One minute we were trotting down the rail, the next I’m lying in the dirt watching Cairo cavort away while I desperately prayed to the horse gods that she didn’t hurt herself after months and months of rehab.
It would be one thing if this was the first “Oh crap, she’s going to hurt herself” moment in these long, long weeks since Cairo was diagnosed with a high suspensory issue. But this was the third. Or so.
Early on, Cairo was given permission to be turned out in a tiny 20 by 20 rehab paddock, so I made one for her inside the larger paddock she shares with her bestie, a fellow bay mare named June. Cairo was great for a while but then there was the day the hot wire was not on, and she merrily walked through it to go hang with June. Cairo was in heat, and when she’s in heat all she wants to do is cuddle June. So that was mildly frightening, but she was easily caught, and all was well.
It was when we were finally starting our trot work that Cairo really got rowdy. We had hand walked, twice a day every day, from late April to August. And then we hand walked in the mornings and walked in the evenings under saddle from August until late September when we were cleared to start trotting every other day, increasing in three-minute increments each week.
That’s when she got stung by a horsefly, crashed out of her paddock and galloped around. I was hysterical. My trainer Meika Decher and Cairo’s lameness vet Rachel Gottlieb got frantic messages. My horse was trying to kill herself, my Rhodesian ridgeback had just been diagnosed with epilepsy… I could not take on more things.
I sent trot videos to Dr. Rachel. “She could pass the jog,” she said, adding that all those weeks of walking had paid off. I breathed a little.
Fast-forward to 18 minutes of trot every other day, and Cairo was feeling feisty. She went from patiently trudging around the arena, like a condemned prisoner heading to the gallows, to twerking like Lizzo at a Lakers game.
So there we were, trotting/twerking down the rail when Cairo upped the ante from twerk to buck. I pitched forward on her neck. Sensing weakness, Cairo leaped into the air and landed straight-legged. Knowing I was doomed, I stopped struggling and decided I would try to land on my feet and keep a hold of the reins.
I landed on my butt and released the reins as soon as Cairo made it clear she wasn’t hanging around—I knew that in a battle between my mare and my rotator cuff there was going to be a clear loser. In her signature style, she looked at me, looked at freedom and exited stage left.
Cairo, however, made a strategic error. She celebrated. She put her head down and put her heels in the air. She exulted in her freedom. As a result, her reins flipped over her head, and as she went porpoising away she got a foot through the reins. As soon as she felt the tug on her mouth, she stopped and waited for me to catch her. She was not one bit penitent, but at least she was standing still and not racing around like a deranged rabbit.
I got back on. My friend Janice eyed us nervously, clearly waiting for a re-enactment. “Don’t worry,” I assured her. “I’m just making a point that she can’t just buck me off.”
Given the ease with which Cairo had just done exactly that, I don’t think that reassured Janice one bit.
I walked Cairo around until I felt that Cairo realized she was not taking us both out in a blaze of glory and then got off and called trainers and vets for advice.
Ace, magnesium and a neck stretcher. I am never one for solving training issues with equipment, but what Cairo’s attitude needed was a hard forward ride. What her body needed was gentle patient rehab.
Since then Cairo has, ungraciously, consented to not buck me off. But it’s touch and go, and every day is a new adventure. Sometimes I am over the moon, and others I am reaching for the “emergency whiskey” we keep in Janice’s trunk.
Here’s what Cairo likes: Going fast. Or standing still. Nothing in between.
Here’s what Cairo is allowed to do: Walk a lot. Trot more and more. Not go fast.
So yeah, lately Cairo has been, shall we say, trigger happy?
If I take my phone out, that’s a trigger. So is putting it away. So is taking a hand off the reins and putting it back on (this makes wiping my nose after sneezing a problem). I can’t use the timer on my event watch anymore to time our rides as the beep is a total trigger.
Other horses in the arena? Deal-breaker. Noises also piss her off. As do small dogs. My brave fearless mare is no longer Queen of Cairo, fearless prelim eventer. She’s Drama Queen of Cairo, angry rehab horse.
One night another mare, Lila, was getting bodywork in the arena. Cairo seemed OK with it since the mare wasn’t being ridden, just getting a massage. Over the course of the ride, Cairo spooked at a stall door closing, a wheelbarrow being put down and a dog barking. Mind you, when I say “spook” she’s not actually scared. She’s looking for reasons to buck and bolt. She’s out of patience with this whole thing.
Then, totally unexpectedly while they were working on her, Lila decided she had had enough and stood up on her hind legs. She walked around on two legs for what seemed like an awfully long time. All I could do was sit on Cairo, stare and ponder my imminent doom.
Nope. Cairo casually glanced over at Lila and tossed her head at her as if to say, “Hey girl, you do you! I get it.”
But there’s no rhyme or reason to mare feelings. A couple of weeks later, a fellow rider started to come into the tiny indoor arena while I was finishing my trot set. I asked if she minded waiting 10 more minutes? With a curious glance at my placidly trotting mare, she agreed and did some barn chores while she waited.
We finished, and I hopped off to hand walk the last 10 or so minutes. The other girl came in, riding the aptly named Angel at the walk. We chatted, and I kept Cairo at a distance until it seemed all was well. At one point we were discussing horse height—Cairo is barely 15.1 and we decided Angel was around 14.3. We stood the horses about three feet apart.
Angel then dared to walk away. Cairo promptly did a half rear and squeal.
Angel’s rider was horrified. She thought it was her fault. I pointed out that she was being perfectly safe and reasonable, but Cairo was a little unpredictable. “Ohhhh,” she said, “THAT is why you ride her alone.”
At least there’s one rider in the barn who knows I’m not being a weird arena princess.
I do try to ride late at night when the arena is quiet and empty, but I am also very lucky that folks at the mishmash of a barn where I board are incredibly nice about Cairo’s “special” needs. There are mini horses and carriage ponies and Quarter horses, mustangs, mules and eventers. And everyone is really understanding.
Our last check-up with Dr. Rachel was great. We are cleared to increase trotting and then move to flatwork, then “full dressage.” After that, we can slowly start to jump. Cairo needs to strengthen her core (me too, girlfriend) and her stifles.
Given Cairo’s current attitude challenges and also given our past history with dressage I look at the words “full dressage” with some trepidation.
Cairo’s interpretation of full dressage definitely involves a lot of charging and snorting. Maybe some unauthorized pirouettes and definitely some piaffe. I keep telling myself that this almost year of rehab has given us time to bond and grow, and maybe improve our dressage (because it helps to have a positive spin on walking your horse for months).
I don’t just miss competing. I miss trail rides and beach rides, watching my mare run and play in her paddock, and I miss taking deep breaths, knowing she’s OK. It’s a new year, Cairo, and a new decade. Time to channel some of this fire into getting back into all the fun things. We’re so close!
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.