of a hindrance in the sport horse world, where there’s a widespread belief that chestnut mares are … well, legendarily squirrelly.
With then-two-year-old Parker on stall rest with a hind ankle injury, I was looking for a project. I was thinking of a three- or four-year-old off the track, but when Trixie came along, I thought, well, a yearling is a clean slate, and that could be a very good thing. I did do my research on swaybacks before I agreed to take her: though it’s a saddle-fitting challenge, it’s not actually an unsoundness, and most congenitally swaybacked horses are just as sound and capable as those whose vertebrae are more conventionally designed. Plus, I admit, I thought she might grow out of some of it; they don’t call them ‘yaklings’ for nothing, and many an ugly duckling at 15 months turns out to be a stunning specimen later. (She didn’t grow out of it, but that was okay.)
The chestnut mare thing didn’t scare me particularly either. My horse of a lifetime was a copper chestnut with chrome. I’ve worked with a lot of chestnut mares, and I like their feistiness. But in all honesty, Trixie turned out to be every bad cliché of a chestnut Thoroughbred mare, ever, temperament-wise. That assumption has to come from somewhere, after all.
Trixie was a skittish little thing when she first came home to me, but I initially chalked that up to her having not had a lot of handling; when it became clear she wasn’t a candidate for the fall yearling sale, she stayed out in the field while her compatriots were brought in and given a crash course on being haltered, groomed, led, and otherwise fondled and harassed by humans. I started to work a little at a time on her ground manners. It took months before I could safely pick up her hind feet, and I never did get her to cross-tie reliably. Unfortunately, the flightiness she exhibited as a yearling never really went away. It was progress by centimetres with her, with just about everything; she was quick to panic, and when her fearfulness took over, her brain shut down. She did learn new skills, but because her panic button was so hair-trigger, it seemed to take her far longer than average to assimilate information, and she had more trouble retaining that information than most, too. The typical horse, after some time off, picks up right where she left off in her training, but Trixie always regressed to square one, so I would have to repeat the same lessons over and over. I wonder now whether she didn’t have a bona fide learning disability. She behaved in some ways like a horse who had been abused, but I knew for a fact that she never had been.
But when she wasn’t a hazard to herself and others because she was freaking out, Trixie could be a terribly sweet soul. There was no malice in her; she never meant to hurt anyone, and if she was feeling confident she would be the first to approach you, lick your hand, and ask for wither scritches. My student, Sarah Bernath, who’s in the photos above, fell in love with her gentle side, and was the first person on her back — a development which took far longer than usual for a young horse, given the amount of time it took for Trixie to accept wearing a saddle and bridle, and learn to longe without resembling a 1200 lb. orange marlin on a hook. In Trixie’s universe, there were lions, tigers, and bears in every corner, and a pole on the ground was cause for hysteria…. every. Single. Time.
And then, of course, there was the challenge of fitting her saddle. That took some experimentation. She not only was swaybacked but also had massive shoulder-blades, so she was a seriously weird shape. I tried a number of ways of filling in the hollow in the middle of her back to prevent a saddle from bridging, finally settling on some customization of an EcoGold half-pad that I was lucky enough to win in a little Facebook contest. When I received the pad in the mail, I noticed that it had openings on each side, with velcro closures; that meant that you could remove, replace, and move around the foam inserts inside. I contacted the company to ask whether they had other thicknesses of foam for the pad, and they very kindly sent me, without charge, all of the other inserts available for that shape of pad. With a bit of fiddling, I came up with a pad which was thinnest near the withers, thickest in the middle, and sort-of-medium thickness under the cantle. The saddle sat rather high on top of the resulting pad, but it sat level, and it seemed to work. (Many thanks again to EcoGold.)
Essentially, Trixie’s problem was not her back … it was what was between her ears. Though we did get her started under saddle, progress was always one step forward, five steps back; she remained volatile, untrustworthy, and uber-sensitive. She would stand to be mounted but lose her shit when a rider’s right leg touched her side in search of the stirrup. I’m a bit old and creaky to be ploughed into the ground repeatedly, so I relied on brave volunteers to get on her … and if they could ride out the first 90 seconds, then usually Trixie would take a breath and become willing to be piloted after that. We got as far as cantering her under saddle, a couple of times. But I gave up all hope of her ever becoming an event horse; she was simply too fearful. Athletically, she was more than capable — hell, she was by far the nicest mover of my gang of six. Mentally, however, she just didn’t have the tools. I decided I would be happy just to make her a productive citizen of any kind.
So I kept chipping away at her, in hopes that things would improve with maturity, despite the urging of my boyfriend to stop putting effort and energy into her. “What am I going to do, just relegate her to pasture potato and feed her till she’s 30?”, I said.
Some horses just seem to be born under a black cloud. In addition to all of her other challenges, Trixie’s tendency to shut her brain off at the slightest hint of stress, resulted in this (left), the winter before last. I had hung a new feed bucket on the fenceline of her field, since she was now turned out with her BFF, Vivian (a bay OTTB filly a year Trixie’s junior). I belatedly realized I had not taped the handles of said bucket, which all good Pony Clubbers know you must do to avoid horses getting their halters snagged on the bucket and panicking.
