Cairo has decent feet. I mean, we live in Oregon where her turnout is mud half the year, and she generally (knock on wood) keeps her shoes on.
My last OTTB, Baby Huey, had big but thin-walled, thin-soled feet. My farrier, Jim Chenoweth, used to cross himself before nailing Huey’s shoes. And when I would ask him how Huey’s feet were doing, he would smile and say, “Well, Camilla, he sure grows a nice tail.”
I know Cairo’s feet are better than Huey’s because Jim doesn’t cross himself, never compliments her tail, and rarely ends the appointment by grabbing her halter, staring deeply into her eyes and saying, “I’ve done all I can here. Now make good choices.”
It is highly possible he does not compliment her tail because she is so very good at lambasting him with it over the course of a shoeing.
All this is to say, we all know how important good feet and shoeing (or trimming) is for our horses, as well as a talented farrier.
For all that Huey was a stereotypical flighty Thoroughbred in his youth, he matured into a solid citizen. Even before he matured, he was a sweet boy when I needed him to be. I rode him with a broken and sprained ankle, and I later won a ribbon at training level riding with a torn Achilles tendon. He took care of me.
I am far from the only rider who rides through pain or injury, but I never really thought much about my own feet. Or my ability to make good choices.
It was shortly after Christmas, and I was looking forward to my friend and trainer, Meika Decher, coming down to do a clinic at the Oregon Horse Center ahead of its Winter Indoor Eventing show.
I got up on a Monday morning, less than two weeks before the clinic, with a little ache in my foot. No big deal. I did what I had to do, puzzling over how I could have hurt myself in my sleep. A Google search suggested bunions and plantar fasciitis, among other things. After a day on my feet, I hopped on Cairo in my dressage saddle figuring I needed to get in some rides before I saw Meika, as Cairo had had more time off over Christmas than I had intended.
Cairo is no Huey, and she was like, “Oh, hey, do I sense weakness?” It was my left foot, which is normally my stronger side, and Cairo gleefully exploited my weakness, pushing into that leg at every opportunity. I decided I probably needed to get this foot thing figured out.
But I got distracted. I had scheduled a 7:30 a.m. mammogram for the next day. I woke up achy and befuddled, and I managed to show up 10 minutes late, with my contact lenses in the wrong eyes and my pants on backward.
Despite it all, the appointment went fine (the technician diplomatically ignored my pants, and all was good on scans).
I switched into breeches and headed to the barn to meet Jim for Cairo’s shoes. It’s not that I didn’t notice my foot hurt. I did, but it was more that I didn’t have time to deal with it.
My horses are not the only ones who need to be reminded about life choices.
Cairo was good for Jim. He’s has been shoeing her for six years, and she still stomps her hoof down indignantly as soon as he’s done with it, but at least she waits until he’s done.
My foot, on the other hand, was screaming a little. I messaged my doctor with a photo and the symptoms: hot, swollen, painful, just showed up in the middle of the night. And I casually mentioned my dad and my sister both had a history of gout.
But I mean, who gets gout, outside of old rich dudes in Victorian novels?
I like my doctor. She gets me. Last year when I finally admitted I needed something done about the shoulder Cairo had rearranged bucking me off, she asked what I had been doing for it. I told her I was using my horse’s Surpass. She asked if it helped (it did) and asked if I’d like my own prescription for Voltaren. Then she sent me off to get physical therapy. (On a side note, diclofenac is now over the counter, so right before I messaged my doctor this time, I smeared some on my foot.)
She got back to me fairly quickly. Looked like I had gout, she said. Take 800 mg ibuprofen three times a day and let her know if it didn’t improve.
I Googled gout. Descriptions ranged from “like 1,000 needles inside your joint” to “feels like your foot is on fire.”
I popped the Advil and tacked up Cairo.
My logic was I needed to ride before the clinic, I was taking the day off work, and it was a rare sunny day in the Oregon winter, so I’d be silly not to take advantage of it. Also, I figured, if it hurt that much, I’d just get off Cairo.
At that point, it hurt to put any weight on my foot.
OK, let’s back up a little. It also hurt to move the foot, put my boots on, or pretty much do anything except sit with my foot in the air with an ice pack on.
So, yeah. I tacked up Cairo.
I hobbled slowly out to the arena, my sassy mare in tow, and climbed laboriously up onto the mounting block. We have a new trainer at the barn, Emily Honey, who does some dressage and jumping, but mainly western and Quarter Horses, and a lot of kid lessons.
Emily was teaching a lesson, but like all good trainers, she has eyes in the back of her head for horse-related weirdness. She gave me a look that said, “Are you serious?” and resumed working with the kid.
