It felt, I imagine, much the same as it would feel to discover the long-standing infidelity of a spouse. That undeniable piece of a puzzle that locks into place, putting all the random, seemingly insignificant yet niggling pieces into a sickening context that suddenly makes sense.
I’d always considered my horse, Elf, “quirky” or “spooky.” Now I knew why.
I’ve had Elf since he was a weanling. I broke him. I taught him his leads, and how to jump and walk down a trail on the buckle. I know him inside out. But I totally misunderstood him.
Elf was quite difficult to break as a 3-year-old. He was tense and cold-backed and very unpredictable when mounting. Any shift of my weight in the saddle could provoke a spin and bolt. He was quite spooky—doing the knee-buckle move even being led—and at times, a spook would turn into bolts, crow-hops or spins.
I decided he didn’t like my saddle. He’s got a funny-shaped back, with wide shoulders and not much wither. So, I tried on dozens of saddles. He’d tell me right away which ones he liked and which ones he didn’t. Some, he wouldn’t walk off from the mounting block in. Some, it took until we were trotting, or jumping, to elicit a “nope” response. I finally found one that he seemed to like. He moved with ease and jumped with no signs of discomfort. Problem solved, I thought.
Over the years, that saddle search continued as the problems reared their heads intermittently. He’d be fine for six months, then start resisting going forward, or crow-hopping after landing from jumps. Occasionally, his protests were frightening in their violence.
I had saddle-fitter after saddle-fitter visit. They all told me he had a funky back and did their best. Veterinary exams showed nothing obvious. He never took a lame step. I even asked an animal communicator. (Want to be self-conscious about your weight? Have your horse tell you you’re too heavy. And sit crooked.) I had one brilliant cross-country lesson where we started off awfully, with Elf backpedaling and hopping after the jumps, but after I adjusted my position, he went like a star. I found all kinds of reasons for his odd, sometimes explosive, behavior.
All except the right one.
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, “Why didn’t she immediately think ‘kissing spines?” I don’t have an answer to that. No one mentioned it to me until recently, and I hadn’t had any experience with the condition before. Saddle fit was the easy answer. I had one lesson where Elf was obviously uncomfortable; I borrowed a different saddle for the next day, and he was a different horse. It made sense.
I worked around the issue, spending more than I could afford for a saddle that fit Elf’s contours as perfectly as I could find. He seemed happy, with just some random episodes, for the past few years. Then, I got pregnant a year ago. I stopped riding in January, and Elf went on vacation. It wasn't until this summer that I cleaned the layer of mold off my bridle and tacked back up.
The first few rides went well. I pulled his mane. I combed out his knotted tail. He started to look non-retired again.
But then Elf body-slammed me into the ground one day when I went to dismount, spinning away. I shook it off as a spook. Then came the day when I settled into the saddle and felt it–that awful, gut-dropping “freeze” feeling. The one that I knew would be followed by an explosion the second I moved, no matter what I did.
I opted to dismount, but from experience I knew I’d have to do it quickly because he’d spin away from under me. Which he did. Breaking my finger in the process. My 5-month-old son watched it all from his car seat beside the ring. All I could think about was what could have happened. And I knew I had to find out what was going on. A friend kindly nudged me about the possibility of kissing spine. I called the vet and booked an appointment to x-ray Elf’s back.
Elf gets fat on air. He lives outside and has been barefoot for his whole life. The only time he’s limped is while he had a raging, elusive abscess. But he’s also got two areas of kissing spine right under the saddle area and moderate arthritis at the base of his neck. He’s been in pain this whole time. Not just “Ow, that saddle’s a bit narrow” pain, but the kind of sharp, intense pain that makes him want to escape NOW. When the images told the tale, I asked the vet hopefully, “So, on a scale of one to 10, this is like a four?” He grimaced and said, “No, I’d say seven.”
It’s as if for years, Elf has been yelling at me in Swahili, and I’ve been answering back in Dutch. He told me that there was something wrong, and I addressed pretty much every possibility except what was actually amiss.
And yet he still learned how to carry himself in a fancier trot than I ever imagined him having, jump reliably and take me on some of the most fun cross-country rides I’ve had. He never said “no” to work or got sour. My heart is broken with guilt and remorse. I failed him.
There are things I can do to get Elf more comfortable. I could spend thousands of dollars on surgery to attempt to fix the kissing spine. But there’s the matter of the arthritis in his neck. I could get his neck and back injected on a regular basis, or use cutting-edge therapies like shock wave or Tildren.
But I have an extremely limited budget. All of these “fixes” also require Elf to maintain a significant level of muscling and fitness. With a demanding job and an infant to care for, I cannot invest the time to ensure that. And, as my vet pointed out, all these non-surgical options are temporary, and the way you find out they’re wearing off is when Elf decides to explode again.
I’m not a wimp, but I’m older than I used to be, and I’m a mom now. That moment when I sat atop Elf and felt imminent catastrophe as my son looked on really hit home.
Elf is 9. I don’t own a farm. I can only afford to board and support one horse, even if it’s cheap retirement board. Even though Elf on a pain-free day is a joy to ride, I can’t imagine anyone volunteering to fund his maintenance and risk the explosion that will come when he starts to hurt again. I can’t fail him so hugely again, but I don’t have any good options.
Of course, the dream is that someone with a large, grassy field and a lonely horse wants a giveaway “companion.” But these days, finding a home like that is like hitting the lottery. I have to be realistic.
I can search for the dream home, vetting anyone who might possibly answer an ad very carefully. Or I can pay retirement board on Elf for the next decade or so and not ride in that time. Or… I don’t like to even think about other options. It’s one of the few times in my life when I quite literally don’t know what to do. What I do know is that I feel the weight of making the right decision for this horse very heavily. This is the price we pay for the joy of those crisp fall morning hacks when all is right with the world.
When the “keep the newborn alive” haze had cleared a bit a few months after my son was born, and I could spend some time with Elf again, his tail was a gnarled, tangled mess. I carefully Show Sheened it and worked my fingers through the hair, restoring it to fluffy fullness. I’ve always been one of those “tail hair is precious” people, only combing a tail out before a lesson or event.
Now, however, I comb his tail borderline obsessively, every time I go see him. I can’t stop myself. This, this is what I can fix.
Every now and then we feature a blog from a member of the Chronicle staff. We're just like you—juggling riding and competing with work and family. A few years ago, Associate Editor Molly Sorge moved from living in horse-heaven Middleburg, Va., to a bit more of a remote location near Richmond, Va., so her competitive goals with Elf have to work around her hectic work schedule and begging trailer rides from friends. She still manages to get Elf out on the town a few times a year.