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September 4, 2013

Doing Right By "The" Pony

Paige Cade brought her first pony, Daisy, home to retire. Photo courtesy of Paige Cade.

You never know how easy life is when you don’t have a horse with a broken leg, until you do. It’s been almost two years since my pony broke her humerus in a freak pasture accident.

I used to ride along with my vet; he would joke about how “broken legs” were sole abscesses 99.9 percent of the time. So the day that I went out to feed the horses and my usually piggy pony was standing by the fence while the other two horses trotted up to me, I knew something was wrong. I saw that she was non-weight bearing and nonchalantly called the vet, expecting to be part of that vast majority of sole abscesses that annoy our vets and farriers every so often.

This wasn’t just any pony. This was THE pony. We met when I was 9 or 10 and still somewhat terrified of anything that didn’t have brakes. And at age 4 Daisy definitely didn’t have brakes. Our first ride consisted of her walking around on her hind legs and me begging my mother to send her back to where she came from. I’m glad my mom didn’t listen to me. Like the Apollo missions, failure was not an option. My parents couldn’t afford to own horses for both my sister and me, but we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to ride ponies owned by a family friend. And beggars can’t be choosers. We had to learn to ride what we had available and work our tails off to support our habit. I cannot begin to express how grateful I am that I began my riding career this way.

Daisy was my first “it” horse. She was the pony that I would ride bareback in the field without a bridle. She was the pony I swam at the beach. She was the pony that won good ribbons in the children’s pony hunters at my first ever “A” show. She was the pony I would gallop through the farmer’s fields (until they came out with shotguns…). She was the pony I rode in the advanced section of a Phyllis Dawson clinic (my mom, a non-eventer, did not know what she was signing me up for). She was the pony that would jump ditches wide enough to drive a car through. She was the pony that never said no to any of my wild ideas. She gave me so much over the years. But most of all, she gave me a love for the sport that will never leave me.

Then that terrible thing that happens to kids and ponies happened. I became a normal-sized human at the old age of 13, and Daisy stayed 13.3 hands. I tried to ignore the fact that my stirrups had become uncomfortably short, and I was starting to look more and more like a jumbo jockey. And then it happened—another valuable life lesson—and I had to learn to let go. Daisy left our cozy beach town for northern Virginia to teach other kids to ride (and, if they weren’t well-supervised, to do all sorts of fun and dangerous things on horseback). A few years later she came home to be a broodmare and a few foals later she left again. Time and distance separated us further, but I never forgot about her, and I always hoped that someone loved her like I did.

I moved up to northern Virginia to take the job at Tebogo in the spring of 2011. I kept wondering if Daisy was still around the area. I knew vaguely where she was, and after a quick Google search I found the riding school and an email address. I contacted them and asked if I could come and visit her. A few days later as I rounded the corner into the shadowy barn aisle I said her name, rolled it off my tongue just the way I had so many times walking out to catch her in the field. I heard her throaty whicker. It had been almost 10 years since I had seen her. Her wide white blaze shone like a beacon over the metal stall gate, and she started to paw. I flew into the stall and buried my face in her thick black mane and inhaled. I breathed in that sweet horsey smell that accompanied the happiest moments of my childhood.

The next week the director of the riding school emailed me to say that they were planning to retire Daisy and would I take her. I rationalized this very poor business decision in every way possible. No, there was no financially advantageous reason to take her. Yes, I could barely afford the horses I already owned at the time. No, there was no way I could say no. A business-minded friend of mine asked me to explain why I agreed to retire her, and I told her that Daisy had every right and opportunity to murder me when I was kid and instead she made me the rider I am today, so I owe it to her.

When the vet arrived that fall morning, and I saw the expression drain from her face as she manipulated Daisy’s shoulders, I knew even before she told me that I was one of the 0.1 percent. We radiographed and ultra-sounded her six ways from Sunday and revealed a slab fracture on her humerus. I said that I wanted to put her down—the absolute last thing I wanted was for her to suffer. The vet convinced me to wait until she conferred with the other members of her practice and New Bolton Center. The next day I reached my breaking point. I couldn’t stand to watch Daisy in pain, so I gave her more Banamine than I should have and called the vet to come out and euthanize her. I sat down in the doorway of her stall and talked to her about all the good times we’d had together. I thanked her for everything she gave me and told her that she wasn’t going to hurt anymore and that I was so sorry that it had to end this way. It was right about that time that she bumped me with her nose, hard.

Daisy knew she still had more to teach me. When the vet got there Daisy was standing flat-footed and snuffling for treats. I confessed that I had given her a substantial dose of Banamine and that was the only reason she was weight bearing. She explained to me that after a 24-hour storm of emails, long-distance calls and meetings the general consensus was that with pain-management and immobilization her break could heal, and she stood a good chance of returning to pasture soundness. Daisy bumped me for cookies as I took the information in.

The next three weeks of my life were measured in three-hour increments. At the time I lived about 30 minutes from the barn, so my life involved a lot of driving and not a lot of sleeping. (I kept a written log of every medication I gave her because I was afraid that with so little sleep I would forget.) I would pass a church that had a sign that read, “Don’t ask for a lighter load; pray for a stronger back.” I’m not an overly religious person, but let me tell you, I was praying. I learned that I was capable of far more than I had ever thought. Round-the-clock nursing care for a horse with a long bone fracture doesn’t typically take place with a staff of one. I imagine this is what having a baby is like—complete and total devotion to caring for a creature without any resentment. And somewhere in my sleep deprived state, I became thankful, not for her injury, but for the time that I got to spend with her.

Not long after Daisy got hurt I heard a Buddhist teaching about a toothache. It explained that when we have a toothache, we are overwhelmed by the pain and suffering of the toothache and then immediately after the pain goes away we are overjoyed at the relief. But then months go by, and the memory fades, and we forget about the toothache. We soon forget how fortunate we are every day not to be suffering. A horse with a broken leg is a lot like a toothache. Caring for Daisy gave me a vast appreciation for every day that I had lived without suffering, and that is something that will never leave me. Now, almost two years later, I am reminded how fortunate I am to watch her graze in the pasture.  

Hunter/jumper trainer Paige Cade works at Tebogo Sport Horses, a facility in Delaplane, Va., devoted to the re-training and sales of off-the-track Thoroughbreds. 

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