Walking Cairo went pretty OK. Trotting definitely made me realize no Advil was enough for this pain. I also realized I couldn’t drop my stirrup to relieve the pressure because then it would bang my throbbing foot. No problem, I would just sit the trot.
“Are you OK?” Emily’s student Vickie Gruver asked. She was watching her daughter ride and holding a young horse for Emily.
Clearly I was not succeeding at masking the pain. “I’m OK,” I assured her. Cairo glared at the gelding.
Let’s not forget Cairo’s intense love of social distance. She puts up with other horses in her vicinity at the walk and trot, but once the work intensifies, so do her feelings.
Her canter felt great at first. I love Cairo’s canter. Our first canter I knew I was buying her.
It’s her bucking that kinda sucks. Cairo is sorely inconvenienced by other horses in her vicinity. “Ride her around other horses,” people always say to me. “She’ll get over it.” I have owned her since she was 4, and she’s about to turn 12. She’s ridden several days a week with other horses. She’s never over it. Bodywork, vet checks and expensive supplements do not quell her booty. This is a mare with strong feelings a need to express them.
Right around the time I was reveling in how good it felt to canter my horse, Cairo threw her first “I smell a gelding” buck. Turns out it’s hard to sit a buck without putting pressure on your foot.
Three bucks later I decided it was time to peace out.
I walked her to cool her out, as I always do. Then I wandered over to where Vickie was standing, and Emily was getting ready to get on her young horse.
“Do you need to be helped off like an old lady?” asked Emily, who has a dry sense of humor.
“Oh, I’m good,” I lied. And sat there, chatting with Vickie, hoping my foot would stop screaming.
Emily looked skeptical but began longeing her horse. By the time she was done and ready to get on, I was still sitting on Cairo.
“Do you want me to hold her?” Vickie asked.
That seemed good. Maybe I could swing my right leg over and land on it instead of my throbbing left foot.
Vickie took Cairo’s bridle, and I soon realized that even 15.1-hand Cairo was too tall to jump off of in my current state.
Emily saw my predicament, ground tied her gelding and took hold of Cairo. Vickie then maneuvered the mounting block beneath my foot.
I gingerly held my left foot away and flopped across Cairo until I could find the mounting block with my good foot.
Or it was until the young gelding decided that deep down inside, Cairo really liked him, and he broke his ground tie and drew closer. Emily turned away to stop him, and Cairo took that opportunity to head butt me off the mounting block. I fell, landing firmly on both feet.
Turns out you can laugh and cry in pain at the same time. And Emily and Vickie managed to look horrified before they doubled over laughing as well.
I think Emily and Vickie officially decided I was nuts when they had to come out to Cairo’s paddock in the dark, where I was nailing up a loose fence board, to fish me out of the mud, stuff me in my car, and send me home at the end of the day.
I spent the rest of the night icing my foot, popping Advil, feeling sorry for myself, and trying to decide if I could still jump with Meika in just over a week.
The next day, my foot had turned the corner. It still hurt, but it was manageable. By Friday, a week out from the clinic, my limp was, in my opinion, much improved.
Emily wasn’t nearly so impressed. She raised her eyebrows at the sight of me setting fences.
“They are just Xs,” I justified. “I need to see if I can still jump before the clinic.” And, I said, “I feel much better!”
She pointed out, “You’re limping.”
She then regaled her adult student, who happens to be a doctor, with the now barn-infamous tale of trying to get my gouty self off the sassiest mare in the barn.
The doctor cheerfully said, “If she was my patient, I would just tell her, ‘You got up there; you can get yourself down.’ ”
She also later told me the pain of her patients with gout and kidney stones is something she takes very seriously. I think that was partly sympathetic and partly to remind me I was kind of an idiot.
However, I really was feeling better, and Cairo only added a little flair to our ride that day—just enough for someone to shout, “Video that for [Facebook group] Shiteventersunite!” but not enough flair for anyone to actually get their phone out in time.
I think that as riders, and women in particular, we have a tendency to push through pain and ask our bodies to do things we would never, ever demand of our animals. Face it, when our horses limp, we are calling the vet and breaking out the bute and bandages. When it’s us, we’re all like, “It’s OK, I have another foot. I’ll just stand on that one.”
I’d like to say I learned my lesson and will now go on to make better life choices.
But I doubt it.
And, yeah, I totally rode in the indoor eventing clinic. It was awesome.
Camilla Mortensen is an amateur eventer from Eugene, Oregon, who started blogging for the Chronicle when she made the trek to compete in the novice three-day at Rebecca Farm in Montana. Camilla works as a newspaper reporter by day and fits training and competing Cairo around her job.