The electrical tape was up at the house. I went up to get it. 20 minutes is all it took. She got hooked on the bucket, freaked out, went through two fencelines, sliced the shit out of the front of her knee, and galloped in blind hysteria all over the property, leaving a trail of blood in the snow. The bucket eventually surrendered, and even more eventually Trixie was caught along with her BFF, but the knee needed stitching, and after that it was three weeks of frankly hellish stall rest, with her leg trussed up like a Christmas goose in an attempt to keep her from popping the stitching. Medicating her was a daily nightmare, and every-other-day bandage changes required sedation that didn’t always work. It healed beautifully in the end, but the whole event was kind of Trixie in a nutshell.
So I wasn’t surprised when, this past November, Trixie developed a persistent, but otherwise minor-looking, snotty nose. Just the one nostril. She’d had a similar bout of respiratory infection the previous fall, and it had cleared up on its own. This one didn’t. And while she was otherwise healthy, it began to influence her energy level; she just seemed a little subdued (which, given that it was Trixie, wasn’t an entirely unwelcome thing and I was loathe to mess with it at first, I admit!). Knowing what a gawdawful patient she was, I hesitated to consult my vet because I knew antibiotics would likely be prescribed. By January, though, I caved, and my worst fears were realized: the Rx was two weeks of twice-daily sulfa pills, which had to be dissolved in boiling water, mixed with baby food, and syringed into her mouth. Suffice to say it was a battle (Every. Single. Time.) and occasionally I lost.
So we went through 250 pills or so, some of which actually got into her (some is still decorating the walls of her stall), and still had a sinus infection. At this point, my vet recommended more aggressive treatment. Which is when we went down the rabbit hole. I should not have been surprised.
I don’t have any photos of my heavily-sedated Trixie with two holes drilled into her skull. It was fairly awful and I held her head, but had to look fixedly at the stall wall, lest I get tunnel vision. We irrigated the sinus directly with a pump and hose inserted into the holes. Water and crud and blood splattered everywhere and began to freeze to the stall floor. My vet introduced antibiotic into the sinus cavity, and we put her back on the sulfa as well. And a week later, we repeated the irrigation with a device that was not unlike a pressure washer. More crud came out, but the radiographs showed more had stayed in. We tried a second, long-acting injectable antibiotic. Couldn’t seem to get ahead of the infection. I think we irrigated it three times in total, each episode a little more miserable than the last. She would perk up for a day or two, and then the discharge would return. Somehow, the simple snotty nose had become something life-threatening. (And of course, the bill was starting to add up, too …)
And then the culture came back from the lab, showing that the infection in her sinus was fungal. Which meant that there was nothing more, medicinally, that we could throw at it.
The only other treatment option, at that point, was an invasive bone flap surgery which would have had to have been performed at the University of Guelph’s large animal hospital: open up a much larger hole in her skull to scrape out all the infectious material from her sinus. It would have been invasive, would require weeks of hospitalization, and would likely cost me $4000 to $6000.
If it had been any of my other horses, I would have found the money somehow. But any of my other horses would have tolerated the hospitalization and the treatment. I couldn’t see how Trixie was going to. Hell, I hadn’t even been able to successfully get her on a trailer, so even getting her to Guelph was a fantasy. And the kicker, according to my vet, was that when the infection was fungal, the success rate on this surgery wasn’t great. Often, the fungus found a way to come back.
So I cried. A fair bit. I had often joked that I needed a way out for this sweet, frustrating, troubled mare, that I could accept with a clear conscience. I didn’t really mean it. With all of her quirks, I still was very fond of her. And she was only seven, with years and years ahead of her. But there were no good answers at the bottom of the rabbit hole.On Trixie’s last day, towards the end of February, I did all the expected things: carrots, cookies, grooming, fussing. Took a chunk of hair from her tail. But Trixie wanted to hang with her BFF, out in the field, more than anything — she had spent a lot of time confined to her stall during treatment — so mostly I left her alone so she could do that.
She went down with better grace than she had done most things, and quietly breathed her last while I shivered, standing watch. My vet was fantastically kind in making the arrangements.
And it’s taken me till now to complete this blog post about Trixie, because she broke my heart a little. I’ve had to put three horses down, now, in the seven years I’ve been at this farm, and that is just too fucking many. And to some extent I squirm at all the animal memorials all over social media; I didn’t want to inflict my sadness on everyone. But at the same time, I don’t want the life of this horse to have been absolutely unacknowledged. Only a handful of people met her, and even fewer loved her — just me, and Sarah, really (and Vivian, who is soldiering on). She was a hard mare to love. But she was here, and she was real, if only for an ill-fated few years.
I gave her her registered name, which was Mexican Wine, after the Fountains of Wayne song. It’s a fatalistic little tune.