Palermo and I are currently on that long and winding road back. Even though this is the second time we’ve gone through this similar scenario, I haven’t yet learned how to cope with the helplessness we feel when our horses are hurt.
The first time was February 14, 2011, right at the start of the Florida show season. I was tacking Palermo up like any other day, when I noticed some swelling on his right front. It was minor, almost invisible. I consulted several other people at the barn, half of which didn’t even really see anything. But being of the ‘better safe than sorry’ mindset, I decided to give him the day off, accompanied by ice and a ‘CoolCast’ overnight. The next day, the swelling was still there. Luckily, our vet was coming out to look at another horse so I had her take a look at Palermo as well. A whole host of flexions and one Ultrasound later, and the slight swelling turned out to be a small tear in his check ligament. Even with the reassurance that, as far as injuries go, the check ligament was about as good as you could hope for, it still felt devastating. We set about treating it aggressively, and the prognosis was good – a full recovery – but I couldn’t help but feel pretty defeated. It was like our whole season was slipping away, right before my very eyes. Little did I know, it was only about to get worse.
As part of our treatment plan, along with stall rest and icing, we injected both front legs with a low dose steroid (I obviously have no veterinary training, and am only writing this from the perspective of an owner!) And for several days, everything was fine. But then, I came out to the barn five days after the initial diagnosis, to find my horse almost completely unable to walk. As I went to lead him out of his stall, he nearly fell down. Naturally, I began to panic, as everyone else at the barn rushed to our aid. Immediately, my mind began racing, filled with words like EPM, neurological, West Nile, founder, laminitis – all the scary things we read about, and hope will never happen to our horse. Everyone tried to comfort me, suggesting that perhaps it was an abscess. Once the vet had been called, I rushed to the store to buy Epsom Salts, calling my mom on the way. I could barely get the words out before I started crying. She tried, as any good mom would, to calm me down and remain optimistic. I, however, was beginning to feel anything but.
To make a long story short, it turns out that Palermo was one of the small percentage of horses that have adverse, laminitic-like reactions to steroidal injections. Needless to say, this was unforeseen complication, and nobody was at fault. At our vet’s advising, we removed both front shoes, replacing them with lily pads, and endured a couple of months stall rest with limited movement. We gave him heavy doses of DMSO, iced both feet several times every day, and tried to make him as comfortable as possible.
The most nerve-wracking part of the whole experience was the first set of x-rays post-reaction, which were to inform us if there had been any rotation of the coffin bone. Needless to say, when the vet confirmed that there had been no rotation, I cried a whole new kind of tears. It was the first time that I let myself think to the future. As a form of self-preservation, I had been so focused on the here and now, solely concerned with alleviating whatever pain he was feeling, that I hadn’t even considered what it meant for his, and our, competitive future and our quest to qualify for the North American Junior Young Rider Championships in July.
With this news, we could start thinking about rehab and going back to work. I never thought I’d be so excited to just walk my horse out of his stall to eat grass, or get a real bath in the wash stall. Suddenly, I was beyond appreciative of all the little things. Like him being able to turn around in the aisle without difficulty. Or him feeling well enough to nicker at me when I came to the barn for his midnight checks. The day our farrier (who, like our vet, was beyond amazing throughout the entire experience) decided we could put his shoes back on felt like a huge achievement. Even if they were special aluminum shoes with considerable padding, it felt like a huge step forward and a return to “normal”. We spent several weeks hand walking, and then, finally, it was time to get back in the saddle.
As any one who has rehabbed a horse can tell you, my heart was in my throat with every step. I wanted to bubble wrap him. Put pads up in his stall. Do anything I could to protect him from ever going through this experience again. But slowly, I came to realize that my horse was back. We had survived this test and were coming out the other side, relatively unscathed. That doesn’t mean my heart didn’t stop every time he jumped to the side, or took a funny step. But I understood that I, and everyone involved, had done everything in our power to bring him back to this point, and now it was time to let go of the past and look to our future.
It is truly a testament to Palermo’s spirit and determination that a mere three and a half months after the original injury, we were headed back to the show ring at the Horse Park of New Jersey Memorial Day CDI. It was our first show since February and all I wanted to do was survive. We had taken the rehab very slowly, always airing on the side of caution. But every time I’d ask Palermo a question, he was eager to respond. He showed me that he wanted to go back to work, and was as excited as I was to be back in the ring.
That first show, I was just excited to pass the jog. To add to the stress of the weekend, I only had one more month to earn my last two scores towards NAJYRC. We took it easy in the warm up on Thursday, careful not to push him too hard. I put on his ice boot after our ride, as had become our norm, and as I sat on the stool in his stall, he placed his head on my shoulder, nuzzling my hair, assuring me that he was ready. It was then that I realized that this experience, while testing me in so many ways, had only improved our relationship. Our bond became much more than just rider-horse. This was only confirmed on Friday. I was unusually nervous warming up before my test, and I’m fairly certain I held my breath the entire time. But as we went down centerline for our final salute, I breathed a sigh of relief that I’d been harboring for almost four months. I didn’t wait for the scores to be announced, instead hurrying back to the barn to begin our after-ride routine, which now consisted of icing, wrapping, walking, and lots of his favorite treats, bananas. But when they announced that we had won with a 66%, I was overjoyed. Not because of the score, or the blue ribbon, but because it was confirmation that we were back.
The next day, I entered the warm up ring with more confidence. I knew we were ready to preform, but I still found myself anxious at every step he took, afraid that even the slightest bobble could take us back to where we were in February. As we went around the outside of the ring, Palermo let out a few bucks, letting me know that he was ready to go. At the ring of the bell, I halted, as I always did, and gave him a pat, thanking him for all the good he brings into my life, and for the privilege of entering the ring with him one more time. The test flew by in a blur, but I hadn’t even saluted before the tears began to flow. The feeling of having my coach, barn family, parents, and friends, standing along the fence line, cheering us on as they had every day of the last few months was beyond explanation. We walked around the warm up ring, Palermo reveling in the crowds’ admiration, and allowing myself to take in the moment, hoping that if our scores were good enough, we might still make it to NAJYRC. We hadn’t even made it back to the barn before they announced that we had won the class with a 69%.
Palermo and I after our second test!
The moral of the story? Horses, and this sport, are unpredictable.
This is a statement as true as any, one that Palermo likes to remind me of often. Palermo is currently recovering from another minor injury, although I am beyond grateful that it is not nearly as serious as last time. But more on that later. Horses have a funny way of humbling us, while simultaneously reminding us to be thankful for everyday that they are healthy and happy.
All smiles heading into the awards ceremony!